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Surface Tension: Michael Mann’s “Heat”

In Michael Mann’s wide-screen, West Coast gloss on his own Miami Vice, the locations almost upstage the stars, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Mann is a locations visionary. He sees a city not so much for what it is as for what it might become. Just as Miami remade itself to better resemble its image in Miami Vice, L.A. may rise eventually to Heat‘s desolate, sand­blasted impersonality.

Mann’s City of Lights, where Vin­cent Hanna (Pacino) and Neil McCauley (De Niro) go through their paces as the last of the existential cops and criminals, couldn’t be more re­moved from the gothic, phosphores­cent L.A. of David Fincher’s Seven. Heat’s color scheme is ultracool. In one inconsequential scene set at a con­struction site, Mann finds a 20-foot­-high pile of baby-bunting yellow sand that perfectly balances the film’s basic bleached blues and grays. The image stays in the mind’s eye long after the formulaic plot has faded. So does the ultimate showdown between Vincent and Neil on the far reaches of an air­port runway, where the immediate question of who lives and who dies is dwarfed by the planes roaring over­head. Mann’s use of scale is as mean­ingful as any great modernist painter’s.

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The splendid visuals aside, Heat is a cosmically silly movie — which does­n’t make it any less entertaining. Mann manages to have his romance of ob­sessed masculinity and send it up too. The joke is in the casting. Pacino and De Niro are as much dinosaurs as the parts they play; Mann doesn’t demand a suspension of disbelief. If anything, thee competition for acting honors be­tween these two ethnic superstars (relics of the wilder side of ’70s cine­ma) eclipses the fictional face-off of cop and criminal.

Though there are no big surprises in either performance, my preference is for Pacino, whose head-fakes and er­ratic speech rhythms have the improvisatory flair of the new Knicks. Pacino manages to be playful even when he’s excessive and never less than true even when he’s over the top. Moment to moment, he’s a pleasure to watch.

Pleasure has never been part of De Niro’s game. He’s a lot better here than in Casino (which isn’t saying much), and just about as proficient as he was in GoodFellas. At his best, these days, De Niro seems admirable rather than awesome. Once upon a time, his rigid­ity was a desperate defense against a rage that might erupt at any moment. He could make one both fear and long for the return of the repressed. But over time, the rage imploded into a black hole, sucking the life from him­ — and from anyone who watches. Here, that inner heaviness, though it doesn’t make for a thrilling performance, is right for the character — a career crimi­nal who’s ultimately undone nor by the desire for love he so carefully guards against as by a need for revenge that is the one thing he can’t control.

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Mann has never gotten the credit he deserves as an actor’s director. In Heat, he does well not only by his two stars but also his supporting cast, par­ticularly Val Kilmer as the most volatile of the partners in crime, Ashley Judd as his intermittently loyal wife, and Diana Venora as a woman who knows she’s too smart to stay married to a cop. She’s so smart, in fact, she almost gets away with using the word “detritus” in the middle of a love scene. ❖

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Godfather, Part II: The Corleone Saga Sags

“THE GODFATHER PART II” continues the saga of the Corleone family. Now ensconced on an estate in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, near their gambling holdings. The year is 1958, Al Pacino has succeeded Brando as the Don, and there is rumbling in the ranks. While the sun is shining upon little Anthony Corleone’s confirma­tion celebration, storm signs darken the already dimly lit interior of Michael Corleone’s study. The wayward sister (Talia Shire) de­fects, disobeying her brother to run off with a fortune-hunting wastrel (Troy Donahue); Frankie Pentan­geli (Michael V. Gazzo), an old-time clan member into his cups, argues with Michael over his association with Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg); Fredo (John Cazale), the chicken-hearted elder brother, is publicly humiliated by his inability to control his floozy Las Vegas wife; and Diane Keaton, as the first lady, continues to smile bravely and swing her hair, but there will be trouble from her, too.

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An attempt on the Don’s life is followed up with an investigation, whose meandering path is intercut with flashbacks to the childhood (in Sicily) and youth (in Little Italy) of the Godfather, played by Robert de Niro. These sections, if all goes according to Paramount’s dreams of lucre, will eventually be joined to the Sicilian sections of the earlier picture to make a complete film — the first part of a trilogy to play, with chronology corrected, as a roadshow package. The Sicilian and Little Italy episodes are filmed in the faded­-browns-and-yellows, Immigrant Portrait style, and in the miniaturized perspective of a spectacle viewed from a great distance.

Brando’s absence hangs over the new picture as his presence — minimal in time but central in effect — hung over the previous one. Ties are disintegrating, the center no longer holds, and the narrative is correspondingly diffuse. In the new script by Coppola and Mario Puzo, the Corleones have brought their way into a respectability hardly more dubious than than of America’s other first families of finance. Gambling is the naughtiest enterprise alluded to, and Michael and brothers are given to quoting the Godfather’s maxims much as the young Kennedys must have treasured patriarch Joe’s pearls or Irish wisdom. The success­ive Corleone patriarchs are odd combinations of Robin Hood and Christ, whose only crimes are, re­spectively, to rid Little Italy of an extortionist bully, and to expunge from the bosom of the family those who would betray its ideals. When these happen to be blood members, well, that’s the way the pignole cru­mbles.

Coppola and Puzo, bowing no doubt to public pressure, have made “The Godfather Part II” consider­ably less violent than its predeces­sor. There are but five or six killings, and the corpses are removed with the efficiency of a Shakespeare his­tory play, as the Corleone saga moves on to another stage of world history: Cuba before, and during, the revolution: the Kefauver crime hearings; an F.B.I. prison; with a swelling Nino Rota score to provide emotional unity.

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It is describing physical locations themselves that Coppola’s imagination comes into play, but the human confrontations staged in those dazzling locales never fulfill their promise. As in “The Conversation,” Coppola opens on the world and closes on the tortured individual, in an image of despair a shade too sensitive and heroic for what has preceded it. Watching this largely non-violent sequel, I couldn’t help but be struck by how crucial violence was to the first film. Without it, the characters are not only not mythic­ — they are not even very interesting.

The pale cast of reflection hovers over “Part II” without ever harden­ing into active thought, much less verbiage. (The use of Italian dia­logue, with English subtitles, can’t quite conceal its inanity). Coppola and Puzo haven’t the curiosity of even a Galsworthy (forget Balzac and Tolstoy) that might lead them to investigate the various branches of the family, and discover a sense of the era through the words as well as the “looks” of its individuals. Even among the brothers, there is a lot or emotional display — hugging, kissing, caressing, eyes watering or smol­dering, but the actual dialogue could be contained on the back of a grocery list. It is — how you say — visual.

What about the women? From what we see of them, mostly their backs. Hyman Roth’s wife makes tuna fish sandwiches and the Mammas Corleone make babies. Mamma the Elder (Morgana King), unlike most Italian mothers of my acquaintance, retires gracefully to the the wings. Coppola makes a gesture to the “new consciousness” by im­plying a certain critical perspective on the patriarchy, when Michael asks his pregnant wife “Does it feel like a boy?” But by focusing audience interest so exclusively on Pa­cino, and by making his enemies either invisible or unattractive, he effectively neutralizes their subver­sive potential.

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It is difficult to discuss acting with performances that are allowed so little articulation of their own, that are controlled and positioned so carefully within an aesthetic scheme. The artiness of Coppola’s aesthetic ultimately becomes an ethic as Pacino, in somber profile, emerges more victim than villain, more a melancholy Dane than a bloody Macbeth.

“The Godfather Part II” is marked, more clearly than its pre­decessor, by a moral confusion at its core which is in sharp contrast to that sense of moral wholeness of the great storytellers of the past, an equilibrium working behind the affairs of men that gave an importance to their actions, and words, that lyrical long-shots and poignant close-ups alone cannot produce. ❖

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The Godfather, Part III: Like Godfather …

First, the bottom line: If you’re an American, you’ll see The God­father, Part III … once. After all, Kennedys aside, the Corleones are the only royal family we’ve got and, as an update on the clan unto their third generation, Godfather III combines the anticipatory ap­peal of Fotomat-fresh family snapshots with the more civic in­terest inspired by the celeb of your choice on the cover of People magazine.

How could it be any other way? Almost a trailer for itself, The Godfather immediately estab­lished Don Corleone’s power over American popular culture (namely Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood) be­fore settling in to dramatize his son Michael’s Faustian bargain to revive the crime family’s fortune. Indeed, the feds have already done their part to raise Godfather consciousness by busting John Gotti only hours before the sea­son’s major movie event had its single, packed preview at Loews Astor Plaza. Although Godfather III is scarcely a comedy, the audi­ence chuckled throughout, with cynical pleasure and friendly derision.

Released in December 1974, The Godfather, Part II ended some time in 1959. When Godfa­ther III — which, in a wonderfully apposite bit of timing, comes out on Christmas Day — picks up the story 20 years later, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has gone straight, sort of. The obligatory opening rite of passage (a wedding in The Godfather, a first commu­nion in Godfather II) is here al­most a spiritual coronation, in which Michael, having divested himself of his illegal businesses and become a noted philanthro­pist, is receiving a personal deco­ration from a representative of the pope. Yes, the Godfather meets God the Father, or at least His Vicar.

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The previous Godfather films were ceremonial pageants in which delicately arranged histori­cal tableaux and exquisite loca­tions were inevitably seared by eruptions of fantastic violence. (Coppola naturalized the Cor­leone’s activities in part through the classical use of establishing shots.) Godfather III has consider­ably less finesse (there’s an at­tempt to rub out a virtual Apala­chin conference of mobsters where it literally rains bullets) but it doesn’t lack for ambition. Cop­pola and copilot Mario Puzo blast off for some cosmic Shakespear­ean netherworld of tearful solilo­quies and dynastic tragedy, where sister Connie (Talia Shire) comes on like a tarantella-dancing Lady Macbeth and Michael develops a soul. Although Talia Shire has compared her real-life brother Francis’s latest project to the ceil­ing of the Sistine Chapel, the overarching structure Godfather III more closely suggests is Michael Graves’s postmodern design for the expanded Whitney Muse­um: The earlier Godfather films are incorporated whole into a new baroque framework that not only returns the Corleones to Sicily for the ultimate climax but involves the Vatican and grand opera too.

As the action is deflected over­seas, motivations turn inward. Coppola and Puzo take a cue from the original Scarface by heightening the clan’s incestuous longings. Did you think The God­father and Godfather II were about violence, vengeance, crime, capitalism, America? Guess again. “The only wealth in the world is children” are the first words spo­ken in Godfather III, delivered by Michael in husky voiceover. As in popular Yiddish theater, the most intense relationships here are be­tween parents and offspring, sur­rogate or natural. Michael’s daughter Mary (Francis’s daugh­ter Sofia) is the chairman of his charitable foundation, their close­ness mocking Michael’s previous obsession with fathering boys. Meanwhile, Michael’s attempt to persuade his son Anthony (tenor Franc D’Ambrosio) to stay in law school rather than pursue a musi­cal career occasions the movie’s worst soap operatics.

Anthony is the first Corleone to ever sing. The film’s lengthy cli­max, admirably presaged by a choreographed whack mid-Feast of San Gennaro, brings everybody back to Palermo for a production of Cavalleria Rusticana. Nearly a half an hour, this somewhat dis­tended, impossibly convoluted set piece offers the bloodiest bit of backstage intrigue since Murder at the Vanities (not to mention a grandiose reworking of The God­father‘s single most admired se­quence). Still, the edifice is too ornate, the structure is too roomy, Godfather III resounds with ech­oes from previous films — sinister oranges, strategic cannoli, Diane Keaton. (Vying for most outra­geous are the fantasy that Michael and Kay were once a super-ro­mantic couple and their son’s ren­dition of “Theme From The God­father,” sung in special tribute to Dad.)

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The plot, such as it is, is notable mainly for its deadpan delirium. No sooner is Michael “blessed” than the Vatican bank goes broke and, perhaps having learned the lessons of New York City politics, the Don offers a bailout for a piece of the church’s real estate action. It’s the ultimate money­-laundering scheme — the Cor­leones merge with the pope. As Michael tells sister Connie, “The higher I go, the crookeder it gets.” Although this motif is reiterated in a minor key — priests and kill­ers are indistinguishable through­out — from a Catholic point of view, the high point of the movie is surely Michael’s confession, de­livered with appropriate pathos and tolling bells. (The scene drib­bles off, but the lucky priest is named pope.)

The Godfather films have thrived on meaningful casting (en­compassing a subterranean history of the Actors’ Studio) and if Michael is absolved, Pacino is de­nied Brandofication. Not that he doesn’t have a look. The movie’s unspoken premise is that the two decades between Godfathers II and III have somehow electrified the once icy Michael Corleone. Moving stiffly with a pitched forward lurch (as if to pull his plug out of a wall socket), hair brushed up to resemble the steel bristles on an industrial floor polisher. Pacino suggests and even acts like a wired Yoda. There are times when Godfather III bids to become three hours of Michael admonish­ing his obstreperous nephew, Son­ny’s illegitimate son, Vincent (Andy Garcia).

