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What's a crueler fate for a major motion picture upon which a Hollywood studio has staked millions of dollars and into which it has plugged incalculable lumens of movie star wattage being slapped with the label of "one of the worst movies ever"... or simply being forgotten? Columbia's The Fortune (1975) had the worst of both worlds at the time of its release in May of 1975. Though reviews were mixed (thumbs up from Vincent Canby at The New York Times, while Daily News critic Jerry Oster decried "a painful illustration of the limits of the star system"), the pans out-sang the praise. Consequently, The Fortune was swiftly relegated to the ghetto of "Golden Turkeys," where the titles of failed films (Cleopatra , Heaven's Gate , and Ishtar ) have the hollow report of rim shots.
A jazz era farce about two dim-witted conmen who plan the "Lonely Hearts" style murder an heiress for her legacy to a sanitary napkin fortune, the picture was considered a grievous misstep for all involved: for director Mike Nichols (who would not direct another film for seven years), for screenwriter Carole Eastman (an Academy Award® nominee for Five Easy Pieces ), and for above-the-title stars Warren Beatty (who had come to this project without pause from Shampoo ) and Jack Nicholson (whose stock was on the rise after the success of Hal Ashby's The Last Detail ). The Fortune's disastrous reception was in inverse proportion to expectations that it would be a smash; Columbia had only green-lighted Shampoo because everyone thought The Fortune was a sure thing.
Warren Beatty's success with Shampoo was sweet revenge for the ambitious actor-producer, who had nurtured the project as far back as the making of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). When no one in Hollywood wanted to make a comedy about an amorous hairdresser, Beatty bundled his pet project with the more alluring The Fortune, forcing Columbia president David Begelman to finance both. After fifteen years as a leading man in Hollywood, Shirley MacLaine's kid brother had become a formidable wheeler-dealer. By 1974, Beatty was so accustomed to trusting his instincts that he was undaunted by the fact that Carole Eastman's 240-page script was unfinished (the screenplay was originally titled The Mousebed Fortune, after a childhood habit of Eastman's brother Charles of calling sanitary napkins "mouse beds"). Far more concerned with this development (or lack thereof) was Mike Nichols, by this point several years out from anything like a hit. While Carnal Knowledge (1971) had earned him art house credibility, both Catch-22 (1970) and The Day of the Dolphin (1973) were expensive bombs. Desperate to keep The Fortune from costing one, Nichols pressed Eastman for a finished script. Although relations between the two were initially idyllic, Eastman bristled at Nichols attempts to cut the elephantine script into something more tenable and she was vocal in disapproving of the production's veering from satire to slapstick. Ultimately, Eastman was fired from the production, which soldiered on without her. Nichols suffered a further indignity when he interviewed singer Bette Midler as a candidate for the role of the heiress. When The Divine Miss M had the gall to ask Nichols what other movies he had directed, he opted for relative industry newcomer Stockard Channing in Midler's place.
After shooting Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (1975) in Europe and Ken Russell's Tommy (1975) in London, Jack Nicholson hoped to dive straight into One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) but was thwarted by preproduction delays. Diving into The Fortune Nicholson counted himself lucky to be working with Warren Beatty (whom he admired as both a deal maker and a ladies man) and reteaming with Mike Nichols. Sporting a patchy permanent that makes him look like Preston Foster in Doctor X (1932) and dumbing down his trademark raptor cunning, Nicholson brought to the production a rubbery, manic quality that went wildly against the grain of his newly minted persona as the Angry Young Man of New Hollywood. While on location in Mexico, the actor was the subject of a biographical magazine piece that changed his life forever, when a fact checker at Time learned that the woman Nicholson had known since birth as his sister was in reality his mother and that his presumed mother was his grandmother. Another blow came with the death during filming of personal friend Cass Elliot, whose former Mamas and the Papas band mate Michelle Phillips Nicholson had once dated. These developments, plus the film's miserable reception and swift box office failure, made The Fortune a non-subject in subsequent interviews and biographies.
All but forgotten thirty-five years later, The Fortune has never been available on the home video market. Nonetheless, a small cult has sprung up in the film's absence, with the Coen Brothers (Raising Arizona , The Big Lebowski ) being among The Fortune's few but vocal supporters.
The Fortune did not single handedly smash the golden egg but was one of many unexpected failures in an era of escalating directorial caprice. While cracks in the faade of the cinematic revolution had begun showing as early as Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie (1971), The Fortune contributed to a downward spiral of once lauded filmmakers whose shining stars were guttering in the backwash of amuck auteurism: Peter Bogdanovich with the multi-million dollar "debacle" (his own word) At Long Last Love (1975), Robert Altman with Nashville (1975) and Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), Arthur Penn with Night Moves (1975) and The Missouri Breaks (1976), Martin Scorsese with New York, New York (1977), Michael Cimino with Heaven's Gate and Francis Ford Coppola with Apocalypse Now (1979). These failures (unqualified or relative to cost) occurred coincident with a sea change in Hollywood's prevailing aesthetic that was sparked by Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) and mushroomed with the astronomical success of George Lucas' Star Wars (1977).
Of the principals behind the making of The Fortune, only Jack Nicholson has excelled, with career highlights (Prizzi's Honor , The Departed) alternating with profitable hack work (Batman , A Few Good Men ) and worthwhile duds (Ironweed , The Pledge ). Back in the director's saddle with Silkwood (1983), Mike Nichols' subsequent career has been spotty at best, while Warren Beatty has made only eight feature films since 1975. It took Carole Eastman twenty years to realize her follow-up to The Fortune, but Man Trouble (1992), directed by Bob Rafelson and starring Jack Nicholson, tanked at the box office. Eastman died in 2004, less than a week before her 70th birthday.
Producer: Don Devlin; Mike Nichols
Director: Mike Nichols
Screenplay: Carole Eastman
Cinematography: John A. Alonzo
Art Direction: W. Stewart Campbell
Music: Jose Padilla; David Shire
Film Editing: Stu Linder
Cast: Stockard Channing (Fredrika Contessa 'Freddie' Biggars/Sullivan), Jack Nicholson (Oscar Sullivan aka Oscar Dix), Warren Beatty (Nicky Wilson), Ian Wolfe (Justice of the Peace), Rose Michtom (His Wife), Brian Avery (Airline Steward).
by Richard Harland Smith
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