Although "A Stranger Among Us" posted a lukewarm opening last weekend, the movie, dubbed "Vitness" by the trades, represents a triumph of sorts. At one time, it was competing with seven other projects to be the first film since "The Chosen" (1981) to focus on the Hasidic Jewish community.
Even before last year's racial confrontations in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn brought national attention to the Hasidim, a number of prominent producers, including Sherry Lansing ("Fatal Attraction"), Robert Chartoff ("Rocky"), Michael Phillips ("The Sting") and Larry Gordon ("Die Hard") had zeroed in on the sect, hoping to match the success of "Witness," the 1985 hit involving a romance between a big-city cop and an Amish woman.
So similar in plot were some of the rival projects that Shlomo Schwartz, a Santa Monica-based Hasidic rabbi who served as a consultant to several of the filmmakers, said he had trouble telling the stories apart. Several were inspired by a series of murder-robberies of New York diamond brokers in the late 1970s.
Now all of the other projects are presumed dead--as feature films, at least.
"This is the irony," said Phillips, co-producer of "The Sting" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." "If ("A Stranger Among Us") does extremely well and I go around with mine, people will say, they've already seen it. If the movie does poorly, people won't buy it; they'll say, look at 'A Stranger Among Us.' "
Phillips said he let his option lapse on "The Jeweler," a screenplay about a Hasidic widow who breaks with tradition when she takes over her husband's business.
"Stranger," which underwent a name change from "Close to Eden" just before it was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May, stars Melanie Griffith as a daredevil New York policewoman who goes undercover to investigate a murder in Crown Heights and becomes infatuated with the rabbi's son, played by newcomer Eric Thal.
Producer Howard Rosenman, whose great-grandparents were Hasidim, said "Stranger" grew out of his own spiritual reawakening about a decade ago. He attributed the intense interest in the unlikely subject of the Hasidic community to similar impulses stemming from "disgust with the 'me-me' Reagan thing."
"Stranger" got out of the gate first, according to Rosenman, because Sidney Lumet wanted to direct it and was able to start production immediately. It was Disney's idea to cast "a blonde in a sea of bobbing black hats (as the policewoman)," Rosenman said. (Cher had been an earlier choice.)
Lansing said Alan Pakula was interested in directing her project, "Holy Men," but would have found himself four or five months behind Lumet. "We didn't want to be in a horse race," the producer added.
She said she has a deal with ABC to make a two-hour television version of "Holy Men," the story of a cop and lapsed Hasid who returns to the community to investigate his brother's murder and falls in love with the widow.
Michael Wise, who was developing "The Prince of 47th Street" with Chartoff, blamed TriStar Chairman Mike Medavoy for killing his picture. Wise said Billy Crystal, who had not yet starred in last summer's hit "City Slickers," had agreed to play the lead role of a Hasid who disguises himself as an Italian jeweler in order to investigate a friend's murder. "Medavoy decided he wasn't a big-enough star," according to Wise.
Medavoy said through a spokesman that he did not green-light the picture because the screenplay was not in shape and Crystal had not in fact agreed to do it.