BetteBack: For The Boys – What Happened?

New York Times
December 5, 1991
‘Boys’ Film Leaves Studio Wondering

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 4– Holiday decorations are splashed around the offices of 20th Century Fox, but the studio is probably the gloomiest in town.

After weeks of elaborate and expensive promotion of “For the Boys,” the musical drama starring Bette Midler and James Caan, it has proved to be an unexpected box-office disappointment and perhaps the first major casualty of the holiday season, when moviegoing reaches a peak. The film, a sentimental and elaborately emotional story about two U.S.O. performers over 50 years, received mixed to good reviews, and in the studio and in the film industry it was seen as a potential winner.

But the trade newspaper Daily Variety called it “the holiday’s only turkey” this week, and its dismal performance so far has unleashed a wave of anxiety and second-guessing about the future of movies aimed at audiences in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Beyond this, the fact that the industry can virtually write off a major movie after less than two weeks leaves the Fox studio despondent.

Joe Roth, the chairman of 20th Century Fox, said in an interview this week that he remained hopeful that “For the Boys” would emerge from the doldrums. “The fact is, we have terrific exit polls, as good as any movie we’ve released,” he said. “Why haven’t we made it so far? I wish I knew. If I knew I’d be able to correct it. I don’t have any brilliant answers.” Some Hope Left

The studio chief, whose record is largely successful, said he hoped the movie would eventually find an audience, and he cited other films appealing to adult audiences that also started slowly but eventually gathered momentum. These included the teary drama “Beaches,” which starred Ms. Midler, and “The Verdict,” a courtroom drama with Paul Newman.

But these films cost less than half the $40 million to $45 million that Fox paid for “For the Boys,” not to mention promotion costs of probably $10 million to $15 million, making it one of the studio’s most expensive and risky films. Although Fox is still basking in the financial sunshine because of the huge success of “Home Alone,” the third-highest-grossing film in history, after “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Star Wars,” its recent movies have been disappointments. These include, “Dying Young,” “Dutch” and “Only the Lonely.”

“For the Boys” opened nationally over the weekend, and in New York and Los Angeles the weekend before. It had grossed a paltry $5.9 million as of Monday, said Exhibitor Relations Inc., which monitors film releases for theater chains. In contrast, “The Addams Family” grossed $24.2 million on its first weekend. Other holiday films that are showing signs of being major successes are “Beauty and the Beast” and “My Girl.”

“Kids went out to see ‘The Addams Family’ the first or second weekend because moviegoing for them is like a tribal ritual,” Mr. Roth said. “For people over 25, this is not the case. But all of this sounds like an excuse on my part, and I don’t want to do that. I have a lot of faith in this picture.” Reasons for Failure

Film executives at Fox and elsewhere attribute the apparent failure of “For the Boys” to several factors, including the World War II story line, music that has little appeal for younger audiences and the film’s trailer, which does not make clear what the movie is about. They also point to the odd relationship between Mr. Caan and Ms. Midler’s characters, who seem to dislike each other and have little romantic involvement. The film’s mixed reviews, strong competition from other movies and economic conditions were also cited.

One executive said: “What is this film really about? If you look at it in story and structure terms, it’s about two characters who don’t fall in love, who don’t physically relate to each other. It’s the nature of the story that does this film in.” The executive said that in successful films geared to older audiences, such as “Driving Miss Daisy” and “On Golden Pond,” the relationships were intense and believable, while the one in this movie was not.

As conceived, the story of “For the Boys” was harder edged, industry executives said. Ms. Midler, whose company produced the film, has been fascinated for years by the entertainer Martha Raye, who performed for troops in Vietnam and was shocked to find herself booed by demonstrators when she returned to the United States. As a result, executives said, Ms. Midler began shaping a film, with Mark Rydell, the director, that was to have an antiwar message, with her character turning against the war, while her partner, played by Mr. Caan, remained a hawk. During many rewrites, the film was softened considerably and the message blurred.

One prominent executive called the fate of “For the Boys” sad. “One would like to think there’s an audience out there for this kind of movie,” he said. “To some extent its failure so far may be the tone of the times. People are looking for escape entertainment. There should be room for ‘For the Boys’ to flourish, but there just doesn’t seem to be.”

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