Until you actually watch it, The Fortune’s relative obscurity seems utterly inexplicable. Made in 1975, it was the supposedly sure-fire hit that Warren Beatty used as leverage to make his equally supposedly risky Shampoo. The package Beatty offered Columbia was irresistible: He and good friend Jack Nicholson would star together for the first time, directed by Mike Nichols. The script, by Carole Eastman (Oscar nominated for Five Easy Pieces) sounded no less enticing – a ‘20s-set knockabout comedy about two incompetent con-men eloping with the heiress of a sanitary towel fortune. It was The Sting meets What’s Up Doc? with two of the biggest stars and one of the defining directors of the era. What could possibly go wrong?
Once viewed, The Fortune’s marginal status is more understandable. It’s not a disaster, or even necessarily a misfire, but it is decidedly odd. The opening scenes are played without dialogue and the main characters established with broad physical performances akin to silent comedy. Stockard Channing (in her first major film role) plays the heiress. She giddily escapes her parents’ mansion to be with her charming, vein lover, Beatty, but immediately marries his disheveled associate Nicholson. This, we learn, is because of the Mann act of 1910, which prevented the transporting of unmarried women across state lines for “immoral purposes”. Beatty is unable to marry her himself, because he is still married to a wife we never see. The trio fly to California, settle in a run-down apartment (with Beatty posing as Channing’s brother) and proceed to really get on each others’ nerves.
The film is constructed as a series of set pieces that allow all three performers to show off their physical and verbal comic skills. Nicholson somehow removes all his sharp edges – all mussed up hair, round shoulders and dull wits. Beatty is deliberate and assertive – sure of his own superiority, even if his actions frequently indicate he shouldn’t be. Channing flits between them, mixing childlike emotion with a taste for getting blackout drunk. It is often very funny, but Nichols never lets the viewer get too comfortable. Characters are prone to idiotic, extreme behaviour; Nicholson thinks nothing of performing a wing walk during his first ever flight because he doesn’t think Beatty is paying him enough attention. Later, when events take a potentially murderous turn, Beatty poses as an Indian snake charmer to procure a deadly rattlesnake. Throughout, there’s a clear but never quite explicit sense that Beatty and Nicholson would be happier together without Channing, if it wasn’t for her money. There are also brilliant, crazy details – during a spectacular row, Nicholson somehow manages to throw and impale a slice of bread onto the back of a chair, where it hangs improbably in the foreground of the entire following scene. As for reasons explained during a bizarre monologue, Nicholson calls sanitary towels “mouse blankets.” It’s that kind of film.
Only at the end does the tone falter. After a lengthy build-up of misunderstandings and double-crosses, the film peters out with the standard downbeat ambiguity of the period – a fitting tone for many ‘70s movies (not least several of those made by members of the principal creative team here), but on this occasion it clashes awkwardly with the fun that went before. Having raged and blundered through the previous 90 minutes (it’s refreshingly short), the characters just wander off, leaving the viewer wondering what on earth they’ve just witnessed.
The Fortune looks great on blu-ray. Colours and clarity are excellent, with the night scenes particularly impressive. Dialogue and music have also been treated well. It’s hard to imagine the film has ever looked better, even during its first release.
Once again, Indicator have put a great deal of effort into special features, most of which are new to this release. There’s a commentary, from critic Nick Pinkerton, which is well-researched and interesting. He skips back and forth between biographical background of the key players, critical interpretation of the film and specifics about the production. Although he mentions that critical reaction to the film was – and remains – split (the Coen brothers, apparently, are fans), you don’t really get a sense of Pinkerton’s personal opinion. He’s at his best discussing the fraught relationship between Nichols and Eastman (much of the script was cut), and the film’s visual style. The commentary is complimented by a five-minute video interview with professor Kyle Stevens, who goes into a little more detail on the film’s gender themes in the wider context of Nichol’s career.
The highlight of the package should have been a 70 minute on-stage conversation between Nichols and his frequent collaborator Elaine May, recorded in 2005 following a screening of May’s Ishtar, but it makes for frustrating viewing. Rather than discussing specific productions, the pair trade rambling theories regarding Hollywood’s and America’s ills. It seems almost quaint now that Nichols is very upset about the then current Bush administration. Perhaps it’s better than he didn’t live to witness President Trump. It gets better towards the end when May answers audience questions about Mikey and Nicky and A New Leaf, but this was a disappointment.
The extras are rounded out with a music and effects track, the theatrical trailer and an image gallery.
Review by Jim Whalley