Jamie Reidy credits Mario Puzo for teaching him about sex, and calls out Coppola for the pathetic portrayal of the most dangerous member of the Corleone Family.
In 1982, when I was in sixth grade, my parents remodeled our house. My bedroom moved from upstairs right next to theirs to the newly configured basement, er, downstairs. (To say “basement” in front of my old man was to risk one’s life.)
It is not an overstatement to describe the change as going from Supermax to Club Fed. Sometimes I’d stay up late, sitting on the floor inches from the TV with the volume turned way down. We didn’t have cable yet, so it’s not like I was watching softcore porn. But I didn’t need it; I had “The Godfather.”
Not the movie. The book.
Mario Puzo’s blockbuster novel spawned the two legendary films, obviously. But years before I ever got to see them, I stealthily devoured the source material, reading in bed long after my folks thought I’d fallen asleep.
Slumber? How?! The author provides way too much, uh, stimulating material. By that age I’d seen my share of Playboy, thanks to the older guys in the neighborhood. But pictures of naked women couldn’t provide me with a hundred words, let alone a thousand, since I barely knew any sex terminology. Mr. Puzo stocked my vocabulary, while also opening my eyes to some anatomical and physiological things about which I might only have learned recently.
For instance, two characters in the book, a doctor and his girlfriend – neither is in the movie – have quite a steamy affair. But the guy isn’t happy with the experience inside his gal. Apparently, her canal was more Panama than Love. So, he brought her to a surgeon buddy of his for repair. “Make that box extra tight for me!” I think he instructs his physician pal. I remember being shocked, less from the medical marvel of the surgery and more from the simple fact that her area of surgical focus could be too big. My 12-year old brain assumed all vaginas had one uniform size, like wall outlets.
(Nowadays, I’m wondering if it wasn’t her beau who was at physical fault. Maybe he was the opposite of the legendarily hung Sonny Corleone, and, as such couldn’t choke a bird with his worm. In the 2000s, the guy probably would have responded to each of those ten-million spam messages guaranteeing a bigger penis.)
“Vulva.” Mario Puzo seemed to like that term. I certainly did. It was the sexiest word I had ever encountered. “Vulva.” The first syllable resonated in my throat, like it didn’t want to leave. The word had a soft tangibility that made me feel funny where my bathing suit covered. Intuitively, I also knew it could get me banished to the seminary, no questions asked and no chance to defend myself. Even now, merely typing “vulva” prompted me to look over my shoulder to see if my parents – 3000 miles away in New York – are sneaking up on me. When watching the famous “Mulva” episode of Seinfeld, I didn’t laugh as much as my buddies. In fact, I didn’t see the humor at all. Why didn’t they revere the word as much as me? “Vulva.” Jeez, now I wanna make a booty call.
Professor Puzo didn’t only provide instruction on women. In one vengeance scene, a Corleone button man kicks in the hotel room door of Philip Tattaglia, a big shot with one of the other Five Families. The gunman finds the mobster naked in bed with a young hooker. Puzo describes the soon-to-be-dead guy as having “jet black hair, but his crotch was steel gray.” My brow furrowed as I instinctively slammed the paperback shut. Say what? This was extremely troubling to a pre-adolescent for whom puberty was an Olympics away. I don’t even know what color mine are gonna be, but now I know they’re gonna change? I made a mental note to ask Dad about that one, but then quickly remembered that “The Godfather” probably wasn’t on my parentally approved reading list.
“Of Mice and Men,” however, was. I mention it only because Francis Ford Coppola’s embarrassing depiction of Luca Brasi in the film forces John Steinbeck’s classic novel into this discussion.
I know, I know. Criticizing Coppola for anything is simply not allowed. GF #1 and #2 are celluloid perfection and to suggest otherwise is akin to urinating in a church’s bowl of holy water. To that criticism I quote consiglieri Tom Hagen, “This is business, not personal.”
In Luca Brasi, Don Corleone’s trusted enforcer, Mario Puzo created a character whose evil and ruthlessness remain indelibly carved into my brain. Let me share just two of the anecdotes the author gives us.
Mr. Brasi knocked up a young woman. After she gave birth in her apartment (remember: this was the 1930s), Luca walked in, snatched the baby from the midwife’s hands and brought it down to the building’s basement. Once there, he opened the incinerator and tossed the child into the flames. Ho-lee fuck. He did this because he assumed the kid was evil like its daddy.
On another occasion, Luca is in a warehouse where two rival gang members lie bound and gagged on tables. Luca needs info from these dudes and is torturing one of them in horrifying ways to get it. The second guy, so terrified of his fate, somehow manages to swallow the towel that is gagging his mouth. Think about that: the man prefers a slow, agonizing death from suffocation to dealing with Brasi.
Puzo makes perfectly clear this crucial point: Luca Brasi is the only man Don Vito, The Godfather himself, feared. Yet Coppola made that dangerous man look like Benny, the mentally challenged office assistant from LA Law.
Consider how we meet Luca in The Godfather. Michael’s girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) giggles at the sight of a large, uncomfortable man rehearsing the same sentence to himself in a deep, but funny voice. This is Luca Brasi??? But then Michael comes to the expository rescue with the famous “He made him an offer he can’t refuse story.” Ohhh, so now I’m supposed to fear this guy? No. He still looks like Benny.
And there’s no way I’m sweating Benny. (Just realized that the mentally challenged character in “Of Mice And Men” is named “Lennie.” I wonder if the writer who created LA Law gave Steinbeck a nod with Benny’s name. Not that Steinbeck woulda given a shit, or even been alive to acknowledge said nod. Perhaps too much TV is responsible for these random thoughts.) And if I don’t sweat Luca in the movie, then I don’t care if he’s sleeping with the fishes, which is a pretty important plot point. Sorry Francis, but your Luca is an #epicfail. That said, the ice pick-through-the-hand scene is still freaking awesome.
My mother says two things stand out from her pregnancy with me: a) she read “The Godfather,” and b) she ate barbeque potato chips constantly. I believe her on both accounts because my habits reflect that influence.
If I am flipping channels at 11:00 on a Sunday night, well aware I should be in bed, and happen to stumble upon a mafia movie – any mafia movie – I know I will be starting off the week sleepily. I simply can’t bring myself to turn off a Mob flick.
I eat fairly healthy. I don’t have a sweet tooth, I don’t snack between meals. But, if I encounter potato chips? Fuggedaboudit; greasy finger time.
On a recent trip home, I found myself the last one awake, watching TV downstairs at 1:00 AM. Go to bed, moron. But I flipped a few more channels and stumbled upon Sonny Corleone fatefully pulling up to the toll booth. My brain fired with excitement, but my entire body sagged, aware that it would be exhausted the next day. After a few minutes I crept upstairs into the kitchen, quietly searching for something in the dark. Once I’d found my goal, I tiptoed back downstairs.
Man, that first chip was good.
I turned off the television, walked over to the warped bookshelf and scanned titles. Finally, black paperback in hand, I sat back down on the couch and settled in for a few hours with an old friend.