Although Pacino looks like John G0tti could eat him for breakfast, as the last of the Cor­leones, Garcia is an engaging, suave, loose-limbed show-off. He makes his bones when two killers invade the Lower Manhattan tenement where he is trysting with a winsome photographer (Bridget Fonda): his authenticity is vouch­safed when he bumps into Martin Scorsese’s mother on Elizabeth Street or carries on his uncle’s tradition by repeating the family lies to Mary, the younger cousin who adores him. Garcia struts through the movie’s first hour suffering under the delusion that this is a gangster film, rather than the surging symphony of guilt and ex­patiation that drowns him well be­fore the movie ends. The requisite veteran Method actor playing the requisite old mafioso, Eli Wallach flutters and sputters through a mediocre performance. The gang­ster of choice is Joey Zasa, a pub­licity-loving thug obviously in­spired by Joey Gallo and played, with impressively metallic sheen, by Joe Mantegna. “I’d like to get a little pin from the pope,” Zasa sneers, the Bad Fairy at one of the new Michael’s numerous love­fests.

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Still, the most amazing presence by far is Coppola’s 19-year-old daughter Sofia. (Clearly, the pope is not the only one to grant indul­gences.) In a deep and satisfying way, Sofia’s exotic full-moon face and awkward body language justify the film. From the moment she arranges her features for the first of many (no doubt necessary) close-ups, generous lips creased in a permanent, wildly expressionistic sneer, through her last Californiated line reading, she gives a performance that is gloriously be­havioral. “A bad actor,” Jack Smith once wrote, “is rich, unique, idiosyncratic, revealing.” Nothing in Godfather III has more to do with patriarchal power than Sofia’s uncertain glances off­screen; her seeming suspicion that the least important bit player with whom she shares a frame has more right to the camera than she; her fantastically repressed (hence totally affecting) love scene cum cooking lesson with Vincent. This is a woman cursed with two fathers — one who’s inside the narra­tive and another who rules the set.

To the degree that The Godfa­ther, Part III is Coppola’s person­al psychodrama, Sofia is absolute­ly essential. (Once you see the movie, it’s obvious why Winona Ryder — who was originally cast as  Mary and suffered some sort of breakdown during production — could never have played this part.) Sofia was the infant baptized in the celebrated penultimate sequence of The Godfather, it seems more than appropriate that the saga, which opened so evocatively with an appeal to Don Corleone for justice in the matter of a particularly vicious date-rape, would end with her pained, un­comprehending cry of “Da-a-ad!”

Model for the plutocratic family dramas and immigrant miniseries that dominated network televi­sion well into the ’80s, The Godfa­ther is so much a part of our na­tional identity it’s difficult to imagine that Paramount first envisioned the movie as a quick cash-in on a surprise bestseller. As reinvented by Coppola, The Godfather not only raised ticket prices to a new high of $4 but wound up grossing more of those inflated dollars than any movie in history (until surpassed by The Exorcist one year later).

These days, The Godfather is being called the greatest Holly­wood movie since Citzen Kane. It’s a sloppy judgment — Detour, Kiss Me Deadly, Night of the Hunter, The Searchers, Vertigo, Touch of Evil, The Tarnished Angels, The Naked Kiss, The Wild Bunch, 2001, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Last Movie not withstanding. The Godfather is not even really a single movie. Unlike any other sequel, Godfather II actually improved the orig­inal, as well as improving on it. Although Godfather II suffers from repeating too many of The Godfather’s narrative rhythms (a tic that becomes convulsive in Godfather III), it considerably enriched the first film’s allegorical history of America — from the Old World through the frontier settlements of New York and Nevada to the foreign frontier Havana, looping back in haunting post­script to a family dinner on the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor

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If, in formal terms, The Godfather was Coppola’s Birth of a Na­tion — a family-centered period piece that, among other things, set out to redress perceived historical wounds and effectively restored classical Hollywood continuity af­ter the narrative breakdown of the late ’60s — then Godfather II was his Intolerance. Although depen­dent for his meaning on the first film, Coppola’s audaciously ana­lytical reworking of the material, a kind of archeological excavation that allowed the story to go simul­taneously forward and backward in time, and Robert De Niro’s brilliant interpretation of “Brando,” illuminated The Godfather and set it, so to speak, among the constellations. To find people who are unfamiliar with The Godfather mythos, you would have to look for them among the characters in Godfather III — ­which, in a sense, is part of that film’s problem.

Despite its unwieldy editing and somnolent second hour, en­cumbered by its tour-guide view of Sicily, Godfather III may be Coppola’s richest filmmaking since Marlon Brando capsized Apocalypse Now. That’s a back­handed compliment, I fear. But what does it profit Paramount if Michael gains a soul but loses his world? Michael’s redemption is presented as abrupt fait accompli: Mary’s innocence must be abso­lute. Devoid of social content, Godfather III represses precisely the period treated in Goodfellas, easy winner of the 1990 gangster-national allegory sweepstakes. Had Mary lived through the ’70s, she would understand her father only too well.

In leaping from period of con­sensus to period of consensus (the 1960-78 era signified only by the opening shot of the void around Lake Tahoe and a quick tour of the abandoned Corleone com­pound), Godfather III surrenders its claim on the historical imagi­nation. Although the movie is not altogether superfluous, it can’t help but suggest Mark Twain’s forgotten Tom Sawyer sequels or the bogus credit-crawl histories that American Graffiti made a cliché. In the context of its predecessors. Godfather III has its place — perhaps the longest, most expensive footnote ever made. ❖

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‘The Godfather’ Reviewed

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It seems that the first question everyone asks about “THE GODFATHER” is concerned with Marlon Brando’s interpretation of the title role. That is the way the movie has been programmed and promoted: Brando, Brando, Brando, and more Brando. The word from advance hush-hush screenings was wow all caps and exclamation point. More exclamation, in fact, than explanation. More than one whisperer intimated that Brando’s make-up (by Dick Smith, the auteur also of Dustin Hoffman’s Shangri-La face-furrows in “Little Big Man”) was so masterful that the Brando we all know and love had disappeared completely beneath it. I must admit that some of the advance hype had gotten to me by the time I sat braced in my seat for the screening of “The Godfather.” I was determined to discern Brando beneath any disguise mere humans could devise.

The picture opened with a face outlined against a splotched blue background with no spatial frame of reference, a background not so much abstract as optically mod with a slow zoom to take us into the milieu by degrees. But that face! I was stunned. How had Brando managed it? The eyes, the ears, the nose, the chin. It didn’t look anything at all like Brando. And the voice was equally shattering in it unfamiliar pitch. I began groping for adjectives like “eerie” and “unearthly.” Gradually the face began to recede into the background, and I heard a familiarly high-pitched voice somewhere in the foreground. I suddenly recalled the plot of the novel and thus I realized that the face looming in front of me did not resemble Brando’s simply because it wasn’t Brando’s. (I learned later that the face and voice in question for the role of Bonasera belonged to a 20th-billed actor named Salvatore Corsitto who gets no points for looking like himself.)

When Brando himself finally materialized on the screen as Don Vito Corleone, I could see it was Brando all the way. There was no mistaking the voice even with the slow-motion throaty whine Brando used to disguise it. Brando’s range has always been more limited by his voice than his Faustian admirers cared to admit. That is why his best roles have always played against the voice by negating it as a mechanism of direct communication. Brando’s greatest moments are thus always out of vocal synch with other performers. Even the famous taxicab scene with Rod Steiger in “On the Waterfront” operates vocally (though not physically or emotionally) as a syncopated Brando soliloquy, a riff on the upper registers of sensitivity and vulnerability resonating all the more in counterpoint to Steiger’s more evenly cadenced street glibness and shrillness. Curiously, Brando has come to embody, often brilliantly, a culturally fashionable mistrust of language as an end in itself. The very mystique of Method Acting presumes the existence of an emotional substratum swirling with fear and suspicion under every line of dialogue. Hence, it is surprising that Brando has not played gangsters more often. The Machiavellian bias of the Method is ideally suited to the ritualized conversations of organized criminals.

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So to answer belatedly the first question everyone asks about “The Godfather”: Brando gives an excellent performance as Don Vito Corleone, a role Lee J. Cobb could have played in his sleep without any special make-up. Brando’s triumph and fascination is less that of an actor of parts than of a star galaxy of myths. Which is to say that he does not so much lose himself in his part as lift his part to his own exalted level as a star personality. The fact remains, however, that though Brando’s star presence dominates every scene in which he appears, the part itself is relatively small, and there are other people who are equally good with considerably less strain, among them the extraordinarily versatile James Caan as the hot-headed, ill-fated Sonny Corleone, Richard Castellano as the jovially gruesome Clemenza, and Robert Duvall as Don Vito Corleone’s non-Italian consigliere, Tom Hagen. Al Pacino as Michael Corleone has much the biggest and most challenging role in the film, and gives the most problematical performance. It is with Pacino’s role that fact and fantasy come most discordantly into conflict. And it is with the characterization of Michael Corleone that both director-scenarist Francis Ford Coppola and novelist-scenarist Mario Puzo seem to drift away from the rigor of the crime genre into the lassitude of an intellectual’s daydream about revenge without remorse and power without accountability.

There were many ways to adapt Puzo’s novel to the screen. (There is no question here of fidelity to a text that was merely the first draft of a screen treatment.) Puzo quotes Balzac no less in a foreword conveying a Brechtian implication: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” Brando claims to have been representing a typically corporate personality from the ruthlessly American capitalistic system. But “The Godfather” as a whole does not sustain this particular interpretation as effectively as did Kurosawa’s “The Bad Sleep Well” some years ago. That is to say that Kurosawa and his scenarists came much closer to conjuring up the quasi-criminal ruthlessness of a conglomerate like ITT than do Coppola, Puzo, and Brando. Coppola’s approach tends to be humanistic, ethnic, and almost grotesquely nostalgic. There is more feeling in the film than we had any right to expect, but also more fuzziness in the development of the narrative. “The Godfather” happens to be one of those movies that can’t stay put on the screen. There are strange ghosts everywhere like Richard Conte’s authentically Italian gangster kingpin Barzini evoking memories of “House of Strangers” and “The Brothers Rico,” and Al Martino as Johnny Fontane (alias Frank Sinatra) reportedly walking off the stage of a New York supper club just before “The Godfather” opened and apparently disappearing into that thick mist of forbidden fictions.

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Part 2: March 23, 1972

“THE GODFATHER” is providing additional ammunition, if indeed any were still needed, for the kill-kill-bang-bang forces in the film industry. No, Virginia, this will not be still another article on violence in the movies. The lines forming for “The Godfather” can speak for themselves. What interests me at the moment is less the apparently insatiable hunger of the masses for homicide than the curiously disdainful attitude affected by the popgunnery purveyors toward their material. Gordon Parks, for example, refers derisively to “Shaft” (and, I suppose, the upcoming son of Shaft) as the kind of popular entertainment he must concoct in order to obtain the opportunity to do more serious work. Since Mr. Parks displays no discernible talent in private-eye melodrama, it is to be hoped that he obtains more “serious” assignments as quickly as possible. Similarly, Francis Ford Coppola has made it abundantly clear that “The Godfather” was undertaken quite consciously as a “compromise” with the commercial realities of the film industry. And now even Mario Puzo is making noises to the effect that “The Godfather” was written merely to provide the freedom and leisure necessary to turn out something comparable to “The Brothers Karamazov.” Tant pis and all that when we recall that there have been at least a score of gangster movies that have been artistically superior to any of the film versions of “Karamazov.”

Not that there is anything new about the Puzo-Coppola brand of voluptuous Faustianism, which might be subtitled: I sold my soul to the devil for filthy lucre and the roar of the crowd, but I still have my eye on the higher things. John Ford was eulogized through the thirties for turning out three commercial flicks like “Wee Willie Winkie” for the moguls in order to pay for any one serious film like “The Informer” for the mandarins. In retrospect, “Wee Willie Winkie” was never all that bad, and “The Informer” was never all that good. But Faustianism has continued to flourish even to this depressed day when Hollywood swimming pools are hard to come by for even the most corruptible radicals. No one seems to have learned the hard lesson of movie history that the throwaway pictures often become the enduring classics whereas the noble projects often survive only as sure-fire cures for insomnia. Not always, of course, but often enough to discourage the once fashionable game of kitsh-as-catch-can.

