The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Have the film gods put a curse on 'Shakespeare in Love's' John Madden?

October 15, 2010 | 12:06 pm

John_madden I'm sure John Madden was just as surprised as the rest of us when after spending nearly two decades as a TV director in England he catapulted to Hollywood fame and fortune in 1998 with "Shakespeare in Love," which won seven Oscars, including best picture, and made more than $100 million in the U.S. alone. And now, I suspect, Madden is just as surprised -- and probably dispirited -- to see that the last two movies he's made in Hollywood have been thrown in the showbiz dumper.

As my colleagues recently reported, Disney has dumped Madden's latest film, "The Debt," a Miramax-backed drama about the 1960s-era pursuit of a notorious Nazi war criminal; the movie has been pulled from the studio's release slate. It's just the latest in a series of disasters for Madden, who had been feted by studio chiefs and was deluged with scripts after his "Shakespeare in Love" triumph. Having his pick of movie stars to work with, he ended up making "Captain Corelli's Mandolin," with Nicolas Cage and Penélope Cruz, which was met by indifferent reviews and a modest $25 million take in U.S. boxo ffice. His next film, the star-studded drama "Proof," was originally set for a 2004 holiday awards-season release, but was bumped from the Miramax slate when the Weinstein brothers, then running the company, opted to focus their Oscar efforts on "The Aviator."

Even though "Proof" featured a cast that included Anthony Hopkins, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jake Gyllenhaal, the movie, when it was finally released in late 2005, earned only $7.5 million at the box office. Madden's next film, "Killshot," a thriller made for the Weinstein Co. starring Diane Lane, Thomas Jane and Mickey Rourke, suffered the worst fate of all. It was filmed in late 2005 but remained on the shelf until January 2009, when, after the Weinsteins were unable to sell off the picture, it was given a stealth five-screen release. The film only grossed $17,000, less than what it costs most studios to cater a premiere party.

So what happened to Madden? Did he lose his touch? Or was he simply out of his element in Hollywood, especially today's Hollywood, which has little interest in the kind of classy, upscale dramas that Madden seems best suited to direct. "Proof" had its moments, but "Killshot," by almost all accounts, was unreleasable, while "Captain Corelli's Mandolin," was sabotaged by an uneven Cage performance. I haven't seen "The Debt," but when it played the recent Toronto International Film Festival, Variety called it an engaging but conventional thriller, which was hardly a compliment.

Even with a cast that includes Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson, "The Debt" seems destined to have problems finding an audience outside of the rarefied speciality film circuit. That surely means it has no future at Disney, which is in the thrall of creating instantly identifiable branded entertainment (Hollywood code for easily marketable franchise pictures). If I were John Madden, I'd head back home and spare myself any more Hollywood agony. As in America now, there is a ton of great television drama being made in England, which is loaded with terrific theater actors, all eager to work in front of the cameras. Madden should put out his shingle and never look back.

Photo: John Madden at a premiere for "The Debt" last month at the Toronto International Film Festival. Credit: Jason Merritt /Getty Images