Posted by Susan Doll on November 25, 2013
In recognition of the holiday, I want talk about my favorite turkeys—box office turkeys, that is. This slang word for box-office failure goes back to about 1927 and was first applied to Broadway productions, but it was soon adopted for movies that failed to draw sufficient audiences. You don’t hear the word much these days, but I thought it was fitting to resurrect it this week.
I rarely agree with movie reviewers, and truth be told, I have stopped reading a lot of reviews, especially from online sources. While reviewers like to call themselves “critics,” true film criticism does not revolve around personal taste. I loathe reviewers who jump on a flawed film that may still be worthwhile viewing and dub it “the worst film ever made,” which sometimes affects the box office for that title. Reviewers seem to lie in wait for an imperfect film, so they can exaggerate its poor points, giving them an excuse to poke fun in that snarky style I loathe. Ugh! Don’t get me started.
For most of my movie-going life, I have found myself liking films that are considered critical failures or box office bombs. While I won’t claim them to be masterworks of great filmmaking, I think they deserve better than they got. Like Man Ray once noted: There are at least 10 good minutes in any bad movie, and that is about all there is in any really good movie. I tend to agree, at least with the first part of his provocative statement. Here are a few of my favorites in no particular order. I would love to hear if other movie-lovers have a taste for turkey!
The Cotton Club (1984). Francis Coppola’s genre-busting mix of the musical and gangster genres supposedly cost $58 million but grossed only $26 million its initial release. Critics complained about everything from a shallow plot to muddled storytelling to the odd mix of genres. But, I have always loved the show-biz lore surrounding the real-life Cotton Club, which was owned by New York gangster Owney Madden, so Coppola’s mix of music and gangsters seemed logical to me. The plot is not muddled; it just relies on a doubling structure. The romance and family problems of the white characters are mirrored by those of the black characters, which helps to bring out the irony of the whites-only policy of the era’s most famous black club. Gregory Hines’s tap numbers, and the inclusion of tap legends from the Prohibition era, are icing on the cake.
Nickelodeon (1976). I love movies about the movies, and Peter Bogdanovich’s comedy about the earliest days of the American cinema –before Hollywood was Hollywood—covers a period very few knew about in 1976. His references to early film history, such as the Motion Picture Patents Company, likely meant little to audiences and reviewers at the time, but I was thrilled to recognize the homages. Bogdanovich not only included specific bits of film history, he also asked his actors to reference silent-era tropes and archetypes, which likely alienated viewers and reviewers. But, I found Burt Reynolds’s interpretation of a Broncho Billy type charming and funny, while Ryan O’Neal exhibited the comic timing that was his greatest strength.
The Last Movie (1971). Dennis Hopper’s follow-up to his financially successful and critically acclaimed Easy Rider was this highly personal take on the film industry. The story is about a production company that travels to South America to shoot a film on location, employing and then corrupting the local Indians. Instead of using the conventions of narrative filmmaking, Hopper made an experimental film. The fractured narrative, home-movie sequences, and homages to Hollywood of the past not only blew the minds of the audience but reviewers as well. The film even threw Roger Ebert, who wrote, “Dennis Hopper’s ‘The Last Movie’ is a wasteland of cinematic wreckage.” Hopper came of age as an actor just as Old Hollywood faded and the New Hollywood ran roughshod over what was left of the old-style studios. The film is a dark valentine to Old Hollywood as the corrupt Dream Factory, which was nonetheless capable of creating such poetic masterpieces as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, referenced in The Last Movie.
The 13th Warrior (1999). I always tell my students I would pay to see Antonio Banderas read the phone book, and I would pay double if he were nude, so I had no problem racing to see this action-adventure tale in the theater despite the poor reviews. The 13th Warrior was one of those films that experienced trouble on the set between creative parties, which reviewers love to gossip about. Director John McTiernan’s interpretation of Michael Crichton’s book Eaters of the Dead so angered the author that he took over the direction of the film. A novelist directing a film is rarely a good idea, but honestly, it was better directed and edited than half the Hollywood movies released this year. Banderas stars as a 10th century Arab poet and nobleman who travels to the barbaric north as an ambassador. He unwillingly becomes the 13th Warrior of Viking legend and ends up helping the pagan warriors fight against a tribe of half-men, half-beast cannibals who terrorize the villages of the Northland under the mist of night. I liked the 10th-century time frame and the Viking story. The Vikings are seen through the eyes of Banderas’s character, who is cultured and literate compared to the Northmen, whom he—and the audience— disdain for their lack of sophistication. By the end of the film, they are presented as the last of a dying breed of larger-than-life mythic heroes. I also liked the aura of mysticism surrounding the Vikings and their homeland. This story represented the tail end of an era in which there was only the slightest of distinctions between the natural and supernatural.