That “The Godfather” is almost fatally tainted with condescension follows almost logically from the revelation that the Coppola-Puzo second choice for the title role (after Brando) was none other than Sir Laurence Olivier. There’s nothing like a classy performer to get the public’s mind off the questionable cultural credentials of a popular subject. Still, publicity is publicity, and I have no desire to single out Coppola or Puzo for derision. Any artist is vulnerable enough in the journalistic jungle to claim the privilege of saying that he is saving his best for some later project still safely beyond the claws of the snarling critics. Coppola, particularly, has done good work in the past. His first film,”Dementia-13,” is unknown to all but the most dedicated archaeologists of American-International Corman horrifics. Coppola’s official first film, “You’re a Big Boy Now,” was completely eclipsed by Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate.” What I said at the time (in The American Cinema) is still pertinent: “Francis Ford Coppola is probably the first reasonably talented and sensibly adaptable directorial talent to emerge from a university curriculum in filmmaking. ‘You’re A Big Boy Now’ seemed remarkably eclectic even under the circumstances. If the direction of Nichols on ‘The Graduate’ has an edge on Coppola’s for ‘Big Boy,’ it is that Nichols borrows only from good movies whereas Coppola occasionally borrows from bad ones. Curiously, Coppola seems infinitely more merciful to his grotesques than does anything-for-an-effect Nichols. Coppola may be heard from more decisively in the future.”

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Since 1967 Coppola has been heard from with varying degrees of decisiveness in two commercial disasters — “Finian’s Rainbow” and “The Rain People.” Coppola had set up his own studio in the San Francisco area to revolutionize what was left of Hollywood. He sponsored George Lucas’s “THX-1138” and was informally associated with John Korty in what might be called the San Francisco School of lyrical realism and dissonant humanism. “Finian’s Rainbow” was a hopelessly anachronistic project to begin with, a moldy bone to the blacks tossed by self-satisfied liberals of the forties in the mistaken belief that bigotry was confined to that picturesque terrain South of Schubert Alley. Coppola did his best with Petula Clark and the badly miscast Fred Astaire, but the show simply sank into the realistic landscape. Another compromise perhaps? Certainly, Coppola’s heart was more completely committed to “The Rain People,” an itinerant production of uncommon emotional intensity.

I met Coppola at Bucknell when he was making “The Rain People” aboard a land yacht, traveling, as it were, across the real face of America in search of sociological truth with an improvised scenario. I remember being as impressed by Coppola’s intelligence as I was suspicious of his professed intentions. People who go out looking for America always seem to know in advance what they are going to find. Alienation and Anomie, Loneliness and Lethargy, Late Night Whining and Daily Paranoia. Coppola never succeeded in establishing the characterization of Shirley Knight’s wandering wife, and thus his narrative drifted without a psychological rudder. Still, the wife’s encounters with James Caan’s punchy jock and Robert Duvall’s sympathetically lecherous state trooper lifted the film to the behavioral heights (and fights) of “Petulia” and “Point Blank,” two of the more brilliant explosions of the San Francisco area, if not of the San Francisco school, the formal sublimity of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” representing, of course, a different tradition altogether.

The failure of “The Rain People” and “THX-1138” and the Korty films can be attributed partly to the inability of the traditional distribution and exhibition patterns to funnel a new kind of audience that is presumably panting for it. Or is there really that much of a new audience for movies? Whatever the explanation, Coppola had the satisfaction of having established his artistic identity as a director at the cost of his commercial solvency as a producer. He therefore approached “The Godfather” less as a creative opportunity than as a crutch for his stumbling career.

I am convinced that “The Godfather” could have been a more profound film if Coppola had shown more interest (and perhaps more courage) in those sections of the book which treated crime as an extension of capitalism and as the sine qua non of showbiz. Much of the time spent boringly in Sicily might have been devoted to the skimming operations in Las Vegas, and to the corporate skullduggery in Hollywood. A very little bit of the corrosively Odetsian wit of the fifties in “The Big Knife” and “Sweet Smell of Success” could have gone a long way here in relating the Mafia to our daily life. Instead, Coppola has taken great pains to make “The Godfather” seem like a period piece. Antique cars, ill-fitting clothes (especially for loose-framed Diane Keaton’s WASP wardrobe), floppy hats, vintage tabloid front pages featuring dead gangsters of a bygone era all contribute to Coppola’s deliberate distancing tactics. Worst of all is the sentimental distinction between the good-bad guys and the bad-bad guys on the pseudoprophetic issue of narcotics distribution.

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The production stories connected with “The Godfather” seem to take pride in the concessions granted to organized crime so that the film could be shot on New York locations without being shot up and shut down. Hence, there is no reference to the “Mafia” as such or to the “Cosa Nostra” as such, but merely to “The family.” It is as if producer Albert S. Ruddy were trying to enhance the diabolical reputation of his subject so that audiences would feel the chill of gossipy relevance. Since “The Godfather” is about as unkind to the Mafia as “Mein Kampf” is to Adolf Hitler, it is hard to understand why the local little Caesars didn’t pay Ruddy a commission for all the free publicity. However, even if Ruddy had not made all his noble sacrifices to the Mob for the sake of his muse, it is fairly certain that a realistic director like Coppola would have insisted on shooting his scenario on authentic locations. After all, wasn’t that the whole point of Coppola’s original safari from Hollywood to San Francisco: to escape from Hollywood’s synthetic sound stages and infinitely illusionist set designers?

And so we see Al Pacino and Diane Keaton walking out of the Radio City Music Hall ostensibly during the Christmas Season of 1945. How do we know it is 1945? The marquee has been made up to advertise Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman in “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” And here we have one of the paradoxes of plastic realism. It just so happens that I saw “The Bells of St. Mary’s” at the Music Hall in 1945, and the scene Pacino so painstakingly recreates before my eyes is false and strained in every way except the most literal. As the production notes tell us, “crowds gathered to stare at the old-time automobiles and ancient taxis with the legend ’15 cents for first 1/2 mile’ fare rates painted on the doors. Meanwhile, ushers ran up and down the street informing the public that the film playing was Elaine May and Walter Matthau in “A New Leaf” and the stage show was the 1971 Easter Show.”

Nonetheless, the plastic realism of the marquee and the old cabs cannot compensate for the sociological distortion of the empty sidewalks and the absent hustle and bustle. Around Christmas of 1945 at the Music Hall was a pre-television festive crowd tableau such as we shall never see again in our lifetime. An old-time Hollywood illusionist like Vincente Minnelli would have captured the populist lilt of that moment whereas Coppola has captured only the plastic lint. Minnelli’s vision would have been that of the warm animal kingdom whereas Coppola’s is merely that of the cold mineral.

Similarly, few of the “more than 120 locations around Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Richmond” justified the trouble they took with any special aura of authenticity. Indeed, too often the studied and constricted framing of the “real” location only emphasized the artifices of the scenario. So little of Mott Street is utilized for gunning down Brando that the entire effect could easily have been reconstructed on a back lot. Location shooting has always been more of a Pandora’s Box than realistic pundits have ever wanted to admit. If I see one more set of play-actors cruising around the canals of Venice with all the natives looking for the camera (or for Erich Segal on one of the gondolas), I shall sing “O Solo Mio” a cappella. To escape from the alleged tyranny of the set it is necessary to conceive a much looser scenario than any now envisaged for most movies.

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As it is, Coppola spends much too much time savoring each location as if he were afraid audiences might not sufficiently appreciate its authenticity. There is remarkably little elision of movement for a modern (or even a classical) movie. People walk through rooms, clump, clump, clump, as if they were measuring the floor for a rug. At times I would have welcomed even a wipe to jolly things along with page-turning dispatch.

Coppola’s treadmill technique is merely a symptom of his sense of priorities. The trouble began with the scenario’s lack of concern for the characters it could not wait to slaughter. The first murder is a genuine shocker, not simply because of its bizarre choreography (even more gruesome than in the book), but also because even after the unexplained first murder in “The French Connection,” we are still not accustomed to having people we barely know bumped off on the screen. Puzo always provided a background dossier on his victims in his novel, and some objective mechanism for doing these dossiers a la “The Battle of Algiers”might have been devised for the movie. Coppola prefers to skim the surface of the novel for violent highlights, and thus discard all the documentation. However, it has been my impression that the rumored involvement of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in the narrative was the big talking point of the novel. Who cares that much about Joe Profaci and his brood except on the mythic level of glorified gangsterdom? By contrast, Sinatra and his colleagues and conquests have always provided the stuff of forbidden fantasies for precisely the type of urban wage-slave that stands on line to see “The Godfather.” After Vegas and Hollywood, how can you keep ’em down on Long Beach?

Coppola does his best to narrow the focus of “The Godfather” to manageably monstrous proportions. His film is neither tragedy nor sociology, but a saga of monsters with occasionally human expressions. Even the irony of invoking the “family” as the basic social unit is not pursued beyond a desultory conversation between Michael (Al Pacino) and Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). The irony is not that the Corleone family is a microcosm of America, but rather that it is merely a typical American family beset by the destructively acquisitive individualism that is tearing American society apart. It is an idea that Chaplin developed so much more profoundly in “Monsieur Verdoux:” that if war, in Clausewitz’s phrase, is the logical extension of diplomacy, then murder is the logical extension of business. This notion is mentioned here and there in “The Godfather,” but never satisfactorily developed. There is simply no time. Another shot, another murder. And the crowds are keeping a box-score on every corpse. Let’s not disappoint them with a meditation on machismo and materialism. We can do that on the next picture, the “serious” one, the one the crowds will stay away from in droves. ❖

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

Does Godfather Know Best?

For quite a while now I have been pinning a wary eye on that new phenom in our midst — ethnocracy. The ethnics (who doesn’t qualify for this group — Hiawatha and test-­tube babies?) have been carrying on like a combination of Snow White’s stepmother and her mirror and historical revisionists.

When they came out of the closet, they put into storage oilcloth, doilies, plastic slipcov­ers, housedresses, babushkas, statues of saints that glow in the dark, boozy fathers, and haranguing mothers.

Scratch an Irish-American these days, and he’ll tell you his “Da” alternated his time between vespers and Lady Gregory in the mother tongue, and his “Ma” had the agility of a member of Spike Jones’s band — plucking the harp with one hand, weaving a shawl from Aran Island wool with the other, squeezing an accordion between her knees, and tooting a penny-whistle between her teeth.

And if the new truth be known, Ukrainians had soufflés for breakfast, and the Polish cognoscenti ate their kielbasa with béarnaise sauce.

Lord, is there anything so sad as people so racked with apologias for their real back­ground that they have to employ an interior decorator of the head to gussy up their past? Maybe the line wasn’t intended that way, but Sophie Portnoy was right when she said, “Other people have children — I have en­emies.”

But all this backslapping flapdoodle is normally harmless enough, since it affords a lot of hacks opportunities to write books and magazine articles, thus keeping the welfare roils at their current level of tolerable fiscal exhaustion. But the danger of granting a bum idea a giant step is that some slick operator will come along and goose it up. Such is the case with the film, The Godfa­ther, Part II, which could have been sub­titled “The Greening of the Gombah.”

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I don’t normally infringe on the turf of my talented colleagues in the film department (the last time was The Exorcist), but like the Pope, I’m moved to my balcony in matters of faith and morals. And from the reviews I’ve read, nobody cited what an insidious piece of propaganda GFII is for the mob.

I believe Molly Haskell dismissed it in these pages; but most of the other reviewers I read swooned, while Hollywood laid more hardware on it than could be found in Isaac Hayes’s wardrobe. And Pauline Kael, who possesses a first-rate intelligence, was downright operatic about it, swinging from aria to aria like Johnny Weissmuller from his Hollywood vines. She even stated that director-screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola (in collaboration with Mario Puzo) was working on a level with Leo — not the mangy beast of MGM, but Tolstoy! Gads! Is this what happens when one spends too much time sitting in the dark?

But before I go into any more criticism of those who championed the film, it is only fair to make my negative case — or in the idiom, make my bones — against the film.

First off, we know the Corleones are into organized crime, but what the family busi­ness explicitly is is a little vague, outside gambling. In GFI Brando, as Don Corleone, pristinely wouldn’t touch dope — a demurrer similar to cops on the pad who tell you they only take “clean money,” that is, from everyone except junk dealers.

What GFII skillfully manages to do (as did its predecessor) is to depict a crime dynasty without victims. In both films, no ordinary citizen outside the ring of corrup­tion which includes mob members, cops on the take, pols in the bag, and the murdered whore (in GFII) is ever introduced, never mind injured. The precise implication is that all the bloodletting takes place between members of Sicilian fiefdoms so steeped in ritual and canon they make the Catholic Church seem like an ad-lib affair.

The audience is made to feel tacky in the presence of these “men of respect” with their insistence on family loyalty and marital fidelity. As Puzo and Coppola present them, they are knights errant jousting with a chaotic world not of their making. The mob is Arthurian with their round-table meetings, their censorship of the breaking of chivalric codes, and their regal gestures of silence and bonding kisses. What nine-to-five brown-bagger wouldn’t feel as if his soul was encased in a bowling shirt in the presence of these silk suits?

