Billy Wilder once observed that the best way to cast a gangster movie was to tour executive offices at the studios. That may be one reason he avoided the genre. Despite Wilder’s apprehensions, the two most anticipated 2019 releases — from Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, no less — harken back to that revered genre. As such, they may revive the question: Why did Hollywood all but abandon their mobsters?
Ironically, two newly published books that have nothing to do with the Scorsese and Tarantino movies remind us of the reasons: Gangster movies, it seems, began to hit too close to home. New nonfiction biographies of Johnny Rosselli and W.R. (Billy) Wilkerson provide vivid details of the scandalously close ties between the studio chiefs and organized crime from the 1930s through 1950s, and later. As such, they serve as intriguing context for the new entries.
Scorsese’s $200 million The Irishman, starring Bobby De Niro and Al Pacino, scans decades of gangsterdom, focusing on the murder of Jimmy Hoffa, while Tarantino’s ambitiously titled Once Upon a Time in Hollywood spotlights the criminal scene surrounding the Manson murders. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are the leads.
Filmgoers who admire “the classic gangster genre,” as the American Film Institute terms it, hope that both films may help resuscitate 1930s movies that reflect the noir energy of Scarface, Public Enemy and Little Caesar — films with vivid characters and riveting action. “Let’s be honest — violence is the most fun thing to watch,” Tarantino famously observed.
So, why did they fade away? One reason was that, for a protracted period of time, studio chiefs led by Columbia’s Harry Cohn and MGM’s Louis B. Mayer signed on as willing accomplices of the mob figures who had won control of key unions. The supposed objective was labor peace — for a price. Payoffs provided a generous living for gangsters like “Handsome Johnny” Rosselli, who with his Chicago allies orchestrated the treaty, with the help of Wilkerson, publisher of The Hollywood Reporter, who provided his own mob contacts as well as friendly press coverage. Wilkerson’s son, W.R. Wilkerson III, details this curious alliance in his candid and well researched book, Hollywood Godfather (the senior Wilkerson went on to promote the blacklisting of actors and writers while his competitor, Variety, of which I was later to become editor, published stories attacking those practices).
Nervous about their image in the ’30s, the studios fostered the infamous Hays Code aimed at sanitizing their film slates. Suddenly all movies had to provide that the “bad guys” be punished while officers of the law had to be portrayed as being of “decent character.” These and similar strictures effectively condemned most gangster films to the scrap heap. Meanwhile, homicidal characters like Longy Zwillman and Willie Bioff — real life gangsters — were roaming the studios and enjoying hefty paydays. Rosselli, who served time, actually scored a few producing deals, often retaining the famous fixer, Sidney Korshak, to represent him.
In later years, it was Korshak who also helped educate me about the continuing impact of the mob through the 1970s, when Paramount Pictures shocked the town by selling its Hollywood back lot to a Mafia front. At the same time, Mafia-funded movies like Deep Throat were becoming box office hits around the country. By then, Korshak, who once represented Al Capone, had cut his ties with the Chicago mob and re-invented himself as a major fixer in Hollywood. Korshak become a close friend of Robert Evans, with whom I was working, and helped orchestrate a deal effectively transferring the studio to new offices in Beverly Hills, even as the mob started shooting porn films on the old Paramount sound stages (mob control of the studio ended two years
later when Paramount resumed its ownership).
Sophisticated and well groomed, Korshak studiously distanced himself from any film projects involving gangsters, but he revered The Godfather, even attending its premiere, while avoiding photos with cast or executives.
Today’s corporate Hollywood does not need the help of the mob to sustain labor peace, and Billy Wilder would not find casting possibilities in its executive corridors. Mindful of government scrutiny, however, its executives continue to be wary of the dark money that now and then appears in slate deals and overseas alliances.
The possible happy ending: If the Scorsese and Tarantino movies prove successful, it’s likely that the gangster genre will again be resurrected to its important status on the filmmaking pyramid.