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Over Budget and Behind Schedule : 'Waterworld' Isn't the First Film to Run Amok. Some Went Down in Flames but Others Were Redeemed With Time

July 29, 1995|DAVID KRONKE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Welcome to the auteur theory of fiscal lunacy.

"Waterworld," of course, is hardly the first Hollywood production to spiral hysterically out of control (and it won't be the last, either--keep an eye on "Cutthroat Island"). But the film, which surpasses Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" as a benchmark of profligacy, is easily the most expensive.

Films slip from their logistic and financial moorings for any number of reasons, but ego tends to top the list.

Here is a selective listing of history's most ill-fated productions. Remember, as Universal executives are no doubt reminding themselves this weekend, that the degree of difficulty and extent of expenditure on a film by no means preclude its critical or financial success.

"Queen Kelly"

Year: 1929, technically never completed

Director: Erich von Stroheim

Back story: Gloria Swanson, no doubt wondering why she was in a movie about a prostitute who marries into royalty, hated Von Stroheim and had the production stopped.

Folly and/or sheer bad luck: Von Stroheim, a self-destructive visionary unable to ground his brilliance in practicality, delighted in shooting miles of mostly unusable hedonistic footage.

Careers damaged: Von Stroheim never directed in Hollywood again, though he did appear in "Sunset Boulevard" (presumably having patched things up with Swanson). Two compromised versions of the film were given limited release.

*

"It's All True"

Year: 1941-42, never completed

Director: Orson Welles

Back story: Welles, fresh from his "Citizen Kane" and "Magnificent Ambersons" triumphs, decided to take a holiday in Brazil and return with a documentary. (Meanwhile, "Ambersons" was re-edited behind his back.)

Folly and/or sheer bad luck: After spending $150,000, and with Welles' relationship with Dolores Del Rio in a shambles and a principal of one of the film's sequences drowned, RKO scrapped the project.

Careers damaged: Welles never enjoyed autonomy in Hollywood again, though a 1993 award-winning documentary about Welles' turmoils proved he had shot some striking footage amid his revelry.

*

"Cleopatra"

Year: 1963

Directors: Rouben Mamoulian and Joseph Mankiewicz

Back story: It would be 15 years before a movie would cost more than this $40-million camp classic, and if its cost were adjusted for inflation, it would make "Waterworld" seem like a, er, drop in the bucket.

Folly and/or sheer bad luck: Mamoulian got the movie way behind schedule, a situation aggravated by Elizabeth Taylor's emergency tracheotomy, which further delayed things. And all anyone could talk about was Liz and Richard Burton's torrid off-camera affair.

Careers damaged: Mamoulian essentially quit Hollywood; Mankiewicz's prolific career was derailed; the film was credited with killing off the lavish historical epic.

*

"Apocalypse Now"

Year: 1978

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Back story: Originally budgeted at $13 million, Coppola's adaptation of "Heart of Darkness" re-imagined in Vietnam eventually cost about three times that, and as Coppola himself noted, just about everyone involved slowly went mad.

Folly and/or sheer bad luck: Martin Sheen, replacing Harvey Keitel, suffered a heart attack that Coppola tried to cover up. Marlon Brando was, well, Brando-ishly difficult. The Philippine government rescinded its offer of helicopters in order to quell a nearby revolution.

Careers damaged: Critically lauded, this film didn't stop Coppola's career. Nor did the monumental bomb "One From the Heart." Nor did the monumental bomb "The Cotton Club." Nor did. . .

*

"Heaven's Gate"

Year: 1980

Director: Michael Cimino

Back story: United Artists died a hundred deaths after Cimino poured $50 million into this four-hour, later 2 1/2-hour, folly, though critical re-evaluation has suggested it wasn't quite as awful as folks said at the time.

Folly and/or sheer bad luck: A "perfectionist," Cimino ordered an entire set of a Western main street razed and rebuilt (costing millions) so that it was a mere six feet wider. More ingeniously, he billed UA for irrigating a vast plain--which he happened to own.

Careers damaged: Cimino, long since stripped of the visionary title, still works intermittently in Hollywood, currently directing "The Sun Chasers."

*

"Fitzcarraldo"

Year: 1982

Director: Werner Herzog

Back story: Another debacle in South America: Herzog's epic about lugging a steamboat over a precariously muddy hill in a rain forest inspired star Klaus Kinski's memorable exclamation: "This much idiot no one has ever been in the world!"

Folly and/or sheer bad luck: Locals hated the production: Death threats abounded; a camp site was burned down. Jason Robards and Mick Jagger left the production after the schedule fell apart. Treacherous weather downed production planes, injuring dozens; others died from disease and drowning.

Careers damaged: Actually, documentarian Les Blank's career benefited--many felt "Burden of Dreams," his movie about the movie, was far more fascinating. Herzog survived to direct again.

*

"Ishtar"

Year: 1987

Director: Elaine May

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