Oscar nominations will be announced in February. But that we already know: None of this year’s nominees come close to being one of the best films ever made. None even come close to the scale and breadth of a movie called “The Godfather”.
It might just be the perfect movie to watch, in front of a roaring fire, during a holiday season now threatened by yet another variant of COVID-19. And the perfect companion for that may be reading a colorful new book that tells you everything you thought you knew about the making of “The Godfather” but didn’t.
Author Mark Seal won a coveted Publishers Weekly “Star” for the book, whose title comes from one of the film’s best lines, “Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli.”
Publishers Weekly praises the book for being full of “enthralling portraits”, revealing details and “fascinating pieces for the fans to savor.”
It’s intoxicating for Seal, 68, a likable Alabamian who spent 26 years in Dallas before embracing the Mafia – at least as a subject.
It’s a story in itself, how a son from the South got involved in the Italian criminal underground and lived to talk about it. So many miles had to be covered, so many cannoli had to be eaten, before Seal’s effort turned into a beautiful hardcover book, published by Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.
“I was in freshman year of college when I saw the movie during spring break in 1972 in Memphis. I felt like a kid when I walked in and an adult when I walked out.” Seal says. “I had never seen such a world before. It was so foreign to me. I loved the movie and like everyone else, I became obsessed with it. to be part of this family, of this whole world.
Seal’s family moved from Alabama to Corpus Christi, Texas when he was 10 years old. His parents divorced, and he ended up graduating from high school in Memphis before earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee.
He started out as a police reporter in Austin, Texas and Houston – he admits to feeling drawn to real crime in part because of the influence of “The Godfather” – and in 1979 he arrived at the Dallas Morning News , where for nearly five years he specialized in storytelling journalism for what was then his Sunday magazine. Its literary agent, Jan Miller, is based in Dallas.
He left The News to become a nomadic freelance writer, whose signature began to appear in Vanity Fair, for which he wrote stories about “the brutal murder of Joan Root”, a pioneering naturalist and environmentalist; a con artist by the name of Christian Gerhartsreiter, who falsely claimed to be from the Rockefeller dynasty; and a “mysteriously disfigured” socialite named Carolyn Mary Skelly, who once lived in the Turtle Creek mansion and who has become, in Seal’s words, “one of the world’s leading victims of diamond jewelry theft.”
By 2008, Seal had become associate editor of Vanity Fair, which commissioned him to write a story about the making of “The Godfather,” whose 50th anniversary comes in March. Feeling like the college boy again marveling at the movie classic flashing in front of him, Seal was elated.
He started by going to the Beverly Hills mansion of Paramount studio director Robert Evans, who as soon as he met the young writer asked him to go to bed.
“What?” Seal dropped.
As it turned out, the fire had consumed Evans’ famous screening room in 2003, and since then he and his friends had been relegated to watching movies from where he slept and doing other things.
“So I went to bed with Robert Evans,” Seal writes, “to hear the story of the movie that both made and destroyed him.”
Evans died in 2019, and author Mario Puzo, whose novel spawned the trilogy that became the “The Godfather” films, died a decade earlier. But the blessing of the Vanity Fair article is that, due to the legwork it required, it spawned an almost 400-page book 13 years later. Seal has conducted nearly 100 interviews just for the book.
As author Nick Pileggi, who has written extensively on the Mafia, on the back cover of “Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli”: “Mark Seal’s beguiling book on the creation of The Godfather – often featuring the help of men about – could be a movie itself. He couldn’t have approached it and lived to type about it.
The enigmatic Evans was a good place to start. As the New York Times once proclaimed in a headline, “’The Godfather’ was a huge risk. Robert Evans said yes anyway. Evans took the huge step of giving the green light to a project which resulted in a fact he shared with Seal: “” The Godfather “did more business in six months than” Gone with the Wind “in 36 years.”
And yet, the fallacy of some of his vows defies the imagination. On several occasions, Evans lobbied for Robert Redford or even Love Story star Ryan O’Neal to play Michael Corleone, whose portrayal won Al Pacino an Oscar nomination.
In what would have been Paramount’s biggest potential mistake, Evans and others at the studio initially objected to Coppola’s desire to have an aging Marlon Brando play the title role. At one point, Evans suggested that Ernest Borgnine, the star of a 1960s sitcom called “McHale’s Navy,” would be better than Don Vito Corleone.
