Recently, I wrote about listening to the second season of the TCM podcast, The Plot Thickens, which was based on the book, The Devil’s Candy, written by journalist/novelist Julie Salamon in 1990. The subtitle of the book is “The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco,” and boy, ain’t that the truth. (The title comes from a description of Maria—Melanie Griffith—as the “devil’s candy,” the one thing you can’t resist; she is the much-desired mistress of Tom Hanks’ character in the book and film, Sherman McCoy.)
The TCM podcast whetted my appetite to read this book again. I first read it when it debuted in 1991, a year after the movie, The Bonfire of the Vanities, came out. The movie was a much-hyped adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s sensational novel … I say “sensational” not as a superlative, but because it was just that, a head-turning, much talked-about tome which chronicled the “me” era in New York City in the 1980s. Someone just had to make a movie of this book, and Warner Bros. ended up being the studio of record. After going through a few director choices, they ended up with the relatively odd choice of Brian De Palma, a filmmaker with a resume devoted mainly to suspense/thriller movies in the decidedly Hitchcock vein. He was known for his visual sense and had a turkey or two to his credit, including his latest movie, the Vietnam war drama, Casualties of War, starring Michael J. Fox. He also had made The Untouchables, the hit about Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his war against Al Capone (Robert DeNiro), which garnered a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Sean Connery. I loved the visual style of The Untouchables, if not the history-bending screenplay. (Let’s just say De Palma ventured into Quentin Tarantino “Once Upon A Time …” territory long before Quentin himself got there.)
Even though I read The Devil’s Candy when it first came out, I had never seen the movie and during my listening of the weekly 7-part TCM podcast, I finally sat down and watched it on HBO Max, and yes, it is a mess. It stars Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, and Melanie Griffith, essentially two of Hollywood’s biggest stars at the time (Hanks and Willis; Griffith, well … not so much). It was THE buzzed-about movie of the 1990 holiday season, but early on, it attracted a huge amount of negative press. Various parts of the New York City landscape that were lampooned in Wolfe’s novel were not pleased to be put up on the big screen, and by landscape I mean certain groups of people and boroughs. In watching the movie, there’s so much to dislike. It’s probably the only movie I’ve seen Tom Hanks appear in where I actively hated him. I’ve always thought that Bruce Willis was a one-note star (not an actor) and Die Hard was his magnum opus. And I’ve just never gotten Melanie Griffith … reasonably attractive, her baby-doll, Marilyn Monroe-ish voice and her similar penchant for filling out tight dresses were all that I felt she held to offer. She’s uniformly awful in this movie … but in her defense, so is everyone else.
When I reviewed the TCM podcast (CLICK HERE) I mentioned that the first season was devoted to Peter Bogdanovich, the director of such movies as The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and What’s Up, Doc? and I referred to him as one of Hollywood’s great gasbags. What I mean by that term is a certain type of self-aggrandizing, self-absorbed Hollywood type, in this case, one who continues to wear ascots to this day. I also said I thought Brian De Palma fit into that category, albeit minus the ascots (his thing was safari jackets). In re-reading Salamon’s book, I developed a begrudging respect for De Palma, whose integrity definitely comes through on the written page, much more, I think, than on the podcast. De Palma was the person who gave Salamon (at the time the movie industry reporter and reviewer for The Wall Street Journal) carte blanche to be on set during the making of the movie and through post-production, much to the chagrin of the Warner Bros. execs … especially the head of their publicity department.
Salamon is the proverbial fly on the wall in this book, and it is an immensely fascinating account of the making of a big budget Hollywood movie. She’s there from the first casting sessions to the final reviews of the finished movie, recording interviews with the cast and crew and studio execs, taking notes on everything she sees. She covers everything from the screenplay to the costume design, from the second unit film crew to the agent behind De Palma. It’s such an in-depth autopsy of a film and it’s really an incredible piece of work, something that subsequent “Making of …” books can’t ever hope to achieve, since they’re usually tied into the publicity machines of the studios. And all along, she had De Palma’s support, even though he pretty much comes out of it all looking pretty bad. They’re still friends 30 years later, and though he refused to be a part of the podcast, he did help her prepare for it. Thankfully, she’s a bit of a pack-rat and saved all of her mini-cassette recordings from her time on the set.
The book is so much better than the podcast for obvious reasons, the main one being how in-depth and thorough Salamon’s reporting is. The other drawback of the podcast, which I mentioned before, is Salamon’s cartoon-like voice. While I enjoyed the podcast and eagerly awaited each weekly episode, I never really got used to that voice.
I will say that the current, updated paperback version of the book includes a very slight 2021 afterword by Salamon, which mentions the TCM podcast (it also includes a “Ten Years Later” epilogue from an earlier edition, written and published in 2001, after 9/11, another defining moment in New York City history). It’s published by De Capo Press, which has republished a number of film-oriented books over the years. One drawback to this edition is that it’s print-on-demand, and while I usually have no problems with that type of publication, it really doesn’t work for a 450+ page book. The spine on my copy cracked early on, and while that might not bug most people, it bugs the hell out of me, so maybe this is better read as an e-book on the platform of your choice (remember, sometimes you can order e-books from your favorite local indie bookstore instead of the company who shall not be named).
Either way, The Devil’s Candy is an incredible look into the movie industry and a great behind-the-scenes, warts-and-all report of one of the most famous Hollywood failures, up there with Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate, although at least it didn’t bankrupt a studio like the latter movie did. I mean, where would we be without Warner Bros. stellar handling of releasing movies in 2021 to both theaters and on HBO Max, pissing off some of their most important creators and stars (I’m convinced this strategy was because the bulk of their 2021 film slate is filled with dogs) and their utter decimation of DC Comics.
Read the book … maybe in one of those alternate universes that DC is so fond of, The Bonfire of the Vanities actually DID bankrupt Warner Bros. and DC survived to much greater acclaim.