20 APRIL 1991, Page 46


Black on black

Gabriele Annan

Afew weeks ago Christopher Hitchens published a fierce and funny piece warning everyone off The Bonfire of the Vanities on the grounds that it is a travesty of Tom Wolfe's original novel. He finished up with the injunction, 'Don't even think of going to see it'. It's a good punchline, but funnier if you know New York and recognise the wording from the wry police notices: 'Don't even think of parking here'. The novel is about how ghastly New York is, and a lot of the pleasure to be had from it depends on knowing that already from experience. Most enjoyable of all, of course, is to be able to read it as a roman a clef. But that would limit its possibilities as a film to be seen by large audiences; and large audi- ences, from its expensive look and huge cast, are what the film is aiming for.

So an expert on the nuances of the New York social networks like Hitchens is auto- matically disqualified from liking it very much, and he must be especially sad (and so am I) that the director Brian De Palma has decided to turn one of the pivotal char- acters, the dipso English gossip columnist Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis), into an American; in fact, he has taken out the whole British sponging pack, leaving only Robert Stephens as Sir Gerald Moore, Fallow's visiting employer, to demonstrate that the British are ghastly too.

The film is about corruption and how social and political operators use racial divisions to further their own raging ambi- tion. The central figure is Sherman McCoy (Tom Hanks), a young Wasp bond dealer with an unspeakable socialite wife (Kim Cattrall) and a super-sexy mistress called Maria (Melanie Griffith) who has slept her way up to many an ultra-rich Israeli busi- nessman. Maria is driving McCoy's Mercedes through the Bronx when they knock down a young black. In order to keep their affair secret they fail to report the accident. But suspicion falls on them. The black community, egged on by the unscrupulous evangelist Reverend Bacon, is keen to nail McCoy as an example of how black lives are held cheap by Wasps; the Jewish district attorney is equally keen; he hates Wasps and blacks about the same, but wants to please the blacks so that they will vote for him as mayor.

The only honest or remotely admirable (though not particularly likeable) character is the judge before whom the case eventu- ally comes to trial. In the novel he is a Jew. De Palma makes him black (Morgan Freeman — much too attractive). The excuse for this big change sounds a bit chicken and all the more convincing for that. The film achieves better balance, De Palma says, if it is black versus black, i.e. the honest judge versus the dishonest Reverend Bacon and his rent-a-rabble anti- racist protesters led by a Betty Friedan look-alike. So the confrontation loses most of its danger, and the climactic court scene almost all its excitement. But are we, in fact, meant to take it seriously? Even the solemn background music seems to have its tongue in its cheek as the judge sounds off about decency: 'Decency is what your grandmother taught you,' he proclaims. So it lies two generations back, not just one, along with rocking chairs and lavender bags and all the other heritage stuff.

Oh s—t, so it's a crude film with amaz- ingly filthy dialogue. But what the f—ing hell, the novel wasn't exactly f—ing Turgenev either. It was a violent, knowing, sophisticated caricature. The film is more slapstick, more Spitting Image. Its Expres- sionist distortion of an already grotesque original owes a lot to Vilmos Zsigmond's acrobatic camera angles. The acting is Expressionist too: fast and furious and deliberately over the top. Tom Hanks is a prize creep as McCoy, especially when he bares his stumpy teeth; Alan King as Maria's relentlessly anecdotal husband talks himself into a bravura heart attack; and Kevin Dunn as the shyster defence counsel comes quite close to Tom Wolfe's original. A degree of New York authentici- ty is guaranteed by the presence of George Plimpton's name among the extras on the cast list. Anyone who doesn't know who George Plimpton is won't be able to judge the authenticity anyway.