What Could Have Been: George Hamilton as Travis Bickle?


I was recently reading the IMDb trivia page for Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film, Taxi Driver. 

Taxi Driver is often held up as the being the ultimate New York horror story as well as being the quintessential Martin Scorsese/Robert De Niro collaboration.  In fact, the film is so identified with Scorsese, De Niro, and screenwriter Paul Schrader that it is easy to forget that it actually took a while for Scorsese and De Niro to become involved with the project.  Quite a few different directors showed interest in Schrader’s script before Scorsese signed on.  And, even though the role will always be associated with him, De Niro was not the only actor considered for the role of Travis Bickle.

That’s what brought me to the IMDb trivia page.  I wanted to see who else was considered for the role of Travis.  Here’s the list that I found: Jeff Bridges, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Burt Reynolds, Ryan O’Neal, Peter Fonda, Al Pacino, Jon Voight, Robert Blake, David Carradine, Richard Dreyfuss, Christopher Walken, Alain Delon, James Caan, Roy Scheider, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Elliott Gould, Alan Alda, and George Hamilton.  That’s quite a list!  And. for the most part, I don’t buy it for a second.

Don’t get me wrong.  It is known that Al Pacino was sent the script before Scorsese came on board.  And Scorsese himself has said that he offered the role to Dustin Hoffman.  (Hoffman says he turned down the role because Scorsese’s intensity freaked him out.)  Jeff Bridges was also a possibility and, if you read Schrader’s script and force yourself to forget about De Niro’s performance, you can actually imagine Bridges in the role.  I could also imagine a youngish Martin Sheen in the role.  He had just played Charlie Starkweather in Badlands so one can imagine him being considered for Travis.  Peter Fonda and Robert Blake seem possible as well.  Even David Carradine.

But some of the other names on that list …. Alain Delon?  Paul Newman?  Alan Alda?  GEORGE HAMILTON?

This George Hamilton?

Listen, I like George Hamilton.  He’s a good comedic actor.  And I know that there were a lot of directors who took a look at Paul Schrader’s script and I also know that some of Travis’s most iconic moments — like the whole “You talkin’ to me?” scene — were improvised by De Niro and were not in the original script.  Taxi Driver could have gone in a lot of different directions.  But I’m just going to say right now that there is no way that George Hamilton was ever considered for the role of Travis Bickle.  It’s totally possible that Hamilton was considered for another role in the film.  I could imagine him as the presidential candidate, Charles Palantine.  I could also imagine him in the role of Tom, Palantine’s campaign manager.  Perhaps he was offered one of those roles and someone, reading that George Hamilton had turned down Taxi Driver, got it into their head that he was considered for Travis.

Or maybe …. someone just made the whole thing up.  I enjoy the IMDb trivia pages but I’ve come across a lot of information that simply is not true.  Despite what the page for the original Halloween says, I refuse to believe that John Belushi was considered for the role of Dr. Loomis.  For that matter, I also refuse to believe that Bill Murray was a runner-up for the role of Han Solo in Star Wars.  Sorry, IMDb trivia people.  I just don’t buy it.

Arthur Bremer

Here’s what we do know.  Paul Schrader was originally inspired to create the character of Travis Bickle by Arthur Bremer, a non-descript 21 year-old Midwesterner who, in 1972, shot and nearly killed presidential candidate, George Wallace.  After the shooting, police turned up a diary in which Bremer wrote about his desire to be someone.  According to Bremer, he shot Wallace not as a political act but because he wanted to be famous.  Schrader later said that, while writing the script, the story became less about Bremer and more about Schrader’s own social isolation.

The script was optioned by the production team of Tony Bill and Julia and Michael Phillips.  They had just recently produced the Oscar-winning The Sting.  Originally, Tony Bill wanted to make his directorial debut with the film.  That was when the script was sent to Al Pacino.  Pacino turned down the role, reportedly because he didn’t want to work with a first-time director.  (Tony Bill, a former actor, later directed several films, most of which appeared to be taking place in a totally separate universe from Schrader’s vision of urban Hell.)

The script was eventually read by Brian De Palma, who voiced an interest in directing the film.  DePalma’s choice for the role of Travis Bickle?  Jeff Bridges.

Today, it might be hard to imagine the affable, laid-back Jeff Bridges as Travis Bickle but, if you read the script, it’s easy to see why De Palma considered him for the role.  Travis was written as being someone from the middle of the country, someone who was out-of-place in New York City.  Travis was meant to be lost in New York.  (Though Travis does say that he’s from the midwest in Scorsese’s film, Robert De Niro himself remains the prototypical New Yorker.)  At least initially, Bridges would have been a bit less obviously unstable than De Niro.  As good as Taxi Driver is, it always seems a bit strange that Betsy would agree to go out with De Niro’s Travis but it’s a bit easier to believe that she would take a chance on Jeff Bridges, with his charming smile and likable manner.  Bridges’s descent into madness would have been all the more devastating because he was such an outwardly affable presence.  I’m not saying it would have worked but I can still see what De Palma would have been going for in his version of Taxi Driver.

