It was late in the afternoon, nearly 50 years ago, when I received a call from Harvey Shephard at Orion’s New York office. The head of programming at CBS was calling personally to tell me of his decision to cancel Cagney & Lacey. Shephard talked. I listened.
The CBS topper told me what a difficult decision this had been. “I know,” he began, “that you know how much I love the show.” He did not feel it could be made any better (or quite obviously that it should be given another chance).
I had known for some time of his personal disappointment in the ratings performance of the show. Somehow, in some way, despite the acclaim, the reviews, and the genuine affection for the series in the Hollywood community, I believe Harvey Shephard had been embarrassed by the (to him) one-sidedness of this “love affair” of his.
I remained low-key, telling him I understood. I thanked him for the opportunity of making twenty-eight episodes of a show of which I was quite proud, then we said our goodbyes. I went to my Orion-provided New York cubbyhole to begin notifying all concerned. First Corday, then Tyne, a message to Sharon to return my call when she got back to her hotel from her then-current location shoot in New Orleans (on Hobson’s Choice, a CBS M.O.W.), then the office at Lacy Street, the remaining cast, the writers, and my mother. The conversations with the cast members were moving, albeit brief. I also took the time to phone a few of our most vocal fans, the ones with whom I had previously struck up some correspondence. I had quite a list.
“I’m OK,” I told Dick Rosenbloom, the President of Orion Television. “I was steeled for this.” I went on to say that I felt good about the work, that I was very proud of what had been done, and that I had no bad feelings or regrets. Mamma always said, “Leave ʼem wanting more,” and that was what I was doing.
A bit later, at my hotel, I received my first condolences.
“My God,” I thought, “people already know.” I felt a twinge of pain. I decided to escape, to go to the theater. I theorized that a musical would be a good idea. Why did I pick Nine (the musical play based on Felliniʼs 8 1/2 —the great Italian filmmaker’s free-wheeling homage to Death of a Salesman)? I couldn’t take it. Depressed, I walked out midway through the performance.
From the bar at Frankie & Johnnie’s bistro in the theatre district, I phoned Sharon Gless in New Orleans. She was alone in her hotel room and matching me drink for drink. We both were in tears. I finished the call and ate alone.
The next day I was a bit hungover but resolved to resurrect Cagney & Lacey. I began to formulate a pitch: “The show that would not die.”
That excerpt from my book, Cagney & Lacey… and Me about the second of three cancellations of my iconic series, might seem like a more than self-serving way to introduce my next review, but the above was what I had on my mind as I recently chose to turn on MAX to watch the 2009 film version of Nine, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Kate Hudson, Marion Cotillard, Fergie, and Judi Dench. The material is beautifully realized by director/choreographer Rob Marshall. It is, simply put, a terrific movie and should be atop anyone’s list of fabulous flops, for that is what it is… and was.
The box-office returns resoundingly indicated this was not a film for everyone, but I want to align myself with those who believe it is a most worthy motion picture and, in my view, one of the best cinematic versions of a Broadway production ever mounted. That is saying something when you measure in such films adapted from the stage as West Side Story, The King and I, Oklahoma, Carousel, and Cabaret. As a motion picture, Nine is in that league, and I commend it to you.
There are, of course, other “fabulous” flops out there and I may begin to compile them for future reviewing. Warren Beatty’s Reds comes to mind. I could see that again… I think. Bertolucci’s 1900. There is no way I will sit through that… or even make the attempt… even for the readers of this column. That pretty much goes for Visconti’s The Leopard as well, although, after all these years, I might be induced to at least try to sit through it one more time. Billy Rose’s Jumbo is another flop for which I once had some affection. There was also The Unsinkable Molly Brown. They both died terrible box-office deaths, but I did work on both during my early days at MGM and might try to make an evening (and a column) out of (at least) the nostalgia of that.
I just watched Disney’s The Little Mermaid, which borderline qualifies as a fabulous film flop due to its questionable box-office performance at the world’s movie houses. The film’s credits, which include Rob Marshall, the director of Nine, and co-producer Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame, caught my attention. It is not my kind of flick, and may well not be yours either, but that said… for what it is… it is pretty terrific. Marshall does a fine job bringing this cartoon to life (literally) and the cast, production quality, and cinematic values are top drawer.
It would be wrong to close out this theme of movie failures without acknowledging what is arguably the biggest, most fabulous flop of all… Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. If not the greatest… it is probably the most notorious–along with Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate–of all of Hollywood’s sensational failures. And y’know… as I test my memory, I don’t think I ever actually sat down and watched either one of these.
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