Thursday, February 26, 2009

Nobody Knows Anything, Part 4: Two successful escapees

You may have had the experience of wandering around a video rental store, seeing a cover of a video and thinking, "That's a pretty good cast. Why haven't I heard of this movie?" You may be looking at a movie that got a limited theatrical release, or even worse, was released direct to video. As an example of Nobody Knows Anything, a movie can get completed before somebody realizes it's not very good, and the people who invested their money are stuck with a product that isn't going to sell.

Or at least that's one narrative. Not every project abandoned by a studio is a dog. Here are two films that studio executives didn't like that finally got their chance to be seen by audiences, both movies finding at least critical acclaim, though neither was a blockbuster hit.

1979's The Great Santini was from a book of the same name by Pat Conroy, who also wrote The Prince of Tides, also turned into a major motion picture. According to William Goldman in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, the studio first released it under the title The Ace, put no advertising behind it, though it starred Robert Duvall and Blythe Danner, two well known stars of the era. The studio execs worried that the movie wouldn't do well because Duvall does an excellent job of playing a very unlikeable character.

As Goldman tells it, a studio executive is on a cross country flight, and sees The Ace as the in-flight movie. He likes it a lot and realizes it was made by his studio. He wonders why it didn't get a better release and more publicity, so he goes back to his office, decides to re-release the film under the book's original title of The Great Santini, give it a real advertising budget and play up the fact that the movie got glowing reviews from the critics.

Both Robert Duvall and Michael O'Keefe, who played Duvall's son, were nominated for Oscars for their work, though neither won.

Note: The two titles kerfuffle. The Duvall character's real last name is Meechum, but he calls himself The Great Santini when discussing his career as a fighter pilot. Studio executives worried that people would be confused or think it was about Italians and expect something along the lines of The Godfather.

If The Great Santini is the story of a studio realizing a mistake and giving a good film a second chance, Brazil is the story of a director fighting a studio every step of the way and getting critics on his side, and eventually getting an audience to see and appreciate his film. Terry Gilliam didn't do his career in Hollywood any good fighting like a trapped badger for the honor of his movie Brazil, but the judgment of history is on his side. For how a film looks, for amazing scenes and shots and production design of a bizarre dystopia, Brazil ranks with movies like Blade Runner, Modern Times and Metropolis.

Like The Great Santini, the title Brazil might confuse filmgoers, because it has nothing to do with the country Brazil, but instead refers to the song from the 1930s, a song that plays in the lead character's head when he thinks about a better and happier place than the allegedly comfortable but truly comfortless world where he lives.

The studio that produced Brazil was showing no intention of releasing it, and had cut the 142 minute version Gilliam made to a 94 minute version with a happy ending. Gilliam took out ads in the trade papers asking for it to be released and gave private screenings of the film to critics, and this pressure shamed the studio into finally letting the public see it. There are several versions floating around, including the 94 minute "Love Conquers All" edit, but of all the variations I have seen of this film, I like Gilliam's long version best. Gilliam's version was finally considered "the definitive final cut" only after the L.A. Film Critic's Association gave Brazil its nod as Best Film of the Year.

As Nobody Knows Anything week continues, we will look at a few actors whose careers worked out better than expected, and at fates worse than direct to video, the movies that never get made or take forever to get made.


namastenancy said...

I remember when I saw "The Great Santini" and was totally blown away. I am the eldest in a military family and while my father was an even bigger jerk than Duval (in that movie), it sure touched quite a few raw nerves.

Padre Mickey said...

I think we've been living in the world portrayed in Brazil for the past eight years.