‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’ Is the Tom Hanks Movie That Tom Hanks Would Like to Forget

Recently, the Oscar-winning legend admitted he hates some of his own films. He wouldn’t say which ones, but he’s never been shy about regretting starring in that 1990 debacle
‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’ Is the Tom Hanks Movie That Tom Hanks Would Like to Forget

In early May, Tom Hanks talked to The New Yorker’s David Remnick about his new book, The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece, in which he mentions that he dislikes the idea of people actively hating any movie. Remnick wondered why that bothered him. 

“Okay, let’s admit this: We all have seen movies that we hate,” Hanks responded. “I have been in some movies that I hate. You have seen some of my movies and you hate them.” Hanks went on to explain all the conditions that go into determining a film’s fate — including its box-office performance and reviews — but the one thing he wouldn’t reveal was what films of his he hates. It’s easy to speculate, although I should point out that some of his movies that bombed are ones he deeply loves. Still, anyone who’s followed his career and read his interviews knows that there’s definitely a certain film he regrets. And that’s the 1990 debacle The Bonfire of the Vanities. Hanks tends to be pretty politic about his misfires, but that one is an exception.

In the late 1980s, there were few books as big as The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s sprawling look at New York City, the Reagan era and the movers and shakers on Wall Street, whom he dubbed the Masters of the Universe. It was a novel about race and politics and the media, and it was a huge bestseller — the kind of book that seemed to speak to The Way We Live Today. Not surprisingly, Hollywood wanted to adapt it, eventually tapping Scarface and Carrie filmmaker Brian De Palma to direct. To play the drunken journalist Peter Fallow, Bruce Willis was cast — and to play Sherman McCoy, a shallow, mega-successful bond trader having an affair with sexy socialite Maria Ruskin (Melanie Griffith), who ends up running over a young Black man with her car, bringing his world down around him once the story becomes huge news, the studio went with Hanks. 

This was a moment in which Hanks’ star was on the rise. He’d earned his first Oscar nomination for Big while still starring in broader comedies like Turner & Hooch that were sizable hits. This was before he’d become a beloved American icon and was still trying to prove himself as a dramatic actor. In fact, when Hanks was initially approached to portray Sherman, he thought it was a joke. “He is a man with no soul, he has no heart and he is utterly lacking in moral fiber,” Hanks said at the time about Sherman. “Can you imagine anything sadder than that?”

But if the role was a bit of a stretch for the young funnyman, you could see what might have intrigued Hanks about taking it on. Of course Bonfire was an acclaimed literary masterpiece, but it was also a dark satire, which would allow Hanks to utilize his comedic chops. Plus, Sherman was the embodiment of the odious yuppie scum that ruled the 1980s — handsome and vacuous — while Hanks often embodied in his films a wholesome, slightly dim essence. Playing Sherman would be like weaponizing what was usually so charming and sweet about the genial star or Splash and Big. The character was the evil flip side of the Hanks that audiences had come to love — this performance would show his range. 

Slated for release during Christmas 1990, The Bonfire of the Vanities seemed well-positioned to be a major Oscar player that awards season. (The heavily-anticipated The Godfather Part III opened around the same time.) Everything should have been working to Bonfire’s advantage: It was helmed by a respected filmmaker, it was based on a super-hot novel, it was bolstered by Hanks’ inherent likability and Willis was fresh off of Die Hard. Warner Bros. had every reason to hope it had a commercial and critical smash on its hands. 

Instead, the film imploded. The reviews were absolutely poisonous, with critics attacking it for being cartoonish and shrill, rather than biting and insightful. The casting of Willis was roundly disparaged — the journalist in the novel had been British — but Hanks wasn’t spared, either. “(Hanks) has two typical expressions here: crafty cunning, and disbelief shading into horror,” Roger Ebert wrote in his negative review. “He is never really developed as a character we feel we know, and he seems to inhabit his lifestyle rather than possess it.” Hanks failed to capture Sherman’s greed and spiritual emptiness. He seemed more like the kid transformed into the adult in Big, struggling to fit in with the power players and sharks of Sherman’s milieu. 