That said, De Palma did not make Taxi Driver.  He instead decided to do Carrie.  A young Steven Spielberg briefly showed interest in Taxi Driver (the mind boggles) before decided to do Jaws instead.  Eventually, after being introduced to Schrader by De Palma, Martin Scorsese agreed to direct the film.  After getting turned down by Dustin Hoffman, Scorsese offered the role to De Niro.

As for the rest of the cast, Rock Hudson would have been an interesting choice for the role of Sen. Palantine but he turned down the script because he was busy with a television show.  There was also some talk of casting former New York Mayor John Lindsay in the role but, in the end, the role was given to a writer named Leonard Harris.

The role of Tom was originally offered to Harvey Keitel.  Because Keitel wanted to play the pimp, Albert Brooks ended up as Tom.  Because there wasn’t much to Tom in the script, it was felt that, as a comedian, Brooks could bring some sort of life to the character.  Indeed, Brooks reportedly improvised the majority of his lines.

Despite the fact that producer Julia Phillips wanted to cast Farrah Fawcett in the role, Martin Scorsese selected Cybil Shepherd for the role of Betsy.  If you believe the IMDb, Meryl Streep was offered the role but turned it down.  (If I sound skeptical, it’s because Streep hadn’t even made her film debut at the time that Taxi Driver went into production.)  Glenn Close, Jane Seymour, and Susan Sarandon auditioned for the role.  Mia Farrow reportedly wanted the role but was turned down by Scorsese.

As everyone knows, Jodie Foster played the 13 year-old prostitute, Iris, in Taxi Driver.  A man named John Hinckley, Jr. was so obsessed with Foster’s performance that he went the same route as Travis Bickle and attempted to assassinate the president in an effort to impress her.  Foster, however, was only picked after Scorsese saw several up-and-coming actresses.  Reportedly, due to the success of The Exorcist, Linda Blair was seriously considered for the role.  Tatum O’Neal was also considered, after winning her Oscar for Paper Moon.  Scorsese came close to casting Melanie Griffith but then Tippi Hedren read the script and nixed the idea.  Among the others who supposedly read for Iris: Mariel Hemingway, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Heather Locklear, Kristy McNichol, Carrie Fisher, Ellen Barkin, Kim Basinger, Geena Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brooke Shields, Debra Winger, Rosanna Arquette, Bo Derek, and Kim Cattrall.

Finally, actor George Memmoli was injured on the set of another film, which led to Scorsese playing the passenger who talks to Travis about murdering his wife.

In the end, the right director and the right cast were selected and Taxi Driver became a classic of urban paranoia.  Still, it’s always fun to play What If.  On Earth-2, someone is watching Jeff Bridges, Rock Hudson, Jane Seymour, and Melanie Griffith in Brian De Palma’s Taxi Driver.  And, on Earth-3, George Hamilton is polishing his Oscars and thinking about how playing Travis Bickle changed his life.

Scenes I Love: L.Q. Jones Meets Robert De Niro in Casino


Yesterday, the great western character actor, L.Q. Jones, passed away.  He was 94 years old.

Though he was probably best known for the films that he did with Sam Peckinpah and for directing the darkly humorous sci-fi film, A Boy And His Dog, Jones also appeared in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film, Casino.  Playing the role of county commissioner Pat Webb, Jones went toe-to-toe with Robert De Niro and more than held his own.  Reportedly, Scorsese asked Jones to rewrite much of his dialogue, in order to give it a western authenticity,

From Casino, here is a scene that I love:

Though Ace would disagree with me, he really should have just taken Webb up on his suggestion to give his brother-in-law a “position further down the trough.”  That pride was not only Ace’s undoing but also the end of Bugsy Seigel’s vision of Las Vegas.

Interestingly enough, this scene always makes me think of the scene where Sen. Pat Geary (also of Nevada) tried to bully Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II.  In that film, the Corleones were able to put the senator in his place.  In Casino, however, it turns out that Pat Webb is right and Ace and the gangsters in Kansas City never really do figure out how things work in Vegas.

Lisa Marie’s Way Too Early Oscar Predictions For February


Is it too early to start talking about next year’s Oscar race?

Of course, it is!  But I’m going to do it anyway.

