One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 97
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
Three weeks ago, on August 1, Warner Bros. Discovery announced that it was “shelving” the release of Batgirl, a $90 million film adaptation of the famed DC Comics character. The shelving of the movie, or “canceling,” to use a buzzier term, means that it will not premiere on any of the studio’s platforms—neither theatrically nor on its leading streamer HBO Max.
The powers that be at Warner Bros. Discovery, the media and entertainment conglomerate that was formed as a result of the merger of Discovery, Inc., and WarnerMedia in April, announced their decision as Batgirl directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah were nearing the end of post-production work on the film.
Batgirl stars rising talent Leslie Grace in what is (was?) her second movie, following a turn in the critically acclaimed 2021 film version of In The Heights, Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Broadway musical. The film also features J.K. Simmons, Brendan Fraser and Michael Keaton, who reprises his role of Batman, whom he last played in 1992’s Batman Returns.
Reportedly, Warner Bros. Discovery was dubious about a costly theatrical rollout for the nearly finished $90 million film, and equally unsure about a streaming release due to the crowded streaming landscape. Canceling any kind of release of the film and taking a tax write-down might be the best way to recoup costs, or so the studio is probably thinking.
Hollywood was abuzz over the announcement, with studio insiders claiming that the decision to cancel Batgirl was not driven by the quality of the film or the commitment of its creative team, but rather the studio’s goal to create DC Comics features on a blockbuster scale. Initially budgeted at $75 million and unofficially slated for release on streamer HBO Max (the budget shot up to $90 million due in part to Covid-related delays and protocols), Batgirl was never intended for a major global theatrical release, according to reports in the industry trade papers, and had turned into a bigger risk than they anticipated.
Whatever the initial intentions for the film may have been, the decision for the cancellation appears to be primarily driven by business reasons rather than creative or quality factors. A number of theories have been floated, and just as many criticisms leveled.
The fall of Batgirl is as high-profile a shelving as I’ve seen in decades, but it pales next to 1972’s The Day the Clown Cried, the Holy Grail of shelved films as it is one of the only ones that movie connoisseurs have been clamoring to get a glimpse of for nearly five decades. The unreleased Swedish-French co-production directed by and starring actor/comedian Jerry Lewis tells the story of a washed-up German circus clown during World War II who is imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he is ultimately used by the camp’s commandant to assist in leading Jewish children to their deaths in the gas chamber.
Principal photography for this truly bizarre Holocaust drama began in the summer of 1972, but the producers ran out of money before completing the film. Other rights and payment problems quickly emerged and Lewis eventually ended up paying the production costs to finish shooting the film with $2 million of his own money. But threats of lawsuits, breach of contract accusations and other legal complexities overtook everything, leading Lewis to grab a rough cut of the film (the studio retained the entire film negative) to ensure that it wouldn’t be lost.
Though Lewis, who died in 2017, initially vowed the film would be released in America after it was edited and then shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May, 1973, his opinion reportedly changed after he saw the finished product
"I was ashamed of the work, and I was grateful that I had the power to contain it all, and never let anyone see it,” Lewis stated in a 2013 online Q&A published on Yahoo. “It was bad, bad, bad…"
But even though Lewis insisted that The Day the Clown Cried would never be released, he later donated an incomplete copy of the film to the Library of Congress in 2015 under the stipulation that it would not be released for 10 years (until June, 2024).
Stills and snippets of the film have surfaced here and there over the years—the goodies always seem to pop up!—but the thought of seeing the title The Day the Clown Cried on a movie-house marquee in a couple of years would truly be shocking. Or maybe it’ll be on one of the streamers. HBO Max, perhaps, where it can share a double-bill with Batgirl if that shelfie ever sees the light of day.
Actor/comedian Harry Shearer claims to have seen a cut of The Day the Clown Cried in 1979 and wrote about it in 1992 in Spy magazine. What he had to say could be the final word on a film whose very name and plot description summons up unfathomable images.
“This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is,” he wrote. “’Oh My God—that’s all you can say.”
While the shelving of completed films or ones that are near completion is a rarity, it’s definitely more common to hear about releases being postponed or delayed for legal reasons. The pandemic has been the most common reason for a slew of postponements over the past two-and-a-half years, but Batgirl is the first fully-shot film to be shelved (for now) since the 2018 biographical drama Gore, a Netflix production starring Kevin Spacey as the writer Gore Vidal.
Gore was co-written and directed by veteran filmmaker Michael Hoffman (The Last Station, Soapdish) and as fate would have it, Spacey wrapped shooting on the film just a few weeks before first being accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the fall of 2017.
A month after those allegations were raised, Netflix severed its ties with Spacey completely, firing him from House of Cards, the hit Netflix series in which he starred, and dropping the all-but-completed Gore.
Adding a dash of unseemly humor to the situation, Gore reportedly contained scenes of Spacey’s Vidal attempting to seduce younger men and a graphic scene involving two transgender sex workers. Not the kind of material that would have helped matters, considering the sexual charges leveled at Spacey, which include four charges involving men.
Around the same time, a similar fate befell the release of 2017’s I Love You, Daddy, which was directed, written, and edited by its star, comedian Louis C.K. The movie was scheduled to be released in theaters on Friday, November 17. But on November 9, the New York Times published a story in which five women described incidents of C.K.’s sexual misconduct, one involving the comedian blockading woman in his room, taking off his clothing and then “performing” inappropriate actions on himself.
The very next day, film distributor The Orchard announced that it was canceling the release of C.K.’s new movie.
As with Gore, the subject of the movie undoubtedly played a role in The Orchard’s swift decision: I Love You, Daddy is about a New York writer-producer (C.K.) who grows concerned when his 17-year-old daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz), becomes romantically involved with a 68-eight-year-old filmmaker (John Malkovich), who also happens to be the father’s own idol.
While the film has sneaked its way out over the years via online torrent files, bootleg DVDs and underground screenings—and garnered generally positive reviews!—I Love You, Daddy has never officially been released. And it doesn’t look like it will be any time soon, though it was reported that C.K. purchased the film’s global distribution rights back from The Orchard a month after its shelving.
For her part, co-star Chloë Grace Moretz, who was 19 years old when she acted in the film, told Variety in 2018 that she thinks the movie should “just kind of go away.”
“I don’t think that it’s a perspective or a story that needs to be told in this day and age, especially in the wake of everything that’s come to light,” she added.
There have been a handful of similar film casualties over recent decades, primarily shelved for business reasons. Black Water Transit, a 2007 crime thriller directed by Tony Kaye (American History X), and the 2012 comedy Killing Winston Jones starring Richard Dreyfuss and Danny Glover are the two most notable examples.
Then again, just exactly how notable are such shelvings? There’s the obvious disappointment of the cast and crew involved in the canceled films’ production, which they were presumably paid for. But for audiences that weren’t anticipating these films—if they even knew of their existence—they are, sadly, collateral damage in a high-risk business.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.