Box Office Poison 1960s Style

The success in 1968 of such disparate movies as The Graduate (1967), Valley of the Dolls (1968) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with no discernible stars got Hollywood thinking whether they needed stars anymore. Stars were viewed as insurance. Their names were attached to pictures in the hope that they would bring a sizeable audience.

But for some time that had proved not to be the case. Certainly actors with the box office clout of Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, Elizabeth Taylor, Lee Marvin, John Wayne, Richard Burton and Elvis Presley justified their extravagant salaries. But exhibitors had begun to complain that studios were forcing them to carry the cost of stars who did not deliver, the salaries inflating “the terms that theatres must pay for films.”

Big names viewed as box office poison in 1968 included Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, William Holden and Natalie Wood. An investigation by trade magazine Variety uncovered the fact that in each case the last four pictures of each star – who earned $250,000 or more per movie – had flopped. Average movie budgets by now had climbed to $3-$4 million not counting marketing costs so most movies had to bring in over $10 million at the global box office to break even

The star with the worst track record was Anthony Quinn. Average rental for his past four pictures – $800,000. While Zorba the Greek (1964) had been an unexpected hit, what followed was anything but. Discounting a cameo in Marco the Magnificent (1965), the box office duds comprised adventure A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), Lost Command (1965), war film The 25th Hour and misconceived hippie comedy The Happening (1967).

Not far behind was Glenn Ford, a star from the days of Gilda (1946), The Blackboard Jungle  (1955) and The Sheepman (1958). He had begun the current decade badly with big-budget losers Cimarron (1960) and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) and his career never recovered. His last eight pictures brought in an average of less than $1 million apiece in rentals. The sad bunch were: comedy western Advance to the Rear, Dear Heart and aerial drama Fate Is the Hunter (all 1964) followed by western The Rounders and thriller The Money Trap (both 1965) as well big budget war epic Is Paris Burning? (1966), rabies drama Rage (1966) and western The Long Ride Home (1967).

Scarcely any better was William Holden, star of David Lean Oscar-winner Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), John Ford western The Horse Soldiers (1959) and The World of Suzie Wong (1960). His last four efforts – The Lion (1962), romantic comedy Paris When It Sizzles (1964), war drama The 7th Dawn (1964) and Civil War western Alvarez Kelly (1966) – returned an average of $1.05 million in rentals. Variety reckoned he was struggling with the problem of how to “gracefully mature his screen image.”

James Garner, once seen as the natural successor to Clark Gable, had failed to capitalize on the success of John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963). Five of his last seven films had dredged up a mere $1.3 million average. Making up the awful quintet were thriller 36 Hours (1964), comedy thriller A Man Could Get Killed (1966), western pair Duel at Diablo (1966) and Hour of the Gun (1967) plus drama Mister Buddwing (1966). Quite why comedy The Art of Love (1965) had done better – $3.5 million in rentals – nobody could ascertain and even though roadshow Grand Prix (1966) was a hit Garner, who was billed below the title, was not considered a reason for it, with some insiders claiming his name had held it back and it would have done much better with someone else in his role.

Morituri (1965), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), The Poppy Is Also a Flower (1966), western sequel Return of the Seven (1966), Triple Cross (1966) and The Long Duel (1967) had mustered an average of $1.4 million leaving observers to the conclusion that Yul Brynner’s “brand of sex appeal” no longer attracted audiences in America.

Marlon Brando had generated just $8.4 million in total rentals – an average of $1.6 million – for his previous six films. No matter what he did, regardless of genre, he had lost his box office spark whether it was comedies like Bedtime Story (1964) and The Countess from Hong Kong (1966), dramas like The Chase (1966) and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), western The Appaloosa (1966) or thriller Morituri (1965). From the industry perspective he was by far the worst performer since his movies cost so much in directors (Charlie Chaplin, John Huston), co-stars (Elizabeth Taylor. Sophia Loren) and sets.

A string of comedies had sounded the box office death knell for Tony Curtis. Boeing, Boeing (1964), Not with My Wife You Don’t (1966), Arrivederci, Baby! (1966) and Don’t Make Waves (1967) delivered a lamentable $1.77 million on average.

