Today’s media machine is so consumed with Lindsay Lohan’s latest perp walk and whether Ashton really did cheat on Demi that the general moviegoing public is as functionally illiterate about the day-to-day workings of the film business as it is about the financial industry. Some day Michael Lewis may turn his sardonic eye from the business of sports to the business of Hollywood make-believe, but until then, those of us who want a smart, well-reported peek behind the camera will have to return to Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy, her classic behind-the-scenes tale of the making of The Bonfire of the Vanities, published 20 years ago next month.
The magic of The Devil’s Candy is that it wasn’t conceived or written as a hit piece. The book is subtitled “The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco,” but when Salamon, then a film critic for the Wall Street Journal, began following Brian De Palma around the Bonfire set, he was riding high on the success of Scarface and The Untouchables, and he saw Bonfire as a prestige project that could boost him into the first rank of Hollywood auteurs. It didn’t turn out that way, but no one — not the studio executives, the stars, the film crew, nor De Palma and Salamon herself — knew just how disastrous a flop the film would be until it opened in the winter of 1990.
As much as The Devil’s Candy benefits from the reader’s foreknowledge that the film everyone in the book is struggling to get made will turn out to be a notorious turkey, the true value of the book lies in Salamon’s reporting. She is blessed with that rare talent for not missing the forest for the trees while, at the same time, being able to see the trees. She places the production, a big-budget adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, a bestselling novel about the fiscal excesses of the 1980s, squarely in the age of Hollywood excess. The Studio System, with its tight budgets and cookie-cutter approach to filmmaking, was long gone, replaced by high-stakes, risk-hungry corporate culture designed to chase blockbuster hits like Jaws and Star Wars. Unlike the founding generation of immigrants who built Hollywood, she writes, the crop of executives then heading the major studios were “refugees not from Russia but from Wall Street.”
They were the young M.B.A.’s and lawyers who had come of age during the eighties, men and women who had never built or run a company, but who thought nothing of buying and selling them — before they were thirty… It didn’t matter whether [their companies] made food or furniture, or if the food or the furniture was any good. The companies were merely components. The thing that mattered was the deal.
Gifted financial reporter that she is, Salamon walks the reader through how this deal-centric mentality led studio executives not only to lavish multi-million dollar salaries on the movie’s director and stars, but also to squander many more millions satisfying De Palma’s every artistic whim. In one gripping sequence, De Palma’s second-unit director Eric Schwab spends hundreds of thousands of dollars choreographing a shot of the Concorde landing at JFK against a background of the sun setting over the New York skyline — a shot that, while breathtaking, lasts all of a few seconds in the final version of the film.
At the same time, Salamon allows all the book’s characters, from the most egomaniacal stars to the lowliest production assistant, to shine with real humanity. For me, the most poignant figure in the book is Melanie Griffith, who is cast as the blonde bimbo mistress of Sherman McCoy, a wealthy bond trader played by Tom Hanks. Hanks comes off as a talented, hard-working young actor skillfully climbing the ladder to stardom, but Griffith, who was 33 and coming off her second pregnancy, was already on the downslope of her career. The film’s creative team holds meetings to discuss what to do about the age lines on her face (“Use Preparation H,” one producer says. “That’ll shrink ’em.”) and everybody on the set feels free to discuss whether she is too fat to be believable as a rich bond trader’s mistress. Griffith throws diva-like hissy fits about the size of her trailer and the crowds of onlookers on the set during her scenes, but for once, in Salamon’s telling, one understands Griffith’s neurotic rage, and even sympathizes with her.
This keen insight into the artistic personality, more so than her reportorial skill, is on display in Wendy and the Lost Boys, Salamon’s new biography of playwright Wendy Wasserstein, published in August. As the title implies, Salamon appears to have intended to use Wasserstein’s life story as a springboard for a group portrait of New York’s off-Broadway theater scene in the 1970s and 80s. Wasserstein, best known for her plays Uncommon Women and Others and The Heidi Chronicles, knew everyone who was anyone in New York theater and seemed to have a singular talent for falling hopelessly in love with the dreamy, driven gay men who made the theater world of that era tick.
The book is very well done, and if you are a Wasserstein fan, Wendy and the Lost Boys is a must-read, but it pales in comparison to The Devil’s Candy. In part, this is because Wasserstein, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Heidi Chronicles, is just not an important or interesting enough writer to merit the attention Salamon lavishes on her. At the same time, any effort on Salamon’s part to use Wasserstein’s career as a window to the broader theater scene is eclipsed by the sheer complexity of Wasserstein’s private life.
Wasserstein, the youngest daughter of a wealthy, hyper-successful Brooklyn Jewish family (her brother was billionaire investment banker Bruce Wasserstein), had a succession of tortured love affairs with gay men and finally a daughter, via artificial insemination, at age 48. In 2006, just seven years later, she died of lymphoma. The levels of secret-keeping and duplicity this life required is worthy of an Elizabethan drama, but ultimately Wasserstein comes off less poignant and plucky than self-deluded and bullheaded. In this telling, Wasserstein is a woman who simply refused to give up in the face of insurmountable odds, whether those odds were that the gay man she was in love with would return her affections or that the cancer she was hiding from the world would simply go away. This can be charming in characters of romantic comedies for whom all turns out well in the end, but for a real person, who leaves her daughter motherless and alone, it can get a trifle infuriating.
None of this is Salamon’s fault, of course, but books on the entertainment industry work best as guilty pleasures, and while the pleasures of Wendy and the Lost Boys are many, for sheer guiltiness, nothing can touch the pleasures of The Devil’s Candy.