The Alamo (2004). I love all interpretations of the fall of the Alamo, because it is one of my favorite stories in American history. This version, written and directed by John Lee Hancock, cost $107 million and grossed only $25.8 million worldwide. The Alamo was another film with a troubled production, which became the focus of most of the reviews. I don’t think reviewers, who seem to get younger and younger as the Web drives the discourse on contemporary movies, knew how to describe or interpret the film, so they fell back on behind-the-scenes gossip. Some called it a western, which it is not; others thought it was a remake of the 1960 version by John Wayne, simply because it was the same subject matter. I wonder how many of them knew it was an actual historical event. The pacing and structure are definitely weak, probably because so much of the film had been cut out. One reviewer blamed the badly organized plot events on “a sluggish script”—whatever that is—and another dubbed these narrative problems “jerky editing.” I have been a fan of Billy Bob Thornton since One False Move, and he made for a wise, intelligent, non-traditional Davy Crockett. Crockett is the key to this pared-down Alamo, and the scene in which he harmonizes his fiddle tune with the Mexican military music suggests the blend and clash of cultures that is Texas.
The Chase (1966). Two years before his ground-breaking Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn released this torrid melodrama starring Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, and a cast of terrific character actors. An honest and honorable sheriff in a small town in Texas is pitted against his community when a local boy escapes prison to return home to see his best girl. The town’s leading citizens harbor many secrets, which are revealed as they try to get the sheriff to “do something” about the escapee. I bet you are envisioning Redford as the sheriff and Brando as the fugitive, but you would be wrong. The casting is part of the problem: Redford is too attractive and simplistic in his interpretation of the fugitive, Bubber, while Brando can’t get a handle on playing a hero. However, I love the pure melodrama of this film, which pits trashy outcasts against dishonorable rich folk. Formerly blacklisted Lillian Hellman must have had an ax to grind with hypocrites and prejudice, because her interpretation of Horton Foote’s play includes infidelity, sex, violence, bigotry, racism, hatred, and corruption. The Chase is only surpassed in trashiness by Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown. The near-assassination of Brando at the end of the film echoes the assassination of Kennedy, which has haunted the directors of the Film School Generation. Look for everyone from Miriam Hopkins to Robert Duvall in this glorious mess.
Hello Dolly (1969). Directed by Gene Kelly, this cinematic version of the long-running Broadway musical was considered anachronistic during the politically tumultuous 1960s. Another criticism is the casting of 27-year-old Barbra Streisand as the middle-aged match-maker Dolly Levi. Not surprisingly, she had no chemistry with costar Walter Matthau. During the 1960s, there were several attempts to produce old-fashioned, large-scale musicals, but only The Sound of Music proved a success. The $20-million Hello Dolly tends to bear the brunt of the criticism for the industry’s attempt to keep this very American genre alive, but I learned to appreciate this film when I researched Kelly’s strategy for directing dance. Kelly held specific ideas about the art of dancing on film, which he variously called cine-ballet, cine-dancing, and cinematic ballet in interviews. Dance is a three-dimensional, kinetic art form, in which the live performers exude energy and vitality, while the cinema is a two-dimensional art form that essentially robs the dancers of that energy. In a live performance, audiences relate directly to the dancer onstage, but in film, viewers are a step removed. To Kelly, the best approach to compensate for the distance between dancer and viewer was twofold: The dances should grow out of the plot or further the plot, so viewers can relate to them, while a mobile camera should track, crane, and follow the performers to re-capture the kinetic quality of dance. The fluid camerawork in the large-scale production numbers of Hello Dolly, particularly the crane work, infuses the dances with energy and grace. The dance of the waiters in Harmonia Gardens is a flawless example of his strategy.
Space prevents me from listing all my favorite flops. Perhaps a second post of terribly-treated turkeys is in order for the future.
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