Memo to Mr. Beatty: Sooner not Later. Please.

1 Jun

Dear Warren Beatty, Disney Honchos, and Criterion Personnel: Dick Tracy (1990) deserves a super-deluxe, collectible, two-disc edition DVD. Thank you.

We live in the age of the comic-book super-hero movie, witness the boffo–to borrow vintage Variety-speak–grosses of Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. For example, the former netted 179 million in its opening weekend and is now up to to 377 million and counting; meanwhile, the latter opened with 166 million and has earned 328 million so far (per Box Office Mojo).  These mega-budgeted, action-packed, effects laden spectacles run the business anymore, and the end is nowhere in sight. The question is:  how did this happen–and when?

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Once upon a time, the “two-way radio wristwatch” Chester Gould designed for Dick Tracy, later supplanted by the two-way TV wristwatch, seemed novel and futuristic. Today, we take for granted the convenience of smart phones, specifically Apple’s iPhone, and the newest member of the family: the smart watch.

Clearly, the movie industry’s confusion of the 1960s, with studios throwing money at musical extravaganzas such as The Sound of Music (1965), Oliver! (1968), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), Hello, Dolly! (1969),  and Paint Your Wagon (1969), and moviegoers lining up for the likes of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Easy Rider (1969), and Midnight Cowboy (1969),  gave way to the fertile period of the 1970s, the period that made the likes of The Last Picture Show (1971), The Godfather (1972), Chinatown (1974), Nashville (1975), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and a host of other auteur classics and near classics possible. At the same time, the post-Kennedy assassination, post-Watergate era gave way to cynicism and paranoia, reflected in the likes of The Conversation (1974), The Parallax View (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), Network (1976), Marathon Man (1976), and, of course, All the President’s Men (1976). At the same time, Hollywood never forgot the value of escapist fare, and in the midst of all that gloom and audience fatigue, a few crowd-pleasers pointed the way to a sunnier, re-energized tomorrow: The Sting (1973), Rocky (1976), Star Wars (1977), and Superman (1978). Of course, somewhere in the middle of those bon-bons, Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) also set a new standard for thrills, chills, and box office oomph.

With the 1980s came a new model of business, motivated by the thirst for “popcorn” flicks, high-concept package deals brokered by the hot-shots at Creative Artists Agency (led by Mike Ovitz), and an increasingly corporatized atmosphere at the studios as media conglomerates became the norm. The early-to-mid 1980s gave us the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982),  48 Hours (1982), Tootsie (1982), Flashdance (1983), Ghostbusters (1984), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Rambo (1985), Back to the Future (1985), Top Gun (1986), a string of highly lucrative teen comedies from writer-director-producer John Hughes,  and dozens more. Then, in 1989, Warner Bros and Tim Burton, known at the time for idiosyncratic titles such as Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988), upped their game with Batman, an edgier alternative to the campy similarly titled TV show of the 1960s with its goofy effects, cut-out sets, puns, and cavalcade of guest stars–both in and past their prime–playing increasingly over-the-top villains.

Instead, Burton’s film, as has oft been reported, took its cue from graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. The line between good and bad seemed murkier than ever.  In the role of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter-ego, director Burton generated a wave of controversy by casting Michael Keaton, mostly known at the time for comedies such as Night Shift (1982), Mr. Mom (1983), and Burton’s own Beetlejuice; however, Burton countered by explaining that he cast Keaton because he needed an actor who could effectively play the nuances of the Wayne character, an otherwise phenomenally successful man haunted by the murder of his parents, a murder he witnessed. Fortunately, Keaton proved himself the right man for the job, but he did not emerge the star of the show.

