At Long Last Love (Peter Bogdanovich, 1975)
Film critic-turned-filmmaker Bogdanovich had built a career on nostalgia, propelling himself to the top of his New Hollywood class in the early 1970s with three pictures (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and What’s Up Doc) that played in the genre trappings of Hollywood’s golden age, while taking advantage of contemporary freedom to tackle adult subject matter. At Long Last Love seemed right in his wheelhouse, as he tried his hand at an elegant musical/comedy, constructing a period tale and securing 18 Cole Porter songs.
And then the problems started. Bogdanovich insisted on shooting the musical numbers live, which hadn’t been done since the early days of the talkies — itself an interesting challenge, but made more difficult by his decision to cast, in the film’s leading roles, Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepard, neither of whom were exactly musical theatre types. And large swaths of the audience were predisposed to skepticism; Shepard was Bodganovich’s live-in lover at the time, their relationship breaking up his marriage to longtime collaborator Polly Platt, and by the time the film hit theaters, the duo was reaching Bennifer-level saturation in print and television. (More on Bennifer later.) Finally, the filmmaker would later explain, the film was rushed into release before he’d had time to properly preview and tinker with the final product. Years later, television and Netflix audiences would discover the much-maligned picture — which had since been recut into a stronger version that more closely resembled Bogdanovich’s original script — and it was finally released on Blu-ray last year.
New York, New York (Martin Scorsese, 1977)
Martin Scorsese was pretty much given a blank check following the critical (and, surprisingly, financial) success of 1976’s Taxi Driver, and he used it to try a bold experiment: a fusion of old-school backlot studio musical extravaganza and uncompromising, Cassavetes-style 1970s drama. The two styles — personified by co-stars Robert De Niro and Liza Minelli — were an odd combination, particularly when the filmmaker started going over budget due to lavish, expensive set pieces that hinged on the improvisations of his actors. (He would also admit that his cocaine addiction played no small part in the picture spiraling out of his control.) When the film was released in June of 1977, it too disappeared in Star Wars mania, and the mixed reviews didn’t help. The film’s failure only worsened the director’s depression and drug dependence, both of which he finally worked through while making 1980’s Raging Bull.
1941 (Steven Spielberg, 1979)
Hot off the one-two punch of 1975’s Jaws and 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg decided to try his hand at comedy with this ensemble WWII “comedy spectacular” (per the original poster), written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (who would go on to create Used Cars and Back to the Future, among others). His cast included Saturday Night Live stars Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, as well as Animal House’s Tim Matheson, but Spielberg didn’t have a natural knack for comedy, and found himself struggling to keep the movie under control. Yet even his sterling track record didn’t give him enough leverage to get Universal and Columbia (who were collaborating on the release) to put out his two-and-a-half hour cut; they insisted he get it under two hours. When that version was released in December of 1979, it performed respectably (better than its reputation would have you believe), but was widely seen as a disappointment when compared to his earlier films. Spielberg ultimately reassembled his longer version for television and home video release, and it has since been reappraised and re-appreciated for its manic energy and wild set pieces. The filmmaker, meanwhile, had no trouble bouncing back; his next film was Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)
Some of the themes are starting to sound familiar: talented young filmmaker hot off a giant success, given free reign and left to make a mess of it. In this case, Michael Cimino’s Deer Hunter follow-up was also the product of an unraveling studio, as shake-ups behind the scenes at United Artists left, essentially, no one minding the store. It would nearly take down the studio — though originally budgeted at $11 million, Cimino’s reported perfectionism, endless retakes, and snail’s pace would crank the film months over schedule and inflate its costs to $44 million. Its projected premiere was missed by nearly a year, and when the film debuted in November 1980 for a one-week limited run — edited down from Cimino’s original, five-plus-hour cut to three hours and 39 minutes — it was savaged by critics. UA pulled the film and re-edited it again, into a two-and-a-half hour version that was equally reviled when it was finally released in April 1981, barely grossing $1 million.
The film effectively ended Cimino’s career (he directed four more films, all much smaller and all box-office disappointments, the most recent in 1996), though it has since been championed by some cinephiles, its longer, premiere version attracting considerable attention when it aired on Z Channel in the 1980s and debuted on DVD and Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection in 2012. (Or, if you don’t have that kind of time, you can always watch director Steven Soderbergh’s new “Butcher’s Cut,” which runs all of 108 minutes.)
Popeye (Robert Altman, 1980)
M*A*S*H notwithstanding, Robert Altman was never exactly commercial catnip: even his finest films (Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, etc.) were box office disappointments relative to their rapturous reviews, and when even the good reviews dried up in the late ‘70s (when he was making problematic pictures like Quintet, A Perfect Couple, and A Wedding), things were looking grim.
Yet this is exactly when super-producer Robert Evans (The Godfather, Chinatown) decided Altman was the man to helm a family-friendly musical comedy adaptation of Popeye, inspired by the success of 1978’s Superman. Suffice it to say, Evans did not get Superman. He got a Robert Altman movie — filled with oddball character actors, overlapping dialogue, and broken-down sets — and the songs by Harry Nilsson weren’t exactly toe-tappers. Much like 1941, Popeye wasn’t the mega-bomb it would grow to be known as (it did $60 million worldwide on a $20 million budget), but it was not the Christmas blockbuster Disney and Paramount were banking on, either, and Altman took the blame. He spent the next decade making tiny independent films, most of them based on plays, before roaring back with the biting Hollywood satire The Player in 1992.
