Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Films of Warren Beatty: The Fortune, starring Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, and Stockard Channing, directed by Mike Nichols (1975)

Blu-Ray cover for the 2014 release of The Fortune.

Publicity still for The Fortune, with Jack Nicholson and his ridiculous hairdo, Stockard Channing, and Warren Beatty, with his slicked back hair and Howard Hughes-like mustache.

A light moment from the set of The Fortune, with Jack Nicholson, Stockard Channing, and Warren Beatty.

Lobby card for The Fortune. While the print advertisements had Beatty's name before Nicholson's, and Nicholson's name higher than Beatty's, the credits at the beginning of the movie had Nicholson's name before Beatty's, and Beatty's name higher. I have no doubt that lawyers and agents worked for a long time to come up with that. A similar arrangement was made for the credits of The Towering Inferno, as both Steve McQueen and Paul Newman wanted top billing.
Did you know that in 1975, at the peak of their stardom, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson made a movie together? You probably didn’t, as the super-obscure movie The Fortune was not a hit at the time, and has languished in obscurity ever since then. It hadn’t been released on DVD until Twilight Time’s recent Blu-Ray edition came out in December, 2014. In addition to its two famous leading men, The Fortune also boasted a super-famous director, the great Mike Nichols. Unfortunately, none of these three movie legends could save The Fortune from being a very bad movie.

The Fortune is set in the late 1920’s, and what little plot there is centers around the Mann Act, a 1910 law meant to prevent prostitution by making it illegal to transport women over state lines for “immoral purposes.” The vague wording of the law meant that men could be prosecuted for bringing their girlfriends or mistresses across state lines. The Fortune’s super complicated plot has Stockard Channing running away from her husband to be with her lover Warren Beatty. However, because Beatty is already married, Channing marries Jack Nicholson, who is wanted for embezzlement and goes along with Beatty’s plan. Beatty poses as Channing’s brother to divert suspicion from him, since he’s violating the Mann Act. Although Channing is technically committing bigamy by marrying Nicholson, and isn’t Nicholson violating the Mann Act as well? The three characters go to Los Angeles, and tension mounts as the three share a bungalow. Eventually Beatty and Nicholson decide the best thing to do would be to murder Channing and split her large inheritance. 

Sounds like a laugh riot, right? The main problem with The Fortune is that the script is really bad. None of the characters are fleshed out for you to care about them. If we were engaged more with the characters, we might find it funnier when Beatty and Nicholson are trying to kill Channing. But in order for that to work, you have to want them to kill her for some reason. She either needs to be an extremely unlikable character, or you need to sympathize with their characters so you want them to succeed. But Channing’s character isn’t unlikeable. She’s kind of boring, but you certainly don’t want her to be killed. So the movie doesn’t really work, for reasons that could be grasped in Screenwriting 101. 

Beatty and Nicholson totally overplay their parts. I think they knew the script was crap, so they just cranked it up to 11. (Speaking of This Is Spinal Tap, look for Christopher Guest, who has a small role as “Boy Lover,” the guy who’s making out with his girlfriend in his car.) Beatty’s part is extremely difficult to play, as it’s just a one-note character who is constantly unhappy. He just yells and shouts at everyone. And you wonder, why did Stockard Channing fall in love with him? Why did he fall in love with her? The script certainly doesn’t give us a good answer. Stockard Channing does a fine job in her first starring role, but her part is underwritten.

Mike Nichols’ direction is probably the best part of the movie, as he uses long takes and some lovely tracking shots to enhance the artistry of The Fortune. Oddly enough, The Fortune feels very much like a stage play, even though it was an original screenplay by Carole Eastman, writing under the pseudonym “Adrien Joyce.” Eastman was a good friend of Jack Nicholson’s, and she wrote the screenplay for the classic Five Easy Pieces.

From what I’ve read about the production of The Fortune, it sounds like it was rushed into production before the script was finished. Columbia, the studio producing The Fortune, looked at the stars and the director and visions of dollar signs danced through their heads. Producer Don Devlin was someone who didn’t think the script was ready for filming. Devlin said, “None of them {Beatty, Nicholson, and Nichols} had studied the thing, and all of a sudden they were beginning to ask the questions that should have been asked six months or a year earlier.” (Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, by Peter Biskind, p.201) 

The Fortune started filming just after production on Beatty’s movie Shampoo had wrapped. Beatty had been trying to get Shampoo made for several years, and it was a much more personal project for him. Beatty wasn’t focused on The Fortune, as he admitted: “I didn’t read The Fortune until the day I showed up to work.” (Biskind, p.201) Beatty was later dismissive of the movie, saying to film critic Gene Shalit “I don’t even want to remember that picture!” (Warren Beatty: A Private Man, by Suzanne Finstad, p.429)

Mike Nichols later said that he had “a little tickle in the back of your mind that something isn’t quite right” during the making of The Fortune. (Finstad, p.424) Nichols and screenwriter Carole Eastman had a difficult relationship, and he couldn’t get her to write an ending to the screenplay. Nichols said, “The script was like 345 pages, and it had no ending nor did it ever get an ending from Carole. I had to carve a story out of all those pages. Sort of like a butter sculpture at a wedding.” (Biskind, p.205)

While good friends Beatty and Nicholson got along very well during filming, Stockard Channing said that Beatty and Nicholson acted “like jerks.” (Biskind, p.206) Filming The Fortune was probably something of a baptism by fire for the young actress, as she had to play opposite two huge male stars.

The Fortune was not a hit when it was released in May of 1975, but ironically enough, 1975 would be a huge year for both Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, as Beatty’s hit Shampoo opened in February, and Nicholson’s iconic Oscar-winning performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was released in November. Columbia Pictures thought that The Fortune would beat Shampoo at the box office, but the opposite happened as Shampoo grossed $49 million to become the 5th biggest movie at the box office in 1975, and The Fortune limped along to a gross of “under $12.5 million.” (Biskind, p.219) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was also a massive hit, grossing over $100 million on its way to becoming the 3rd biggest hit of 1975, behind The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Jaws. 

As for how The Fortune fits into the career and Warren Beatty’s filmography, Beatty’s character Nicky is yet another one of his dreamers and schemers. Nicky is Clyde Barrow, but without any charm or smarts. Asking Warren Beatty to play a character without any charm is a waste of his talents as an actor. Beatty is a gifted comedian, but in The Fortune there’s little comedy to be had. The Fortune once again sees Beatty in a period piece, and of his 22 movies, 8 of them are period pieces. Beatty’s period movies are: Splendor in the Grass, Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Shampoo, The Fortune, Reds, Dick Tracy, and Bugsy

While reading about The Fortune, I came upon a great quote by the character actress Florence Stanley, who might have the funniest scenes in the film as the nosy landlady. Stanley had this to say about Warren Beatty: “When you talk to him, it’s like he doesn’t have anybody on his mind except you. There are certain people-and there are very few-that make the moment a moment. And when you’re with Warren, and you’re talking to him, that’s all there is. The connection is the magnetism, and his interest in you is so complete.” (Finstad, p. 498) I think that’s a very good assessment of the charm and charisma that made Warren Beatty such a successful actor.

1 comment:

Pondie Taylor said...

What a fun bad review to read! It's interesting that it seemed that everyone knew it would be a bad movie, but did it anyway. I think they had better things to focus their energy on!