It’s generally accepted that Pauline Kael‘s biggest triumph as a critic came when The New Yorker published her 7000-word defense-and-praise piece on Warren Beatty and Robert Benton‘s Bonnie and Clyde (10.21.67), which had opened and fizzled in August 1967. Kael’s piece helped to turn the tide (Newsweek‘s Joe Morgenstern initially panned it but went back a second time and recanted), which led to a profitable re-release and Oscar nominations in early 1968. It might be the only time in movie history in which a single critic was fairly credited with actually saving a film.
We live in different times, of course. Everything is sudden death these days, certainly on the theatrical circuit. Movies are sized up, tweeted about, gobbled up and spit out each weekend in the space of 48 or 72 hours, and rarely given a second thought. The only thing a misunderstood movie can hope for is lively VOD rentals and cult acclaim on the Bluray/DVD circuit.
Award-season acclaim is another story. The success of The Hurt Locker, largely pushed along by critics, was a beautiful little chapter. Ditto the Oscars that went to The Pianist. I’d like to think I might have done a little something to help nudge along a Best Feature Documentary Oscar for 20 Feet From Stardom and Errol Morris‘s The Fog of War. And there have been takedown campaigns. The Stalinists who stabbed Zero Dark Thirty in the gut know what they did, and they will be haunted by this until the day they die. On the other hand I’m proud of my small part in pushing back against Eddie Murphy‘s Best Supporting Actor campaign for Dreamgirls, and especially against two initially over-praised Steven Spielberg films, Munich and Lincoln.
But if a Bonnie and Clyde-like “save” campaign could have happened during this century (i.e., over the last 14 years), which films would have deserved a serious re-release and re-appraisal? Strictly on a fantasy basis, of course.
In my dreams I would have liked to have saved David Fincher‘s Zodiac, but I don’t think the public or the Academy could ever be capable of enjoying a procedural about a cold case in which the bad guy is never nailed.
I’ve never really been up on the legend of MGM/UA publicist Scott MacDonough having allegedly been instrumental in forcing the studio to release Diner, the classic 1982 Barry Levinson film, after it had been more or less shelved. But there’s definitely something to it, according to those who were around at the time.
By the way: Here’s an old Bonnie and Clyde story, passed along in this space six and a half years ago. It involves producer-star Warren Beatty wanting to duplicate the cannon-roar gunfire that director George Stevens delivered in Shane, which Beatty had greatly admired when he first saw it as a teenager. And how Beatty went to Stevens and asked him how to create the exact same sound.
Flash forward to the the film’s July 1967 royal premiere in London (at a prime theatre in Leicester Square), and Beatty noticing that the gunfire sounded a bit soft and muffled.
Enraged, Beatty runs upstairs to the projection booth to see what’s up. The projectionist, surprised to see Beatty, tells him that he’d run Bonnie and Clyde earlier that afternoon and realized it had an atrocious sound mix, especially regarding the gunfire. So he did Beatty a favor by making up a time chart telling him at what exact points to turn down the sound as the gunfire wouldn’t sound so cannon-like. “This is one of the worst mixed films I’ve ever seen,” the guy said . “In fact, I haven’t seen a film mixed this badly since Shane.”