Saturday, January 14, 2006


It Looked Good on Paper

How many times have you read about an upcoming film "From acclaimed, award-winning director... Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by... Starring Academy Award winning actor/actress...," only to see it completely flop within a week? It never fails to make me wonder, when this happens, "What made this one tank, and that one, with the same pedigree, succeed?" Fair question, right? So many of these films look great on paper. I remember back in late 2001, eagerly awaiting the release of The Shipping News, which had all the markings of a critical and artistic success. It was being directed by Lasse Hallstrom (a favorite of the Motion Picture Academy, who had just come off the popular successes of back-to-back Best Picture nominees Chocolat and The Cider House Rules). It was based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer by E. Annie Proulx (who, by the way, also penned the now popular Brokeback Mountain) and starred Oscar winners Kevin Spacey and Judi Dench (as well as Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Pete Postlethwaite, and Scott Glenn. But I blinked, and the film was out of theaters. Of course, this is just one of many examples I could cite. And it's not a recent phenomenon. Back in 1971, Paul Newman directing and starring along side Henry Fonda in the film adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel Sometimes a Great Notion seemed like a good bet. But it barely caused a ripple. Yet, four years later, barely-known European director Milos Forman's take on Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, starring (Roger Corman alumnus) Jack Nicholson and unknown actress Louise Fletcher, would go on to become a timeless classic. In 1991, the producer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (as well as Amadeus and The English Patient), Saul Zaentz realized his 26-year desire to produce At Play in the Fields of the Lord. With Hector Babenco (Kiss of the Spiderwoman) directing Oscar-winner Kathy Bates, it seemed like a winner. But it disappeared within days from theaters, a critical and popular disaster. This followed Ironweed, another flop from Babenco which also looked great on paper. That film starred (by then, established, and multi Oscar-winner) Jack Nicholson and two-time Oscar-winner Meryl Streep, and was adapted by William Kennedy from his own Pulitzer Prize winning novel. But the Great Depression era drama never caught on. For the last 15 years, Babenco has directed just two more films (and neither one in English). So who's to say if what looks great on paper will translate for audiences on screen? Certainly not Hollywood. But they keep trying, and every once in a while, for no logical reason, the formula works!

(Roger Corman alumnus) Jack Nicholson had been widely acclaimed in Easy Rider, had become a celebrity after Five Easy Pieces and Carnal Knowledge, and a full-blown movie star after The Last Detail. And this was all before making Chinatown--a critical and popular success that has since gone on to become a classic. Not that Oscars mean anything, but in addition to the film's many nominations, the opening musical number that year featured a group of dancers getting their noses cut and reappearing bandaged like his character in that film. The 'you know what happens to nosey people' bit made its way into popular culture via newspaper articles and Johnny Carson jokes. The term 'it's Chinatown Jake' may be as well-known as any line from the Godfather.
So even if producer Michael Douglas had signed Nicholson prior to Chinatown's release, it's really not accurate to imply that Cuckoo's Nest had no star power behind it.
And one other thing: Before the film was made, Cuckoo's Nest was by far, the author's most popular book. Comparing the popularity of that to Notion would be like comparing Joseph Heller's Catch-22 to Good as Gold. And, Cuckoo's Nest had also had a successful run as a play a decade earlier.
So while there are certainly a large number of films that hit big and look like risks on paper, you just can't say Cuckoo's Nest is among them.
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