Book Summary: The Godfather Papers

The Godfather Papers

by Mario Puzo
G. P. Putnam’s Son (1972)

Tucker’s Rating: 8 / 10

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What’s it about?: A collection of semi-autobiographical essays by Mario Puzo, author of one of my favorite books, The Godfather.

Tucker’s Opinion: I’m a huge Mario Puzo fan, so take my opinion as biased, but I really liked this book a lot, even more than most of his lesser fiction. The reason is because he is so explicit in here about his thoughts and ideas, and the man is incredibly intelligent and perceptive about all manner of things, especially writing and the entertainment business. I have never read anyone, at least who put their thoughts to paper, who truly understood the intersection of art and commerce better as it pertains to writers working Hollywood. He gets it on a deep level, I just wish I had read this book before I did my movie. I could have (maybe) avoided a lot of mistakes.

Another thing that is amazing about the book for writers: He included a notebook he kept during his early years as a writer, and it is astounding. Here is how he describes it: “What follows are excerpts from a journal I kept from 1950 through 1954. The decision to include them here was made against all my instincts. They were, to me, so painful to read, so full of self-pity, so embarrassingly egoistic, so naive about art and life. I compromised by editing the notes, cutting sections too personal to publish at this time, if ever. I thought these notes might encourage writers and other people struggling to become artists. Or scare them into good sense. It is pessimistic. At the time I kept this journal I had been writing for fifteen years to earn not more than $300. Mercifully, I did not foresee that I must write another fifteen years to achieve success. An old, familiar story but maybe it will help somebody. I hope so.”

It is a jarring, incredible read, and I’ll probably end up doing a separate post just about that notebook.

Notable Quotes (as marked by Tucker):

But I escaped again. At the age of eighteen I started dreaming about the happiness of my childhood. As later at the age of thirty I would dream about the joys of my lost adolescence, as at the age of thirty-five I was to dream about the wonderful time I had in the Army which I had hated being in. As at the age of forty-five I dreamed about the happy, struggling years of being a devoted husband and loving father. I had the most valuable of human gifts, that of retrospective falsification: remembering the good and not the bad.

America may be a Fascistic, warmongering, racially prejudiced country today. It may deserve the hatred of its revolutionary young. But what a miracle it once was! What has happened here has never happened in any other country in any other time. The poor, who had been poor for centuries-hell, since the beginning of Christ—whose children had inherited their poverty, their illiteracy, their hopelessness, achieved some economic dignity and freedom. You didn’t get it for nothing, you had to pay a price in tears, in suffering, but why not? And some even became artists.

The real reason I decided to write the piece that follows was, I think, because the wheels at Paramount refused to let me see the final cut of the movie when and how I wanted to see it. I hate to admit I have that much ego, but what the hell, nobody’s perfect.

 

That incident as described also made me come to the decision that I would never write another movie unless I had final say. I so instructed my agent. Which in practical terms means I’m out of the movie business.

 

Before all this happened I signed to write two more movies, which at this time are almost done. So I think I’m qualified to say that the movie script is the least satisfying form for a writer. But like most everything else it’s fun to try one time.

 

Most movies are lousy, and they are lousy because the people who have final say really don’t know how story and character work. Hollywood still hasn’t caught on that it’s money in the bank to promote a writer to a status equal to that of producer, director, and (dare I say it) studio chief.

There is no way to explain the terrible feeling of rejection, the damage, the depression and weakening of will such manipulation does to a writer. But this incident also enlightened me. I had been naive enough to believe that publishers cared about art. They didn’t. They wanted to make money. (Please don’t say, “No kidding.”) They were in business. They had a capital investment and payrolls to meet. If some lunatic wanted to create a work of art, let him do it on his own time.

The thing is, I didn’t really want to write The Godfather. There was another novel I wanted to write. (I never did and now I never will. Subject matter rots like everything else.)

I’m ashamed to admit that I wrote The Godfather entirely from research. I never met a real honest-to-god gangster. I knew the gambling world pretty good, but that’s all. After the book became “famous,” I was introduced to a few gentlemen related to the material. They were flattering. They refused to believe that I had never been in the rackets. They refused to believe that I had never had the confidence of a Don. But all of them loved the book.

 

In different parts of the country I heard a nice story: that the Mafia had paid me a million dollars to write The Godfather as a public relations con. I’m not in the literary world much, but I hear some writers claim I must have been a Mafia man, that the book could not have been written purely out of research. I treasure the compliment.

Well, that was what I was in California for. I assured them I was one of the best technicians of the Western world (Not bragging, technique can be measured. You can’t brag about art).

Now the fact that I was a hermit escaped from his hut after twenty years doesn’t mean I was a complete innocent. But the fact is that the people in the movie world are genuinely charming even if their charm is sometimes not disinterested. One of the greatest surprises for me was to find actresses and actors so sympathetic. Writers and directors and producers always put performers down. Star actors are considered dunderheads. Actresses are always to be manipulated by power, in their personal and professional life. They are supposed not to have intelligence or sensitivity.

