Horrific flops have an arresting train wreck quality: You can’t help but gawk, even though you know you probably shouldn’t. James Robert Parish clearly understands the appeal of these calamities, but doesn’t wallow in schadenfreude either. He quickly dispatches one misbegotten project after another in a heavily researched and compulsively readable tome that makes up in interesting subject what it lacks in insider feel.
Parish makes it clear at the outset he isn’t simply interested in bombs as much as monumental misjudgments ending in B.O. catastrophe. Ignoring “Gigli” and “Heaven’s Gate,” to name two infamous examples, he instead focuses on 15 films ranging from “Cleopatra” to “Battlefield Earth” and “Town & Country.”
In each case, he traces the project’s origins through all the pitfalls on the way. Thus, for “Cleopatra,” he establishes Fox’s financial straits, Elizabeth Taylor’s extraordinary (for the time) salary demands and spending habits, and the pic’s script problems, all before production began. Taylor’s subsequent hospitalization and disruptive affair with co-star Richard Burton didn’t help. Some 40 years later, “Cleopatra” is still considered the movie that almost brought down Fox.
Tome also outlines the infamy surrounding “Ishtar,” “The Cotton Club” and “Showgirls,” along with fiascos that have faded with time, such at “The Wild Party” and “Paint Your Wagon.” Parish isn’t afraid to call contemporary stars on their hubris either, be they Kevin Costner on “Waterworld” and “The Postman” or John Travolta during the making of “Battlefield Earth.”
Noting the latter’s laughable special effects and subsequent woes of Elie Samaha’s Franchise Pictures, Parish serves up an applicable quote by Travolta a few years earlier: “Disasters are earthquakes, airplane crashes, the Titanic. I’m sorry, but a bad movie is not a disaster.”
“Fiasco’s” reliance on quotes and stories by others is, in fact, its biggest shortcoming: You never get the sense Parish has talked with the principals involved or has a true inside feel for the havoc these grand misfires caused. It doesn’t help that Parish’s prose can be gratingly flat and that he frequently refers to notorious bon vivant Bob Evans as Robert throughout.
Despite these shortcomings, “Fiasco” is hard to put down. These movies were disasters, after all, and a good disaster is hard to ignore.