Essays (book reviews)
Hollywood Talks Turkey: The Screen’s Greatest Flops
Two words often used by those in the film industry and film fans alike have altered in their meaning in the early 1990s. The two words are bomb and turkey – as in, “that film’s a real bomb”, or “what a turkey!”. Until very recently, those words designated two very different types of movie. A bomb used to mean, simply, a film that didn’t make any money; it bombed at the box office. To call a film a bomb, once upon a time, was in no way a statement about its quality, or lack thereof. A turkey, on the other hand, was definitely a bad film – as in the (in)famous Golden Turkey awards handed out by the Medved brothers, an honour bestowed whether the film in question was a mega-hit or a mega-flop commercially.
Now, it seems, all this has changed. A rather alarming document – a press release from an American media outfit Baseline, “the entertainment industry’s information service”, as it describes itself – tabulates the “ten top turkeys of the ‘80s” – meaning, in this case, the films which lost the most money. You may be surprised to learn that, on this turkey list, there’s Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984), Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987) and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), alongside those old inevitables Heaven’s Gate (1980) and Ishtar (1987).
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d feel a bit of a traitor to cinema labeling Once Upon a Time in America – which happens to be one of my favourite films of all time – a turkey.
What’s going on? Baseline’s list of the Turkeys of the ‘80s is not an isolated instance; it’s a Sign of the Times. One only has to glance at any issue of the slick, glossy, hugely successful American film magazine Premiere to realise with a shudder that, more and more, films are being evaluated as good or bad on the sole criterion of how much money they take or lose. A reader’s letter in Premiere from one Barbara Boyd of Boise, Idaho sums up this trend with frightening clarity. Taking the magazine to task for featuring articles on the 1990 releases Air America, Wild at Heart, The Freshman and The Two Jakes, Barbara coldly asks: “Honestly, how good were those four movies? How much money did they make at the box office? If Middle America didn’t want to see them in the theatre, why would they want to read about them?”
According to the new brutally materialistic wisdom, any movie that loses its producers’ bucks, which cannot immediately draw the masses to it like moths to a flame, must be suspected of being a really bad movie. Bombs have metamorphosed into turkeys overnight. It seems that we have chosen to no longer identify wit the heroes in a film; rather, we are more wiling to identify with its investors.
The implications of all this are pretty frightening. If the Baseline agency and Premiere magazine had been lording over the film culture of the past, moviegoers at large would be making derisive remarks about the “poor performance” of not only the likes of Howard the Duck (1986), but also virtually the entire collected works of directors such as Orson Welles, John Cassavetes, Elaine May or Fritz Lang. Naturally, a good many of the cinema’s greatest and most interesting works have found their adoring audiences only slowly, and in stages across time, on TV, at film societies, repertory theatres or now, on electronic or digital supports.
Of course, I don’t expect any one will argue with me that Citizen Kane is an important film irrespective of how many dollars and cents it took in 1941. But how many of us have avoided even checking out for ourselves Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate because we’ve heard so often that they are grand bombs-cum-turkeys? Yet both these movies have been absurdly maligned and criminally underrated.
Let’s take Ishtar. It is a film by one of the great mavericks of modern American film, the aforementioned Elaine May. It is innovative, surprising and deeply subversive. Beyond its brave anti-Americanism – scandalous in a big-budget movie – Ishtar is a film that takes risks, that refuses to play by contemporary Hollywood’s feel-good rules. Like May’s earlier Mikey and Nicky (1976), it features a pair of almost entirely unlikable heroes, who incarnate some of the ugliest aspects of masculinity (in her films prior to these, A New Leaf  and The Heartbreak Kid , one guy was enough for this malign incarnation). And, most unforgivably in the eyes of the mainstream film press, Ishtar was an enormously expensive project under the command of – shock, horror – a woman! In this regard, May copped the same vitriolic, misogynistic turkey-talk hurled unfairly at other auteurs including Mary Lambert and Barbra Streisand.
The stage is now set for a strange book, Hollywood Talks Turkey: The Screen’s Greatest Flops. Its author (or rather compiler) Doug McClelland is definitely unconcerned about the terminological difference between bombs and turkeys. To the intriguing question he poses himself in the preface, “Why such a book?”, his astonishing answer is “Why not?”. It is simply a cut-and-paste job of actors, producers and directors discussing – usually apologetically or disdainfully – their least successful screen ventures. McClelland, in his introduction, suggests that we are all fascinated by failure. Yet there’s surely a difference between commercial and artistic failure.
