Voting for Best Picture is an engaging exercise — except during those years when there is no clear best picture. Talk to Oscar voters (I am one) and you get the feeling that this is one of those years. Today’s Academy Award nominations and the maelstrom of guild and globes reflect a study in mixed signals. The Best Picture race is wide open.
“If only there were a Godfather to vote for,” one friend confided last week. Well, there isn’t a Godfather. As luck would have it however, there are lots Godfather scripts – that is, scripts about The Godfather. Over the last few weeks, in fact, I have read four new scripts about the making of The Godfather. And while a couple were really good, I doubt that any will be made. Or should be.
It’s tough to make a movie but it’s even tougher to make a movie about the making of a movie. Especially The Godfather. The 1972 film, which won Best Picture, has become a myth as much as a movie. There have been a myriad of books and articles dealing with the exotic characters who were present at its creation and the chaotic conditions that prevailed. How could a great movie have emerged from the chaos, they ask?
An interesting question, but would it make a movie? And who would be cast in it? The mind boggles at an actor depicting Francis Coppola. Or Bob Evans. And trying to play someone as idiosyncratic as Brando, in one of his most iconic roles, might be a career-ender.
Of course, several “making of” movies have survived this obstacle course — Saving Mr. Banks about Mary Poppins, Hitchcock about Psycho, and White Hunter, Black Heart, about John Huston’s The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. But I’ve always had trouble watching actors portraying real people, like John Wayne in Trumbo or even Tom Hanks as Walt Disney in Mr. Banks. I was lucky enough to have met John Wayne and Walt Disney — distinctive characters whose screen depictions seemed pale by comparison. And the principals in The Godfather are still alive. Even me!
Intriguingly, all four Godfather scripts are framed as dark comedies along the lines of The Big Short. But was the actual production of the movie that funny? There were comic episodes, to be sure. The Mafia’s protestations were somewhat laughable. as producer Al Ruddy can attest. They demanded to read the script but acknowledged they couldn’t read. They insisted references to ‘the mafia’ be removed, but there weren’t any such references.
Further, the shrill opposition from corporate players at Gulf & Western (Paramount’s parent company) to the casting of Brando and Al Pacino was preposterous in retrospect, but not inconsistent with what went on at other studios. Charlie Bluhdorn, the G & W chairman, tended to yell a lot, but not all the time (OK, almost all the time). The famous fights over final cut between Evans and Coppola were absurdly melodramatic and over publicized – battles like that still take place all the time between studio chiefs and filmmakers. The efforts of Burt Lancaster, Dino De Laurentiis and others to buy the book after it became a bestseller were intense – perhaps overzealous — but they never took the form of threats, as suggested in two scripts.
But here’s the basic contradiction: the players in these scripts come off as frivolous losers. The people who set about to make The Godfather were dead serious about their work and zealous about its success. The Bob Evans of 1970 was a dedicated and fiercely ambitious young man who was eager to frame himself as an executive, not an ex-actor. Coppola, like the other players, was disciplined and prepared, as was a young and very professional Robert Duvall, who did much to keep Brando and the other cast members in line.
So from the perspective of history, the movie was like any other movie – with a surreal subtext. When Paramount bought the book, it was based on the 60 pages of text and an outline submitted by Mario Puzo, long before it exploded into an international bestselling novel. What began as a quiet, modestly budgeted under-the-radar movie transformed into a cause celebre. And everyone involved in the film became bigger than life. Even the studio.
Hence the dilemma for screenwriters writing about The Godfather: Every character in the scripts is portrayed as who he was to become, not who he was. And me? I’m OK with my portrayal. Except, reading about myself always instills in me the suspicion that I am no longer around. Now that’s black comedy.
What none of the wannabe ‘comedies” about The Godfather mentioned was this bit of nasty business: While Bluhdorn was yelling about the Mafia’s intrusion, he was in real life negotiating with a Mafia front to sell Paramount’s physical lot. The deal went through, but was abrogated within a year.