Below, you’ll find the installment of my monthly list of Oscar predictions, not for what will win at the end of March but instead for what we’ll see nominated next year.  Obviously, there’s a lot that we don’t know about what’s going to happen later this year.  Only a few of the movies listed below have firmly set release dates.  Needless to say, I haven’t seen any of the films below and, as a result, I’m largely going on instinct.  Who knows if the films will be as good as their plot descriptions?  As much as I hate the overused quote from William Goldman, right now, no one knows anything.  Indeed, it’s not really until Festival Season hits that we really start to get even a vaguely clear picture of the Oscar race and we’ve got a long way to go until Cannes.

(And really, it’s debatable how much of a factor Cannes really is.  If the Oscar nominations were determined by Cannes, Red Rocket and The French Dispatch would be battling it out for best picture right now.)

The predictions below are, for the most part, just random guesses.  Most of them involve people who have won Oscars in the past.  The Fabelmans is there because it’s a Spielberg film, just as Killers of the Flower Moon makes the list because it’s directed by Martin Scorsese and it stars Leonard DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.  And, of course, a lot of the predictions are just the result of wishful thinking on my part.  I think it would be kind of fun if David Lynch got an acting nomination for his role in The Fabelmans, whatever that role may be.  I also think it would be nice if Brendan Fraser got a nomination to go along with his recent comeback.  I don’t know much about The Whale, beyond the fact that Fraser plays a 600-pound man trying to reconnect with his daughter.  For now, that’s enough.

So, without further ado, here are my way too early Oscar predictions!  As always, take them with a grain of salt.

Best Picture

Babylon

The Fabelmans

The Holdovers

Killers of the Flower Moon

Kitbag

Maestro

She Said

TAR

White Noise

The Woman King

Best Director

Damien Chazelle for Babylon

Gina Prince-Bythewood for The Woman King

Martin Scorsese for Killers of the Flower Moon

Ridley Scott for Kitbag

Steven Spielberg for The Fabelmans

Best Actor

Bradley Cooper in Maestro

Brendan Fraser in The Whale

Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers

Ryan Gosling in The Actor

Brad Pitt in Babylon

Best Actress

Naomi Ackie in I Wanna Dance With Somebody

Ana de Armas in Blonde

Viola Davis in The Woman King

Cate Blanchett in TAR

Carey Mulligan in Maestro

Best Supporting Actor

Bobby Cannavale in Blonde

Robert De Niro in Killer of the Flower Moon

John Boyega in The Woman King

Tom Hanks in Elvis

David Lynch in The Fabelmans

Best Supporting Actress

Tantoo Cardinal in Killers of the Flower Moon

Laura Dern in The Son

Li Jun Li in Babylon

Da’Vine Joy Randolph in The Holdovers

Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans

I Watched The Fan (1996, dir. by Tony Scott)


Yesterday, I told my sister that I wanted to watch a good baseball movie.

“How about The Fan?” she said, “It’s on Starz.”

“Is The Fan really a baseball movie?” I asked.

“It’s got people with baseball bats in it.” she said.

The Fan does have people with baseball bats.  Wesley Snipes is a baseball player who is getting paid a lot of money to swing a bat for the Giants but he’s in a slump because Benicio del Toro won’t let him wear his old number.  Robert de Niro is a Giants fan who uses a baseball bat to beat to death his best friend after de Niro kidnaps Snipes’s son and demands that Snipes play better.  Snipes has to win a game, even though it’s raining and he has terrible stats against the opposing pitcher.  De Niro sneaks on the field as an umpire and makes bad calls on purpose, which proves everything that I’ve ever said about umpires.

The Fan wasn’t bad.  I liked the baseball scenes and I also liked the scenes where de Niro would just start overreacting to anyone saying anything bad about the Giants because everyone knows a fan like that.  (Where I live, most of them are Cowboys fans.)  Whenever de Niro started to go crazy, Nine Inch Nails would play on the soundtrack, which was funny but also too obvious.  There was a lot about the movie that didn’t make any sense.  At the end of the movie, it’s raining so hard that there’s no way the game would have been allowed to continue but I guess once you accept that de Niro could sneak on the field dressed like an umpire, you have to accept that a baseball game would continue in the middle of a flash flood.  But we all know fans like the one played by de Niro.  At the start of the movie, I actually felt bad for him because it was so obvious that baseball was the only thing he had.  He still had all of his pictures from Little League and he wanted his son to be as big a baseball fan as he was because that was the only way that he knows how to relate to other people.  But then he started killing people and giving baseball fans everywhere a bad name.

Josh Hamilton once said that Dallas wasn’t a “real baseball town,” which hurt the feelings of fans like me who had supported him, through all of his struggles, when he was a member of the Rangers.  Whenever Hamilton would return to Arlington to play against the Rangers, everyone in the stands would chant, “Baseball town,” whenever he stepped up to the plate.  I still think it was rude for Hamilton to say what he said but he was right that Dallas doesn’t produce the type of baseball fans who will disguise themselves as umpires and take the field with a knife hidden in their cleats.  Rangers fans aren’t “the crazy fans,” like the ones who Snipes says he can’t stand in The Fan.  I hope that never changes but I also hope the Rangers get it together this upcoming season.  Support the team without kidnapping or killing anyone, that’s the duty of every true fan.  GO RANGERS!

