The year was 1975, and you couldn’t have a more mouthwatering prospect than Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty as a criminal duo in The Fortune, a film set in the 1920s. Adding to that anticipation was Mike Nichols, who was flying high as one of the key (if somewhat overrated) directors of the New Hollywood. So with this combination, why did it all go horribly wrong—or were critics overly harsh to the film? It was a mixture.
Beatty is Nick and Nicholson is Oscar, and they are these totally inept conmen. Due to the Mann Act, you can’t take a woman over state lines for “immoral reasons.” So Nick marries Oscar’s girlfriend Frederick Quintessa Bigard (Stockard Channing) because Oscar is already married. Frederick is a millionaire heiress, so they two of them plot a way they can get her inheritance (including murder), but Nick starts having feelings towards his “wife.”
It’s the kind of film you could easily see the Coen Brothers making: films that are as indebted to the screwball comedy as the crime film. The film itself plays a bit like a film the Coens wrote for somebody else for cash, but isn’t very good. The script went through many drafts, and eventually screenwriter Carole Eastman (credited as Adrian Joyce) fell out with Nichols. who wanted to make it more slapstick than the satire she wrote.
The performances also reflect the conflict between the film’s two tones. Beatty really suffers trying to do this wacky screwball comedy: he is as charismatic as you can get, but comedy is not quite his forte. Nicholson—who of course would go on to make plenty of comedies, from the great to the terrible—fares better, especially with his Eisensteinian hair. However, Nicholson’s mind wasn’t on the film… he was having his personal life picked apart by tabloids at the time (his “sister” was his “mother,” and his “mother” was his “grandmother”) and he was about to star in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The pre-Grease fame Stockard Channing didn’t leave the viewer with much of an impression. Scatman Crothers also appears in a role, and even a pre-Spinal Tap Christopher Guest appears as “Boy Lover.”
The Fortune is an interesting failure from the height of the “New Hollywood” era of the ’70s. This was Mike Nichols’ third flop in a row, and afterwards he went back to directing theatre for eight years until his return with Silkwood. Beatty would soon fulfil his dream of being a director with Heaven Can Wait and the masterful Reds (which Beatty and Nicholson would again star in together), and would not appear in a film that he didn’t also direct until 12 years later, with the infamous Ishtar. The fact, The Fortune’s failure marked the point where the cracks started to show in the auteur-led “New Hollywood,” which would come to a head with then unfairly maligned box-office disaster of Heaven’s Gate, a film that put a stop to that kind of Hollywood filmmaking.
The release has a nice dose of extras, with commentary by Nick Pinkerton, footage of a Q&A with Nichols and his friend and comedy partner Elaine May that was recorded after a screening of her film Ishtar, and a filmed appreciation of The Fortune by Kyle Stevens, who wrote a book on Nichols. The final two on-disc extras are a stills gallery and the isolated score; surprisingly, there is no trailer. The booklet includes a new essay on the film alongside interviews with Nichols and the cast on the film, and an overview of contemporary reviews, which were mostly negative.