On every page of Hollywood Talks Turkey, the distinction between a commercial bomb and an artistic turkey is blithely ignored. We pass in a blink of the eye from the likes of Maria Montez bemoaning her involvement in an obscure (even to me) 1949 fantasy called Siren of Atlantis, to Jean Simmons likewise disowning her 1950s film noir vehicle helned by one Otto Preminger, Angel Face (1953) – which happens to be another of my all-time favourites. Sometimes we even get the gods – Welles or Cassavetes or Martin Scorsese – humbly explaining that what they considered their best works just didn’t draw in teeming crowds on their first public outing. But their very inclusion in this book seems to be an almighty gesture of damnation delivered by a money-grubbing film culture.
Behind McClelland’s cavalier “why not?”, the motivation behind Hollywood Talks Turkey is all too clear. The book delights in other people’s failures; in short, it is an exercise in superiority, even schadenfreude. Superiority is, equally and in a related gesture, at the heart of what is these days called the Bad Movie cult – the screening of films baptized as turkeys for the screaming, wicked, derisive delight of know-it-all audiences. I discovered I would never be a member of this Bad Movie cult some years ago, when I watched the legendary double bill of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and Robot Monster (1953) at the then-young Valhalla cinema in Melbourne. Amid a full-house of people groaning and weeping with laughter, I sat there stone-faced, having to admit to myself that I found Robot Monster, complete with its erratic lighting, mismatched edits and op-shop costuming, a pretty admirable and fascinating work.
What underpins such derisive laughter is the unquestioned assumption that everyone knows what a good or quality film is, and that anything which deviates from the norm is worthy only of our contempt and ridicule. If you were to go around judging people or nations on the basis of such an arrogant assumption, you’d probably be one hell of a racist and/or misogynist louse. I believe that the general cultured consensus on what constitutes a Good Film – noble theme, psychologically deep characters, plausible story, seamless continuity, and so forth – is ridiculously rigid, over-cultivated and anally retentive – able to do justice to less than probably 10% of the wonders of world cinema. Do check out some of the great essays of Bill (William D.) Routt for the long version of this impeccable argument.
In the meantime, for a useful antidote to Hollywood Talks Turkey, I recommend you take a look at the 1991 volume of James Park’s UK book series, The Film Yearbook. In it, the great film critic Raymond Durgnat is asked to nominate his Turkey of the Year. Unlike other contributors doing the same in a tiresomely faithful fashion, Durgnat refuses to play the “what an awful film!” game. He cagily selects the least-known and least praised film of director Carl Reiner’s entire career: Bert Rigby, You’re a Fool (1989). This is indeed a very queer number, and I don’t believe it made a cent either in the cinemas or anywhere else. Strictly speaking, it was certainly a bomb; but it does not deserve a place in film history as a turkey. Durgnat gives it a serious and affectionate discussion precisely because, as he admits, he just couldn’t work it out – it’s so strange and unusual that he gave up trying to decide whether it’s so-bad-it’s-good, or so-good-it’s-bad.
Durgnat’s choice implies that, ultimately, evaluations of good and bad – about which so many of us are obsessive – may not be particularly useful critical tools. Personally, I have a simple rule of thumb as a film critic: a film is good, or at least interesting, if it makes me want to talk or write about it. If a film angers me or puzzles me or if it completely boggles my mind, I believe it deserves a place in my personal movie pantheon, as much as if it impresses or moves me. It’s worth my attention.
The best and most sobering quote spliced into Hollywood Talks Turkey comes from Dustin Hoffman, discussing – yes, you guessed it – Ishtar. Shocked by the savage press it film received even before it opened, Hoffman bitterly mused, “Before Ishtar, I never realised there was this desire to kill a film”. The Bad Movie cult and the current obsession with talking turkey are indeed manifestations of this terrible, collective desire to kill films. Perhaps we would all be better off taking Stanley Kubrick’s famous advice from the ‘60s – that is, learn to stop worrying ... and love the bomb.
© Adrian Martin January 1991