Bonfire of the Vanities: Part II

From Savonarola to Tom Wolfe — and an absolute flop of a movie.

Mike Selby

If Tom Wolfe was uneasy, he didn’t show it.  After his 1987 novel ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’ skyrocketed to bestsellerdom, he knew Hollywood would soon be calling, and he wasn’t looking forward to it.

The 56-year-old journalist had been absolutely shocked with what the film industry had done a decade earlier to his 1979 book ‘The Right Stuff.’  He liked the movie; it just had nothing to do with his book.  Yet when his agent told him Warner Brothers was offering $750,000 for the rights to ‘Bonfire,’ he saw no choice but to accept.

“The great thing about selling a book to the movies is that no one blames the author,” Wolfe would famously say when the film opened at Christmas in 1990.  And no one did, even though the movie was a colossal failure.

Wolfe had taken his book’s title from the historic “bonfire of the vanities”— an action brought about by a Florentine monk who set ablaze his fellow citizens’ earthly indulgences. He had also denounced the Medici family, who probably weren’t too upset when the monk’s own followers got tired of him and had him killed.

What Wolfe couldn’t have known was that the year Warner Brothers purchased the rights to his book, the studio was being run by Medici princes. While not actual Medici royalty, this was the name the executives at Warner were known by. In her book ‘The Devil’s Candy,’ Julie Salamon quotes director Brian De Palma as he “laughingly referred to the executives as Medici princes, because they seemed to think of themselves as the bravest, the most intellectual, the most invincible.” DePalma ended up directing ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities,’ so perhaps he shouldn’t have been laughing so hard.

DePalma would also end up shouldering most of the blame for the film’s failure, which is probably unfair. Of all the obstacles he had to overcome (overflowing budgets, difficult cast members, Medicis breathing down his neck) the biggest one was the book itself.

The work is a complex 700-page novel made up of a series of ongoing vignettes about New York, peppered with some of the most unlikeable characters in modern fiction. There is no overriding spine to connect many of the characters, most of who espouse a subtle yet extremely ugly racism. The book’s main character is extremely unsympathetic — a coarse and wealthy stockbroker who causes a young man’s death by leaving the scene of a hit and run, only because he didn’t want his wife to find out he was cheating on her. (The casting of Tom Hanks in this role is simply bizarre; he is the last actor audiences would believe as despicable.)

DePalma also found himself barred from filming in and around New York, as Wolfe’s book had insulted the very people who could grant DePalma access. Warner Brothers had to launch a lawsuit to say that being prevented from filming outside a New York courthouse was unlawful.

Despite all these hurdles, De Palma did finish the film, and it opened during Christmas week in 1990. The reviews were not pretty, ranging from the kindly “misfire” and “unfunny” to the harsher “gross,” “stench,” “one big zero” and Joel Siegel’s “You’ve got to be a genius to make a movie this bad.” ‘Bonfire’ cost $50 million to make  and only made $15 million in return. It was one of the worst financial failures in Hollywood’s history. Careers were lost, people were fired, and the Warner Medicis quietly left the studio.

Postscript: released on videocassette in April of 1991, ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’ became the number one rented title for the entire year.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library