Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Overlook: The Fortune

by JB
I was afraid at first that too many of these new columns would seem like love letters to boutique video labels like Twilight Time, Kino Lorber, and Shout! Factory. I need not have worried. This week's column is more of a poison pen letter.

Babies, this week we are again faced with a familiar conundrum: Will a film unseen for decades hold up to one's original, teenage opinion? I don't have many memories about The Fortune from that single screening when I was thirteen. I suspect that the intricacies of its weird plot eluded me, but even with my limited personal experience I knew it had something to do with sex. I found myself recalling a single scene where Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty carry a comatose Stockard Channing. "This is the kind of stuff of which great comedies are made!" I did not think to myself. Actually I didn't remember laughing very much, if at all, at The Fortune in 1975; but Twilight Time has been pushing it as something of an undiscovered gem, and I wanted to revisit the movie to see if maybe I missed something. I missed a lot when I was thirteen.
The Plot In Brief: The married Nicky Wilson (Warren Beatty) wishes to run away with kooky heiress Freddie Bigard (Stockard Channing). Because it is the 1920s, the Mann Act prohibits him from doing so. Nicky convinces his pal Oscar Sullivan (Jack Nicholson) to marry her instead, so that Nicky may take the romantic trip untroubled by legal entanglements.

When I think about vintage screwball comedies, "tedious," "mean-spirited," and "dour" are not the terms that come to mind, and so I find The Fortune (clearly devised as a "fun homage" to that delightful genre) to be an odd duck.

All of the performances in the film start in a promising, sparkly, and peppy manner, but quickly turn sour. Warren Beatty starts the film by affecting what can only be described as a Jack Nicholson impersonation. The actual Jack Nicholson seems to be aping his old co-star, Bruce Dern. (The actual Bruce Dern wisely chose not to appear in The Fortune.) As the film goes along, Nicholson transforms back into himself (the over-acting, the leering grin, the funny faces) and Beatty transforms into a humorless scold. It is as if, halfway through making The Fortune (assuming it was shot in sequence) Beatty decided that he did not want to make The Fortune anymore. His unhappiness and ennui are that obvious. If the film was shot out of sequence, then Beatty is an undiagnosed schizophrenic.

The Fortune makes me wonder why Beatty has appeared in so many goddamn comedies. He is not a gifted comic actor. Except for Heaven Can Wait and Shampoo—and I would argue that in both, he is the straight man—has he ever given a successful comic performance? There is the famous Ishtar, the non-famous Bulworth, and the truly execrable Town and Country: performances of mind-numbing blankness, mumbling, and vapidity.
Nicholson tries his best here, but his shameless mugging and scene stealing are just no match for this leaden script, and his whole performance collapses under the weight of it. Stockard Channing, in her first film role, fares better, but Channing too is ultimately undone by a script that ineptly tries to convince its audience that drugging and killing women is funny. I DO NOT advocate really doing either of these things to real women, but I believe a comedy film could exist that might manage to make drugging and killing women funny. The Fortune is not that film. (Actually, Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux is that film.)

I will say this: the film looks beautiful and historically accurate. Certain shots could be genuine, iconic images from a bygone era. Production designer Richard Sylbert and his wife, costume designer Anthea Sylbert, have done their jobs well. The sets and costumes have a lived-in authenticity—from the cars the stars drive to the plates and bowls on the dinner table and the landscaping outside the little rented house that is the film's main set. Are these visual delights reason alone to see the film? Hell no.

The director here, surprisingly, is Mike Nichols. I suppose Nichols was swept up in the star power (and real-life friendship) of Beatty and Nicholson, and he just assumed their off-screen chemistry would translate to magic on the screen. (There is no magic on the screen). We will have to file The Fortune in the box that contains The Day of the Dolphin, Heartburn, and Wolf-- and NOT the other box that contains Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf, The Graduate, and Catch-22. After The Fortune, Nichols did not direct another film for eight years.


CAVEAT: There is one funny scene, a scene that should have provided direction for what the entire rest of the film could have been. I certainly don't want to spoil it, but as I am emphatically not recommending that any of my babies waste any part of the rest of their precious lives (or FORTUNES -- see what I did there?) buying and screening the film, here goes.

Oscar (Nicholson) and Nicky (Beatty) are on a train headed west; the two men meet in the dining car for a meal, but Freddie (Channing) is indisposed because, as Nicky genteely explains, it is her time of the month. When Oscar hears this he nods knowingly and says, "ah—mouse beds." He then launches into a hilarious monologue describing how, in the bygone days of his boyhood, his delicate mother would send him off to the store for her monthly supplies, referring to the items in question as "mouse beds." She told the young Oscar that the mice had a whole house set up behind the mouse hole in the wall, with a little table, little chairs, and a little bed. He was simply buying little soft mattresses on which the mice could sleep...

At this point Nicky interrupts the nostalgia, asking why young Oscar was never suspicious, pointing out that a) women are traditionally afraid of mice and b) why the hell did the mice need so MANY beds?

If the whole film had been on par with the "mouse beds scene," we would have something. The scene is terrifically funny, offbeat, well performed and, as in most great comic scripts, this mouse bed nonsense isn't even free-floating whimsy—it is later revealed to have a critical connection to the plot. We know that Freddie is the heiress to an immense fortune; only later do we learn that the fortune is based on Freddie's mother inventing sanitary pads.
That's the film The Fortune should have been: a crazy, spirited, 1930s-esque, screwball comedy about feminine protection. The mind boggles... and the world awaits!

The Fortune is finally available on Blu-ray disc, courtesy of a Twilight Time limited edition. Hurry up and DO NOT order it, babies. The fine folks at Twilight Time are only pressing 3,000 copies! Be the first on your block to NOT own one.


  1. I can just imagine the studio who made this just CERTAIN that it would be a massive hit just based on the amount of talent involved. It just shows that sometimes talent isn't enough.

    P.S. I kinda liked Ishtar.

  2. Damn I actually feel young (and im not) reading this. I just realized ive never seen a young Jack Nicholson looking like that.

  3. Steve and I are discussing Screwball comedies at the moment and it is very funny to read how this film totally missfires on understanding why those films are great. Mouse beds, agreed though that is good. Shame.