But would we be so impressed with the Corleones or, for that matter, care a twit about their faith if we saw them in action vis-a-vis society outside their circle? For instance, watching the family muscle a decent union into submission, take over businesses, blind a reporter with acid, run a protection racket, maim or murder those who resist; or a panoramic shot of the mob processing heroin and then cut to a sweeping shot of their prone victims — say, like the dead and wounded in Atlanta in Gone With the Wind? Of course, one could argue, we all know what the mob does, so the viewers should fill in the gaps. But that, like many of the mob’s true victims, won’t float. Movie­making is a visual medium, and we go to be shown.

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So instead of honesty and realism, we get technical virtuosity, a foreplay device that most reviewers mistake for climax. The costumes are so right, the vintage cars are mint, and Lord! the locations, don’t forget the authentic locations! It is here GFII is unsurpassed. The film has more locales than Nathan Detroit’s crap game.

I must admit that, as an avid moviegoer since my childhood, I love all this. But I am afraid when one inspects the core of the film, it is only Asbury Park. To wit: We watch Vito (Robert De Niro) rise to power by knocking off an old Mustache Pete, who had control of the neighborhood. The old Don was so thea­trically absurd that every time he opened a grocery store door to collect his rake-off we waited for a gust of snow flurries to sweep in behind him. No victim here.

Vito becomes the new Don, but his activities are as opaque and mysterious as a puff of smoke rising from the Vatican. He does “favors” for people, and they “owe” him in return. We do see him in action once, but a multimillion dollar budget wasn’t needed for this tableau — just turn on the tube to any sitcom.

A widow is being evicted because she has a noisy dog (a little piano music from the pit, please), and she approaches the strong man’s wife. At first, he shrugs it off (he’s an important man), but his wife willfully and wilily implores (Jane Wyatt and Robert Young), and he finally concedes to take time out from his busy schedule, whatever the hell that is, to save the abode of the widow and the pooch. He manages a reduction in rent to boot! So was born the first sperm of the Human Resources Administration.

It’s been my personal experience (and police blotters will bear me out) that the mob is more proficient at making widows than saving them. And this scene, shot in deathbed solemnity, didn’t even prompt a titter in the theatre! Anybody who knows the difference between vigorish and gibberish would have laughed it off the screen.

But I must capsulize, since this three-hour plus epic (which would have had Harry Cohn’s ass doing a Highland Fling) cannot be dissected frame by frame. So we will switch to the character of Vito’s son Michael, played by Al Pacino (normally a fine actor but here so taken up with the liturgical ambience of the film he seems to be wavering between Holy Orders and Extreme Unction).

With Vito dead, Michael becomes the Don — beset with an antipasto of angst. His sister, now widowed, is running around with a playboy who is outside the mob and thus despicable. The wastrel is played by Troy Donahue (a cinematic contract if you ever saw one). But in time, she will mend her ways, proving Godfather knows best.

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Michael wants to expand his operation, but needs the blessing of a Meyer Lansky (Lee Strasberg) character in Florida (the international Jewish bankers are still with us). His older brother is a sniveling weakling, somebody is trying to kill him and his non-Sicilian New England­ wife, Kay, doesn’t like the whole mess.

An assassination attempt is made on him in his home, in his own bedroom, where he cries like an English lord discovering a bounder cheating at cricket, “My children come to play with their toys!”

We learn the hit was was set up by the Jew from Miami (we all know they’re declasse and pushy anyway, don’t we?). But questions must be asked. Does the mob grant familial sanctuary to its victims? Numerous incidents prove not. Is there then honor among thieves? Joey Gallo was shot dead in a restaurant in front of his wife and her nine-year-old daughter. So much for that crock of shit.

Throughout the film, there are numerous references to the sexual fidelity of the mobsters. Vito, looking at a woman onstage, says to his companion, who loves the actress, that he understands why he can see beauty in her, but that for himself, he is blind to it, since he loves only his wife.

Michael tells his consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) that Hagen can desert him for another job in Vegas and take his wife, family, and mistress with him. Hagen, being Irish and outside the Sicilian code, looks as if he were gunshot by a dum-dum bullet and mutters, “You don’t have to embarrass me.”

This time I waited for howls of laughter in the theatre, but none were forthcoming. Personally, it was my favorite scene, since I saw it as a sociological breakthrough. It was the first time I have ever heard an Italian admit that the Irish get laid for purposes other than propagating the faith.

But what of the claim of connubial bliss? Perhaps before GFIII arrives, the movie critics should attend a Jerry Vale or Sinatra opening at a nightclub and clock those Carvel-coiffed bimbos sitting with the boys. Believe me, it’s not Mama-Mia in her black dress and cameo brooch. The only explanation I can come up with for the insertion of this balderdash in the film is that perhaps Puzo and Coppola are tomcatting all over Hollywood and are trying to cover their tracks.

But before this piece enters Harry Cohn’s rectal range, I shall attempt to conclude. Since we cannot find any innocent victims of the mob in the film, let us examine their celluloid critics.

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We have established Michael’s rebellious sister has already repented, replete with a musical score that would make Mantovani sound like Tiny Tim. The major political figure in the film is a buffoon of a senator who, though he hates the Italians (he finds them greasy), is so corrupt he’d make Beelzebub blush. I suppose it was this character who moved Kael above bel canto, like Joan Sutherland on a pogo stick.

Kael: “The completed work is an epic about the seeds of destruction that the immigrants brought to the new land, with Sicilians, Wasps, and Jews separate socially but joined together in crime and political brib­ery. This is a Bicentennial picture that doesn’t insult the intelligence. It’s an epic vision of the corruption of America.”

Notice the marvelous masochism of “Bicentennial,” “America,” and “corruption.” The true story of the immigrants is too boring, lacking dramatic flair. They did dog work for the unselfish and slavish reason that their children wouldn’t have to suffer their lot.

To find the true odyssey of the Italians in America, one would have to check the construction sites, the docks, the civil service rolls, and the sunup to sundown grocery stores, bakeries, barbershops, and shoe repair shops they operated.

What The Godfather is trying to peddle us is that turning to crime was not a choice but a necessary absorption in order to get along in a hostile country. Thus it is an ode to impotence and a grave insult to the Italians.

The impotence theme is carried further by suggesting that sons cannot escape fathers — a little Viennese cream on top of the demitasse, Hollywood-style. The real truth about the sons of immigrants would be better found on the registrar’s lists at such colleges as Brooklyn, Queens, Fordham, and St. John’s than on the Silver Screen.

Only Americans, with their materialistic minds, think they can corner the market on misery and corruption. Nixon has made us provincial: we have to be Number One in something. So now, instead of telling strangers at bars the glory of our bourbon, we tell them of our lock on the apocalypse — which makes us even more boring. Apocalyptic longing has always been one of man’s sugary dreams. Unfortunately, life is not a two-reeler but an endless coming attraction. We hear of an impending Ice Age (at last!) only to be told next of the erosion of the earth’s ozone layer which, to this unscientific mind, should cause the ice to melt — a twist Didi and Estragon surely would have foreseen.

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And if one has to deal with the tragedy of the immigrant, there are sadder sounds to plumb than the Godfather waltz. The trouble with the immigrant is that if you scratch him, you find an unquestioning patriot. This, I suppose, is out of gratitude for what they left behind (their apocalypse?). It has been carried over into their children (the hardhat class, if you will), leaving them politically rote and uncritical. That is the true tragedy.

With this dandy dissertation out of the way, we turn to that mean little film once more and the critical characters who fall outside the majesty of the mob. The Senate committee that investigates Michael not only has as a member the corrupt senator but is headed by counsel in the employ of the Lansky character, a fact the audience I sat in adored. And when Michael outfoxed the committee, a sigh of satisfaction usually associated with successful birth was audible.

The most dangerous interlude for the mob myth is when we find out that Michael is going to have his older brother killed. But how dangerous is it? After all, his brother conspired against him, inadvertently setting him up for a hit. Add to this that the brother’s character is punk-ridden, and the actor (John Cazale) is not very attractive physically by movie definition (you damn well wouldn’t kill James Caan and get away with it!). Also, in the course of the movie, he says his mother always used to tell him that she must have brought home the wrong baby. So what the hell! Snuff out the aberration and keep the strain pure. It’s done in all pedigrees.

That leaves us with Michael’s wife, Kay, as a voice of conscience. Even though she is blonde from New England, a heathen in the inner sanctum, she promises to be a worthy adversary. Her antimob tirades to Michael fall refreshingly on the audience’s ears, until in a fit of rage she confesses she aborted his son. Not an unhealthy fetus, mind you, or a child who would be economically deprived, but a bouncing baby boy who would grow up to frolic on the shores of Lake Tahoe. Now I ask you, what kind of a crazy cunt would do a thing like that? You see what I mean — no outside innocent victims, no viable critics — an offer the gullible couldn’t refuse.

A gossip columnists wrote that after GFI, Puzo was in Las Vegas and his tabs, gambling et al., were being picked up by “mysterious” admirers. If this be true, after Part II, his admirers ought to buy him Caesar’s Palace as an outhouse.

It is also said that Puzo goes to fat farms to reduce. The suggestion here is that on his next trip he should take Coppola along to melt the suet. And concentrate their efforts on il stomaco.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Film in Focus: Cruising Into Confusion

CRUISING. Directed by William Friedkin. Screenplay by Friedkin, based on the novel by Gerald Walker. Produced by Jerry Weintraub. Released by United Artists. 

The controversy over Cruising seems to be drifting toward an anticlimax now that the finished movie is available for inspec­tion. My sympathy, as always, tends to be with the filmmaker against the censor, however well-intentioned the latter may be. I think that it is hard enough making a good movie without having a lot of people screaming at you from the side­lines. On the other hand, I cannot deny that much, if not most, filmmaking is superficially exploitational in its depiction of sex and violence. So what? Most people in every field, including my own, are in it at least partly for the money. Consequent­ly, I have no illusions that William Friedkin, Jerry Weintraub, Gerald Walk­er, and Al Pacino undertook this project to feed the starving people of Cambodia. Whether any or all of these individuals are homophobic to any extent I cannot say. Much of the initial controversy seems to have been fueled by what A is supposed to have said at a seminar staged by B, and attended by C.

Some years ago, William Friedkin directed Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band on the screen, and I thought that his direction was reasonably sympathetic. Certain gay activists have attacked the play and the film for finally enshrouding the characters in gloom, morbidity, and self-pity. But if gloom, morbidity, and self-pity in the face of approaching middle age make Friedkin and Crowley antigay, then all of Chekhov’s plays can be at­tacked for being antistraight. It is in the nature of modern characters to be misera­ble at the slightest provocation.

One of the problems from the beginning may have been that the “story” of Cruis­ing was being told from the outside. Gerald Walker’s novel completely lacks either any confessional self-implication or any philosophical overview. The plot is developed almost entirely from the point of view of two characters: (a) John Lynch, an unmarried rookie cop recruited to act as a homosexual decoy to trap a homophobic murderer, and (b) Stuart Richards, the homophobic murderer. Ex­cept for a short prologue and some short plot-catching-up entries from Police Cap­tain Edelson’s Notebook, the novel is divided alternately in chapters headed “John Lynch” and “Stuart Richards.”

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Walker’s novel is in many ways much more gruesome than the movie. Richards not only murders his victims with a long knife but mutilates and dismembers them afterwards. There are a great many phallic references to the knife, and to its symbolic function in the Freudian notion of mater­nal castration. Walker makes a great deal of the fact that Richards murders people of his own physical and facial type, and that Lynch turns out to be a dead ringer for him. In his spare time, Richards is working vaguely on a graduate thesis on Rodgers and Hammerstein at Columbia. His pa­rents have been painfully and traumatically separated since he was a child, and they still bug him, his mother with smothering solicitude, and his father with strangling stinginess. Richards is a discerning movie buff, and two of his favorite movies are Stranger on a Train and The Third Man, both discussed extensive­ly within Richards’s sick mind or their “double” or “Doppelgänger” themes. Walker never mentions Psycho, but there is obviously a great deal of Norman and Mrs. Bates in the Stuart Richards character.

One incongruity in the Richards char­acter in the novel, however, is the frequen­cy and intensity of his heterosexual ac­tivities. Between murders he makes out with women like mad as if he were trying to exorcise some dreaded homosexual temptation. By contrast, the Lynch char­acter seems completely asexual. There is never the slightest intimation of a woman in his life, past or present, and even during his army days he did not indulge in any off-base pick-ups. Indeed, we gradually learn that he used to hang around an off-­post gay bar, and went in for a little gay-­bashing after hours. From a narrative point of view we are thus placed in the hands and minds of two confirmed homophobes, one (Lynch) of the Archie Bunker variety, and one (Richards) completely crackers.

New York’s gay milieu, and for that matter, New York itself, has never seemed so vile, sordid, dispiriting, and degrading. One can almost smell the piss in the doorways, the massive body odors on the steamy city streets. One can feel also the boiling feelings of loneliness, failure, me­diocrity, disgust, and raging self-hatred. What one cannot feel is the author’s in­volvement in this hellish scene. The book is written and structured in a singularly disengaged form. There is not even the sociological hypothesis that kept Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar limp­ing along to its preordained denouement. All that keeps Cruising together as a book is a gory stew of Freudian nightmares, films noirs, and gay guignol.