 

I quite simply found the reverse to be often true. I found many of them intelligent, quiet, sensitive and shy. I observed that at the beginnings of their careers and afterward they are badly exploited by their producers, studios and agents and assorted hustlers. They suffer the most profound humiliations just to get a chance to use their art. After seeing what they go through at the beginning of their careers and considering the long years of waiting, it is easy to excuse their excesses when they become famous and powerful.

I guess I should explain why I found this incident not annoying or threatening to me as a writer. You often read how a star rewrites his or her lines, how a director “fixes up” a script or a producer gives it a final polish. And yet if you really understand how it works, it’s impossible to get angry. For example:

 

During World War II I was attached to the British Army, and at one point we met elements of the Russian Army in a northern German town. It seems this Russian division, recruited from some wild Asiatic province, had never seen plumbing. They were fascinated by water running out of a copper faucet. One fur-hatted Russian ripped the faucet off the wall and nailed it on a fence post. He was astonished when he turned on the faucet and no water came out. He assumed that water just came out of the faucet. The concept of plumbing had never been revealed to him. You can laugh at it, but it wasn’t native stupidity, it was simply innocence.

 

When a director, or a star, or a producer picks up a pen, I think the same thing happens. (There are exceptions of course.) They believe words come out of a pen. And again it’s not stupidity. Simply innocence. They have no concept of how writing really works. So writers shouldn’t get mad. They should just get the hell out of the movie business.

The casting began. Actors would come in and talk to Coppola and exert all their art and skills to make him remember them. I sat in on some interviews. Coppola was cool and courteous to these people, but for me it was simply too painful. I quit. I couldn’t watch them anymore. They were so vulnerable, so open, so naked in their hope for lightning to strike. It was at this time that I realized that actors and actresses should be forgiven all the outrageousness and tyrannies of their stardoms. Not to say you have to put up with it, just forgive it.

But the one incident that made me check out of the casting stuff was when a quite ordinary nice-looking girl came into the office and chatted with everybody and announced she was trying to get a part. I asked her which part. She said, “Appolona.”

 

The part of Appolona is a young Sicilian girl who is described in the book as quite beautiful. I asked this nice girl why she thought she wanted the part. She answered, “Because I look just like Appolona.” This is when it started to dawn on me that all actors and actresses are crazy.

The shooting of a motion picture is the most boring work in the world. I watched two days’ shooting; it was guys running out of houses and into cars that screeched away. So I gave up. The picture went comparatively smoothly and I lost track of it. It was not my movie.

The cutting of the film had always struck me as primarily a writing job. It is very much like the final draft of a piece of writing. So I really wanted to be in on the cutting.

 

I saw two rough cuts of the movie and said what I had to say. Again everybody was courteous and cooperative. My movie agent, Robby Lantz, said I was treated as well as any new writer had been in Hollywood. So then, why was I still dissatisfied? Quite simply because it wasn’t my movie. I was not the boss. But then really it wasn’t anybody’s movie. Nobody had really gotten their way with the picture.

As Michael, Al Pacino was everything I wanted that character to be on the screen. I couldn’t believe it. It was, in my eyes, a perfect performance, a work of art. I was so happy I ran around admitting I was wrong. I ate crow like it was my favorite Chinese dish. Until Al Ruddy took me aside and gave me some kindly advice. “Listen,” he said, “if you don’t go around telling everybody how wrong you were nobody will know. How the hell do you expect to be a producer?”

The truth is that if a novelist goes out to Hollywood to work on his book, he has to accept the fact that it is not his movie. That’s simply the way it is. And the truth is that if I had been bossing the making of the movie, I would have wrecked it. Directing a movie is an art or a craft. Acting is an art or a craft. All special to themselves requiring talent and experience (always some exceptions).

It was funny to me because by this time I didn’t believe in the auteur theory either unless it was Truffaut, Hitchcock, De Sica and guys like that. I didn’t believe in the “studio chief cut” either, never mind producers. By this time I thought the writer should have final cut. But of course I was a little prejudiced.

I have resumed work on my novel. The thought of spending the next three years as a hermit is sort of scary, but in a funny way I’m happier. I feel like Merlin.  In the King Arthur story Merlin knows that the sorceress Morgan Le Fay is going to lock him in a cave for a thousand years. And as a kid I wondered why Merlin let her do it. Sure I knew she was an enchantress, but wasn’t Merlin a great magician? Well, being a magician doesn’t always help and enchantments are traditionally cruel.

 

It sounds crazy to go back to writing a novel. Even degenerate. But much as I bitch about publishers and publishing, they know it’s the writer’s book, not theirs. And New York publishers may not have the charm of Hollywood movie people, but they don’t demote you down to partners. The writer is the star, the director, the studio chief. It’s never MY movie but it’s always MY novel. It’s all mine, and I guess that’s the only thing that really counts in an enchantment.

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