Retrospective feature for The Telegraph on Warren Beatty’s 1990 curio Dick Tracy. Includes interviews with crime writer Max Allan Collins and former child actor Charlie Korsmo, who played The Kid.
It’s behind a paywall though, so here you go:
‘I had to eat the same ice-cream 50 times’: how Warren Beatty made Dick Tracy a technicolor nightmare
Published in The Telegraph, 12 June 2020
A comic-strip icon. A gallery of grotesque villains. A superstar soundtrack album. Hollywood royalty. Danny Elfman’s exuberant score. An instantly recognisable logo at the centre of a marketing blitz. Thirty years ago today, Dick Tracy was poised to repeat Batman’s successful formula – but the famous detective, played by Warren Beatty, failed to close the case.
A comic-book blockbuster may have seemed like an odd fit for Beatty. But he was in the market for a hit following the disaster of Ishtar, the 1987 comedy vehicle starring him and Dustin Hoffman, which had lost tens of millions of dollars. What followed in 1990 was a film of Chaplinesque sentiment, based on Chester Gould’s violent daily newspaper strip about Dick Tracy, the tough plain-clothes detective and the gangster grotesques he fought.
For Beatty it was a whole-package deal: he produced, co-wrote, headlined as Tracy, and directed too. In the film, a starry supporting cast of heavily made-up cartoon mobsters are gunning for the detective. They’re led by Al Pacino as the crime boss “Big Boy” Caprice; there’s also Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles, RG Armstrong as Pruneface and William Fosythe as Flattop.
Strangely, however, they all seemed, to Beatty, of secondary importance. A plucky young grifter, The Kid (Charlie Korsmo), steals the limelight, providing the emotional glue that finally binds Tracy to his long-term love interest Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly). Tracy is also at the centre of a love triangle between the wholesome Tess and the femme fatale Breathless Mahoney (Madonna).
Dick Tracy had been in Beatty’s sights for years. Gould’s comic strip had first appeared in the Detroit Mirror in 1931. Gould wrote and drew it until 1977, when he bequeathed the reins to crime writer Max Allan Collins. Having coveted the film rights throughout years of development hell under a string of producers, Beatty finally grabbed them in 1985.
“The rumblings of a movie started shortly after I took over the strip,” recalls Collins, who consulted on the project and wrote its novelisation. “The various versions of the screenplay that I saw were all very similar and all terrible, but Beatty had a vision for bringing a comic strip, in all its Sunday-page glory, to the screen. That is the great accomplishment of the film.”
Superman and its sequels notwithstanding, big films based on comics were not yet a discrete genre; the modern formula was not yet set. Beatty’s instinct was to lean into the artifice, playing up to those newsprint origins. For the production and costume design, he used only 10 primary colours. The film takes place in a matte-painted city where cops and criminals alike wear vibrant shades of the same Burberry overcoat. It’s “a naive world,” as Beatty described it at the time.
“Something that took me back to the emotions of when I read those comics as a five and six-year-old… A world before there were Chevrolets and Fords, when there was just Car… when red was Red and blue was Blue…”
Beatty set up the project with the new Disney regime of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who were similarly looking for an elusive summer bonanza. But a breezy summer hit proved, predictably, a tricky proposition for the notoriously fastidious director of Reds.
Before production even began, there was endless tinkering with the screenplay. It ultimately became a tortuous and exhausting collaboration with Bo Goldman (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest), who received no credit. Once the cast and crew got on set, Beatty’s notorious mania for endless takes was unstoppable. “He didn’t rein that in for me, no,” chuckles Charlie Korsmo, who was 10 years old when he played The Kid.
“There’s a scene where I eat a cup of chocolate ice-cream, which we did, I think, 50 times. Warren told me that in Bonnie & Clyde he’d done 60 takes of the eskimo-pie scene, and ended up in hospital. So we had the spit bucket. It was brutal. It wasn’t always clear what he was looking for. He doesn’t really tell anyone what he’s thinking. He just wants it to feel right, and he had the time and the resources to get it.”
