In their attempt to wheedle the money out of a sanitary napkin heiress (Stockard Channing in her film debut), Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson jump into the roles of befuddled, sometimes outsmarted, and pathetic men in the world of the screwball force. If screwball comedies are about sex (previously without the actual sex) and about gender politics and power dynamics between men and women, Mike Nichols’ The Fortune falls into this solid, if not always successful, attempt at reviving those little discourses under the guise of manic comedy.
Twilight Time’s recent Blu-ray release of The Fortune is a slightly dumber, more scatterbrained, less witty, and more explicit Design for Living; its ménage à trois is neither Coward-esque nor particularly cowardly. Instead, the rambunctious hijinks the three get into have this weird ambivalence towards the sex that the film, and the film’s genre, is supposed to examine. To some degree, this is to be expected in screwball comedy, given that a majority of the films of the genre had to balance Production Code coyness (unless it was a pre-Code film like Lubitsch’s Living) and Hollywood sentimentality. You’ve got to be able to have it all, basically. Yet The Fortune’s indecision about sex is a little frustrating. There’s a hint that the “let’s get this woman for her money” is merely a guise for a broader commentary on sex as commodity, but it doesn’t bother going much deeper into that.
What the film does do minorly well is pit its characters up against one another, alternately in cooperation and lack thereof, using these dynamics to examine monogamy and masculinity. That Channing’s heiress Frederique (Freddie) sleeps with both men upsets, you guessed it, both men. The fragility of their egos is the big joke, and while it’s slightly annoying that Channing isn’t made a bit more autonomous in the process of this, it’s still relatively delightful. Their delivery of dialogue that, to be honest, pales in comparison to the work of Ben Hecht or Howard Hawks, certainly elevates the film from mediocre to fairly enjoyable. In their dialogue delivery, it becomes evident how both Beatty and Nicholson perform their masculinity: the former is deeper, gruffer, arguably a man of few words. Nicholson has a signature scraggly voice, maybe half an octave higher, and is the source of much of the comedy.
Stockard Channing, though, is the star, able to channel the goofiness of Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby and the sly coquettishness of Miriam Hopkins in Design for Living. However, it might just be Channing’s kinetic energy which somehow weakens the film, since neither Nichols nor screenwriter Carole Eastman (of Five Easy Pieces fame and working under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce) give her much of a character to latch onto. They are ideas of female screwball archetypes that Channing, much to her talent as an actress, is able to run with, but offer no solid characterization.
Of the kind of revivals of farce and mania like Peter Bogdonavich’s What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon, or even of the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy, perhaps the reason that The Fortune fails to really make an impact is its lack of commitment to its genre recreation and subsequent deconstruction. It’s not just the zaniness that matters, and it’s not just the gender discourse that matters: it’s an understanding of the genre that, I think, is critical to deconstructing said genre. It’s Scout Tafoya who boils down why The Hudsucker Proxy works so well as a deconstruction of the genre, and an amplification, when he writes, “Whereas the comedies of the 1930s and ’40s could talk quickly and move quickly, they couldn’t run at a full gallop like the Coen Brothers. Their camera soars, traveling at the speed of progress, gossip, capitalism itself. Everything races at top speed.” Sure, Nichols’ film may not have the same technology as the ‘90s borne Coen Brothers film, but the point is that the Coens knew what to do in order to make the genre relevant again, even revelatory. Unfortunately, there’s not a prize like that in The Fortune.