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The movie has made many drastic changes from the novel. The Richards character has been considerably reduced in size and scope, and the plot tilted from suspense to mystery. Furthermore, he has been transformed from a womanizing homophobe to black-leather hard trade. (Walker’s novel never touches on the kind of s&m scene that exists today.) Richard Cox is very effective in the role, such as it is, but he bears not the slightest re­semblance to Al Pacino as the rookie cop, now named Steve Burns rather than John Lynch. Pacino is now the one with the steady girlfriend, and he is seen banging away at the slightest opportunity. As in the book, the Pacino/Burns character makes friends with a gay playwright, but the plot payoffs are much vaguer in the film. In the novel the rookie cop kills another decoy by mistake, and then mutilates the body to make it look like the work of the homophobic murderer. Stuart Richards then goes berserk in a steam bath and knifes half a dozen male patrons before being killed in self-defense. The gay playwright is then found murdered and mutilated after having oral intercourse, and the horror resumes presumably with a decoy turned Doppelgänger.

Not only does the second decoy disap­pear in the film version; the book’s men­tion of 10 decoys on the case is omitted as well. For all we know, Pacino is the only decoy on the case, and this seems some­what grotesque on a screen across which potential suspects parade by the dozens. In the book Lynch was carefully instructed not to go “all the way” on his heavy dates. With Pacino it is never made clear just how deeply he is becoming involved. The ending is therefore completely muddled in that one cannot be sure that the Pacino decoy has or has not become the murderous Doppelgänger for the Cox/Richards culprit.

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Confusion, however, does not necessar­ily constitute evidence of homophobia. Whereas the novel can be criticized for being facile and unedifying, the movie’s major flaws are dullness and disorganiza­tion. Both Walker and Friedkin seem trapped within a genre in whose logical certitudes they can no longer believe. Hence, a pseudo-realistic open-endedness in both works undermines the mystique of detection and the faith in just and swift punishment. If anything, the movie is even more cynical and despairing than the novel in displaying the omnipresence of evil and corruption. And the police come off even worse than the leather boys in their treatment of street gays. From a political viewpoint, there is in neither the book nor the movie any moral standard against which to compare any lifestyle. The movie can be charged with sensation­alizing the milieu to the extent that it implies some of the victims “are asking for it” with their provocative costumes and overly aggressive come-ons.

In a strange way a project like Cruising seems regressive in terms of what was being done on the subject a decade ago with movies like Midnight Cowboy, Sun­day, Bloody Sunday, and even Fortune and Men’s Eyes. It is as if a less sophisti­cated audience had emerged in the in­terim.

Page 11 of 12.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized Violence

A Case for ‘Cruising’

I share in the homosex­ual rage sweeping New York — a rage too long dor­mant — against the cen­turies-old abuse of homosexuals. That anger is now directed at stopping the filming of Gerald Walker’s novel Cruising by William Friedkin.

Two main arguments have emerged for stopping the film. The first is that it may unleash a wave of violence against homosexuals. The second is that its con­centration on the elements of cruising, leather bars, and sadomasochism may result in a distortion of all homosexuals by focusing on a small segment.

My thoughts on violence and censorship — the issues involved here — are shaped by intimate encounters with each. As a homosexual, I have seen “queer­bashers” with chains ready to lash in cruising turfs; have seen faces of homosex­uals branded with lead pipes by hate-pocked “straight” attackers; have heard the curdling epithet “Queers!” and the accompanying crash of glass; have ex­perienced the frustration of failing to get cops to move into assaulted areas they invade only to arrest homosexuals.

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As a writer, I have experienced censorship too. Last year in England an anti-homosexual group effectively banned a nonfiction book by me by threatening the publishers with a suit before publica­tion, thus intimidating booksellers into not carrying it. That book, the group claimed, would pervert by presenting homosexuality in a “positive” light.

I do not question the homosexual anger in New York. It is the particular nuances of this matter, and possible hidden ramifications, that I believe should be explored further. Now, it would be naive to deny the special impact of films. It is also risky to predict that impact; and it may prove dangerous, based on such prediction, to move into the quagmire of prior censorship. Censorship continues to be a major factor in the oppression of homosexuals. For years, the motion picture code forbade any treatment of homosexuality. Showings of Genet’s Un chant d’amour and Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks — groundbreaking homosexual films — resulted in raided theatres. Until recently, photo­graphic and verbal presentations of homosexuality were ipso facto causes for censorship. Confiscation of homosexual magazines and books was routine, and jail sentences resulted. Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar was denied advertising space. Only last year, The New Yorker rejected advertising space to a staid homosexual publication.

Where shall the line now be drawn, and by whom? Is Roots offensive for showing violence against blacks? Holocaust against Jews? Shall television news clips exposing war atrocities — factors in ending the Vietnam war — be censored? And news stories of murders and kidnappings? What about Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Hard Core, both of which contain gross scenes of heterosexual brutality rendered even more offensive by posturings of morality and gratuitous anti-homosexual implications? And Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange?

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Granted that Friedkin’s intentions may not be noble; remarks attributed to him from years back sound at best archaic today. (One should point out, however, that his film of Mort Crawley’s play, The Boys in the Band, was very daring and sympathetic for its time.) Undeniably, the producer of Cruising, Jerry Weintraub, has been vulgarly offensive, insensitive to real issues. But can one determine from a script a film’s full meaning, which is also shaped by essential elements of per­formance, editing, even music? It is not only Cruising that is involved here: The precedent set by preventing its production will reach out to all other films — and may ricochet.

What are the long-term effects? Will any group demand to see a script in advance? May the same argument be used against a film made by homosexuals and opposed by heterosexuals? Shall we determine artistic expression by popular consent? May we not inadvertently be assuring that no director, no producer­ — not even homosexual ones — will dare to deal with homosexuality on screen at all? Anita Bryant attempted to silence our voices before it could be known what we would say. Our mere presence in schools, she asserted, would pervert children, even bring violence on them. She interpreted the impact of our behavior and, prejudg­ing it, moved to ban it.

Thomas Paine saw the trap of selected censorship: “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

If this film turns out to be odious, might we not turn it to our advantage, clarifying the elements it has, even if distortedly, exposed? Might we not point out that the violence against us is a result of sexual repression and other outside pressures inflicted on us — that the seamy places shown are those we have been shoved into by those societal strictures? Might we not use it to expose the indif­ference to violence against homosexuals, and the fact that one of the major outrages we face is the latent homosexuality of cops who stalk us and even turn into “queer­bashers”?

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Might we not, further, encourage pow­erful but uncommitted homosexual direc­tors and producers to counter the Friedkin film’s purported distortions by dealing with our own realities instead of hiding, as those directors and producers often do, in musical inanities and films brimful of social conscience toward everyone except homosexuals? At present, the troubling subject of violence toward homosexuals dealt with in Cruising, however sensation­alized its treatment may turn out to be, is virtually unknown to other than the victims of that violence.

It is exposure, not secrecy, that precedes the solution of a problem. When, a few years back, a cruising park in Los Angeles was ravaged by a wave of “bashings,” it was media silence and police apathy — not exposure — that allowed the attacks to continue unabated night after bloody night until murder inevitably occurred.

The second reason proffered against the filming of Cruising — that it presents a negative view of the homosexual world — also needs close examination. I firmly believe that not even implicit criticism of the homosexual world may be made that does not contain a greater criticism of heterosexual totalitarianism. But once that is emphasized, it is dishonest to deny that many homosexuals prefer certain subjects of homosexual life to remain hidden — especially that of sadomasochism.

Understandably, in view of the rabid homophobia, some of us want to conceal all that can possibly be determined as “ugly,” even when that ugliness is implanted by heterosexual bigotry. The re­sult is that we often become the only minority intent on showing our oppressors how happy they have made us. We affect that by insisting doggedly on presenting a so-called “positive” image — often a eu­phemism for heterosexual imitation — even to the point of denying the enriching spectrum of our experience, including an abundant sexuality, which needs no apology.

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Beyond the immediate context of what Cruising may or may not show, some questions should be asked. Would we allow any other film to deal with some of the elements we are objecting to in Friedkin’s? Or should we banish them totally from exploration? Only from heter­osexuals or even from our own? Will there be a leap to demand to see advance galley proofs of magazine articles and books?

Is there, in fact, an increasing fascina­tion with sadomasochism and leather, especially in our proliferating orgy rooms? Are the orgy rooms altering the pattern of homosexual behavior? Do those who fre­quent them comprise a small “freaky” segment, or a growing faction on the homosexual landscape? And if it is a disturbing faction, does it not require, exploration? Conversely, if it is “small,” does that exclude it from exploration?

And finally, why does every homosex­ual film or book — unlike a heterosexual film or book — have to represent our entire world, each and everyone of us, when we have so many diverse and rich voices?

We homosexuals cannot improve our world for ourselves and for those who follow us — and improving it is a duty we should all feel — if we ban the exploration of our problems. They will not go away if we shove them into the closets from which we have ourselves emerged. The homosexual energy now crackling in New York and elsewhere against oppression has too long been unreleased. Now that we homosexuals have rediscovered the spirit of the Stonewall Inn protest, the power must be used strongly. But critically. For the fight still clearly looms.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

On ‘Cruising’: Why the Village Went Wild

Jerry Weintraub, the producer of Cruising, has been telling reporters that pissing off gay people is the best kind of publicity. “I mean,” he told me, “when does a picture in production have an edito­rial in The New York Times?” Surely, this is gallows humor. Even if the protesters don’t actually stop his film, their disrup­tions are bound to strain its $11 million budget. Their anger won’t be lost on the networks when Cruising comes up for TV sale. And they can dent its grosses (at least in the cities) by throwing up a picket line wherever the movie shows.

Pissed-off people can limit an audience to their enemies — and that’s bad marketing. David Picker, the executive vice-president of Lorimar Productions, must be pondering the wisdom of his predecessors, who decided to finance Cruising even though the smart money in Hollywood was against it. In the nine years that Gerald Walker’s book has been up for grabs, three producers have optioned it, including Bob Weiner, who wanted Paul Morrissey to direct. At least three studios (Warner, Paramount, and Fox) turned Friedkin’s screenplay down. Did Hollywood snub this film because it was anti-gay, or because it was gay? The question is all but academic now. Assuming it’s finished, Cruising will go down in history, if only because it marks the first time a citizens’ protest has been mounted against a film before it’s in the can. And it has brought the gay community its most potent or­ganizing tool since the murder of Harvey Milk.

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No one was more surprised by the crowd that cut through Greenwich Village last week than the organizers of this campaign. For the most part, they are journalists who caught onto Cruising because Hollywood is their beat. A copy of the script, leaked by a gay person in the production, confirmed their worst fears. There are three murders in the first 14 pages, all of them hinging on rituals of leather-bar persuasion that are hard to [ed. note: illegible]. Evidently, William Friedkin does not: His script is a testament to heterosexuality; its dialogue is as inauthentic as the movies Hollywood churned out about the hippies 10 years ago. Here, for example, is the killer, being cruised by his gay prey:

“Why haven’t I seen you here before?”

“Just got in.”

“Where from?”

“Chicago, Maine, Duluth, Mars. Who cares?”

“I beg your hard-on?”

“Look, it’s a boring, disgusting place — right…?”

“You wanna split?”

And here is what follows:

“Shut up!”

“No, no please.”

“Turn around.”

“Oh God! Oh God! No.”

“You’re not getting me hard!”

“You’re hurting me.”

“Eat this underwear! Get this underwear in your mouth!”

“Oh yes! Yes!”

“I’m gonna give it to you good.”

Enter the knife.

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Friedkin’s folly has been to take characters from The Boys in the Band, which he directed 10 years ago, and update their agony by dressing them in leather. The connection between homosexuality and homicide is impossible to avoid. Sex between men is, for Friedkin, a prelude to combat. Al Pacino plays a rookie detective who is tainted by his immersion in this milieu. Cop and killer face each other, pants down, in a climax that is positively Eastwoodesque.

“How big are you?”

“Party size.”

“What are you into?”

“I’ll go anywhere.”

“Do me first.”

“Hips or lips?”

“Go for it.”

They reach for their knives.

Weintraub says the script has been substantially altered in the last few weeks. Though he denies that the demonstrations had anything to do with these changes, there is now “a healthy gay relationship” in the film, and a disclaimer stating that what is being shown represents only a fringe of gay life. Al Pacino’s sexuality will be ambiguous, and so will the killer’s. “The written page is just a guide to what you’re going to do,” says Weintraub. “You can’t rate a film until you see it.”

