On the evening of June 14, 1990, theaters across America filled with audiences clad in identical T-shirts, each bearing a cartoon rendering of Warren Beatty in a yellow overcoat and toting a blazing machine gun. The T-shirts doubled as tickets to the first public screenings of Dick Tracy. Beneath Beatty's image were the words: "I was there first," a boast to last until the thread wore thin.
You can still find these shirts on eBay, alongside plenty of other merchandise from the Dick Tracy explosion of 1990. Such items invariably float in the wake of Hollywood blockbusters, but Dick Tracy merchandise — from the McDonald's soda cups to an Ice-T single — have the poignant quality that attaches to items announcing a phenomenon that never materializes. Borrowing tactics from the Warner Bros. promotional campaign that had turned Tim Burton's Batman into a cultural touchstone the previous year, Disney spent months priming audiences for the movie event of the year. The rollout began in the spring. Madonna, who was to play Breathless Mahoney in the film (and was at the time Beatty's girlfriend), toured behind I'm Breathless, an album of songs "from and inspired by" Dick Tracy. (It included three new songs by Stephen Sondheim.) The message was clear: Something big was on its way.
Where did it go? It's not that the movie has been unavailable; those so inclined can easily pick up the extra-feature-free DVD released without fanfare in 2002. But who thinks about Dick Tracy today?
An adaptation of Chester Gould's venerable comic strip, it was operatic in theme and scale, filled with stars, staffed by pros and outfitted with all the lavish production values a studio could buy in 1990. It had, in other words, the makings of a big-budget popcorn classic in the mold of Batman or The Untouchables. What happened?
It looked so good on paper. Besides Madonna and Sondheim (who had provided the score for Beatty's Reds), Beatty lined up a murderers' row of collaborators. Al Pacino signed on as Tracy's antagonist, the gangster "Big Boy" Caprice. For the score, he hired Danny Elfman, fresh from Batman and then the most distinctive composer of action and fantasy film scores since John Williams. Richard Sylbert and Rick Simpson provided the production design, creating a dark, Deco wonderland of rain-wet streets and glowing neon, limiting their palette to seven colors, against which Tracy's yellow overcoat glowed like a beacon of light. To capture this world, Beatty turned to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who'd worked memorably with Bernardo Bertolucci and Francis Ford Coppola. Recreating the look of Gould's rogues' gallery of deformed bad guys, John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler headed the makeup, turning actors into criminal grotesques with self-explanatory names like Flattop, the Brow and the Rodent.
Alas, Tracy's collection of well-crafted elements rarely worked in concert. The production design was a wonder, a wholly artificial world that anticipates the immersive fantasylands that CGI would make commonplace in the decades to follow. Beatty had created what Roger Ebert called in his four-star review "a world that never could be." Yet it's a garish, unappealing world. A master of making painterly compositions out of the natural world, Storaro never gets a chance to play to his strengths here. Elfman's score suggests a more modern movie than the one at hand while Sondheim's witty songs speak to depths of feeling that the one-dimensional characters will never know.
Some elements, particularly some performances, don't fit at all. Peter Biskind notes in his recent Warren Beatty biography, Star — a book as compelling, thorough and distasteful as Biskind's other Hollywood chronicles — that Pacino's take on his gangster bad guy was imported wholesale from a production of Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. But the self-conscious Brechtian touches distract viewers' attention from the living comic-strip surroundings, directing their attention instead to the sight of a famous actor who is Acting. Madonna, at the height of her fame, delivers line readings that continually land on the wrong side of the line between suggestive and vulgar.
The blame, however, belongs more to management than labor. Beatty made a film with visionary elements but without a guiding vision. As a producer and star, Beatty had helped usher in a new era of Hollywood filmmaking with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, and in the years that followed, he'd largely chosen projects that had helped to keep that inventive spirit alive. But Beatty seemed to have taken the wrong lessons from his previous movie, 1987's Ishtar — a notorious flop that saw Beatty grasping for pop-culture relevance — crafting his next film in even greater deference to mainstream tastes.
True, he did it in style, gracefully marrying blockbuster bigness to classic Hollywood filmmaking. But look for Beatty's heart and you won't find it here.
It didn't help that to match the expectations of its hype, Dick Tracy would have had to win acclaim and financial success on an almost unimaginable scale. Nicole Laporte, writing about Dick Tracy in The Men Who Would Be King, refers to the film as a "staggering disaster," but that's not quite accurate. Dick Tracy drew respectful if not glowing reviews and broke the $100 million mark at the domestic box office, then the benchmark for financial success. (It had cost $47 million, not including the marketing budget.) But, as Biskind notes, it fell short of Batman numbers and failed to move merchandise at a Batman-like clip.
More telling, perhaps, is the fact that the film enjoyed no afterlife. It won a few Oscars (for art direction, makeup, and best song), then made its way to cable. It's not spoken of today in the same breath as Back to the Future, Die Hard, Jurassic Park, or other near-contemporaries, nor has it enjoyed any kind of revival as an overlooked cult film, like Joe Versus the Volcano or Miami Blues, both released the same year. Inescapable in 1990, it's become at best a hazy memory.
An obsessive perfectionist, Beatty has no one to blame but himself. He meant Dick Tracy to be every inch a Warren Beatty film, asking and receiving credit for the script from the WGA, despite the sizable contributions of screenwriter Bo Goldman. The earnestness of the film's hero and the moral simplicity of its universe can't hide the calculation beneath it all. The man who'd once helped to make Hollywood safe for individual voices had decided to come in from the cold. Spurred by months of publicity, crowds paid to see it, but Dick Tracy's slow slide from public consciousness was beginning by the end of its first weekend. The lesson, one that future blockbusters have sadly failed to heed: You can make a movie into an event, but it takes more than a T-shirt to make audiences remember firstname.lastname@example.org
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