Maybe it wasn’t entirely his fault. When Hanks was cast, the man most responsible for making it happen, Bonfire executive producer Peter Guber, liked the idea primarily because he wanted an actor who could make this loathsome Master of the Universe sympathetic — as opposed to in Wolfe’s book, where Sherman is a pathetic, mockable creature. Speaking to journalist Julie Salamon, whose book of the film’s disastrous making, The Devil’s Candy, became legendary, Gruber explained, “You look at this arrogant rich guy and you know that somewhere in his past he was a likable kid. Tom Hanks brings that to it. You’re waiting for him to fulfill your best expectations, not your worst expectations. So as he loses everything, he loses the arrogance, and you begin to think, ‘See, I was right!’” But that was entirely the wrong way to think of Sherman, and Hanks, at that early stage of his career, couldn’t yet walk the tricky line between amoral and compelling. 

The Bonfire of the Vanities tanked at the box office and received zero Oscar nominations. When Salamon’s scathing book came out the following year, it only further cemented the film’s infamy as an infamous turkey — and unlike other memorable bombs, such as Heaven’s Gate and Ishtar, no one has rushed to its defense in recent years. It’s a lumbering, tone-deaf, unfunny clunker, and Hanks knows it. Occasionally, he’s even shared his thoughts about it with the media.

In 2001, Hanks sat down for an interview with Oprah Winfrey, and Bonfire came up. Asked why he signed up for Sherman, Hanks admitted, “Because I was asked to — and back then, that was still a big deal. I thought I could bullshit my way through.” In the same interview, he declared it “one of the crappiest movies ever made! And yet if I hadn’t gone through that experience, I would have lost out on something valuable. … Bonfire taught me that I couldn't manufacture a core connection. … When I was playing Sherman McCoy, people stopped me on the street to say, ‘You’re not Sherman McCoy.’ I was like, ‘Oh, yeah?’ I was going contrary to everything about the character and even the screenplay, but I kept telling myself, ‘No, no, no — there’s a way I can get into this.’”

But Hanks never could. As opposed to, say, how Christian Bale channeled the greed and ugliness of the 1980s in his portrayal of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Hanks was all surface. There was no edge, no lethal menace underneath. Sure, Sherman wasn’t a sociopath like Patrick Bateman, but there was no killer instinct, either. Nobody comes off well in The Bonfire of the Vanities, but Hanks especially suffers. It remains one of his worst performances. 

Things would turn around for him soon: He’d rebound with A League of Their Own and the twin Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. But years later, he’ll still talk about what a nightmare Bonfire was. Recently, he lamented about the movie, “Everybody was miscast, me particularly.” One wonders if an older, savvier Hanks might have done a better job playing that Wall Street hot shot, but above all else, it was Sherman’s snide, entitled youthfulness that was part of his sick allure. It wasn’t just that men like him were destroying the country — it’s that they were so young and callow, too. That was never the sort of person that nice-guy Hanks was on screen, especially at that stage of his career. 

In Hanks’ talk with Remnick, he discusses different “Rubicons” that determine a movie’s legacy. And one of them, according to Hanks, is “the commercial performance of the film. Because, if it does not make money, your career will be toast sooner than you want it to be. That’s just the fact. That’s the business.” Luckily, The Bonfire of the Vanities’ commercial failure didn’t stall Hanks for too long. Interestingly, though, Bonfire actually comes up in their conversation: Remnick asks him why a film like that crashed and burned, while something like Saving Private Ryan worked. Do actors know in the middle of a shoot if they’ve got a dud on their hands?

“There’s no way to tell,” Hanks replied, “because the process is so slow. And so specific. You can only have faith and hope — and what’s bigger than faith and hope? You have to trust the entire process to collaborators who you hope are working at the absolute top of their game farther down the line.”

As The Devil’s Candy makes clear, maybe The Bonfire of the Vanities could have been a hit, but everything worked against it. The film was felled by bad casting, a bad approach to the material, probably the wrong director. (“(De Palma) is the most uncompromising filmmaker — both in a good way and a bad way — that you’ll ever come across,” Hanks said a couple years ago. “This is the guy who made Scarface. So his take on it was just one of those things.”) Hanks didn’t know he was making one of the worst films of his life — it just turned out that way. 

Resolutely cheery and optimistic, he doesn’t approve of the idea of hating movies. So let’s just say that Bonfire is obviously one of his films he likes the least. 

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