Welcome to Harvey’s Hellhole, a monthly column devoted to spotlighting the movies that were poorly marketed, mishandled, reshaped, neglected or just straight-up destroyed by Harvey Weinstein during his reign as one of the most powerful studio chiefs in Hollywood. Since September is Fashion Week season (and Vogue’s annual, mammoth September issue is currently on sale), let’s go back to when a legendary filmmaker and a gaggle of movie stars went to Paris to wreak havoc on the already-crazy fashion industry – on Weinstein’s dime!
The 1994 film Ready to Wear (Pret-a-Porter) is quite possibly the most ridiculous thing Robert Altman ever did – and, yes, I have seen Popeye. (Actually, Popeye was the first Altman I ever saw, but we’ll save that story for another time.)
At the time, the maverick director behind such subversive ‘70s masterworks as MASH, Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye was having a nice career resurgence. His savage, savvy 1992 adaptation of Michael Tolkin’s novel The Player, where he got Tim Robbins and a bunch of movie stars to join him in taking the piss outta Hollywood, was a much-buzzed-about hit, eventually receiving several Oscar nods, including Best Director. He followed that up a year later with Short Cuts, an acclaimed, all-star ensemble piece inspired by several Raymond Carver short stories.
After Cuts successfully played at Cannes, he hooked up with Harvey Weinstein and Miramax for his next project, which would be set in the fashion industry. It was an idea he toyed with ever since he and his wife caught a Paris fashion show while promoting his 1984 film Streamers. “I couldn’t believe what I saw,” he said in a 1994 interview. “It was such a circus. It was just too theatrical not to want to film.”
With an estimated $18 million budget, Altman rounded up another A-list cast: Julia Roberts, Sophia Loren, Kim Basinger, Lauren Bacall, Anouk Aimee, Tim Robbins, Marcello Mastroianni, Stephen Rea, Forest Whitaker, Rupert Everett. Altman and his cast would head to Paris, while various fashion designers showed off their spring collections. They all infiltrated the runway shows, with the cast playing characters intermingling with real designers, models, and other celebrities. Think Medium Cool – but with stylish clothes.
The shoot was unsurprisingly a grueling, guerilla affair. Altman was both quite ill and quite frustrated about not being able to understand these French folks. And although he and journalist-turned-screenwriter Barbara Shulgasser flew to Paris during its 1992 Fashion Week to come up with a story, there wasn’t a shooting script. Not only that, Danny Aiello, who played a cross-dressing department-store buyer, was pissing off everyone, mostly getting into it with Bacall and Everett. (However, he was quite sycophantic with Mastroianni.)
Of course, the fashion industry was worried, fearing they would get dragged the same way the film industry did in Player. Karl Lagerfeld, Anna Wintour and Women’s Wear Daily publisher John Fairchild were some of the powerful people who snubbed the production. (“These people are just paranoid,” Altman told the Los Angeles Times in 1994.) More controversy awaited in the weeks leading up to its Christmas Day release (when it would play 1,000 screens – the widest release for an Altman film at the time). Miramax, which previously changed the film’s title to Ready to Wear since the original Pret-a-Porter was deemed too French for U.S. audiences, went back and forth with the MPAA. They were threatening to revoke Ready’s R rating if film-related advertising featuring a semi-nude Helena Christensen would continue to be used. (The threat was later withdrawn when Miramax won MPAA approval for a revised ad.)
While the industry wasn’t completely eviscerated in Ready, it was portrayed as a business filled with horny, petulant assholes. More of a screwball, bedroom farce than a cutthroat satire, Ready has a gallery of characters either getting into trouble or someone’s pants in the City of Light. Mastroianni plays a mysterious figure who comes to town, hoping to win back an old flame (Loren), but goes on the lam after his flame’s husband (Jean-Pierre Cassel) accidentally dies in his presence. (This whole subplot seemed to be an excuse for Altman to not only work with Italian screen legends Loren and Mastroianni, but to recreate the iconic striptease scene from Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.)
Elsewhere in this universe, Roberts and Robbins play two ugly-American journalists who spend most of the time fighting and boffing in a hotel room; Rea is a rock-star photographer who continually humiliates a trio of rival fashion editors (Linda Hunt, Sally Kellerman, Tracey Ullman) all angling to work with him; Aimee is an aging designer with a scheming, philandering son (Everett), who’s secretly conspiring with a bootmaking pair (Bacall, Lyle Lovett); and Whitaker is a gay designer wrapped up in a wild love quadrangle with another designer (Richard E. Grant) and their significant others. All the while, Basinger’s airhead TV reporter is around trying to get on-the-spot interviews with everyone. (Chiara Mastroianni, Marcello’s daughter, plays her long-suffering assistant.)
It got scathing reviews from critics in both the film and fashion worlds after its release. USA Today fashion reporter Elizabeth Snead said it was a “mix of misogynist, sexist, Francophobic and homophobic barbs with no humorous insight into the industry,” while Time film critic Richard Corliss called it “a hate letter” to the industry. Although Altman has said that Ready is a valentine to fashion, even the most style-ignorant person (like the person currently writing this) can see how Altman paints the fashion world in broad, condescending strokes. From his perspective, it’s less about clothes and more about chaos. By the time he reaches the grand finale, a predictably pretentious nod to The Emperor’s New Clothes where Aimee’s fed-up fashionista puts on an all-nude fashion show that everybody in the crowd eats up, it’s quite clear that Altman views all of this as trivial, very expensive, very decadent nonsense.
After Ready, Altman (who died in 2006) went back to making films on a smaller, less extravagant scale. (Weinstein and Paul Newman once hollered at him about making a movie “about a bear,” but left the project when they wanted to take the film to Canada to save $2 million.) Since it’s been recently reported that Ready will be one of several Miramax titles that might get remade as a TV show, there’s a strong possibility that there will be some Hollywood stars in Paris soon, once again starting some silly, snooty, sophisticated shit for the cameras.
Ready to Wear (Pret-a-Porter) is streaming on Kanopy and Pluto TV. It’s also available to rent or buy.