It’s hard to imagine in the wake of GoodFellas, The Sopranos and Gomorrah but there was a time, not so long ago, when the very existence of the mafia was widely dismissed as an urban myth. What changed was Mario Puzo’s 1969 bestselling novel The Godfather, which sold nine million copies in two years.
You might assume, not unreasonably, that the 1972 movie version — now acknowledged as one of the greatest films of all time — was one of the most obvious commissions in Hollywood history. But it was dogged by so much controversy and plagued by so many disasters that it was very nearly stillborn. Every stage in the process — script, casting, funding — encountered mammoth resistance, not least from the mafia themselves who objected violently to the book’s negative portrayal of the blameless, God-fearing and hardworking Italian American community.
That the movie ever got made was thanks in large part to the tenacity, quick thinking and bravura front of its novice producer Al Ruddy, whose experiences have been dramatized in Michael Tolkin’s must-watch drama The Offer. Its cast of real-life characters is at least as colorful as those in the Godfather trilogy: Marlon Brando, the reclusive, difficult actor considered at the time to be box-office poison; Al Pacino, too obscure, it was thought, to play a movie lead; Bob Evans, the flamboyant, mercurial head of production, later indicted for cocaine trafficking; Joe Colombo, the mafia boss who initially opposed the movie; Ruddy’s French wife, Françoise Glazer, who had been given the Chateau Marmont hotel as a divorce settlement from her first husband…
But perhaps the series’ biggest star is the period. This was the high 1960s, arguably Hollywood’s peak in terms of creativity and influence (from Easy Rider to Love Story), when everyone drank cocktails, smoked cigarettes, looked slim and beautiful (well, apart from endearingly porky and gluttonous Mario Puzo), sharked around in classic cars like Evans’s white drophead E-type, and cut deals at debauched pool parties. You find yourself rather wishing you could have been there.
Among the things you learn is what it is that producers actually do to earn their generous percentage of gross. The answer, in Ruddy’s case, is everything, from matchmaking and babysitting the talent (watching Puzo’s diet, massaging writer/director Francis Ford Coppola’s ego) and arguing with accountants to warding off the attentions of the mob.
So much of the story seems so wildly implausible it’s hard to know which bits are real and which are artistic license. Did Bob Evans really get a dead rat dumped as a warning on his hotel bed, in the manner of the severed horse’s head in the movie? Was Ruddy’s rear window really blasted out by a mob enforcer? What’s certain is that, encouraged by Frank Sinatra, who took violent issue with the novel’s mob-connected crooner character Johnny Fontane, the mafia initially sought to nix the project. They changed their minds when Ruddy formed an unlikely friendship with mob boss Joe Colombo.
If The Offer is to be believed, Ruddy (Miles Teller) won Colombo (Giovanni Ribisi) round by inviting him to read the script, which neither Colombo nor his sidekicks proved able to do because, it is suggested, they were illiterate. Colombo gave his approval on condition that all references to the “mafia” and ‘Cosa Nostra” were struck from the script. This, Ruddy insisted disingenuously, was going to be a movie about family values, not criminal thugs.
Even with mob support, a sweeping epic was always going to be tough to make on a miserly $6 million budget. A star of Brando’s stature would have been unaffordable. But by a stroke of luck, Sinatra had loathed Brando (amusingly caricatured by Justin Chambers) ever since they had worked together on Guys and Dolls, so agreed to play Vito Corleone for scale (i.e. industry minimum wage) just to irritate his nemesis.
There is so much to enjoy in this ten-part series: the way it so entertainingly captures the era’s mix of glamour and sleaze; its insights into the art of the deal (how exactly do you negotiate, at virtual gunpoint, with a gang boss who has declared point-blank that you will never make this film? Chutzpah, mainly); but, above all, the character vignettes.
Matthew Goode is especially watchable as the larger-than-life Evans in scenes like the one where, lolling poolside, he looks up from a script to ask his girlfriend Ali MacGraw whether she has ever had sex in a swimming pool. MacGraw smiles lasciviously and dives into the water. Nora Arnezeder is another standout as Françoise, the devoted but frustrated wife whose attempts at co-producing with her husband are viciously rebuffed by Evans because love and business don’t mix.
I can’t pretend it isn’t annoying and expensive having to keep signing up to new TV networks at around $50 per annum. But if Paramount+ can maintain these standards, then it’ll probably be worth it.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.