In Seal’s words, the motivated but tormented Coppola “saw the movie he wanted to make from the start”, with the cast at the heart of his vision. For the role of Michael, Coppola wanted the then-actor Pacino, and Brando as their godfather, although the studio believes, in Seal’s words, that the best Oscar-winning actor for the 1955 triumph “On the Waterfront” was. “a wash-up has been” at 47.
In fact, “The Godfather” narrowly escaped the same sort of near misses that followed the 1967 film “The Graduate” which, instead of having Anne Bancroft in an Oscar nominated performance and Dustin Hoffman as a graduate she is having an affair with, flirted with Doris Day and Redford to star.
The details Seal uncovers make his book a fun read, as does his wide array of profiles, which in this case are as rich as cannoli.
To wit: Coppola was in dire need of funds for his San Francisco studio, which was one of the main reasons he accepted the position; The beauty of Puzo having released “The Godfather” in the first place, and then raised to what many consider the best film ever to be made, is the story of a miracle. That and that alone has allowed her to wipe out a mountain of debt accumulated over a life of wild, dangerous and addicting gambling.
And then, of course, there’s the force that makes “Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli” such a page turner: the Mafia itself. The book takes a deep dive into the spooky world of La Cosa Nostra, which Seal learned a lot about, among others, from singer Al Martino, who plays a facsimile of Frank Sinatra in “The Godfather”.
“Hollywood’s greatest Mafia movie,” Seal writes, “seemed to have been produced in some way in tandem with the Mafia, as the Mafia capos went to war with the tough guys in the movie world. , in some cases swapping places, the mobsters as actors, the filmmakers as fixers.
He qualifies the influence of the real Mafia as “substantial” in the making of “The Godfather”. Seal himself was not spared. Years after doing the play for Vanity Fair, he was taken to “a secret reunion” with Anthony Colombo, the son of Joseph Colombo Sr., who “was allegedly the powerful leader of one of the organized crime families. in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s.
Which was nothing compared to what the filmmakers went through.
Before filming began on “The Godfather”, the film’s producer, Al Ruddy, was under threat. Constantly. He and his staff would “swap cars,” Seal said, to avoid being followed. One night, his assistant parked Ruddy’s car in front of his house, only to hear gunshots explode the windshield, with an attached note “saying they didn’t want the movie made”.
And that, says the author, “was only the beginning”.
Coppola wanted to shoot, not in the Midwest, as his bosses fervently hoped he would keep costs as low as possible, but in New York City, where the Mafia headquarters were located.
Soon Ruddy was forced to meet Anthony Colombo, leader of the Italian-American Civil Rights League, who, as Seal put it, was fiercely fighting the “stereotyping of Italo-Americans in popular culture.” And move on.
Ruddy needed to keep the Mafia at bay. The prime locations were refused. The truck drivers threatened a work stoppage. There have been bomb threats.
So Ruddy made a proposal that sounded a bit like a Hail Mary. By agreeing to omit the single word “Mafia” from any “Godfather” script, Colombo was satisfied. “A suppression,” Seal says, “led to a world of cooperation. From that point on, the doors opened.
And then, a new surprise: real life mobsters almost demanded to be picked.
At the center of it all was Coppola, who badly needed a break. Coppola was initially skeptical that Puzo’s novel would become anything more than a fringe film. A breakthrough came when the director finally began to see it as the saga of a king and his sons, a Shakespearean family story, which Seal says gave her the magic she needed.
Even so, moments after his release, Coppola felt less like a potential Oscar winner and more like a doomed failure. It wasn’t until his wife called him in Paris, where he had traveled to write the screenplay for another Evans-Paramount film, “The Great Gatsby,” that he began to see what’s fast. became evident – that he had created something great. His wife told him that in New York alone, people were lining up around the block, demanding to see his movie.
With an estimated budget of $ 6 million, a film once feared to be an economic mess now has a worldwide gross of around $ 250 million. Nominated for 11 Oscars, he won three: best film, best actor (Brando) and best adapted screenplay (Puzo and Coppola).
“I think it’s the best picture ever,” says Seal, “and it wouldn’t have been what it is without Francis Ford Coppola.”
“Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli” also wouldn’t have become the reading it has become without the kid from the South learning to love crime stories – just by living in Dallas.
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