"My film's godfather would never double-cross anyone. The real godfathers double-crossed people over and over. But remember, 'The Godfather' wasn't a documentary about Mafia chief Vito Genovese. It was Marlon Brando, with Kleenex in his mouth."
--Francis Ford Coppola From James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart to Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro, Hollywood's most celebrated actors have all shared a common delight--they were at their best playing gangsters.
For more than half a century, American movies have enjoyed a passionate love affair with murder and mayhem, celebrating the stylish psychos, ruthless killers and brooding underworld kingpins who populate our favorite gangster films.
"The most fascinating people in movies are always the bad guys," says Phil Joanou, director of "State of Grace," which stars Gary Oldman, Sean Penn and Ed Harris in a tale of violence and retribution among Irish street gangsters in New York's Hell's Kitchen.
"That's what's great about gangster movies--you get a vicarious thrill out of visiting a world you'd never want to be a part of in real life. That's why it's so weird to see a gangster movie in New York. When you're in this safe movie theater, you get completely caught up in the craziness of the world.
"But when you leave the theater, you can be right in one of the neighborhoods where the movie actually happened. You look around and you go, 'Geez, I gotta get outta here!' "
That's part of the romance of movies--we can see cutthroats and thieves from a safe distance, marveling at their larger-than-life antics and outrageous thuggery. For an actor, it's an irresistible opportunity.
"Gangster parts are incredibly theatrical," says Jon Polito, a noted Broadway stage actor who plays hot-headed gang chief Johnny Caspar in "Miller's Crossing." "I felt like I was this fallen King--like Nero. I blustered and grunted so much that I was worried I might be going over the top. But everyone said, 'Play him as big as you want to go.' "
Hollywood is certainly playing gangsters big this fall. A trio of flamboyant mobster films are just hitting the theaters, led by "State of Grace" and "GoodFellas." Starring Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, "GoodFellas" is Martin Scorsese's vivid portrait of cut-rate Brooklyn mobster Henry Hill and his wise-guy pals. It will be followed Oct. 5 by the Coen Brothers' "Miller's Crossing," which stars Albert Finney, Gabriel Byrne and Polito in a stylized look at late-1920s gang warfare.
Later in October, you can see the seamy exploits of "The Krays," a pair of identical-twin British gangsters played by British popsters Gary and Martin Kemp. On Nov. 2, John Turturro, who also has a juicy part in "Miller's Crossing," stars in "Men of Respect" as a small-time hood who takes over a crime family. And even though Francis Coppola was shooting additional scenes as recently as last week, Paramount still insists that it will release its long-awaited Mafia epic, "The Godfather, Part III," on Christmas Day.
Expect more mayhem in 1991. Barry Levinson is already in pre-production on "Bugsy," with Warren Beatty as Bugsy Siegel. Robert Benton, who co-wrote "Bonnie and Clyde," is preparing a film version of E. L. Doctorow's "Billy Bathgate," which stars Dustin Hoffman as Dutch Shultz. Sly Stallone is filming "Oscar," a John Landis-directed comedy about a mobster trying to go straight. And producer Steve Roth is doing "Mobsters," about the youthful exploits of Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel.
Call it Gangster Chic or The Mafia Goes to the Movies. But with thugs and hoods hitting the screen like gangbusters, Hollywood is still married to the mob.
"The gangster cycle arises out of a period like the 1920s or the 1980s where capitalism gets caught up in its own excesses," explains industry analyst Mike Mahern, who wrote the script for "Mobsters." "Most gangster films are both a portrait of greed and excess--and a protest against it.
"You also saw a lot of highly publicized violent crime in both the 1920s and the late '80s. In fact, there are more gangsters in L.A. and New York than ever before. They're just from a new ethnic group at the bottom of the heap. If 'Mobsters' is popular with minority youth, it'll be because they recognize Luciano and Lansky as soul brothers."
Still, some critics find it ironic that Hollywood has spent so much firepower giving mythic status to such brutal hoodlums. "The hard truth is that these guys were pieces of (garbage)," says tough-guy novelist James Ellroy, who has placed mobsters Mickey Cohen and Johnny Stompanato as characters in such books as "The Big Nowhere" and "L.A. Confidential."
"You always see Bugsy Siegel portrayed in movies as this capitalist visionary--the guy who invented Las Vegas. In reality, he was a rapopsychopath. If you did the real story of gangsters, it would be a stupid, fatuous tale of greed and corruption. But Hollywood only shows the sensuality of seeking pure power. It doesn't show the scum that comes with it."