THE FORTUNE, Mike Nichols’s sixth film, reaped anything but when it was released in 1975. The commercial and critical failure of this 1920s-set romantic farce, which followed the similarly dismal performance of his previous movie, the cetacean sci-fi thriller The Day of the Dolphin (1973), largely explains Nichols’s hiatus from helming narrative features for the next eight years. (He kept busy overseeing various productions on Broadway, where he had his first triumphs as a director, beginning with 1963’s Barefoot in the Park.) This near-decade break ended with Silkwood (1983), a topical docudrama whose success recalled, if not quite matched, the phenomenal acclaim that greeted Nichols’s first two films, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Graduate (1967).
Any filmmaking career that spans forty-one years, as Nichols’s did—his last movie was Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)—will of course be marked by hits and misses. His death, at age eighty-three, last November occasions a rare revival screening of The Fortune as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s idiosyncratically curated “Film Comment Selects” series. The event is an obvious boon for Nichols completists, though the movie doesn’t much change the position of agnostics like me. I still can’t wholly champion the director—who, as was pointed out in even the most fulsome obituaries, like that in the New York Times, “did not create a recognizable visual style or a distinct artistic signature”—but neither can I dismiss him altogether.
For The Fortune is not without its fascinations, the product of strange but sometimes generative tensions and inconsistencies both on- and off-screen. Starring Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson—New Hollywood’s most emblematic actors—as incompetent flimflammers Nicky and Oscar, the movie also features Stockard Channing, playing sanitary-napkin heiress Freddie, in her first credited screen role. Its plot complications arising from the stipulations of the Mann Act—aka the White-Slave Traffic Act, which “prohibited transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes”—The Fortune opens with the quickie marriage of Freddie and Oscar, a sham union, as the scioness is having intimate relations with Nicky, who is still inconveniently wed to someone else. After the trio set up house in a bungalow complex in Los Angeles, the two men plot how to swindle Freddie out of her menstrual-pad millions.
“I think maybe my subject is the relationships between men and women…centered around a bed,” Nichols told the Washington Post in 1986. The frantic action, both in and outside the boudoir, in The Fortune grows increasingly mannered and desperate as Beatty (especially) and Nicholson play their cad characters ever more broadly. But the enervating antics of these two alpha males of 1970s cinema are mitigated by the fey charisma of their neophyte costar. “Too bad we can’t have a puppy dog here. Tear-stained cheeks,” Freddie says in response to the landlord’s no-canine policy, Channing charmingly highlighting that doleful remark’s odd bifurcation between declarative statement and parenthetical aside.
The line, among several pleasing quips to emerge from Channing’s mouth, was scripted by Carole Eastman, here using her frequent pseudonym Adrien Joyce; The Fortune was one of six screenplays that the one-time actress, who died in 2004, wrote or cowrote. It was her third of four collaborations with Nicholson, a good friend since 1957, after Monte Hellman’s The Shooting (1966) and Bob Rafaelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970); the script for the latter—abundant with wry, detailed observations, particularly about class—ranks among the best from that fertile decade. As detailed in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), a scandal-glutted chronicle of New Hollywood, Eastman’s 240-page script for The Fortune had no third act and would remain unfinished, for she “refused to rewrite, refused to touch a word.” Nichols pared the script down substantially, in the process “cutting all the good stuff out of the movie,” according to Polly Platt, The Fortune’s original production designer, in an interview with Biskind. Taking Platt at her word, I find it hard not to prefer a phantom, resolution-less, four-hour version of The Fortune to the eighty-eight-minute film that resulted.
The Fortune screens March 5 at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the series “Film Comment Selects,” which runs February 20–March 5.