Cinema: Once upon a Time in Harlem

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THE COTTON CLUB Directed by Francis Coppola Screenplay by William Kennedy and Francis Coppola

It is the sorry fate of some big-budget movies to be remembered as the indifferent sequels to their own prerelease publicity. Mention Cleopatra and the memory swirls, not with images from the film but with tabloids screaming the latest indiscretion of Liz and Dick. Mention The Cotton Club 20 years from now, and the graybeards will have forgotten whether it was a good film or a bad one. Instead, they will gather their young ones around the video fireplace and enthrall them with this fable:

A long time ago (1979) in a mythical land (Hollywood), a producer named Robert Evans had a dream: to make a $20 million spectacle about Prohibition-era gangsters operating out of a legendary Harlem nightclub, to cast Al Pacino and Richard Pryor as the stars, and to direct it himself from a screenplay by Mario Puzo. But Evans wanted financial as well as creative control of the film. So he snubbed the studios and went elsewhere for money. He made a deal with an Arab arms merchant but returned the dough. He wooed a bunch of Texas oilmen, but that deal fell through. Then, early in 1983, Evans found his angels: a couple of Las Vegas casino moguls.

Now he had his millions, and even a couple of new stars-Richard Gere and Gregory Hines-but Puzo's script wasn't working. Enter Francis Coppola. He had once made a movie called The Godfather, from Puzo's novel, with Evans overseeing the production, and they all made pots of money. But now Coppola was deep in debt and willing to write Cotton Club for $250,000. Coppola loved his script; Evans thought it read like a PBS documentary. And so, while casting continued for roles that hardly existed and sets were built in a Queens studio at $140,000 a week, Evans persuaded Coppola to rewrite his rewrite (another $250,000) and then sign on as director, with a promise of total creative control.

And here, my children, is where things went from chaos to crisis. The first week of shooting, Gere refused to show up until he had a contract. As costs ballooned, money ran short. Seven weeks into shooting, in a contract dispute with Evans, Coppola walked off the set and flew to Europe; the cast and crew missed their paychecks and refused to work until they were paid in cash. And in exchange for a quick $15 million from the film's distributor, Orion Pictures, Evans relinquished his control over the movie. By the spring of 1984, Evans was suing everybody in sight. But the show went on, and after five years and $47 million, The Cotton Club premiered on Dec. 14, 1984. The rest, my children, is silence.

A backstage story as entertaining as this deserves the best of punch lines: rave reviews, big business, Oscars all around. But The Cotton Club-the movie, not the gossip machine-deserves less. The volatile drama that attended its making rarely flares onscreen; working at flash point made no sparks fly. On even the calmest of sets, the premise would have shown promise: to blend the early talkies' two most popular genres, the gangster film and the musical, into a sort of Public Enemy Goes to 42nd Street or, modernized, The Godfather Gets One from the Heart. Why, then, is The Cotton Club such a frigid, juiceless mess?

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