It’s entirely possible that William Friedkin thinks this film will be erotic to homosexual men. It’s possible that all the people connected with Cruising thought they were doing something progressive by exposing a netherworld that many gays abhor. “What if the film serves as a warning to a young guy who comes to New York looking for a thrill?” Weintraub asks. “What if it says to him, don’t do this stuff; go and find a good relationship.”

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But intentions are besides the point, because this project comes at a time when the gay middle class is beginning to assert a sense of public propriety that is not so different from that of the black middle class. Disco is the most vivid expression of this joint aspiration, but so is a new conservatism about emblems of oppression, like the word “nigger” or the accouterments of S&M. If Jesse Jackson blows up when a “progressive” like Mick Jagger observes that “black girls like to fuck all night,” why shouldn’t gay people have the same response to a stereotype even if this one has its grain of truth?

“I’m not putting anything in this film that doesn’t take place every day and every night,” Weintraub says. “This is not fiction, what we’re doing. This is truth.”

In fact, the corner of the Village where Cruising is being shot has always been a mecca for those who depend on the kind­ness of strangers. Back when Billy Friedkin was impressed by wet dreams, gay people called the stretch of waterfront that adjoins West 14th Street “the casbah.” But its bars are designed to resemble a filmmaker’s fantasy of dangerous sex. Illusion — not danger — is the point. The people who go to these bars know they are visiting a Luna Park of the libido; most of the people who patronize Cruising will think they are seeing or­dinary life.

Billy Friedkin wouldn’t know ordinary gay life if it hit him in the face — which, apparently, it has. Thanks to pressure from gay-rights organizations that are usually at each other’s throats, all but one bar in the village have withdrawn their cooperation with the film. About 20 extras have quit, and some of those who remain have leaked confidential information about locations, so there’s been no escap­ing the demonstrators. They show up every morning, shrill as the disco whistles they wear around their necks. They taunt the actors and harass the crew. The company has temporarily retreated to the basement of a bar called the Catacombs, on West 14th Street. Friedkin has constructed a replica of the Mine Shaft there. One extra said each stud in that scene was getting $60, but there was an extra $25 for any extra who would simulate a blow job. He added that everyone was expected to provide his own gear.

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I visited the set Thursday morning. The extras lounging in dress leathers looked authentic enough, but they also seemed slightly passé, like last year’s Donna Sum­mer song. This was in marked contrast to the demonstrators, who sported no regalia of any sort. Instead of the dangling keys and “hot hankies” that figure so promi­nently in Friedkin’s vision of gay life, these people were wearing buttons with small pink triangles, to commemorate what gay prisoners wore in concentration camps. The march itself, which paused at bar after waterfront bar to summon the patrons inside, seemed to be a way for gay people to signal each other that the time has come to stop flaunting fetishism. These weren’t radicals, though remnants of the Gay Activist Alliance were certainly visible when the going got tough. This was the gay MOR, spurred on by the closest thing he has to a political leadership in this town. As its ranks swelled, something larger than William Friedkin’s homophobia was addressed. After years of stereotyping imposed from without and absorbed from within, this particular rank and file was serving notice on the Great American Dream Machine that it could no longer peddle its fantasy of gay life as if it were the real thing.

“We won’t be a background for their exploitation films,” said Ron Gold of the National Gay Task Force, over the bull­horn at Sheridan Square. Then, perhaps a thousand people set off down Christ­opher Street, with a more abrupt version of those remarks. They shouted, “No more shit!”

It was the closest thing to a long hot summer the city’s seen this year. All week, the Village rang with the rampage of gay people who had anything but cruising on their minds. They blocked Sixth Avenue, Seventh Avenue, West Street, 14th Street. They threw bottles and bricks, smashed windows, slammed into cars and trucks. The Sixth Precinct was kept busier than at any time since Stonewall. There were five arrests and perhaps a dozen injuries, mostly of demonstrators who wandered away from the crowd. One cop was kicked in the balls; it made page one of the Post. The next day, Tony Baska’s picture made page eight. In the photo, he is being “persuaded” to lean against a car. A bit later, however, he was pummeled, cuffed, thrown to the ground, kicked, and clubbed — by five cops. Alone in a cell, Baska told me, he heard the police talking about the demonstrations. “I think they should be decapitated,” said one of the city’s hippest cops, the guys who play against the gay softball league each year. “These pansies are trying to act like men.”

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Tony Baska recalled the rally he’d attended at the Washington Square Meth­odist Church a few days before. Half a dozen gay leaders exhorted people to commit civil disobedience. “Call if you get busted,” they each said. Baska was permitted one shot at the telephone, and he dialed the Gay Switchboard. A tape told him to call back in the morning.

“It’s unreal,” said Betty Santoro, of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights. When things got heavy, she called 15 gay lawyers, but all of them were too busy to work for free. She finally had to rely on the National Lawyers’ Guild, which is straight, or at least, nondenominational. “The people who started this aren’t carry­ing through on their responsibility,” San­toro says. “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and the right hand is running the show.”

What she means is that, even though an ad hoc committee sponsored this cam­paign, its impetus came from the move­ment’s moderate wing — especially the Na­tional Gay Task Force. The militant Gay Activist Alliance call this “The National Gay Tom Force,” but both organizations rely on each other’s presence, though they revile each other’s ideology. NGTF counts on the GAA to stir things up so it can move in to work things out. The only problem is, nobody controls the enrages, and when the shit hits the fan, nobody is there to help them out.

Last week, the GAA was relatively restrained, but that didn’t stop the occa­sional bottle from being thrown or the flash of studded belts when the cops drew near. Straight provocateurs, some people muttered. Yet clearly these were young gay people out to show their rage, but there was no strategy for them to follow, so they roamed the waterfront along with everybody else, smashing car windows and taunting the police. This, too, could be blamed on the organizers, who were so ambivalent about the need for civil disobedience that though some of them advo­cated it, they were unwilling to organize it.

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On top of this, the ad hoc committee made a spectacular blunder when it de­cided early on to throw the matter into the mayor’s lap. Maybe the NGTF thought its connections at City Hall would prove more powerful than the economics of the situation, but a little research would have shown that the Mayor’s Office for Motion Picture and Television has done everything to cooperate with filmmakers short of paying them to work here. Last March, when the Board of Education refused to allow a movie called Hot Lunch to film at the High School of Performing Arts because its script contained refer­ences to marijuana and teenage sexuality, the mayor’s office tried to overturn that decision. The Board of Ed won out, but the city promptly rented Haaren High School to the filmmakers for $1.

Last week, three members of the ad hoc committee met with Nancy Littlefield, the mayor’s movie scout. Weintraub sug­gested at that meeting that he couldn’t be responsible for his crew’s reaction if the demonstrations got violent. His indication that there were Teamsters on the set, coupled with the fact that some unsavory owners of waterfront bars may have served as consultants on this film, led some people in the ad-hoc committee to con­clude that the mob has an interest in Cruising. “That’s nonsense,” says Weintraub. “That’s propaganda. I have no connection with anybody. The Teamsters on my set are working people. Somebody comes along and yells obscenities at them, in this heat, they’re liable to get their noses out of joint.”

The city is extending the usual courtesies to the producers of Cruising: police protection, permit facilitation, per­mission to store equipment on a city pier. The ad hoc committee asked the mayor to revoke the permits and rescind the police. This wasn’t a matter of censorship, they contended; it was simply a matter of withdrawing cooperation. Said Ethan Geto, a veteran gay activist and an assis­tant to State Attorney General Robert Abrams: “We are simply asking the city not to put its imprimatur on an offensive, abusive vehicle.”

The mayor declined, citing the First Amendment and refusing to interfere in any way with the content of a film being shot on the streets of New York. Some of the demonstrators agreed, especially within the NGTF, where Koch has strong support within the gay community. But Doug Ireland, who was beaten by a bouncer for leafleting in a gay bar, won­ders: “Would the mayor allow a remake of Birth of a Nation in Harlem, or Jew Suss in Borough Park?” Is Cruising good for New York? I asked Nancy Littlefield, who is the mayor’s movie scout. “Anything that brings in $7 million is good for New York,” she said, and then hung up.

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Andrew Stein has proposed the community boards be informed in advance of films that shoot on their streets. The mayor disagrees: “I do not believe community boards should have the right to decide what books shall be shown in bookstores in their areas, what paintings shall hang in museums in their areas, what movies shall be shown in theatres in their areas, or what films should be made in their areas, as long as what is done is lawful.” But Tony D’Apolito, the chair­man of Community Board 2, which in­cludes the Village, says, “Community boards don’t have the right to decide anything. We’re asking for the right to be consulted. By asking our opinion, we might be able to save them from making a mistake.”

Most of the demonstrators do not intend to stop William Friedkin from making this film; they just want to get him out of the neighborhood. Let him make Cruising in the studio, where he’ll have to pay through the nose to make it look real. Then there are those who want the film stopped entirely because they say it will cause murder on the waterfront. Arthur Bell has characterized Cruising as “a snuff film. This isn’t a civil-liberties issue,” he told a crowd in Sheridan Square. “This is a matter of survival.” Nice rhetoric, I thought, but then I visited the set.

I saw the cops hassle three guys who were taunting the demonstrators. “Why you picking on us, we’re the only ones who aren’t queer?” They were out to avenge the honor of Al Pacino, their favorite star. I asked why they thought the queers were in the streets. “They just want publicity,” said one guy, who owns a gas station near the set. Then he pointed to the demon­strators who looked most like leaders, the ones who were giving interviews to the press. “You wipe out that guy and that one over there,” he said, “the whole thing dies.”

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On ‘Cruising’: The Hollywood Hassle

The Cruising company departs New York this week, leaving behind a load of unresolved issues. Most of these have been argued in The Voice. Some will be resolved only after the film’s release. But one issue has been overlooked that goes beyond civil rights: the obligation the city has to its people to make certain the production of a movie doesn’t mess up their lives.

•••

Two weeks ago, Steve Askinazy, age 30, co-owner of Chez Stadium Restaurant on Greenwich Avenue, former owner of the Ballroom, returned from a conference of gay and lesbian Jews in Tel Aviv. One of the first functions he attended was a meet­ing of Community Planning Board No. 2 (he is a member). Askinazy was among several who convinced the board that vio­lence would certainly erupt if Cruising were to be filmed on Christopher Street. The following day, the board sent a letter to Mayor Koch asking him to deny the film crew a permit for that locale “so as to ease the tension in our community.”

On Monday evening, August 20, Askinazy wore a University of Tel Aviv T-­shirt (the lettering was Hebrew) and a yarmulke to Sheridan Square, where he heard speakers proclaim that a symbolic victory had been won: store owners, bar owners, and residents of Christopher Street had made it impossible to film that evening because they had locked their doors, shrouded their own signs, and put up others which read: “STOP THE MOV­IE CRUISING.” Instead, the crew would shoot on West and Perry.

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So, with 700 protesters, Steve Askinazy marched to the new location. He kept an eye on the crowd, as did the 30 other gay marshals and the 200 cops assigned from various precincts (this figure includes the Tactical Police Force). At no time were the protesters allowed within two blocks of filming, but whistles, chants, and appeals to “Stop Cruising!” were heard as far north as 14th Street.

Earlier, there had been an incident involving the cutting of a cable wire, and one demonstrator was hit on the head by a missile. At 9:30 p.m., another confronta­tion occurred and a demonstrator was ar­rested and taken to the Sixth Precinct. An hour later, a commotion erupted on the river side of West Street. A group of ap­proximately 100 protesters tried to inch their way forward and six cops on horses charged at them, dispersing the crowd and causing pandemonium.

Askinazy, who was on the other side of the street, ran toward the commotion, hoping he could do something to cool down the crowd. Halfway there, he remembers, “Several demonstrators ran in my direc­tion, and I decided to run with them instead, away from whatever disturbance was taking place. A cop blocked my path. I spun around and another cop blocked me. The two closed in. I froze, ready for them to arrest me or tell me to leave. They threw me against a car and beat me with nightsticks. Within seconds, four other cops joined them. Six of them were beat­ing and kicking me on the back, head, and stomach. I fell to the ground. One tried to suffocate me by putting his hand over my nose and mouth. I thought I was dying. I don’t remember feeling the pain — just the terror.”

Askinazy was arrested and booked. He was charged with endangerment, resisting arrest, and harassment. He was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital for treatment of severe bruises, stomach pains, and a con­cussion. He is still at St. Vincent’s.

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•••

William Friedkin, his crew, and his star, Al Pacino, invaded Jones Street Au­gust 10. Residents on the block hadn’t received prior notification. Nor had they been asked how they felt about Cruising being shot on their block. According to a Jones Street resident who didn’t want her name made public, “The cops had the street cordoned off by 8 p.m. They didn’t allow us into our buildings without first showing identification. They escorted us in. They were on practically every rooftop. At one point, they were lined up shoulder to shoulder, halfway down the street, like they were awaiting the arrival of Jimmy Carter.

“The cops are more interested in pro­tecting the rights of moviemakers than the people who live in this city. There have been instances of people being mugged in the Village and it’s taken them an hour to come. Here, they were out full force for a few minutes of movie shooting. Is this where our tax money’s going?”