Scenes That I Love: The Ending of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America


(SPOILERS BELOW)

The final moments of Sergio Leone’s epic 1984 gangster film, Once Upon A Time in America, are filed with questions and mysteries.

In 1968, who did Noodles (played by Robert De Niro) see standing outside of Max’s mansion?  When the garbage truck pulled up, did the mysterious man get in the truck or was he thrown in by some unseen force?

Why, in 1968, did Noodles see a car from the 1920s, one that was full of people who appeared to be celebrating the end of prohibition?  Was the car really there, in 1968, or was it an element of Noodles’s past as a gangster suddenly popping into his mind?

When we then see a young Noodles in an opium den, are we flashing back to the 1920s?  Is Noodles remembering the past or is it possible that we’ve been in the 20s the whole time and all of the scenes set in 1968 were actually only a drug-induced dream?

Why, with men looking to kill him and all of his friends apparently dead, does Noodles suddenly smile at the end of the film?  Is that sudden smile a result of the drugs or is there something else going on?

Once Upon A Time In America was Sergio Leone’s final film.  It’s one that he spent decades trying to get made and, once it was finally produced, it was butchered and re-edited by a studio hacks who demanded that the film tell its story in a linear style.  Leone was reportedly heart-broken by how his film was treated.  Some have speculated that his disappointment may have even contributed to the heart attack that eventually killed him.  It was only after Leone passed that his version of Once Upon A Time In America became widely available in the U.S.  This enigmatic epic continues to spark debate.  One thing that can’t be denied is that it’s a brilliant film.

As today is Leone’s birthday, it only seems appropriate to share a scene that I love, the ending of Once Upon A Time In America.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Irishman (dir by Martin Scorsese)


Released by Netflix in 2019 and clocking in at close to 4 hours, the Martin Scorsese-directed Best Picture nominee, The Irishman, is a film about many different things.

At its simplest, it’s a film about a very old man named Frank Shearan (played by Robert De Niro).  Frank is an Irish-American from Philadelphia.  Frank is a veteran of World War II and a former truck driver who was briefly a fairly important figure in the Teamsters union.  He did a few years in prison.  At the start of the film, though, he’s just another elderly man living in a retirement community.  All of his friends are dead.  His wife passed away years ago.  His children never comes to visit.  In fact, the only people interested in talking to Frank are the FBI but Frank doesn’t have much to say to them.  That’s not to say that Frank isn’t talkative.  For the first time in his life, he wants to talk to people but there’s no one left to talk to.  The only people who listen are those who are required to do so.  A nurse politely nods along as as he tells her about his old friend Jimmy Hoffa.  (She’s never heard of him.)  A priest listens to the story of Frank’s life and offers him absolution.  At times, Frank looks straight at Scorsese’s camera and appears to be talking straight to the audience.  Frank has a lot of interesting stories but who knows how truthful he’s being or if his memory can be trusted.

The Irishman, though, is not just the story of Frank.  It is also a secret history of America during the latter half of the 20th Century.  Frank may look old and harmless in that nursing home but, to hear him tell it, he was once acquainted with some of the most powerful men in America.  He went from executing Italian POWs during World War II to executing hits for the Mafia in post-war America.  Along the way, he became close to crime bosses like Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale), Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) and Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), men who may not have been household names but who still wielded a lot of power.  These are men who, Frank flatly states, fixed the presidential election of 1960 and who later quite possibly killed the man they had elected president.  Frank also became a close associate of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the labor leader who was reputed to have mob connections and who disappeared in 1975.

The Irishman is also a tribute to the modern gangster film, featuring role for nearly every living actor associated with the genre.  De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Domenick Lombardozzi, Gary Basaraba, they’ve all played their share of gangsters in films and television show that were both good and bad.  Having them all appear in one film together serves to remind the viewer of just how much of America’s popular entertainment has revolved around stories of organized crime.  Even as the old school Mafia has declined as a real-world power, it’s become a permanent part of pop culture.  Everyone loves a gangster, except for the people who actually have to deal with them on a daily basis.