One From the Heart (Francis Ford Coppola, 1982)
Coppola’s notoriously troubled production of Apocalpyse Now could have been a career-ender; like Heaven’s Gate, it went months over schedule and millions over budget (though much of that was Coppola’s own money). But its strong box-office and positive reviews saved the filmmaker’s reputation — for the time being. His Waterloo would come two years later, with One from the Heart, a wistful musical (will they never learn?). In fact, Coppola weirdly repeated many of Scorsese’s New York mistakes, including spending millions to create sets on sound stages and amp up the old Hollywood artificiality; always a gearhead, Coppola made headlines for using new video cameras and decks to create a director’s trailer, where he could see and edit the movie right on the set (Roger Ebert quotes the industry wisecrack: “He took an $8 million project and used the latest advances in video to bring it in for $23 million”). The technology didn’t help the movie itself, though; it tanked miserably with audiences and critics, not even grossing $1 million and sending Coppola into bankruptcy. He spent the rest of the decade paying off those bills, and his continuing dire finances were reportedly a major factor in his decision to make The Godfather Part III.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Terry Gilliam, 1989)
Monty-Python-animator-turned-visionary-filmmaker Gilliam had a critical success and cause célèbre with 1985’s Brazil, which prompted a long feud with US distributor Universal over the length and content of its release cut. When the studio finally relented, it was met with rapturous reviews and respectable box office, so he went to work on his next film, a wildly elaborate and visually sumptuous retelling of the story of explorer and adventurer Munchausen. But Gilliam was caught in a changing of the guard at Columbia Pictures, and always claimed that his film only went over budget because the new regime slashed it so drastically from the original projections. Whatever the case, Baron Munchausen cost between $40 and $50 million dollars, yet it was modestly advertised and barely released, returning only $8 million in grosses. Gilliam, now wearing the mark of a two-time troublemaker, had to settle down and play nice for a while; his next two films, The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, fused his surrealistic style with more straightforward narratives from other screenwriters, and became his biggest box-office successes to date. But he maintains a reputation as undisciplined and uncommercial, which has hampered his ability to get his films made.
Meet Joe Black (Martin Brest, 1998)
Martin Brest worked infrequently and idiosyncratically, yet over the course of his career, he racked up an impressive series of commercial and critical successes: Going in Style, Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run, Scent of a Woman. That last Oscar winner got him free reign at Universal, and he spent six years crafting his follow-up: a lavish, $90 million remake of the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday, with Brad Pitt playing Death and Anthony Hopkins as the rich entrepreneur who shows him what life on earth is all about. Meet Joe Black is (in this defender’s eyes, anyway) lush, romantic, and entertaining; it is also three hours long, which Universal might have balked at, were it not following Titanic into the marketplace. Alas, the numbers were not Cameron-sized; it only earned back half its budget domestically, while the mixed reviews complained that the picture was overlong and poorly paced. But it did much better overseas, so Brest got one more shot. And five years later, he released (to date) his final film: the $75 million flop Gigli.
The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)
There’s a good explanation for the six years between Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream and his next film, The Fountain: the latter was supposed to come out much sooner, and in a very different form. Originally budgeted at $70 million and starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, the film was canceled at the eleventh hour when Pitt dropped out; Aronofsky couldn’t secure that funding without a Pitt-sized megastar in the lead, so he rewrote the film, slashed the budget in half, and cast Hugh Jackman and his then-girlfriend Rachel Weisz. Still, even at $35 million, the picture was a box-office bust — it only grossed $15 million, with audiences and critics alike puzzled by its sprawling narrative, triptych structure, and bizarre (yet beautiful) imagery. The filmmaker had to go small the next time around, directing the critically acclaimed $6 million indie The Wrestler, followed by the $13 million Black Swan. The success of those films led to his next big-budget gig: directing this year’s nutso Noah.
Miracle at St. Anna (Spike Lee, 2008)
Spike Lee had the biggest box-office hit of his career with 2006’s Denzel Washington vehicle Inside Man, and he wanted badly to take advantage of that success by indulging a longtime passion project: a WWII movie, told through the eyes of African-American soldiers. He found the vehicle in James McBride’s 2003 novel Miracle at St. Anna, which McBride adapted into a screenplay, and which Lee directed in a style that fused traditional WWII narratives and the Italian neorealist cinema of the period. The $45 million movie premiered at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival to mostly negative reviews, which followed it into general release that fall; critics pronounced the film clumsy and overlong, and audiences weren’t interested, with the film topping out at less than $10 million worldwide. Lee wouldn’t make another narrative film for four years (concentrating on documentaries and commercials), and when he did, he too went small, directing the micro-budget Red Hook Summer (again from a McBride screenplay). It met with equally middling returns, and last year’s Oldboy remake was another flop. Whether his new Kickstarter-funded film will turn the tide remains to be seen.