•••

In Central Park, an Erie Transport truck carrying production equipment plowed through the Rambles to the spot where Paul Sorvino finds a mutilated body. The truck tore low-hanging branches off trees and left tire scars in the grass. At 26 Ninth Avenue, where the Metropolitan Community Church is housed, the crew took over a butcher sup­ply shop next door, converting it into an s&m-gear toyshop. Without notice, they shut off electricity in the building housing the church and shut down the elevators.

On August 13, they brought their equipment to 140 Claremont Avenue, near 122nd Street, and almost immediately trouble started. Once again, there had been no prior warning. Martha Williams, a cellist and faculty member at Man­hattan School of Music, noticed that “a prop man was pasting labels over our names on the mailbox and door buzzers. I told him to stop — it was illegal.” A couple of days later, he was doing it again. A neighbor started photographing him in the process and he quit. One day, the crew began shooting a scene in the lobby. Wil­liams was with several neighbors — they refused to move. “After all, this is my home,” Williams said. “This is where I’ve lived for 13 years.” The production man­ager called the cops. Four came from the 26th precinct and another four from the Tactical Police Force. They told Williams that the landlord’s lease with the film company superseded her rent lease and that she had to move from the hallway or they’d give her a summons. If she still did not move, they’d take her downtown to criminal court and put her in jail for the night. They also instructed her that she couldn’t get in or out of her building while the crew was shooting.

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Williams lives with her husband in Apartment 4A, next door to where the movie killer and mutilator of gay men resides (he’s played by Richard Cox). At 3 a.m. on the morning after the hallway confrontation, Williams and her husband returned to their apartment. She put the key in the lock and found she couldn’t open the door. Crazy glue had been poured on the keyhole. The couple went to the 26th precinct and called a locksmith. It cost $108 to repair the damage. When they finally got in, they found a message on the answering machine. It said, “You know, you’re a jerk. If you had cooperated with the film crew, they would have been all right and you would have been all right. You got what you deserved. Screw you.”

Brian Kirschner, who lives in Apart­ment 4C, found a sign on his door calling him “QUEEN OF THE YEAR” (Kirschner is straight). His apartment had been broken into, his lease and paycheck stolen, and his records vandalized.

The day before, Kirschner was playing his stereo when crew members began pounding on his door. They pounded so hard he thought the door would cave in. The next thing he knew, the electricity in his apartment had been cut off. They turned off the electricity in Martha Wil­liams’s apartment too, because she was using her vacuum cleaner. On Thursday, August 16, she was playing Bartok’s Sixth when the electricity was turned off, for the second time that day. It stayed off for two hours. Williams phoned the police. They said, “Call Con Ed.” She called Con Ed. They said, “Phone the police.” She phoned the Mayor’s Office for Motion Pic­tures and Television and asked for director Nancy Littlefield. She got assistant Meredith Anthony instead.

Meredith Anthony told Martha Wil­liams, “The Cruising crew is sensitive and professional.” She further said that the mayor’s office has no jurisdiction outside of actual filming on city streets.

“Do you mean that a tenant in this situation has no rights and no recourse against the city?” asked Williams. “I’m afraid that is the case,” answered An­thony. Later on, Williams spoke to Nancy Littlefield, who promised to call the prod­uction office. That was the last Williams heard from Littlefield’s office.

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•••

I phoned Nancy Littlefield. In fact, I called her five times during the week I wrote this story, leaving messages each time. Finally, I received a call from her assistant. “Miss Littlefield has no com­ment.” On anything? “That’s right. Miss Littlefield has no comment.”

Garbo has that option but certainly no public servant does — so I phoned the mayor’s office and complained. An hour later, Nancy Littlefield was on the phone. Had she relayed Martha William’s complaint to the Cruising production office? Yes, she replied. They assured her that Williams’s electricity would be turned on.

Littlefield reiterated that problems be­tween tenants and film crews were not within her jurisdiction. Indoor shooting is a “private, individual thing that a film company negotiates.”

Would the Cruising agonies hurt future film projects in New York?

“I don’t think it’s going to help or hinder. Censorship will hurt.”

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•••

When all this mishagas started, Mayor Koch summoned me to City Hall. He asked me to come alone. He wanted to explain his position. For 25 minutes, I listened to him discuss feelings. His feel­ings are he doesn’t believe the city should censor books or movies, no matter what the content. He hadn’t read the Cruising script, nor the synopsis in the Post. Besides which, that wasn’t the point. “Whether I like the script or not, the city has an obligation.”

He then went on to say that he’s “the best mayor this town has ever had, protec­ting people and their rights.” I told him to stop the soapbox. It occurred to me how touchy this business must be for him. Had he done too much for the gay community by issuing an executive order right after election? Or not enough by failing to get the gay civil-rights bill passed? Were in­nuendos to haunt him all through his administration? Why wouldn’t he try to understand the political issue of Cruising?

We were playing twin soliloquies, and I was getting mad. As I started to leave, the mayor said, “You’re not going to shake my hand?” By reflex, I shook his hand. I used to like him when he wasn’t mayor.

Cruising isn’t the only film to disrupt New York, but no other movie has caused as many problems. Godfather producer Al Ruddy conferred with Italian Americans in 1970 before filming. They made it clear they wouldn’t allow Ruddy to shoot his big wedding sequence as planned, at an Italian-owned manor on Long Island. It was shot on a Staten Island estate instead. Whistles and noisemakers slowed down filming of Cotton Comes to Harlem on Harlem Streets. Protesters claimed that Cotton depicted blacks in a stereotypical and negative manner. Badge 373, with script by Pete Hamill (who has supported Friedkin in two Daily News column and whose book, Flesh and Blood, will be made into a TV movie by Jerry Weintraub, the producer of Cruising) faced opposition from Puerto Ricans in the summer of 1973. Meetings with director Howard Koch took place at the Paramount offices. Puerto Rican spokesmen threatened that theatres showing Badge 373 would be bombed. The theatres weren’t, but the movie bombed anyway at the box office despite heavy media coverage.

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(Advance publicity doesn’t make a bad movie a hit. Cleopatra was the most pre­-publicized film in history due to the loony romantic shenanigans of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during production in Rome. Nevertheless, it was a critical and financial disaster. Not even the terrorist stakeout of an embassy helped Muhammed: Messenger of God. Muhammed was pulled from theatres at the height of the Washington rumble and reinstated after the real-life drama had run it course. It didn’t benefit from the headlines. Another Time, Another Place was released in the mid ’50s after Lana Turner’s daughter stabbed Lana’s lothario lover. Lana was a big star and revelations about her abundant love life sold papers, but they couldn’t sell her stinky film.)

Several films in progress have tied up city traffic and caused entire neighbor­hoods sleepless nights. The Warriors was problematic before it was released. Real-life gangs riffed with cast members, and the producers had to pay off the toughs in order to assure peace on the shooting site.

When Kojak shot in front of Fran Lebowitz’s building in the Village, the author of Metropolitan Life innocently left her apartment carrying 25 pounds of laun­dry.“’Go back in,” production men shouted. Fran did not obey. “I’m doing my laundry,” she said. “I’m not trying to break into show business.” They let her go to the laundromat, but when she returned a cop stopped her and said, “You can’t go in there.” “Why not?” Fran inquired. “I live here.” “They’re making a Kojak mov­ie,” the cop replied. Finally, the director intervened. “Listen kid,” he said to Fran. “Help us out. You can watch us work.” Fran retorted, “I’ve got a column to knock out. Why don’t you walk upstairs with me and watch me work?”

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Fran is opposed to moviemaking in New York. She maintains, “It’s like the Shriner’s parade. They should have it somewhere else.”

Most everyone else is all for it. When Woody Allen films his Manhattan love sonnets, neighborhoods go out of their way to respond with generosity. When The Goodbye Girl was shot in the West 70s, simulated rain flooded half a city block; local kids splashed in it and applauded Richard Dreyfuss, who applauded back en route to his dressing-room trailer. Martin Scorcese took over East 13th between Sec­ond and Third for a few days of Taxi Driver, and the shoot was like a street carnival. Director, producer, publicist, crew, treated the citizen’s with affection and respect. They responded in kind.

Cruising is a different story. Friedkin doesn’t speak to people. I’ve no doubt that had he at least conferred with the Com­munity Planning Board, problems in Greenwich Village would have lessened. Had he dealt with gay groups, he’d have had an understanding of the inciteful na­ture of his script. If he had a sense of social justice, perhaps he’d have altered his script, which, in effect, says that murder is the result of gay sex. (The murder sequences in Cruising are filmed like prod­uction numbers in an M-G-M musical — ­each more spectacular than the last.)

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Ethics, professional or personal, mean nothing: Disrupting citizens’ lives is some­thing producer Weintraub and director Friedkin couldn’t care less about. (Wein­traub told Martin Burden of the Post, “I wish they’d got the title right in the picket signs. It’s Cruising, not Cruisin’ ”). Budget is relative — they’ve gone over by at least a week. However, much of the money going into Cruising is coming from reluc­tant taxpayers, and more has been lost by individual merchants such as those on Christopher Street who willingly closed their shops rather than participate in the making of the film. Thousands of police hours have gone to keep angry gays in their place while Friedkin filmed his anti-gay movie. (A sound technician at the lab where Cruising is being processed told me the film is not only anti-gay, it’s anti­-human.)

Another bit of local fallout is the mor­als division’s August 15 raids on Crisco Disco, the Mine Shaft, and the Anvil. They were the first major police raids on gay hangouts in a decade. Fourteen men were arrested and charged with selling or serving liquor without a license. Sgt. Phil­lip Tambasco of the Public Morals Division maintained, “The raids had noth­ing to do with Greenwich Village protests by homosexuals against the filming of Cruising.” Lawrence Gedda, State Liquor Authority commissioner, claims, “When one of these places hits the newspapers and gets a certain amount of notoriety, it gets raided.” Both the Mine Shaft and the Anvil received media attention because they denied Friedkin and company access to their facilities.

•••

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In Hollywood, Larry Marks chats from his office on the Paramount lot. Marks is vice-president of production and market­ing at Paramount. He feels that “Future movies that are potentially dangerous on an explosive subject will no longer film in New York. People there are more in tune. Films like Cruising will have to shoot in Kansas City.”

Does that mean they’ll still make mov­ies with fag jokes and anti-gay themes, but away from Manhattan? Larry Marks thinks less so. “I can feel the effects already. Industry people will be more careful about gay lifestyles and the kind of gay ingredient that should be in a script.

“To use a cliché, what you’ve done in New York is raise consciousness.”

What Cruising‘s done in New York shouldn’t happen in Kansas City.

Page 10 of 12.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

The ‘Dog Day’ Bank Robber Learns Moviemaking, Like Crime, Does Not Pay

Littlejohn, the ‘Dog Day’ Bank Robber Learns Moviemaking, Like Crime, Does Not Pay
September 29, 1972

They don’t look like the other couples holding hands in the visitor’s room at Lewisburg Penitentiary. At 127 pounds, he looks boyish sitting hunched-up cross-legged in tan chino pants, gesturing with a cheese sandwich to the reporter. She looks coquettish, daintily draped over his shoulder despite her 238 pounds. Here in this softly sunlit room in Pennsylvania, could anyone sense the recklessness that has ruined their lives or the vulnerability to show-biz exploitation which they share?

They are John Wojtowicz, alias Littlejohn Basso, the gay bank robber, and his wife Car­men. John is nearly resigned to serving his full term as the prison’s gay whipping boy; Carmen’s meager life is uncomforted by belit­tling portrayals of her in a book and movie for which she was paid $50.

The movie is Dog Day Af­ternoon, a tale of abduction, bisex­uality, transsexualism, armed rob­bery, and death. Even if it doesn’t come to match the runaway box office receipts of Jaws, it may chew up a Tommy or two. Mixing accounts of those actually involved and a bit of artistic license, it takes us inside the bank, and, to some extent, inside the bandits’ heads. It shows an uneasy camaraderie between the hostages and Wojtowicz, whom Pacino plays as a tender-hearted loser caught between physical and mental forces beyond his understanding or control. As a re­sult, Dog Day Afternoon is like other Robinson — Cagney — Bogart gangster Films Warner Brothers has given us: you feel sorry for the bad guy.

