An offer Hollywood can't refuse
The release of 'Be Cool' underscores the movies' enduring fascination with the Mafia.
John Travolta is a likable actor and he's downright lovable in much of "Be Cool," the sequel to "Get Shorty," the 1995 hit based on Elmore Leonard's novel.Skip to next paragraph
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But wait, Mr. Travolta is playing a mobster. And mobsters aren't lovable. What's wrong with this picture?
Nothing's wrong, from Hollywood's viewpoint, if "Be Cool" comes anywhere close to "Get Shorty" at the box office. And let's face it, moviegoers do love mobsters - on the big screen, if not in real life. Television viewers have a soft spot for them, too. (Heard of "The Sopranos," anyone?)
Why do mobsters, gangsters, crooks, con artists, and criminals have so much enduring appeal? Most of us have little contact with them - that we're aware of, at least - in everyday experience. And therein, perhaps, lies the intrigue. The movies allow filmgoers to imagine they're getting a peek inside a secret cabal with a set of unique rules and mores quite unlike anything most people follow as a moral code.
"The mob is, at base, an alternative society where forbidden things occur," says William Luhr, a professor at St. Peter's College in New Jersey and an authority on film noir and crime literature. "There's spectacle and fascination in that."
Crime movies come in all shapes and sizes, and their hold on the public imagination goes deeper than any story arc or character type can explain.
In the 1930s, spectators flocked to the likes of "Little Caesar" and "Public Enemy," attracted partly by star power (Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney) and partly by Prohibition plots that recalled the violence of the previous decade. In the '40s, anxieties of World War II fueled the "film noir" cycle of dark, shadowy stories with dark, shadowy styles.
Francis Ford Coppola found a new approach in the 1972 film "The Godfather," treating the story of a Mafia family with acute psychological depth and meticulous attention to detail. He outdid himself with "The Godfather Part II" in 1974, finding explicit similarities between organized crime on one hand and organized business and politics on the other. Taken together, those movies laid the groundwork for everything from "Get Shorty" to "The Sopranos."
In "Get Shorty," Travolta's character (Chili Palmer) is a mobster who visits the movie industry on shady business and discovers that its money-charged atmosphere is remarkably similar to the cutthroat climate he's accustomed to. In the new picture, Chili heads for the music business, again using his "anything goes" amorality as a tool for success.
These films suggest that the entertainment world's emphasis on profits, profits, profits is, well, almost criminal. This strikes a chord with many moviegoers who enjoy seeing Hollywood's cockiness skewered on the screen, especially when the skewering is done by Hollywood's own. Drawing connections between crime and show biz doesn't have to be done satirically, either. One of the best-remembered subplots in "The Godfather," the 1972 epic directed by Francis Ford Coppola, concerns a filmmaker terrorized into submission by a nasty "show" the Corleone family plants in his own bedroom.
Realistic detail - even if it's the faux realism of Hollywood movies - has always been a plus for popular crime stories. " 'The Godfather' and 'The Sopranos' show there's particular interest in organized crime when it's rooted in the banality of everyday life," says Eric Myers, a New York literary agent and film publicist who deals periodically with crime-related fiction.
"Stories like these give us the frisson of knowing how close our lives could come to intersecting with those of organized crime figures, even if it rarely happens in reality," he says.
As an example, Mr. Myers cites the episode of 'The Sopranos' where Carmela, the wife of crime-boss Tony Soprano, forces her neighbor to help get her daughter into a good college. "It sent a kind of blackly amusing chill up the spines of parents all over America," says Myers.
The domestication of crime has been a fascinating evolution of the genre, says Dr. Luhr, noting the impact of "The Sopranos" and "The Godfather."
"Tony [Soprano] is evil," says Dr. Luhr, "but he also has to take the garbage out and go to family dinners. 'The Godfather' revived the gangster genre by placing [the title character] in a familial context."