No, that distinction went to no less than (then) two-time Oscar winner Jack Nicholson, who played “The Joker,” Batman’s nemesis, a shade more sinister, but no less hammy, than his TV predecessor Cesar Romero (but not as darkly as he would eventually be portrayed by Oscar winner Heath Ledger in 2008’s The Dark Knight). Audiences savored Nicholson’s every lip-smacking move. The actor also made headlines by inking a then-unprecedented deal that entitled him to a cut of everything, meaning not only the film’s box office take (presumably from the first ticket sold) but also merchandising and sequels. He even demanded and was granted top billing. That’s right, over Keaton, the titular hero.

Burton’s grandly scaled film was unquestionably darker and even more violent than similar superhero fare. The soundtrack featured a breakthrough score by Danny Elfman, an obvious departure from audience fave John Williams, who had so memorably composed anthemic themes for the likes of Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, and Raiders of the Lost Ark (again, among many others). Warner execs also engineered a way to incorporate music of reigning pop superstar Prince, the addition of which upped the film’s “cool” quotient. Production designer Anton Furst won an Oscar for creating an imposing Gotham City and all its environs, including Wayne Manor and the Batcave, marked by industrial, Art Deco, and Gothic influences.

Batman arrived amid a flurry of relentless hype, the likes of which I had never witnessed at that point in my theater exhibitor career (going on 7 years when it happened). Oh, I’m not naive. Of course, I understood very well that so-called ballyhoo was always essential to the Hollywood game, going all the way back to at least 1939’s Gone with the Wind with stops along the way up to Cleopatra (1963), with ample fanfare in between and well-beyond. Sure, I knew all about the marketing game, but, remember, even Star Wars and Ghostbusters, and oh so many others, were word of mouth hits, bolstered as they were by smart publicity blitzes. They did NOT hit the screens with pre-sold audiences. Batman was different. The buildup was almost unavoidable. Batman was everywhere: TV talk shows, TV commercials, magazines, whatever–and remember, this was before the Internet had the same utility as it does today. As I recall, this was the first time, outside of a radio station sponsored advance screening, that theaters sold tickets to Thursday night showings prior to the official Friday opening. Also, as I recall, our screening filled up three auditoriums. Unprecedented. Those first few days were grueling, grueling in a way that even 1983’s Return of the Jedi, which did benefit from a pre-sold audience, could not compare.

The result of all this masterful media manipulation is that Batman became the first movie to earn 100 million dollars in a mere 10 days [1]. Historic. Sounds much ado about nothing now, measured against Captain America‘s recent 179 million haul in only one weekend–but that’s kind of the point. Blockbusters are ever becoming the norm, and the stakes are getting higher.

So, what does any of this have to do with Dick Tracy, you might ask.

Released in June of 1990 by Disney subsidiary Touchstone Pictures and based on Chester Gould’s decades running comic strip (1931-1977)  Dick Tracy is superstar actor-turned-producer-and-Oscar-winning-director Warren Beatty’s long-laboured dream project about a big city, square-jawed detective battling a cast of colorful hoodlums–with such names as Big Boy, Eighty-eight Keys, Flattop, Little Face, and Mumbles. Add to the mix a scruffy street urchin and the affections of two polar opposite females: no-nonsense Tess Trueheart and vampy torch singer–and sometime gangster’s moll–Breathless Mahoney. The former portrayed by Glenn Headley; the latter personified by no less than pop royalty Madonna, Beatty’s then romantic flame.

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Madonna’s Dick Tracy-inspired I’m Breathless album netted a  #1 hit single, “Vogue” with its landmark music video directed by then relative unknown David Fincher, and an Oscar victor, “Sooner or Later” with music and lyrics by veteran Tony, Grammy, and Pulitzer winning tunesmith Stephen Sondheim. To quote Ira Gershwin, “Nice work if you can get it.” We’ll assume that’s Beatty, face obscured, sporting the fedora.

