Don’t Be A Dick (Tracy)?

Dick Tracy was a household hit if you were a kid in the ‘90s. Your parents wanted to see it because it had Al Pacino and Madonna. You wanted to see it because Tracy had a watch/phone, guns, and enough gangster-bad guys to plug the Batman (‘89)-sized hole in your cravings. 

Everybody was going to the theater. Or to Blockbuster in the months that followed. (And if you had HBO back then, I still ½ hate you and ½ think you’re some magical mix of rich AND cool). 

Unlike Batman however, Dick Tracy never resurfaced. No sequels. I always wondered why. 

As it turns out, the problem wasn’t with Dick Tracy the character, it was with Dick Tracy the actor, aka Warren Beatty.

Beatty ended up purchasing the rights to make the film in 1985. The names swirling around this – before and after he started – are pretty wild. Steven Spielberg and then John Landis almost  ended up as Directors, the Superman writers started the screenplay while the Top Gun guys finished the script, and Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford were considered for actors. 

Beatty ultimately took over though, Directing and starring in the movie, which looked straight out of the comic book itself. Old dudes were excited. Their kids were ecstatic.

Dick Tracy should have kept coming back for more and more, but it disappeared. 

And then in 2008,Warren Beatty appeared dressed as the character for an interview. Weird. 

Then, silence. 

In 2023, Beatty showed up again, with the topcoat and the hat and – he did it again! Weird Zoom interview this time. What in the actual f***… 

This time we found a reason. Maybe not exactly a good reason. But a reason, nonetheless:

Copyright laws. 

Legal stuff. Intellectual Property, with strings attached. The kind of stuff that sounds boring but really makes you worry about the state of art itself. 

When Beatty bought the rights back in 1985 from Tribune Media, he had lifetime use of the character, so long as he kept using the character for TV or film. But back in 2005, Beatty ended up taking Tribune to court over how much of a cut they’d take, if Beatty ever acted on it. 

Tribune went bankrupt. The lawsuit between Beatty and the now defunct company (and their legacy assets) took from 2005-2009. What stayed in force? Beatty’s lifetime ownership, so long as he honored the occasional TV or film appearances of the character. 

And Beatty did what any properly annoyed person would do. He went on TV. For $0 in revenue. In character. So I could google and then read about this. 

I don’t know what the real takeaway is here – but I’ll take this shot:

Art has a genuine cultural purpose and value. Art is here to make your friends feel something. If it’s really good, it can make more than your friends feel something too. It doesn’t have to be bigger than your friend-circle, but it can be. Big art can mean big feelings. 

Big art can also mean big money. The charade of stuff like this is a reminder that big art can also be devoid of meaning. Art can be reduced to a business transaction. And there’s another word for that: boring. 

It sucks for Dick Tracy the character. I don’t think Warren Beatty is being a d*** about not being able to be Dick, per se. But I do think nobody is making art with something iconic and that’s sad. 

Go make something for your friends today. Don’t be a d*** either. I’m pretty sure a court of law somewhere says you can’t anyway. 

Ps. If you’re curious, these are just so weird – and, bonus, the Siskel & Ebert review of the film is just pure nostalgia: