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The Fortune received extremely mixed reviews in 1975. It arrived about a month before Spielberg's game changer Jaws, and like most of that film's competition, didn't have a chance. That's too bad, as the film is a good example of successful filmmakers trying something different. By this time Warren Beatty has cemented his reputation as an actor, producer and legendary Hollywood stud. He was fresh off the self-consciously hip comedy Shampoo and picked carefully among acting opportunities. After struggling almost twelve years to find success, Jack Nicholson was even more careful with his projects. He was 32 when Easy Rider finally made him an actor in demand. Director Mike Nichols had four scored big hits out of five at-bats, and probably welcomed the opportunity to do Something Completely Different. After The Fortune he wouldn't direct another scripted feature for eight years.
Were audiences ready for The Fortune? I don't think so... it's purposely out of kilter, a throwback to 20's and 30's comedy styles. It mixes goofy slapstick with elegant visuals and characters that could have come out of a comic strip. The particular audience I saw it with thought the movie was drop-dead funny. This is the show that 'discovered' Stockard Channing, an entirely original screen personality. The quirky, unpredictable Channing is reason enough to give The Fortune a spin.
It's the middle 1930s. Wastrel lothario Nicky (Warren Beatty) falls in love with dizzy rich girl Freddie (Stockard Channing). They elope knowing her daddy will cut her off without a cent, and Nicky is already married, and his wife won't divorce him. To keep from being arrested on bigamy (not to mention the Mann act), he has Freddie marry his best friend Oscar (Jack Nicholson), an eccentric who seems incapable of taking anything seriously. The three of them relocate to California by airplane, take a bungalow-court apartment from the nosy landlady Mrs. Gould (Florence Stanley) and set up housekeeping. Between them they can't muster an ounce of common sense. Nicky finds a job selling cars but Oscar just lays around home, with the excuse that he's been arm-twisted into a raw deal. Oscar also entertains fantasies of asserting his matrimonial prerogative with Freddie, who lounges around the house in a slip.
Think of The Fortune as Jules and Jim starring The Three Stooges. Or perhaps as a more sophisticated take on Dumber & Dumber, with a Dumbette along for the ride. Goofball comedy of this sort died out with WW2. The Bowery Boys and Judy Canova don't count. Or maybe The Fortune is a proto- Joel and Ethan Coen comedy, like Raising Arizona or O Brother, Where Art Thou? George Clooney's yahoo Everett in that film shares more than a few qualities with Warren Beatty's Nicky, like slicking his hair down and parting it in the middle.
The high-class filmmakers don't condescend to the material, but are they really in control of it? Screenwriter Adrien Joyce (aka Carol Eastman) provides a full-on farce that needs very careful handling. The writer of Nicholson's weird The Shooting and his celebrated Five Easy Pieces, Joyce aims at the narrow spot where classic farce and off-color mirth overlap.
Straight man Nicky bills and coos over Freddie like a dolt out of a 30's comedy, the kind that loses the girl to Fred Astaire or Cary Grant. Much of the movie looks partly improvised, such as Nicky's 'mouse bed' discussion, when he's trying to explain that Freddie is having her period. Nicholson's Oscar is the kind of wild haired, grinning fool that Randy Quaid made into a full time career. 1 Enjoying his first flight in an airplane, Oscar is such a nitwit that he decides to perform an impromptu wing-walk.
We spend most of the show trying to get a handle on these unpredictable characters. We expect Freddie to resist Oscar's advances but she's bored too, and responds with a semi-seduction of her own. It's all too silly to be sordid, what with Mrs. Gould outside the window, eagerly listening in. The bright and perky Stockard Channing plays her dispossessed heiress with an endearing innocence. She seems oblivious to the risks involved with running off with two nuts like Nicky and Oscar. As befits this twisted fairy tale, Freddie seems protected by a bubble of dumb luck.
The movie becomes really nonsensical when our two pals decide that their best course of action is to murder Freddie before she can give her money away to charity. This involves stuffing her unconscious into a wicker trunk and dumping the trunk in the Pacific. Here's where the film embraces straight-on absurd Laurel & Hardy gags. Nicky and Oscar try to drown her in the two inches of water in a birdbath. They then get caught in a traffic jam on a bridge, with their unconscious 'victim' half-spilling out onto the road. When they try to deep-six poor Freddie, they're held up by a talkative midnight fisherman (Scatman Crothers). Everything finishes in a fiasco. Freddie is all too eager to sleep with a randy Barber who picks her up soaking wet on the road. Oscar falls apart so completely that he confesses to crimes he hasn't committed. Nicky lamely explains everything to the detective in charge (Richard B. Shull) as if he were himself a cop, referring to the missing Freddie as the victim and pointing to the birdbath. Shull: "You tried to drown her there?"
The Fortune's jokes are deadpan and often wafer-thin; it may not be accessible for viewers insufficiently curious (or willing) to wait and watch for the humor. I found Beatty okay, and Nicholson somewhat better, but both seem to be working awfully hard at being 'naturally' funny. We don't warm up to them the way we do Stan and Ollie. Stockard Channing is a different story. Her basic appeal is such that she had me smiling all through the movie. Some of her material is just perfect. We expect screwball runaway heiress characters to discover new personal resources, discover what true love is, or something. Perky Freddie learns less than nothing and we still love her. It's a crime that The Fortune didn't launch Channing as a film star.
As it turned out, Stockard Channing's movies rarely if ever tapped her talent, She's been in a ton of TV shows and movies and the only big hit I can think of is Grease. That picture has about twelve watchable minutes, and Channing's Rizzo is in at least half of them.
Some other plusses are worth mentioning. The film is cleanly designed and elegantly directed -- Mike Nichols' exteriors stay fairly wide and sometimes mimic the look of a classic-era picture. The little bungalow court is in a development surrounded by empty lots but paved roads and curbs, which is what most of Los Angeles must have looked like until the 1940s. Inventive and risk-taking, The Fortune has a lot going for it. It is far more successful than a big comedy made the same year, set roughly in the same period and with two male stars dealing with a kooky comedienne: Stanley Donen's Lucky Lady. Gene Hackman, Burt Reynolds and Liza Minnelli try to repeat the success of The Sting with a script by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, but the whole thing sinks like a stone.
The new Blu-ray of The Fortune upholds the level of quality we've come to expect from theTwilight Time label. We can appreciate the film's fine polish, starting with the camerawork of John Alonzo, fresh from Nicholson's Chinatown. The disc's audio is the film's original mono mix.
The only extra is an M&E audio track. In the slim insert pamphlet Twilight Time's Julie Kirgo makes a strong pitch for The Fortune as a misplaced classic with an inspired take on comedic forms of earlier decades. I agree -- these stars and director could easily have chosen to cruise through mediocre material and collect their paychecks. They instead take a risk with new ideas and new talent -- the great Ms. Channing.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Fortune Blu-ray rates:
1. Nicholson and Quaid had recently enjoyed a big success in The Last Detail; maybe Nicholson liked Quaid's act so much that he borrowed it... the way he later borrowed some of Michael Keaton's Beetlejuice character for his Vegas promoter in Mars Attacks!
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T'was Ever Thus.