Rock Hudson had fallen far from the pedestal of being the country’s top male star in the early 1960s. Two romantic comedies Strange Bedfellows (1965) and A Very Special Favor (1965), a brace of thrillers Blindfold (1966) and Seconds (1965) plus war film Tobruk (1967) did nothing to restore his standing with just $1.86 million in average rental.

Added to the list of dubious stars was Natalie Wood whose career was considered to be in such jeopardy that she had not made picture in two years. Small wonder after dramas Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966) and crime caper Penelope (1966) which averaged $2.2 million.

Whether anybody’s career could be resuscitated after these disasters was anybody’s guess.

Strangely enough, some did regain at least a measure of their former glory, Marlon Brando the obvious example after The Godfather (1972). James Garner had his biggest-ever hit with Support Your Local Sheriff (1969). Tony Curtis revived his fanbase with The Boston Strangler (1968). William Holden returned to favor after the double whammy of The Devil’s Brigade (1968) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Natalie Wood hit the spot in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969) and Yul Brynner as a robotic gunslinger turned his career around in Westworld (1973).

But Glenn Ford’s career was coming to an end and Anthony Quinn followed up this bunch of flops with two more of the same ilk in the Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) and The Magus (1968) although he would still be offered starring roles for more than a decade.

Of course, luckily, decades on, we are not so much guided by the box office various films had and many pictures that were once dubbed flops are now being re-evaluated by a new generation of film fans.

SOURCE: Lee Beaupre, “Rising Skepticism on Stars,” Variety, May 15, 1968, p1

Behind the Scenes: “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” (1968)

Why films are flops is sometimes more interesting than why they become hits. That’s assuming no one’s memory plays them tricks. Originally, according to Tony Curtis, he was going to produce The Night They Raided Minsky’s and at that point it was more focused on the strippers working there. “Each stripper thought she was going to end up being a star like Gypsy Rose Lee” he wrote in his autobiography. However, in the star’s memory this film was going to be made after the completion of You Can’t Win ‘Em All (1970) and Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came (1970) when he was a dead duck Hollywood-wise – he did not appear in another picture until Lepke in 1975. The fact that The Night They Raided Minsky’s was made in 1968, two years before You Can’t Win ‘Em All, appears to have escaped his attention or that of the book’s editors and publishers and, strangely enough, also of Michael Munn whose later biography of the actor Nobody’s Perfect equally oddly attributed his involvement in Minsky’s to after You Can’t Win ‘Em All.

Director William Friedkin has a better recollection, but, also strangely enough, nothing like as detailed as that for the film that made his name The French Connection (1971). He had met Bud Yorkin at a private screening at the house of producer David L. Wolper (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968). Yorkin and partner Norman Lear had a two-picture deal at United Artists. (In his autobiography Friedkin called United Artists “newly-formed” which was a hell of a miscalculation since that studio had been on the go since 1919 and even the modernized UA had come into being in 1951 – he was probably referring to the takeover of the studio in 1967 by Transamerica). Even though at that point Friedkin’s only picture had been the Sonny and Cher flop Good Times (1967) he was offered $100,000 to direct on the grounds that he could “bring something original and contemporary to an older subject.” He was honest enough to admit the fee probably swayed him since he found the script “thin, superficial, not funny.”

Friedkin makes no mention of Tony Curtis potentially being involved on the production side. The first actor to be approached, Curtis agreed to do the film if the script was rewritten. According to Friedkin, Curtis was “at the peak of his popularity.”  That was wishful thinking. According to Variety, Curtis was one of the least successful stars in the business, his last four pictures averaging a lamentable $1.77 million in U.S. rentals. Curtis did not like the rewrite. He complained that between the two drafts, his role had “shriveled” and quit the production “due to differences in the concept of the male star role.” Or it could have been that he dropped out in favor of The Boston Strangler (1968).  

