Mostly the news seemed typical for a day in this city. A taxi driver had been shot--the latest in a string of cabbie shootings and murders in the Bronx. Also, a policeman had been wounded as he and a suspect exchanged gunfire on a Bronx street.
But the really big news--the buzz that landed on Page One last Thursday--was that the highest elected official in the Bronx was screaming bloody murder. His beef? The movie version of Tom Wolfe's best-selling novel "The Bonfire of the Vanities," currently filming in New York locations. Borough President Fernando Ferrer claimed that the movie will give his hometown a bad image because it depicts the northern-most section of New York as a place of fear, crime and murder. "Bronx bashing," he called it.
His comments made the headlines. "Bronx Cheer for 'Bonfire,' " shouted the New York Post. "Bronx Burns over 'Bonfire,' " read the Daily News banner. The more sedate New York Times described the entire debate as "a bonfire of inanities."
The Warner Bros.-distributed film, starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Melanie Griffith, is based on the novel that searingly pierces the high life and low life of New York. Director Brian De Palma may have filmed only two days on Bronx locations last week (Monday and Tuesday), but those two days generated enough publicity for 10 motion pictures. Put briefly, the Bronx-generated bonfire had become the right stuff for, well, a Tom Wolfe novel.
"Bonfire" contrasts New York's wealthy, extravagant Wall Streeters with the city's legions of poor, homeless and otherwise down-and-out. Hanks' protagonist "Master of the Universe" broker Sherman McCoy confronts the dangerous side of the Bronx one night when he is involved in a traffic accident there.
Until last week "Bonfire" had been shooting under secrecy at the Astoria Studios complex in Queens. But when production moved to the Bronx, the young, politically ambitious Ferrer--widely regarded here as a potential candidate for mayor of New York--came out swinging against the movie. Ferrer wanted the film, slated for a December release, to carry a seven-line disclaimer over scenes showing some positive aspects of life in the Bronx.
On Monday, however, Warner Bros. and the film's co-producer, Fred C. Caruso, said they had rejected Ferrer's demand, but offered instead an altered disclaimer. The wording they suggested reads: "This motion picture is a work of fiction and is not intended to reflect actual events or conditions in the localities portrayed."
The Warner statement followed one by New York Mayor David Dinkins. He acknowledged Ferrer's right to voice his opinion but drew the distinction that it doesn't reflect the city's. "I have conveyed to him my concern for his attempt to interfere with the project," Dinkins said. "The city would never consider requesting a painter, author or playwright to alter or to add to an artistic creation. Filmmaking is no different."
A spokesman for Ferrer said the president's office "never expected the filmmakers to budge. We knew all along that once they were ready to leave town, they'd drop it." The spokesman said that the wording remains substantially the same as what Warners offered last week and it is still "unacceptable."
As for Wolfe himself, his representatives were telling the press on Monday that he had no comment for the moment and that he had not read the screenplay of his book.
When Ferrer first issued his demand for a disclaimer last Tuesday, he had a built-in audience. The media were already at the vintage 1933 Bronx County Courthouse, where Ferrer's offices are, to observe the shooting of exterior scenes and catch glimpses of the stars.
Ferrer told the local press that he had a big problem with the script he had been given to read. He charged that "Bonfire," in several scenes, "goes out of its way to denigrate the Bronx . . . using what I believe is racially explosive language."
"Bonfire" co-producer Caruso disputed Ferrer's claims that the movie singled out the Bronx, saying he and De Palma are making a film "about real life in New York City." He further likened Ferrer's "demands" to "those of a terrorist."
Caruso, who had met with Ferrer twice last week, said the two are still on speaking terms even though Caruso said he rejected as "unacceptable" the disclaimer showing scenes of the Bronx. "I even thanked him for the publicity," Caruso added.
Among the topics at the two meetings was a reported $10,000 donation that both sides deny suggesting. Jaynne Keyes, the director of the Mayor's Office for Film, Theater and Broadcasting, said the idea appeared to come from a Ferrer aide and was intended as one way that Warner Bros. might assist a worthy cause in the Bronx. Ferrer later rejected the money, saying that his "silence can't be bought."
In an interview with The Times at his office, Ferrer said, "I'm not saying, 'don't tell your story.' But it's not unreasonable to ask for 10 seconds at the end of the movie." Ferrer cited as an example the 1981 20th Century Fox film "Fort Apache--The Bronx," in which a disclaimer was inserted at the film's beginning, following a public outcry by residents of the borough over the violent images in the film.
Meanwhile, outside Ferrer's office, the mix of people who populate the Bronx were going about their business. Gone were the stars and the movie crews. Gone was the media attention--but only for a while. The filmmakers say they are coming back to the Bronx for about five nights of shooting in mid-May.
Just to the west of the county courthouse stands Yankee Stadium and in the foreground is Lou Gehrig Plaza, a.k.a. the courthouse parking lot. The turf may be public but it "belongs" to lanky,street-wise Derrick Phipps, who freely accepts money from potential parkers in exchangefor feeding the parking meters all day.
When the "Bonfire" cast and crew arrived to shoot in the plaza, they nearly put Phipps out of business for two days. But he was hired by the filmmakers to run errands. "It was OK, man. Except," he added, "I ended up losing money."