No doubt inspired by Batman‘s smashing success, the Disney brass launched Dick Tracy in June of 1990 with a tidal wave of publicity, the likes of which had scarcely been seen since, well, you know, the Bat guy from one year earlier.  Merchandising tie-ins galore, not the least of which was Madonna’s wall-to-wall, chart-topping radio smash, “Vogue,” which, technically, did not appear in the film but was instead featured on the singer’s Dick Tracy companion record album, I’m Breathless: Music From and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy.  The album also featured contributions composed by legendary Stephen Sondheim, including future Oscar winner “Sooner or Later” and “More.” The Blonde One was everywhere that summer, garnering mucho media attention thanks to her globe-trotting Blonde Ambition tour, footage of which eventually formed the basis for 1991’s Truth or Dare documentary.

The Disney Store had just opened at NorthPark around that time (give or take a few months), and Dick Tracy merchandise lined the shelves, including a snazzy Madonna as Breathless Mahoney wristwatch which a friend gifted me with for my birthday–and which I still own.

Make no mistake, Madonna was hardly the whole show. Of course, aside from the rare misstep known as Ishtar (1987), Beatty had a reputation as a Hollywood power-player with a knack for assembling top-flight talent and working to exacting standards on ambitious projects, often to dazzling effect, including the aforementioned Bonnie and Clyde (1967), as well as Shampoo (1975), Heaven Can Wait (1978), and Reds (1981), serving as producer and actor in all of the above, earning Oscar nominations in as many as four categories–Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Screenplay–for both Heaven Can Wait and Reds.

Joining Beatty in supporting and/or cameo roles was a panoply of stars and character greats such as Al Pacino, straight from his sizzling comeback in Sea of Love, as nemesis Big Boy Caprice, Mandy Patinkin, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Sorvino, James Caan, Kathy Bates, Catherine O’Hara,  Charles Durning, William Forsythe, Dick Van Dyke, and Estelle Parsons (who, of course, had won Best Supporting Actress for her role in Bonnie & Clyde decades earlier), and several more.  The cast also included young Charlie Korsmo, who’d earned raves earlier in the year as widowed Jessica Lange’s youngest son in Men Don’t Leave. The script, incidentally, was penned by the hotshot team of Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., the duo behind such hits as Top Gun and The Secret of My Success. (These writers were part of the aforementioned CAA stable where package deals were the name of the game.)

With all that fanfare, all that pedigree, Dick Tracy easily opened at the top of the box office charts, a position it maintained through two weekends (per Box Office Mojo), dipping only 31% from week 1 to week 2–and only 35% from week 2 to week 3.  More than respectable numbers, as anything less than 40% is considered within an acceptable range. (Falling more than 60% is grounds for disaster.) To clarify, Dick Tracy actually yielded the year’s third biggest opening haul. A hit is a hit is a hit, right?

Everything you need to know about Dick Tracy in one shot. That's ever-reliable character actor William Forsythe as "Flattop" with Oscar winning makeup effects by John Caglione, Jr. and Doug Drexler. The pair won in a year in which the competition included, among others, the heavyweight team of Ve Neill and Stan Winston, in the race for the celebrated Edward Scissorhands. (IMAGE: Touchstone Pictures/

Everything you need to know about Dick Tracy in one shot. That’s ever-reliable character actor William Forsythe as “Flattop” with Oscar winning makeup effects by John Caglione, Jr. and Doug Drexler. The pair won in a year in which the competition included, among others, the heavyweight team of Ve Neill and Stan Winston,  for the celebrated Edward Scissorhands. This shot also provides a peek at Milena Canonero’s Oscar nominated costumes and director Warren Beatty’s vision of saturating each frame with blue, red, yellow, and green. Canonero, already a two-time winner, lost for Dick Tracy but has since gone on to triumph with 2006’s Marie Antoinette and 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. (IMAGE: Touchstone Pictures/

Generally, the critics responded favorably. Popular TV and print critic Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars and deemed it “visionary.” The New York Times‘ Vincent Canby lavished praise as well [2-3]. Much of the applause was in response to the top-notch cast as well as the movie’s incredible look, mainly the cartoony production design, festooned as it was from frame to frame in a palette dominated by primary colors: red, blue, yellow, and, okay, green (technically not a primary color) with other hues, mainly black and silver, used selectively. The stunning effect was part of Beatty’s vision to make this final product evoke a child’s sense of wonder–especially when reading the Sunday funnies. Because, remember, Dick Tracy was a comic strip rather than a comic book. Moreover, he was hardly a super-hero on the order of Batman or Superman. By the way, the film’s much ballyhooed “look” extended to the literal interpretations of the characters’ outrageous mugs and coifs.