For a while it seemed his departure might benefit the planned production. Two rising Broadway stars – Alan Alda and Joel Grey – showed interest. Alda was in The Apple Tree directed by wunderkind Mike Nichols and Grey was attracting fabulous notices for his performance in the stage version of Cabaret. “It was a real coup to land those guys,” purred Friedkin. But it was a coup too soon – they could not get out of their stage contracts. “Unbelievably,” commented producer Norman Lear, whose job presumably it was to read the fine print, “nobody read the fine print.”

All roads then led to Jason Robards (“my first choice anyway” according to Lear) third-billed in Yorkin and Lear’s Divorce American Style (1967). Although Norman Wisdom had primarily a British moviegoing following, he had just finished a run in the Broadway comedy Walking Happy, so he was not entirely unknown. Bert Lahr fell ill a third of the way through production and died within a week so the pivotal role he was to play, “as a kind of tour guide to burlesque…left a hole in the film’s emotional center.” To try and minimize his loss, the producers “included every frame of Lahr including test footage.”

Worse, according to the director, Robards and female lead Britt Ekland proved a mismatch and had “no chemistry as lovers.” Danny Daniels took over the staging of the burlesque routines and Friedkin came close to being fired.

At least Friedkin was honest about the film’s failings. The biggest problem, he admitted, “was my own ineptitude…I was in over my head….Each time I set up a shot or talked to an actor about a scene I was filled with uncertainty….much as I’d like to absolve myself of blame for the film, I see my handiwork all over it, especially in the documentary approach to many of the scenes.” He didn’t help matters by almost sabotaging the release when he told a late-night talk show host that the picture was “terrible” and advised viewers not to “bother to see it.”

But for all Friedkin’s later downplaying of the picture, at the time he was giving it big licks, anticipating some kind of artistic breakthrough in part through innovative use of the hand-held camera. He aimed to achieve a “Brechtian flavor of casual seediness.” It was the biggest production ever filmed in New York with a budget in the $3 million-$4 million region. Friedkin had rejected the New York streets available on Hollywood studio lots in favor of the real thing. The producers found a block on the Lower East Side scheduled for demolition that fitted exactly the art director’s exterior design and successfully campaigned Mayor Lindsay to postpone demolition until shooting was completed. Friedkin confidently boasted to Variety that the Lower East Side so closely resembled what it was like half a century before that “all you have to do is rip out the parking meters and conceal the air conditioning” and line the streets with vintage cars.  

Cameraman Andrew Laszlo had developed a special camera that permitted much steadier handheld photography than before which would facilitate “Friedkin’s improvisational directorial style.”  Friedkin called it “the most expensive movie ever made with a hand-held camera.”

The picture finished shooting at the end of 1967 but that it did not appear in theaters until the tail end of the following year indicated the problems facing the producers. You might think Xmas an odd time to launch a movie about what was effectively a tawdry subject no matter how affectionately filmed. In a bid to shine a light on the more successful aspects of burlesque, United Artists publicists gave a major push to Dexter Maitland, a 40-year veteran of the business who had a small part in the picture.

SOURCES: Tony Curtis with Peter Golenbock, American Prince: My Autobiography (Virgin Books – paperback, 2009) p279 ; Michael Munn, Tony Curtis, Nobody’s Perfect (JR Books, 2011) p214; William Friedkin, The Friedkin Connection, A Memoir (Harper Perennial, 2014) p115-120; Lee Beaupre, “Rising Skepticism on Stars,” Variety, May 15, 1968, p1; “Tony Curtis, Britt Ekland To Co-Star in Minsky’s,” Box Office, June 26, 1967, p12; “A Minsky Burlecue Theme Needs N.Y.,” Variety, August 2, 1967, 18; “Tony Curtis Withdraws from Minsky’s Pic,” Box Office, August 7, 1967, pW-2; “Wreckers Refrain,” Variety, September 27, 1967, p28; Lee Beaupre, “Costliest Ever on Hand Held Camera; UA’s Calculated Risks As To Minsky’s,” Variety, December 6, 1967, 3; “Norman Lear Digs ABC,” Variety, December 4, 1968, p22); “Dexter Maitland Is Alive and Real,” Variety, December 11, 1968, 4.

William Friedkin’s autobiography pictured below is immensely informative of the director’s somewhat controversial career.