Gene Hackman, burned by endless takes of his single-scene cameo in Reds, refused the role of Big Boy. (A chance encounter led to Pacino taking it instead.) Sean Young was originally cast as Tess, then immediately fired; the official line was that her performance wasn’t “warm” enough.
Both Faye Dunaway and Isabelle Adjani turned down Breathless. Madonna lobbied Beatty for the role and won him over. She agreed to work for scale, but with points deals and the soundtrack album I’m Breathless, which included three new songs written by Stephen Sondheim, she ended up earning about $5 million.
She had an offscreen fling with Beatty; it was over before the Disney World premiere, but there are glimpses of the relationship in Alex Keshishian’s 1991 documentary, Madonna: Truth or Dare. We see Beatty seeming out of his element backstage, on the juggernaut Blonde Ambition tour. Some revealing footage of conversations between the two stars was reputedly left on the cutting room floor, although Keshishian subsequently clarified that this was Madonna’s request, not Beatty’s.
In the end, Dick Tracy was flawed but unique. Beatty himself seems curiously adrift, never really inhabiting the rugged action-man of Gould and Collins, or the awkward romantic lead of his own design. Where everything else on screen is exaggerated, he seems subdued, uncomfortable, unwilling to play up to the material and shrug off his aww-shucks persona.
Pacino, meanwhile, chews the scenery. (Beatty had instructed him to recycle his mannered off-Broadway stint as Bertolt Brecht’s Arturo Ui.) But while Madonna’s character wore the alter-ego of The Blank, Gould’s faceless mob assassin, Beatty is arguably blanker still.
Nevertheless, the reviews were reasonable, and the $50m Dick Tracy took in its first 10 days a Disney record. The Academy recognised its design aesthetics and its music. Its final worldwide gross was $160m from a budget of $45m.
But it was set up to fail. When Dick Tracy started shooting in February of 1989, Tim Burton’s all-conquering Batman hadn’t yet been released, and was by no means regarded as a sure thing. By the summer of 1990, that had all changed. Batman was the benchmark by which any contemporary blockbuster would be measured, and it dictated Tracy’s fate.
Batman had dominated the summer of 1989 with an immense merchandising push: the bat-symbol was everywhere. Dick Tracy’s release carefully followed that template. “I guess it would have been marketing malpractice not to play up the similarities,” Korsmo, now a lecturer in corporate law and finance, reflects.
The now-inevitable slew of merchandising tat included oddities as bizarre as Dick Tracy and Breathless toby-jugs, “grooming” and make-up sets, marbles, ponchos, and dot-matrix printing kits, along with a set of peculiarly stubby and bandy-legged action figures.
And so, while a modest commercial and critical success, Dick Tracy’s $22.5m opening weekend was less than half of Batman’s the year before, and it tanked in its licensing deals, managing only $42m in tie-ins after a marketing push of more than $50m. Batman had done half a billion.
As a film, then, Dick Tracy might have been reasonable, but as a corporate product it was a bomb. Disney’s stocks fell. A planned theme park ride was cancelled. Katzenberg said the film had been more trouble than it was ultimately worth. Beatty was furious about this “negative spin. It never could have been Batman.”
Thirty years on, opinions have changed. Collins thinks that Dick Tracy is “a beautifully restored classic car without an engine,” but he adds that it’s “a lot of fun.” Korsmo, meanwhile, says it’s the film from his childhood that he’s least embarrassed by. “Nothing ever looked quite like it.” (He admits, however, that his children haven’t seen it yet.)
“Chester would have loved it,” Collins concludes. “He was always frustrated that Tracy had only made it to the big screen in B-movies [in the 1940s]. He wanted an A-production, with an A-star. Like Beatty.”
I also put the full text of my interview with Max Alan Collins on Medium:
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