At year’s end, as corroborated by Box Office Mojo, Dick Tracy held the number nine spot among the year’s top ten box-office hits, earning as much as 103 million (domestically), again, in an era in which 100 mil was considered the proverbial gold standard for achieving blockbuster status [4]. For all that, however, Beatty and his film could not quite escape being labelled a failure. Was it because, even with its robust box office take, it failed to recoup its cost? Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Certainly, filmmaker Beatty is not known for producing on the cheap. His flick had a reported price tag of 47 million, a lot for a Disney picture for the time–the studio being known as mostly tight-fisted; after all, the following year’s comic book extravaganza, The Rocketeer (also Disney),  cost a relatively meager 35 million, about the same as Batman. Still, Dick Tracy‘s returns–again, 100 million+ on a budget of 47 mil–might have looked better if not for what were surely exorbitant marketing costs. On the other hand, ticket sales are not the only measure of success. What about overseas markets, home video sales and rentals, cable and network TV rights, and all those merchandising tie-ins?

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Oscar winning art direction by Richard Sylbert and Rick Simpson; cinematography by famed Vittorio Storaro. Everything works. Sylbert was a true giant in his field with six nominations for the likes of Chinatown, Shampoo, and Reds (the latter pair under the eye of Beatty as either producer, director, or both). His credits also include Frances and Carlito’s Way. In 1990, he also collaborated on Brian De Palma’s infamous adaptation of Bonfire of the Vanities. His twin brother Paul also worked in films, also as a production designer. He earned an Oscar for Beatty’s  1978 update of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, retitled Heaven Can Wait.

Mainly, Dick Tracy was deemed a failure, a misfire, because it wasn’t Batman. Hardly an unqualified disaster, its success paled in comparison to its super-hero predecessor’s colossal cultural impact. Did it ever occur to anyone that maybe marketing it as something it really wasn’t might have been a bad idea? Batman‘s effect was emphatically dark and majestically gloomy while Dick Tracy was colorful and comedic around the edges, practically a romp. A romp with sassy singing and dancing, to be specific.

No matter. In early 1991, Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg drafted a memo, more like a mission statement, leaked to the press almost instantaneously, in which he expressed disappointment that the company he loved so much, a once rock-solid brand, if you will, unmatchable in its ability to deliver quality product–on a thrifty budget–to a welcoming audience, had lost its way in pursuit of big stars and blockbuster mentality [5]. Katzenberg further notes that Disney was actually in last place among the big studios when he came aboard in 1984, the same year the Touchstone subsidiary launched, and was top of the heap six years later.  Of course, the point of Touchstone was to reposition the struggling studio (reeling from a series of expensive, not to mention confusing, duds) by expanding the Disney market beyond the familiar family-friendly fare and branching out to more sophisticated titles along the lines of Splash, Country, Three Men and a Baby, Good Morning, VietnamDead Poets Society, and Down and Out in Beverly Hills, the film that launched bawdy Bette Midler’s comeback–and her reign as one of the biggest box office draws of the mid-to-late 1980s.

