Melanie Griffith, James Woods, Molly Ringwald, Peter Weller, Elizabeth McGovern and Beau Bridges all appearing together in a movie for television?
The idea sounds preposterous, but it's essentially what producer David Brown pulled off with HBO's "Women & Men: Stories of Seduction," a trilogy of mini-films based on short stories by Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker and Mary McCarthy.
"We felt we could get actors," Brown, 73, said confidently. "Everybody involved regarded this not as a television movie, which is something of a pejorative term, but a theatrical movie. The actors were attracted to the stores we chose."
Indeed, the actors were attracted to the literary, somewhat esoteric nature of the stories. But the question is: Will mass audiences be interested?
"Don't ask that question to (HBO chairman and chief executive) Michael Fuchs," Brown said, laughing. "Because Michael, the caveat of HOB, said, 'Do not give us a cultural event. We are not interested in "Masterpiece Theater." We love PBS, but we don't like bottom line. If these stories attract top actors, and are as good as you say they are, then they should be entertaining.' "
And if anyone knows entertainment, it's Brown.
The husband of Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown for 31 years, the former studio mogul has, with partner Richard D. Zanuck, produced a long line of theatrical hits: "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" in the 1960s; "M*A*S*H," "The Sting" and "Jaws" in the 1970s; and "The Verdict," "Airplane!" and "Cocoon" in the 1980s. His films have grossed more than $1 billion worldwide.
After splitting up with Zanuck two years ago to form his own company, the Manhattan Project, Brown produced the Broadway plays "The Cemetery club" and "A Few Good Men."
"I enjoy producing films and plays that I personally want to see, that move me emotionally, rather than making them for the marketplace," Brown said. "If a producer is not a reasonably accurate barometer of public taste he doesn't last very long."
Brown hopes that "Women & Men" will reach audiences not because it's intellectualized--"none of these authors are blooming intellectuals," he said--but because it's about universal human experience.
"About two years ago, I had this notion of doing a television series based on the relationship between men and women, which I later revised to women and men," Brown explained. "The inversion makes people prick up their ears, and pleases many women. The idea was to use great short stories from all countries."
Brown, who recently authored a book of his memoirs, "Let Me Entertain You," used to buy short fiction for magazines. "When it came to finding stories that illuminate men and women, I didn't have to do much research," he said.
If "Women & Men," which was produced on a cable-hefty $3 million budget, is popular with viewers, Brown will produce more short literary work as part of a recurring series on HBO. Brown said HBO is already committed to three more episodes, and the producer has invested in titles and music, composed and arranged by Oscar-winner Marvin Hamlisch, intended for use in a series.
Brown remains assured about the series' future, despite its heady material. "So much is in the execution," he said. "If you tested 'War and Peace' or 'Gone With the Wind,' you might be interested to find out how little interest there was in the subjects--until the films came out."