The film “Primary Colors” seemed destined for success.
Set to open March 20, the comedy-drama, based on the best seller by political columnist Joe Klein, casts John Travolta as a roguish and progressive southern governor with a roving eye for women, Emma Thompson as his powerful and ambitious wife, Billy Bob Thornton as a James Carville-like associate and Kathy Bates as a longtime aide who knows where all the bodies are buried. It was directed and produced by Mike Nichols and adapted by his former comedy partner, Elaine May.
The early signs on the film were strong. An audience at an early test screening in a theater in Ridgefield, N.J., gave the film very high marks. On the Internet, people who say they’ve seen the film have praised it lavishly. Universal Pictures, which has had an uneven year, was planning a high-profile and expensive marketing campaign to sell the movie, which cost at least $65 million to make.
Yet in the past week, Universal officials have almost - but not quite - been in the same crisis mode as those at the White House.
“We’re not changing our plans, we’re moving forward as we were before. We’re all proud and excited about this movie,” said Casey Silver, chairman of Universal Pictures.
But what deeply concerns Universal executives and Nichols - and what fascinates Hollywood - is the impact of the current White House crisis on a movie that has an almost eerie resemblance to real life. In fact, Travolta is made up to look and sound just like President Clinton. (Tom Hanks turned down the part, partly because he was friendly with Clinton and didn’t want to upset him.)
The movie itself is based on the 1995 roman a clef and best seller about Bill Clinton’s first campaign for president in 1992. Opinions in Hollywood vary about the impact of the current controversy on the film’s box-office success.
Asked what he would do if his company were about to release the expensive film, the head of one major studio replied: “I would hang myself.”
The executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “Movies are fantasy. You want to distance people from the real world. There’s no longer any mystery about a film where real life takes over. It becomes, I think, a curiosity and not a theatrical, stand-alone event.”
Marvin Antonowsky, a veteran studio marketing executive, said: “This is a tricky subject matter. Do people want to be reminded and confronted with what’s going on in real life? It’s dicey. What’s going on in Washington is embarrassing, and I don’t think you really want to be reminded of it.”
Nichols spoke cautiously, and hopefully, about the movie. The New York-based director, who is in Los Angeles to work on the music and sound mixing for the film, said that the novel captivated him.
“What I liked about it is it’s secretly Seinfeld, it’s about pals on the road during a campaign,” said Nichols. “That’s what I said to Elaine. For most of these characters it’s the happiest time of their lives and they don’t know about it until afterwards and they’re as alive as they’ll ever be.”
The novel depicts the Clinton character, whose name is Jack Stanton, as a charming and cynical politician with not only a compulsive hunger to win but a yearning to actually serve the needs of the nation.
Universal ran a commercial for “Primary Colors” on the Jan. 18 Golden Globes telecast, when studios promoted some of their films. In the commercial, the candidate faced difficulties with “a war thing, a drug thing and a woman thing.” There are references to allegations of a longtime affair.
And Thompson, as the candidate’s wife, is seen slapping his face. Travolta, sounding very much like Clinton, says: “I’m going to do something really outrageous. I’m going to tell the truth.”
Universal executives still have not decided how - or whether - to alter the film’s marketing, in view of the new allegations involving President Clinton.