Katzenberg directed much of his frustration at the relative success (or failure) of Dick Tracy in particular, making special note that three of the year’s biggest hits, Home Alone, Ghost, and Pretty Woman (the latter also from Disney’s Touchstone subsidiary), had seemingly come out of nowhere to capture the public’s imagination in a way that Dick Tracy had not. “The idea is king,” he infamously exclaimed. What does that mean, anyway? Not all ideas are created equally, but almost every movie ever made surely began with what someone somewhere thought was a good idea. Even a bad idea still qualifies as an idea, right? On the other hand, again, the finished product (Dick Tracy, that is) was less a problem than the expectations and hype that preceded it

Of course, Katzneberg’s memo also revealed his sometimes fuzzy logic; after all, I always wondered what Uncle Walt, Disney, that is, would have thought of super-successful Pretty Woman and its leggy hooker waving his company’s once family-friendly banner. Of the three movies Katzenberg fawned over, only Home Alone, the year’s biggest hit, came close to qualifying as a genuine surprise hit since it really didn’t boast a “name” cast though it still came from a big studio–20th Century Fox–and with the proven clout of the aforementioned money machine John Hughes as writer and producer. In many ways, kid friendly Home Alone also seemed more Disneyesque at the time than actual Disney product; moreover, 1990 also saw the creation of yet another Disney subsidiary, Hollywood Pictures which premiered with creepy-fx driven comedy Arachnophobia.

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Designer Richard Sylbert and his team transformed the Universal backlot into Warren Beatty’s vision of a city splashed with lots of reds and yellows.

The saga took another twist about a month after Katzenberg’s missive made headlines, and that occurred when Dick Tracy earned a healthy 7 Oscar nods, mostly in the technical categories though Al Pacino earned a spot among the Best Supporting Actor finalists for his boorish buffoonery. That strong showing also heralded a nomination for Stephen Sondheim. The film’s nominees extended to such luminaries as production designer Richard Sylbert (a winner for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in his sixth race), costumer Milena Canonero (already a two-time winner for Barry Lyndon and Chariots of Fire), and renown cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (3 for 3 with the Academy at the time: Apocalypse Now, Reds, and The Last Emperor).

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What Sylbert and his team could not create outright on the Universal lot, a crew of visual effects artists made possible with stylized matte paintings used as augmentation. Total Recall won the Visual Effects Oscar that year, reconfigured as a “Special Achievement Award” rather than competitive award due to that film’s for the times unparalleled technical triumphs.  IMAGE: A.V.

Come Oscar night, Dick Tracy triumphed in three categories: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Makeup, and Best Original Song. Madonna performed the latter during the telecast, seemingly battling a case of nerves while channeling the ghosts of Blonde Bombshells Past. In an Oscar race dominated by Kevin Costner’s wildly popular Dances with Wolves, in which Costner–in true Beatty style–starred, directed, and co-produced, Dick Tracy‘s full tally put it second in the final count, Costner’s film going 7 for 12. Backing up, Dick Tracy‘s seven nods tied with Godfather III for second place in the nominations account, again, second to only Dances with Wolves. Isn’t this an achievement worth celebrating in a deluxe DVD rather than ignoring, as is the case with the current shabby offering?

So what happened next?

Clearly, Katzenberg’s memo did nothing to endear him to Beatty, and, actually, Katzenberg was more or less relieved of his duties a few short years later. He has since gone on to co-found, with Stephen Spielberg and David Geffen, the popular Dreamworks SKG production outfit. Beatty, meanwhile, returned to fine form just the very next year with the lavish Bugsy, a slick biopic about notorious–and reportedly handsome–gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, including his exploits in Hollywood and Las Vegas, not the least of which involved an illicit fling with Hollywood starlet Virginia Hill (played in the film by Annette Bening, later Mrs. Warren Beatty; Hill was reportedly the model for the character Joan Crawford once played in The Damned Don’t Cry). In one noteworthy departure for multi-faceted Beatty, he turned the directing reins over to Rain Man‘s Oscar winner Barry Levinson.  Beatty’s last brush with Oscar was for co-writing 1998’s controversial political satire Bulworth, which, yes, he also directed, co-produced, and starred.