Not surprisingly, considering the stars and the director, it’s a film full of smart, detailed performances.  When the film was originally released, Pacino and Pesci got the lion’s share of the praise and they certainly deserved it.  Pacino gets the best lines and brings some unexpected wit to his performance as Jimmy Hoffa.  Pesci, meanwhile, finally gets to play a gangster who is not psychotic and shows that he can be just as compelling when he’s not raising his voice as when he is.  Still, some of my favorite performances came from actors who one wouldn’t necessarily associate with a Scorsese gangster film.  I liked the nervous humor that Ray Romano brought to the role of a corrupt union lawyer.  I liked the seething resentment that Stephen Graham brought to the role of Jimmy Hoffa’s main rival in the union.  (The scene where Graham and Pacino argue over who is more owed an apology for all of their past disagreements is both funny and, due to the people involved, somewhat frightening.)  Jesse Plemons is poignantly dumb in his brief role as Hoffa’s stepson.  Louis Cancelmi doesn’t get a lot of screen time but he steals every scene in which he appears as a paranoid hitman.  (Cancelmi plays a character named Sally Bugs, proving that not everyone in the Mafia gets a cool nickname.)

And then there’s Anna Paquin, who provides the film with its moral center.  When the film was first released, many Twitter critics complained that Paquin, who played Frank’s daughter Peggy, only a had a handful of lines.  It was one of the stupidest controversies of 2019, which is saying something when you consider how much time Film Twitter devotes to generating stupid controversies.  Peggy doesn’t say much because she’s decided that she doesn’t want to be a part of her father’s life.  From the moment that she first sees Frank beating up a store owner, Peggy knows that her father and his associates are violent men.  She not only fears them but she resents the damage that Frank does to not only her family but to the families as other as well.  The only one of her father’s associates who she likes is Jimmy Hoffa, because Hoffa cares about helping others.  When Hoffa disappears, Peggy makes a decision to disappear from Frank’s life and Paquin’s withering stare says more than any lengthy monologue could.  Peggy doesn’t say much because she knows that her words would be wasted on a man who she knows is a liar.  The scene where she silently walks away from her now elderly father tells us everything we need to know about the emotional consequences of the life that Frank has chosen to live.  Regardless of how many lines she did or didn’t have, Paquin gave one of the best performances of 2019.

Famously (or, depending on which critics you read, infamously), de-aging technology was used so that De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel could play both the younger and the older version of their characters.  At first, it can be a bit jarring.  The de-aging works fine with Pesci and Keitel, both of whom are already supposed to be middle-aged when they first meet Frank.  (Admittedly, Keitel only has a few minutes of screen time.)  With De Niro and Pacino, it’s a bit less successful.  Even when they’re playing younger versions of themselves, De Niro and Pacino still move and stand like old men.  Fortunately, in the case of Pacino, his natural movie star charisma wins out over his obvious age.  In the end, we believe that he’s Hoffa because we want to believe that all of our important historical figures were as interesting and entertaining as Al Pacino is in The Irishman.

And yet, ultimately, even the awkward de-aging works to the film’s advantage because it reminds us that we’re not necessarily seeing what happened.  Instead, we’re seeing what Frank says happened.  We’re seeing his memories, or at least what he claims to remember.  It makes sense that, when Frank thinks about himself as a young truck driver in 1956, he would picture himself not as he was but instead as just a slightly less weathered version of who he would eventually become.  Throughout the film, there are hints that Frank’s memory should not be trusted.  Some of his stories are incredibly detailed while others — like when he transports weapons for the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs — are a bit more vaguely presented.  Is Frank lying or is he misremembering or are we just expecting too much detail from a man who is now essentially waiting to die?  The film leaves that up for us to determine.

The Irishman is Scorsese at his most reflective.  Compared to Goodfellas and Casino, The Irishman is certainly one of Scorsese’s less “flashy” films.  But, on repeat viewings, it becomes cleat that The Irishman is the perfect conclusion to the gangster trilogy that began with Goodfellas and continued with Casino.  All three of these films deal with someone who rises up the ranks in the mob while remaining, as a result of their ethnicity, an outsider.  (Henry Hill and Frank Shearan are both Irish.  Ace Rothstein was Jewish.)  All three of them are briefly on top of the world and all three of them are left wondering how they’re going to continue their lives after their days at the top are over.  In Goodfellas, Henry Hill makes no secret of his disgust at having to live in the bland anonymity of the suburbs.  In Casino, Ace Rothstein ends the film with a mournful acceptance the fact that he will never return to his beloved Vegas.  (“And that’s that.”)  In The Irishman, Frank finally realizes that he has comes to the end of it all, alone and with nothing but death in his future.  All three of them made their decisions and, in the end, all three of them are left to deal with the consequences.  The trilogy goes from Henry’s anger to Ace’s depression to Frank’s acceptance.

It may seem strange to describe a film like The Irishman as being underrated, seeing as how it was nominated for 10 Oscars and got a Criterion release in record time.  And yet, when the film first came out, there was a vague sense of disappointment to found in even some of the positive reviews.  It was a Scorsese film that was so eagerly awaited and arrived with so much hype that there was no way it could live up to some of the expectations that had been set for it.  (And, of course, there’s also a whole set of people who were predestined to dislike the film precisely because it was a Scorsese film and it was so anticipated.)  It’s a long film and, while Netflix should be praised for allowing Scorsese the freedom to make his epic, it’s also not a film that should be viewed in bits and pieces on a tiny screen.  The Irishman is a film that should be watched in one sitting and it’s definitely a film that most viewers should watch more than once.  It takes more than one viewing to truly grasp the the world that Scorsese has recreated.