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Interviewing the bad guy last week, one does feel a little sorry for him. This is Littlejohn’s first interview in three years, secretly and more carefully arranged than the clumsy stickup because prisoners aren’t allowed to meet the press. Especially an openly gay inmate doing a 20-year stretch in a max­imum security fortress like Lewis­burg where, after Jimmy Hoffa checked out, Littlejohn became its most pointed-at prisoner. Even among killers and con men, a kind of glamorous visibility attaches to an inmate with a story like his. You remember it: three years ago on a 97-degree day in August, the news flashed that robbers were cornered holding up a Chase Manhattan branch in Flatbush. Battalions of police enclosed the scene, the media and thousands of onlookers swarmed in to watch while negotiations dragged on to free the nine hostages. Suddenly the drama took a high bounce when it was learned that the two desperadoes inside were gay, one of them Littlejohn, who said he needed money to finance a sex change for his male “wife” named Ernie. While he already had a he­terosexual wife and two children (so did Ernie, it later developed), Ernie had become his second wife in an elaborate mock wedding. Now the second wife was delivered to the scene, a sepulchral figure in a hospi­tal gown, unsteady from a suicide attempt two days before. Fourteen hours later, the two robbers wrapped themselves in hostages and were driven to JFK, where, in a scuffle under the wing of a jet, Wojtowicz was captured and his accomplice, Sal, was shot dead through the heart.

John’s manner is direct but soft-spoken, even oddly respectful of the reporter whom he addresses as Mister, though we’ve had a half a dozen phone conversations and he’s aware his wife and I have developed an easy familiarity during a five-hour drive from New York the night be­fore. (“Did you two make it?” he asked me apparently more curious than concerned.)

Can you see the film here?

They finally said okay. I’ve seen the script, y’know

Does it follow the facts?

Some stuff was left out. Like our plan was to leave the bank by 3:25 to get over to King’s County Hospital pretty quick and get Ernie out. They were holding on to him and visiting hours were over by four o’clock.

You were just going to take him by force?

If necessary. If I didn’t come out with him in 10 minutes, Sal was coming in with guns.

In the car, Carmen had said she noticed a change in John’s attire just before the robbery. He started wearing “gorgeous outfits, like purple velvet pants and lavender shirts to match.”

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Pacino wore crummy clothes. Did you?

Naw, that’s not right. I wore a black iridescent sharkskin suit with a red and black tie. I ran up $1500 on my BankAmericard to get all the stuff together, the guns and everything. Sal had on a gray pinstripe with a handkerchief in the pocket. We all had mirror sunglasses for the getaway. We thought about glue-on mustaches but it was too much. In the script they got me carrying the 12-gauge Mauser shotgun in a long flower box but actually we used one of them giant boxes of Wrigley chewing gum.

Wouldn’t that attract attention?

Sure, but what the hell.

(Robert Barrett, the bank manager,­ has a different recollection. “Yes, they were dressed like a pair of Frank Nitty’s but there was no Wrigley box. Just a brown paper-wrapped thing.” Later Carmen explains, “He just gets carried away. He believes those dumb stories himself.”)

What about all that phone calling into and out of the bank?

Well, before the cops discovered us, we had to make it look normal if anyone phoned in. Since I used to be a teller, when the phone rang, I answered it and gave them what they wanted. “Y’know, credit infor­mation, balances. The real thing. I OK’d a loan I shouldn’t have though, someone with a long Polack name — ­one of my people — and the manager, hollered at me.

(“The girls took the calls,” says Barrett.)

John, would you really have pulled the trigger on those hostages?

Me and Sal and Bobby, we talked it over the night before. The decision was not to waste anybody.

But people had to think you would use those guns.

The decision was not to waste anybody.

Could you kill someone?

If I had to.

Could you kill me?

…no.

Why not? 

Littlejohn pauses, lowers his chin, and gazes at me with big brown eyes that have for some time won hearts of all genders. Tender and macho at the same time, it is oddly affecting.

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Though he’s been vigorously om­nisexual since childhood, his open gayness dates from the early days of the Gay Activists Alliance in 1970 when he was a visible and somewhat controversial irregular. “All you had to do to get a laugh,” recollects someone who knew him then, “was mention Littlejohn Basso’s name.”

Why were you offering to exchange hostages for members of the press? 

I told them we’d give ’em one hostage for Chris Borgen, two for Jim Jensen. They sez, nothin’ doing. We’ll give you two priests and a rabbi.

But why?

The more publicity we got, the safer we were. We knew they were coming in to blow us away. But they wouldn’t if we had reporters inside. They wouldn’t dare.

You mean they would have just charged in at you like Attica?

Listen, when John Lindsay phoned, I put Sal on one extension, the manager on another, and one of the girls on a third. He sez, “Hello, is this the bank robber?” I sez, “Yah, this is the bank robber.” He sez, “You got five minutes to come out with your hands up or we’re coming in there shooting.” I sez, “Hey, wait a minute. What about all these hostages here. Somebody could get hurt like that.” He sez, “We don’t care about the hostages. Drop your ammunition or we’ll go through all of them to get to you.” Well the man­ager hears that and he drops the phone and the girl gets sick and starts crying. I hang up. So then I sez to the manager, “Look, we got a problem here. I ain’t gonna tell the women about this. You gotta do it.” So he sits them all down and says. “All right, ladies, in a few minutes they’re coming through that door and we’ll all be dead.”

How’d they take it?

Well, the manager asks me if he can have a gun. He sez, “You got one for me? If I’m going to go, I’d like to take one of them cops with me.” One of the girls wants a gun, too, so we show her how to use it.

John Lindsay, on TV assignment in Moscow, was unavailable for com­ment. At presstime, Wojtowicz admitted playfully, “Well, it was his assistant. Sometimes the parts I can’t remember I make up.”

(“He tells a beautiful story,” says Barrett. “Maybe he should have written the screenplay.”)

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Littlejohn’s hot temper and sly naivete seem to have combined with poor advisers or no advisers at all to spoil his one shot at a break. Three months after the rob­bery, he sold the movie and book rights to Artists Entertainment Complex for $7500. (Putting that into some context, Lenny Bruce’s heirs will probably make between $250,000 and $400,000 from the film Lenny.) “If $7500 seems low now,” says Martin Bregman, AEC’s president and the film’s producer, “you must remember we were only speculating that we could make a movie. It was later we were able to sell the package to Warner Brothers.”

Apparently Littlejohn made the deal without professional advice and while in an anguished state of mind. Mark Landsman, his court-appoint­ed attorney who plea-bargained the 20-year sentence (John was broke), retained $3500 of the $7500 with Wojtowicz’s approval, “but I was just a letter carrier on the movie deal,” says Landsman. Did he give John any wise counsel or see to it the contract held water? “To be perfect­ly frank,” says Landsman, “I didn’t want to get involved. How should I know what it takes to pay off a criminal for his story?”

It has been widely reported that Wojtowicz owns 1 per cent of the net profits of the film. He does not. Asked for confirmation, Warner Brothers, and Bregman, who is Al Pacino’s agent, searched their files and report that no such contract exists.

Pressed for a statement, he said, “All right, look, if Dog Day does as well as Serpico (his last film which grossed $22-$23 million). I’ll give Wojtowicz $25,000.”

“Can I print that?”

“Print that,” said Bregman.

It was two days before the pre­miere and he was understandably nonplussed. “You’ve made me feel very guilty. If the picture makes any profit at all, I’ll see he’s taken care of. If we get fat, some of the fat will flow in his direction. A job, an apart­ment, something.”

Carmen Wojtowicz has fared even less well. Believing the $7500 deal for John’s “defense fund” depended partly on her cooperation, she says, she signed a release to her rights in a West 4th Street book store on the back of Randy Wicker’s briefcase, standing up. (Wicker, then a writer for a gay newspaper, The Advocate, was acting as liaison for AEC.) Later Carmen gave him a tape recorded account of her experience during the robbery, and her recollections of life with Littlejohn, for which Wicker paid her $50. “I got a little red raincoat for my daughter,” she says, “and some new kitchen curtains.”

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Warner Brothers may have been covering their bets this July when they asked her to film a “promotion­al documentary” to plug the movie on TV. “Six hundred dollars is what people usually get,” she says Warners rep Bardwell Jones, told her, ”but promise me you won’t go telling anyone.” Her counteroffer of $1500 was snapped up. Three days later, she left tor Lewisburg at 8 a.m. in a Warner Brothers limousine. There, she secured John’s blessing on the project without any­one’s yet seeing the 500-word release it entailed. She says Jones told her he forgot to provide it. When I phoned him last week, he seemed agitated and refused to comment.

A careful reading of the release shows that, while it does not deliver Carmen into slavery, it considerably weakens any potential action by her against the studio. As does her film footage, sitting in a vault somewhere.

When Carmen saw Dog Day Af­ternoon, she wept. “Am I that repulsive?” she asked. “Is my apartment as awful as that girl’s was?”

Carmen crash-dieted to 150 pounds for her wedding in October 1967, “but I was weak and miserable,” she recalls, and the weight began to climb again. “John has always said he likes me this way,” she adds (he agrees). Sometimes loud but never strong, she has adjusted her life to child raising, occasional dating (“Did you know some men are abso­lutely weird for, y’know, big girls?”), and waiting for John to come home.

Dell’s “novel” would appear to assume she has no feelings whatev­er. Tina, the wife, is referred to as “a fat cunt,” “a no-good pusbag,” “guinea broad” with a “lardhead’s brain.” One passage reads, “Tina had been one cute cunt in those days… you could still see the cow’s shape. Nowadays there was nothing to see but acres of soft, drippy meat. Her tits hung down—”…

“It’s a matter of First Amendment free speech,” says H. Miles Jaffe, a lawyer whose firm withdrew from representing John and Carmen last spring. “Certain landmark court decisions say that, in a way, we all live our lives in the public domain. Then, of course, the Wojtowicz’s did sign some ‘sort of’ releases.”

“Maybe,” says Carmen in a small voice, over tea in her tidy kitchen last week. “Maybe they’re trying to screw us because we’re just little people.” She and her two children receive $175 in welfare every two weeks and she pays $150 rent to her father for a four-room apartment in his aluminum-sided, three-family house in East New York. She’s a Christmastime Avon Lady and to help with the kid’s clothes, this summer she worked the 8 to 2 a.m. shift at Carvel twice a week for $24 until welfare found out and started de­ducting it back, $25 per check.

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The children sleep in an alcove without windows which has been cheered by new mattresses and playroom wallpaper put up chest high with Scotch tape. They have their father’s eyes and irrepressible nature that often confounds their mother. “I holler at them and pound them,” she says, “but they’re good kids. They just need Johnny more. So do I.”

Littlejohn won’t be with them before 1979 when he is first eligible for parole. He is a lure for rape attempts (one successful, he says) and, partly to defend himself against this, has paired up with another prisoner. “Cool it,” he says, smiling evenly, making me think I’m prying too deeply until I realize a guard is passing close, and as a “friend” I shouldn’t have a notebook.

It sounds like your hostages were pretty brave people, right?

Yeah, all except the bank’s security guard. He got right down on his knees and begged for his life: “Oh please, PLEASE don’t kill me — I don’t want to die!”

(“True,” says the bank manager sadly. “He was six feet, 24-years-old, and a kind of black belt type.”)

How about yourself? Weren’t you scared?

I was too busy to be scared.

(“Well, he was often very excited,” says Barrett, whose own great bravery is understated in the film. “We had to keep saying, ‘Calm down, John, calm down.’ When one of the guns went off by mistake,” he continues, “it blasted a hole in the floor and we all jumped 10 feet. So John announced to us, ‘Y’know, I’ve had to take a shit for three days and I think this thing drove it up farther.’ ”)

John, why didn’t you bother about disguises or fingerprints?

I figured I didn’t have long to live anyway. Cancer. The important thing was to save Ernie’s life.

(“Yes, he kept saying, ‘I’m a dead man anyway,’ ” remembers Barrett, but John’s intestinal lumps later proved benign. “He was obviously concerned about Ernie: ‘How do you like this thing?’ he said several times. ‘What I’m doing for her, and the silly bitch won’t even come in here and talk to me!’ “)

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John, why did you do it? You threatened to shoot nine people to get money for Ernie, who, you’ve said, only loved you half as much?

I loved him enough for the both of us (Carmen begins to study her lap.) That’s why I did what I did.

Now that Ernie’s had the sex change, do you love Liz Eden? (her new name)

I guess not. I never see her no more.

Does she seem like a woman to you?

Naw, she’s still a man.

After $15,000 worth of plastic surgery, silicone injections, implantation, and dermabrasion, Liz at 29 is a real woman standing 5-foot-10, 38-27-38. With $1000 worth of work at the chin, she can throw away her Track II razor blades forever. Over a London broil on Eighth Avenue the other night, looking a bit like Dolores Del Rio in a red halter and tiger-lady nails held on by Crazy Glue, Liz was feeling good about the modest settlement she made with Warner Brothers in a million dollar injunction against the movie. Another $2 million action against the book is pending. She was smarter than Carmen and turned down $3500 for the documentary.

“I may announce plans at the premiere to marry Tony,” she says, her eyes shining, her built-up cheekbones enough to make Hepburn weep. Tony, she explains, is 17, gorgeous, learning how to repair air conditioners, and very hot in bed.

“Then do I take it you don’t love Littlejohn anymore?”

“Never did,” she replies, slicing her meat into 20 bitesize pieces. “I must have told him a thousand times.”