The Bruce Willis Box Office Bomb That’s One Of Hollywood’s Biggest Embarrassments

Bruce Willis was once in The Bonfire of the Vanities, which was a box office bomb and embarrassment.

By James Brizuela | Published

Bruce Willis may have been in some questionable movies towards the latter half of his career, but when he was a superstar in the 1990s, he was involved in a commercial and critical failure of a movie. In fact, this movie would go on to be one of Hollywood’s biggest embarrassments. That film is called The Bonfire of the Vanities and was meant to be an adaptation of the popular Tom Wolfe book. The film held a massive cast, but because of last-minute casting changes, and wild source material changes, the movie failed at every turn. There is even a book documenting the movie’s horrible journey, called The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood.

The Bonfire of the Vanities was released in 1990 and holds a poor 16% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It has an equally disappointing 26% audience approval rating as well. The film would make $15.6 million in box office sales against a budget of $46 million. Strangely, the film had a wealth of talent attached to it, but it bombed horribly. For starters, Brian De Palma directed the feature. He famously directed films like The Untouchables, Snake Eyes, Scarface, and Redacted. The man is not a terrible director by any means. Also, the cast included Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, and Morgan Freeman. All four were massive stars, especially in the early 90s. However, the film was critically panned for many reasons.

The Bonfire of the Vanities follows Sherman McCoy, who is a well-off Wall Street bondsman. He enjoys his life of luxury next to Southern Belle gold-digger, Maria Ruskin. When the pair end up in the “war zone” of the Bronx, Sherman gets out of the car to help two young African American boys move a tire from the middle of the road. Maria then slams the car in reverse out of fear, killing one of the boys. The pair drive off and decide not to report it. An alcoholic reporter by the name of Peter Fallow is given the story breakthrough of his life, as he is assigned to this hit-and-run, which may have been racially motivated. He finds out that McCoy is the owner of the vehicle that struck the teenager, and McCoy’s life then spirals out of control. Without ruining the rest of the film, everyone can take some time out to go see it. Determine if the movie is as bad as the reviews and box office draw that it was.

the bonfire of the vanities

The issue that many took with Brian De Palma’s vision for this film is that the source material was heavily altered. Steve Martin was almost cast as Sherman McCoy, but the studio thought he was too old. Wolfe wanted Chevy Chase. Kevin Costner, Tom Cruise, and Christopher Reeve were considered for the role before it landed with Tom Hanks. The judge was changed from a Jewish man to an African American man. Morgan Freeman initially got the role, but De Palma had wanted Edward James Olmos, Alan Arkin, and Walter Matthau for the role. The judge being changed was to respond to criticism of the film’s racial politics that were already a subject of controversy. Also, the dialogue for the judge was changed to condemn the manipulative actions of the characters. Also, De Palma didn’t think it was ok for a “white judge talking morality to a basically black audience.” Things got much weirder when De Palma was forced to cast Bruce Willis as Peter Fallow. The studio intervened and picked him because of the popularity of Die Hard. Initially, Jach Nicholson and John Cleese were considered for the role.

The casting issues and source material changes were not the only issues, as the opening shots made were said to have cost a great deal of money. The film’s Second Unit Director, Eric Schwab used a random shot of the sun setting on JFK based on a bet that he could get it done, which cost $80,000. He also wanted a time-lapse of Manhattan for the opening shot, which was horribly expensive as well. That’s not to mention the expensive cast that included Bruce Willis.

The Bonfire of the Vanities essentially made a mockery of a Tom Wolfe book that was one of the best ever written. Despite having Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, and Melanie Griffith in the cast, no one seemed to get the directorial changes made by Brian De Palma. The end result was a horribly embarrassing film that could have ruined everyone’s career involved.