January 14, 2022

EVERYONE'S A CRITIC:

The Making of "The Godfather"--Sort of a Home Movie (Nicholas Pileggi, August 15, 1971, The New York Times Magazine)

As was his custom before the drive home from work with his son, the old man walked across the narrow, tenement‐lined street in Manhattan's Little Italy to buy some fresh fruit. The grocer, who had known him for many years, helped the old man sort out some prize oranges and, as a gift, handed him a perfectly ripened, home‐grown fig. The old man smiled, accepted the backyard offering with a slight nod and started toward his car. It was then that he spotted two gunmen.

He called out to his son and began to sprint toward the safety of his car with surprising speed for a man of his age, but the gunmen were too quick. As they opened fire, the old man seemed caught in a great leap, suspended momentarily in the air, his arms thrown protectively around his head. Loud shots hammered through the street, bright oranges rolled across the gray pavement and the old man crashed onto the fender of his car and collapsed. The people of Mott Street watched in silence from tenement windows, fire escapes and rooftops as the gunmen slipped away. Then, to spontaneous applause, the grim street tableau came to life, and the old man--the godfather, Marlon Brando--lifted himself slowly from the ground, smiled at the cheering crowd and bowed.

At 11 o'clock on April 12, just as Brando was getting shot on Mott Street, Carlo Gambino, one of New York's real godfathers, sat around the corner in a Grand Street cafe, sipping black coffee from a glass and holding 18th‐century Sicilian court in 20th‐century New York. He had arrived moments earlier in the company of his brother, Paul, and five bodyguards. It was his custom, as well as his duty as head of a Mafia family, to hear at regular intervals the endless woes of racketeers, dishonored fathers and deportable husbands. They were ushered before him, one at a time, from a waiting area in a restaurant across the street. He was the final judge to people still willing to accept his decisions as law.

Back on Mott Street, two Mafiosi assigned to observe the movie production were unaware of his arrival. For hours, they had been watching Brando getting shot. They had had innumerable cups of coffee and had adjusted their open‐throat, hand ironed shirts so often that their collars had begun to wilt. Neither of them had been impressed when they heard Brando was to play the godfather, so they watched his performance critically. They volunteered to grips, cameramen and extras that they would have preferred Ernest Borgnine or Anthony Quinn.

"A man of that stature," one of them said, pointing to Brando, "would never wear a hat like that. They never pinched them in the front like that. Italian block, that's the way they wore them, Italian block."

They did not like Brando's wearing his belt below his trouser loops, either.

"He makes the old man look like an iceman. That's not right. A man like that had style. He should have a diamond belt buckle. They all had diamond belt buckles. And a diamond ring and tie clasp. Those old bosses loved diamonds. They all wore them. Brando makes the guy look like an iceman."

In truth, Brando did not look like the traditional double‐breasted, wide lapeled, blue‐serge racketeer. He had accepted the advice of an Italian American friend, rather than the Mafiosi themselves, and made himself look old and bent. He wore a sack shaped suit of an undistinguished brown stripe and an outsize over coat. He wore a cardboard‐stiff white shirt with a collar at least two sizes too large and a striped tie so indifferently knotted that its back, label and all, faced front. The makeup man, who was never very far away, had fixed Brando with an elaborate mouth plate that made his jaw heavy and extended his jowls. Brando's complexion was sallow, his eyes were made to droop on the side and with his graying temples and mustache many people on Mott Street that day did not recognize him until the filming began.

There was an aura about the production that was unmistakable, just as there is an aura of real and imagined power around the honored society itself.
The two Mafiosi did approve the vintage cars and were amused by the streetlamps, pushcarts and prices, circa 1940, tacked up in store windows. But they did not like the way the godfather's assassins fired their guns.

"They hold pieces like flowers," one said.

Shortly before noon a third man came up behind the pair and whispered:

"The old man's around the corner." The two men were stunned. "You kidding?" one asked. "Believe me, he's around the corner."

"Kee‐rist!"

"Shooo!"

Without further hesitation--and with the same pitch of excitement most neighborhood people saved for a peek at Brando--the trio left the movie set. They walked quickly toward the intersection and stopped. One of them darted his head around the corner of the building for a quick peek and shot back to his friends: "He's there. He's there. I see his car. I see Paul's guy."

Mario Puzo's best seller may have started out to be just another multimillion‐dollar movie for Paramount, but it wasn't long before its producers realized that to the Mafiosi themselves the making of The Godfather was like the filming of a home movie.

Posted by at January 14, 2022 12:50 AM

  

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