A number of years ago, I began looking for Dick Tracy on DVD. I found it in the bins at my local Movie Trading Company. Easy enough,  but the edition offered no extras. Nothing. Really? Every so often I would check there, and on Amazon, for updates. I was holding out for a big splashy edition, to no avail. To clarify, even the Blu-ray is reportedly no-frills. Finally, I broke down and bought the only copy I could find. I watched it once. Maybe twice. Then, just a few weeks ago, I turned on the TV, and the movie was playing, and right during one of Dustin Hoffman’s big scenes (as “Mumbles”), I happened upon an online article about a Criterion edition of what? Tootsie. Starring whom? Dustin Hoffman. Then, it hit me. Why not a Criterion edition of Dick Tracy, for cryin’ out loud? Okay, maybe not Criterion, but why not something, some edition with loads of extras, commemorating one of the most ambitious movies of its time? Believe me, I’ve seen movies far less successful with DVD bonus features. I’ve also been surprised by some of Criterion’s titles.

At first, I thought there must still be bad blood between Beatty and the Disney people. Surely that could be a major factor. Of course, since Beatty and Madonna’s relationship soon fizzled, perhaps neither feels compelled to rehash that particular moment in their lives for the sake of a DVD featurette. Just a thought. While researching this piece, I discovered an article about a lawsuit between Beatty and the Chester Gould estate, which Beatty ultimately won. Is that the reason for the shabby DVD? Part of the lawsuit involved a 2009 “Making of…” TV special hosted by Leonard Maltin, featuring Beatty in character as Tracy. The special can be found on YouTube, but it’s mostly an overly scripted snoozer. Don’t look to it for anything resembling depth.

No, we the fans are still waiting for an awesome DVD edition though, of course, some of the principals, such as Sylbert, are no longer with us. Meanwhile, 86 year old Stephen Sondheim likely does not have much time to spare. Still, am I the only one who longs to see and hear a mind-bogglingly talented group of actors and artisans reflect this many years later on the full intricacies of such a celebrated if misunderstood production?

Even so, I hang on to hope. After all, once upon a time, Beatty held hope of a lavish biopic based on the life of Howard Hughes. That project never happened. Indeed, he was beat to the punch by Martin Scorsese’s heralded The Aviator (2004) starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Still, we now know that Beatty’s upcoming Rules Don’t Apply, his first directorial effort since Bulworth, features him in a supporting role as no less than Hughes. Better late than never. I have also seen a few headlines lately in which Beatty hints that he’s considering a Dick Tracy sequel [6] . I don’t know how that might work, but if an update of the current DVD is part of the pre-release push, I’ll play along. Mr. Beatty, please take note.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Link redirects to July 4, 1989, archived New York Times article by Aljean Harmetz, “Batman Sets Sales Record: 100 Million in 10 Days”:

[2-3] Ebert’s review: New York Times review:

[4] Dick Tracy at Box Office Mojo:  Of course, context is everything. Contrast the 1990 numbers with those from 2015. In 1990, only two movies earned over 200 million, and one movie in the top 10 didn’t even break 100 mil, the difference between being a hit, even a runway hit, and a blockbuster. In 2015, not a single top 10 hit earned LESS than 200 million. Movie budgets have skyrocketed–we all know that–as have ticket prices, thereby accounting for today’s NEED for mammoth box office dollars…though, of course, we have ample evidence to suggest, as well, that increased ticket prices mask decline in the number of actual tickets sold…the latest Star Wars movie being an exception:

[5] This link redirects to the Letters of Note website and purports to include the full text of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s 1991 memo, or mission statement, in which he questions Disney’s involvement in Dick Tracy among other things. As an aside, this very memo reportedly served as writer-director Cameron Crowe’s inspiration for the “mission statement” that functions as the catalyst for Jerry Maguire’s career game-changer in the popular 1996 film:

[6] Variety item, dated April 13, 216,  describing new Hughes film, Gould lawsuit, and possible Dick Tracy sequel:


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