RICHARD DREYFUSS, WHO CHEWED up the scenery as Dick Cheney, branded Oliver Stone a “fascist” and likened making W. to “working for Sean Hannity.” An Arkansas TV-news reporter who did a blink-and-you-missed-it portrayal of Ann Coulter in the film was found beaten and stabbed after an apparent home invasion, setting off conspiracy theories about the movie. She later died of her injuries, deemed to have no connection to the film.
Liberals thought the movie too forgiving of Dubya and worried that it would make pro-GWB forces angrier, and thus help McCain’s chances at the polls. Conservatives considered it yet more Bush-bashing and worried it would muddy Bush’s legacy, and thus help Obama’s chances at the polls.
But when all was said and done, one of Hollywood’s most controversial directors making one of recent memory’s most controversial political pictures showed he’d lost his Midas touch. By its second weekend, W.’s domestic box-office grosses dropped like a stone. The QED International production distributed by Lionsgate sank 58 percent to No. 7 with a $5.3 million weekend from 2,050 theaters and new cumulative grosses of $18.7 million. The film, costing $30 million before marketing, should end up with $23 million domestic box-office gross by the end of its North American run. That means, with $25 million in promotion and advertising investment and Lionsgate’s distribution fees, the film won’t recoup.
There had been tremendous curiosity surrounding the George W. Bush biopic’s ability to make a buck, with predictions by experienced movie analysts ranging wildly from $5 million to $12 million. But it opened at No. 2, then dropped to No. 4 by weekend’s end with a $10.5 million debut.
The audience exit polling showed the anomaly of the film’s audience: 89 percent disapproved of Bush, 78 percent were voting for Obama, and a whopping 47 percent were over age 40. Only 27 percent felt the movie was better than expected, with 38 percent feeling it was not as good as expected, even among those who disapprove of Bush. Then again, 42 percent of the audience attended in hopes that the pic would make fun of Bush.
Blame the TV ad campaign emphasizing the script’s humor and leading moviegoers to expect a mockumentary when it wasn’t.
True, Hollywood never bets the farm on political fiction pics, because they usually don’t attract crowds. Small-budget Wag the Dog and Bullworth received a lot of attention but not a lot of business. Studio pic Primary Colors disappointed. Stone’s JFK was wildly successful, but his Nixon underperformed. None of these were biopics about a sitting president. But Lionsgate had experience with this kind of controversial film: It released Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 to a $24 million opening weekend from just 868 theaters, and an eventual worldwide $222 million. W. won’t be in that league.
While Bush-haters may have been disappointed, longtime Dubya-watcher The Dallas Morning News’ senior political writer Wayne Slater, who covered Bush’s gubernatorial elections and tenure in Austin and both his presidential runs, said in his review: “By taking real moments and reconfiguring them in artificial ways, Mr. Stone has created something Texans who saw Mr. Bush close-up will recognize as a remarkably accurate portrait,” Slater writes. “Too often, biopics take real people and turn them into caricatures. In W., Mr. Stone has taken the caricature and, quite unexpectedly, produced the real person.”
BUT, LIKE ALL OLIVER STONE films, tremendous rumors both real and unreal surround W. So I took it upon myself to answer them:
Why was the movie released right before the November election?
I learned that, despite what he said publicly, it was always Stone’s intent to show the pic before George W. left office. Stone has even blamed some of his investors for pushing for the pic to be released before the election. Insiders tell me that the “thought process” looked at every possible date right up until the new president’s inauguration, when Dubya leaves office. Three weeks before November 4 “was deemed the time of maximum interest,” a source confided. “The political course of the country would be foremost in people’s minds. And this movie could be part of that dialogue. So we decided that the timing would be best served now.”
How accurate is the movie about George W. Bush’s life and presidency?
Stone told the press that Stanley Weiser’s script based the movie primarily on materials in the public domain. But that only means that Stone, who’s notoriously cavalier about using exclusively reported material from books and then claiming it’s all public domain, didn’t bother to buy the movie rights from any of the nonfiction authors (which would have been the incredibly expensive but also legally proper thing to do).
Production insiders tell me that the key books used as sources for the screenplay and film were: Plan of Attack, Bush at War and State of Denial by journalist Bob Woodward; The Price of Loyalty and The One Percent Doctrine by the former senior national-affairs writer for The Wall Street Journal, Ron Suskind; The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty, by the queen of the unauthorized celebrity biography, Kitty Kelley; Fortunate Son, by paroled felon J.H. Hatfield (the book was eventually recalled by its first publisher and the author committed suicide); The Faith of George W. Bush, by former Washington Post feature writer and biographer Stephen Mansfield; Oil, Power and Empire, by the longtime correspondent for the communist newspaper Revolutionary Worker, Larry Everest; First Son, by University of Texas journalism professor Bill Minutaglio; A Charge to Keep, written under George W. Bush’s name by ghostwriter Michael Herskowitz; State of War, by New York Times intelligence-beat reporter James Risen; Hubris, by The Nation’s liberal columnist David Corn and Newsweek correspondent Michael Isikoff; and The Greatest Story Ever Sold, by New York Times liberal columnist Frank Rich.
Did Barbra Streisand have anything to do with the casting of her husband’s son, Josh Brolin?
Is the People’s Republic of China really an investor in the motion picture?
Karl Rove criticized W. as being financed by “suspect Chinese investors.” The truth is that the film’s U.S. producer, QED International, found financing and marketing money from companies in Switzerland, France, Germany, Australia and Hong Kong as well as the United States. Louisiana gave the film deep tax rebates and hefty financial incentives to shoot there.
But what Rove seems to be referring to is the involvement of the flamboyant and controversial Hong Kong businessman Albert Yeung Sau Shing, whose Emperor Entertainment Group began in 1986, well before Hong Kong transferred to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. (EEG was incorporated in 1999 and listed on the GEM of the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong in December 2000.)
It’s certainly correct to say that Yeung is a “suspect” character since he has been the target of several investigations by Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption for his alleged connections to Asian organized crime. He has been arrested, jailed, involved in a series of high-profile court cases spanning a 20-year period — but also cleared of crimes. Yeung says these charges stem from “jealous” enemies. But Yeung’s actual ties to the People’s Republic Of China are said to be no more and no less than those of most successful Hong Kong businessmen straddling the communist and capitalist worlds.
As America’s envoy to the People’s Republic during the Ford administration, Dubya’s father, George H.W. Bush, encouraged better relations between Beijing and Washington, D.C. And under Dubya, U.S.-China relations have been mostly friendly, and criticism over human rights mostly restrained. So it seems ridiculous for anyone to seize on some Oliver Stone–worthy conspiracy theory that the Communist government is out to “get” GWB through this movie.