The Irishman was nominated for Best Picture.  It lost to a worthy competitor, Parasite.  Still, regardless of who took him the Oscars, The Irishman is a film that will live forever.

What Could Have Been: The Godfather, Part II


Years ago, I wrote a post called What Could Have Been: The Godfather, in which I discussed all of the actors and the directors who were considered for The Godfather. 

It remains one of the most widely viewed posts that we’ve ever had on this site.  I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise.  People love The Godfather and they love playing What If?  Would The Godfather still have been a classic if it had been directed by Otto Preminger with George C. Scott, Michael Parks, Burt Reynolds, and Robert Vaughn in the lead roles?  Hmmm …. probably not.  But, in theory, it could have happened.  All of them were considered at one point or another.

However, in the end, it was Francis Ford Coppola who directed The Godfather and it was Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Cann, and Robert Duvall who brought the Corleone family to life.  The Godfather, as everyone knows, was a huge hit and it went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture of the year.  As the film ended with the future of the Corleone family still up in the air, there was obviously room for a sequel.

When Paramount Pictures first approached Coppola about writing and directing a sequel, he turned them down.  He said he was done with The Godfather and didn’t see any way that he could improve on the story.  It’s debatable whether or not Coppola truly felt like this or if he was just holding out for more money.  It is known that Coppola did suggest to Paramount a possible director for Part II and that director’s name was Martin Scorsese.

What would Martin Scorsese’s The Godfather Part II have looked like?  It’s an intriguing thought.  At the time, Scorsese was best-known for Mean Streets and it’s probable that Scorsese’s film would have been a bit messier and grittier than Coppola’s version.  If Coppola made films about the upper echelons of the Mafia, Scorsese’s interest would probably have been with the soldiers carrying out Michael’s orders.  While Scorsese has certainly proven that he can handle a huge productions today, he was considerably younger and much more inexperienced in the early 70s.  To be honest, it’s easy to imagine Scorsese’s Godfather Part II being critically and commercially rejected because it would have been so different from Coppola’s.  A failure of that magnitude would have set back Scorsese’s career and perhaps even led to him returning to Roger Corman’s production company.  As such, it’s for probably for the best that Coppola did eventually agree to shoot the sequel, on the condition that Coppola be given creative control and Paramount exec Robert Evans not be allowed on the set.  While Coppola was busy with Godfather Part II, Scorsese was proving his versatility with Alice Doesn’t Live Her Anymore.

After Coppola was signed to direct, the next best question was whether or not Marlon Brando would return to play the role of Vito Corleone.  The film’s flashback structure would ensure that Vito would remain an important character, despite his death in the first film.  Coppola reportedly considered offering Brando the chance to play the younger version of Vito but he changed his mind after he saw Robert De Niro in Scorsese’s Mean Streets.  Still, it was felt that Brando might be willing to show up in a cameo during the film’s final flashback, in which Michael tells his family that he’s enlisted in the army.  Frustrated by Brando’s refusal to commit to doing the cameo, Coppola told him to show up on the day of shooting if he wanted to do the film.  When Brando didn’t show, the Don’s lines were instead rewritten and given to Tom Hagen.  It’s hard not to feel that this worked to the film’s advantage.  A last-minute appearance by Brando would have thrown off the film’s delicate balance and probably would have devalued De Niro’s own performance as the younger version of the character.

Brando wasn’t the only member of the original cast who was hesitant about returning.  Al Pacino held out for more money, which makes sense since he was literally the only cast member who could not, in some way, be replaced.  Richard Castellano, who played Clemenza in the first film, however learned that he that hard way that he was not quite as indispensable as Al Pacino.  In Part II, Clemenza was originally meant to have a large role in both the flashbacks and the present-day scenes.  However, when Castellano demanded more money and the right to rewrite his own lines, the older Clemenza was written out the film and replaced by the character of Frankie Petangeli (played by Michael V. Gazzo).

It’s impossible to find fault with Gazzo’s performance but it’s still hard not to regret that Castellano didn’t return.  Imagine how even more poignant the film’s final moments would have been if it had been the previously loyal Clemenza who nearly betrayed Michael as opposed to Frankie?  Indeed, even after the part was rewritten, many of Frankie’s lines deliberately harken back to things that Clemenza said and did during the first film.  Because Clemenza is a very prominent character during the film’s flashbacks, his absence in the “modern” scenes is all the more obvious.

When the role of Young Clemenza was cast, it was still believed that Richard Castellano would be appearing in that film.  One of the main reasons that Bruno Kirby was selected for the role of Young Clemenza was because Kirby had previously played Castellano’s son in a television show.  Also considered for the role was Joe Pesci, who was working as a singer and a comedian at the time.  (His partner in his comedy act was Frank Vincnet.)  If Pesci had been cast, he would not only have made his film debut in The Godfather Part II but the film also would have been his first pairing with Robert De Niro.  (Interestingly enough, Frank Sivero — who played Pesci and De Niro’s henchman, Frankie Carbone, in Goodfellas, also had a small role in Godfather Part II, playing Vito’s friend, Genco.)

As for the film’s other new major character, there were several interesting names mentioned for the role of gangster Hyman Roth.  Director Sam Fuller read for the role and Coppola also considered Elia Kazan.  Perhaps the most intriguing name mentioned as a possible Roth was that of James Cagney.  (Cagney, however, made it clear that he was content to remain retired.)  In the end, the role was offered to Al Pacino’s former acting teacher, Lee Strasberg.  Like Gazzo, Strasberg made his film debut in The Godfather Part II and, like Gazzo, he received his only Oscar nomination as a result.

The legendary character actor Timothy Carey (who was courted to play Luca Brasi in the first film) met with Coppola to discuss playing Don Fanucci, the gangster who is assassinated by Vito.  A favorite of Stanley Kubrick’s, Carey reportedly lost the role when he pulled out a gun in the middle of the meeting.

Originally, the film was supposed to end in the mid-60s, with a now teenage Anthony Corleone telling Michael that he wanted nothing to do with him because he knew that Michael had Fredo murdered.  (That famous scene of Michael bowing his head was originally supposed to be in response to Anthony walking out on him as opposed to the sound of Fredo being shot.)  Cast in the role of teenage Anthony was actor Robby Benson so perhaps it’s for the best that the scene was ultimately not included in the film.

Some of the smaller roles in Part II were played by actors who were considered for larger roles in the first film.  The young Tessio was played by John Aprea, who was also considered for the role of Michael.  Peter Donat, who played the lead Senate counsel in Part II, was considered for the role of Tom Hagen.  The rather tall Carmine Caridi, who played Camine Rosato in Part II, was originally cast as Sonny until it was discovered that he towered over everyone else in the cast.  And, of course, Robert De Niro famously read for the role of Sonny and was cast in the small role of Paule Gatto before he left The Godfather to replace Al Pacino in The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight.  (Of course, the whole reason that Pacino left The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight was so he could play the role of Michael in The Godfather.  In the end, it all worked out for the best.)

Finally, former teen idol Troy Donahue played Connie Corleone’s second husband, Merle Johnson.  Merle Johnson was Troy Donahue’s real name.

Personally, I think The Godfather Part II is one of the few films that can be described as perfect. Still, it’s always fun to play what if.

An Offer You Can’t Refuse #20: The Untouchables (dir by Brian DePalma)


“Let’s do some good!” Eliot Ness shouts as he and a platoon of Chicago cops raid what they believe is a bootlegger’s warehouse.

That line right there tells you everything that you need to know about the 1987 film, The Untouchables.  In real life, Eliot Ness was known to be an honest member of law enforcement (which did make him a bit of a rarity in 1920s Chicago) but he was also considered to be something of a self-promoter, someone who tried to leverage his momentary fame into an unsuccessful political career.  In the 50s, after Ness had lost most of his money due to a series of bad investments and his own alcoholism, Ness wrote a book about his efforts to take down Al Capone in Chicago.  That book was called The Untouchables and though Ness died of a heart attack shortly before it was published, it still proved popular enough to not only rehabilitate Ness’s heroic image but also to inspire both a television series and the movie that I’m currently reviewing.

None of that is to say that Ness didn’t play a role in Al Capone’s downfall.  He did, though it’s since been argued that Ness had little to do with actual tax evasion case that led to Capone going to prison.  It’s just that, in real life, Eliot Ness was a complicated human being, one who had his flaws.  In The Untouchables, Kevin Costner plays him as a beacon of midwestern integrity, a Gary Cooper-type who has found himself in the very corrupt city of Chicago in the very corrupt decade of the 1920s.  The film version of Eliot Ness has no flaws, beyond his naive belief that everyone is as determined to “do some good” as he is.

So, The Untouchables may not be historically accurate but it’s still an entertaining film.  It’s less concerned with the reality of Eliot Ness’s life and more about the mythology that has risen up around the roaring 20s.  Everything about the film is big and operatic.  In the role of Al Capone, Robert De Niro sneers through every scene with the self-satisfaction of a tyrant looking over the kingdom that he’s just conquered.  While Costner’s Ness tells everyone to do some good, De Niro’s Capone uses a baseball bat to keep his underlings in line.  He goes to the opera and cries until he’s told that one of Ness’s men has been killed.  Then a big grin spreads out across his face.  It’s not exactly a subtle performance but then again, The Untouchables is not exactly a subtle movie.  It’s not designed to be a film that makes you think about whether or not prohibition was a good law.  Instead, everything is bigger-than-life.  It’s a film that takes place in a dream world that appears to have sprung from mix of old movies and American mythology.

In real life, Ness had ten agents working under him.  They were all selected because they were considered to be honest lawmen and they were nicknamed The Untouchables after it was announced to the press that Ness had refused a bribe from one of Capone’s men.  In the film, Ness only has three men working underneath him and they’re all recognizable types.  Sean Connery won an Oscar for playing Jmmy Malone, the crusty old beat cop who teaches Ness about the Chicago Way.  A young and incredibly hot Andy Garcia plays George Stone, the youngest of the Untouchables.  Best of all is Charles Martin Smith, cast as Oscar Wallace, a mild-mannered accountant who first suggests that Capone must be cheating on his taxes.  There’s a great scene in which the Untouchables intercept a liquor shipment on the Canadian border, all while riding horses.  Sitting on the back of his galloping horse and trying not to fall off, both Oscar Wallace and the actor playing him appear to be having the time of their lives.  For Oscar (and probably for much of the audience), it’s a fantasy come to life, a chance to “do some good.”

The Untouchables was directed by Brian DePalma and his stylish approach to the material is perfect for the film’s story.  DePalma fills the film with references to other movies, some from the gangster genre and some not.  (In one of the film’s most famous sequence, DePalma reimagines Battleship Potemkin‘s massacre on The Odessa Steps as a shoot-out between Eliot Ness and Capone’s men.)  DePalma’s kinetic style reminds us that The Untouchables is less about history and more about how we imagine history.  In reality, Capone was succeeded by Frank Nitti and The Chicago Outfit continued to thrive even in Capone’s absence.  In the film, Nitti (played by Billy Drago) brags about killing one of the Untouchables and, as a result, is tossed off the roof of a courthouse by Eliot Ness.  It’s not historically accurate but it makes for a crowd-pleasing scene.

Big, operatic, and always entertaining, The Untouchables is an offer that you can’t refuse.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface (1932)
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil
  9. Rob the Mob
  10. Gambling House
  11. Race Street
  12. Racket Girls
  13. Hoffa
  14. Contraband
  15. Bugsy Malone
  16. Love Me or Leave Me
  17. Murder, Inc.
  18. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
  19. Scarface (1983)

Bang The Drum Slowly (1973, dir. by John Hancock)


 

The last time I wrote a film review for this site, it was because I was missing baseball.

Guess what?

I still miss baseball!  Luckily, I’ve still got plenty of baseball films to keep me busy until the MLB gets its act together and starts up again.  I hope we’ll get baseball this year but if we don’t, at least I can watch a movie like Bang The Drum Slowly.

Bang The Drum Slowly is the ultimate baseball movie.  It’s about a pitcher named Henry Wiggin (Michael Moriarty) who plays for the New York Mammoths and who has a side job selling insurance and writing books.  When it’s time to renegotiate his contract, Henry says that he’ll re-sign with the team if the team agrees to not release or trade one of their catchers, Bruce Pearson (a really young Robert de Niro).  Henry says that he and Bruce are a package deal.  No one can understand why Henry cares because Bruce isn’t an outstanding player and everyone thinks that he’s slow but Henry finally gets the team’s general manager, Dutch (Vincent Gardenia), to agree to his terms.  What only Henry knows is that Bruce is terminally ill and that he will be lucky to survive the entire season.

Though the Mammoth eventually make a run for the World Series and there’s a lot of great baseball footage, Bang the Drum Slowly is more about friendship than it is about winning or losing.  Henry is willing to sacrifice everything to make sure that Bruce enjoys his final days and Bruce finally gets to play on a wining team.  Because Bruce is so young and he appears to be so healthy for most of the film, it’s really devastating when he suddenly does get ill and he’s finally has to come to terms with his mortality.  I cried a lot while I was watching Bang The Drum Slowly.  You will too.

The other players eventually rally around Bruce and they become a stronger teams as a result.  That’s one of the things that I love about baseball.  One player, no matter how good, can’t win a game on his own.  Instead, the entire team has to work together.  Not everyone can go out and try to hit a home run.  That’s not the way you win at baseball.  Instead, you win by doing what you have to do to bring your teammates home.  Bang The Drum Slowly celebrates friendship and loyalty and it perfectly captures the spirit of the game.

We may not be able to watch baseball right now.  But at least we can watch movies like Bang The Drum Slowly.