The Last Don
CBS, May 11, 13, and 14, 9-11 p.m. EDT
Here is the moment I realized that CBS had done something genuinely awful to Mario Puzo's The Last Don. This little stretch of dialogue, which occurs in the third, or fourth, or possibly fifth hour of this swamp of a miniseries, takes place between Claudia De Lena, a Hollywood attorney, who is played by Michelle Rene Thomas, and Athena Aquitane, a movie star, who is played by the drippy Daryl Hannah. Aquitane's husband is stalking her, and she's desperate for help:
De Lena: I'm going to fly to Las Vegas and see my brother. He knows people.
Aquitane: Is he in the Mafia?
De Lena: Of course not.
Aquitane: Don't knock it. At this point, I could use the Mafia.
I t is an unspoken rule that good Mafia movies never mention the word Mafia. (A second rule might be never to employ Daryl Hannah.) Mafia movies succeed by indirection and allusion--just what is Hyman Roth's game in Godfather II? The Last Don, the book, is clever and shaded (it's no Godfather, but what is?). The Last Don, the miniseries, isn't even Godfather III. Puzo gave us a fantasy of Hollywood venality and mob cunning, the story of Don Domenico Clericuzio, the most powerful Mafia leader in America, who wants to take his family legitimate. It sounds familiar, and it is entirely derivative, but Puzo invests a great deal of energy into making it twist and turn, and he has special fun riffing on the manner in which Hollywood tortures writers (CBS, naturally, has turned his writer, Claudia De Lena, into a lawyer).
The director, Graeme Clifford, and writer, Joyce Eliason, have taken every element of fantasy in Puzo's fable and made it literal, and they manage, quite successfully, to telegraph each Puzo twist about two hours before it is set to occur. At about the third hour, I found myself actually writing dialogue for The Last Don, Part II:
Sicilian Mafia soldier No. 1: As soldiers in the don's Mafia family, we must "rub out," or kill, our enemies, especially those who disrespect us, because respect is very important in Sicilian culture.
Sicilian Mafia soldier No. 2: Yes, let us now go and "whack" people, but I fear that once we "whack" them, we too will be "whacked," because I sense the don has his own elaborate, Sicilian revenge plan to carry out, which will all come to a head during the last night of this miniseries.
I n fact, I felt such generalized ill will toward CBS's insulting version of this fine book that I telephoned Puzo to register my anguish. Puzo was, as ever, at his compound (what he likes to think of as a compound, anyway), in Bay Shore, Long Island.
I began by feigning neutrality: "Did you like what they did to your book?"
"I haven't seen it yet," he said. "They said they'd send me the tape. What'd you think?"
I read him the snippet of dialogue involving Daryl Hannah. A pause, then: "They use the word 'Mafia'? Oh, shit. That's a dumb line. They don't have to use that word."
Another pause, while he checked, presumably, to see that the money CBS paid him for the rights to his book hadn't been lifted from his cigar box.
"I have no inclination to interfere with something like this unless I'm being paid," he said.
I detailed for him the worst crime committed against his book: moving the key scene, in which we finally understand the original sin that explains all motive and all vengeance, from the climactic end right to the beginning of the miniseries. The scene, an elaborate and particularly cruel multiple homicide during a wedding party, is Puzo at his sicko, vengeful best, coming in close behind the horse's head and Fredo's betrayal and Sonny getting gunned down on the causeway.
"Yeah, but it's television," Puzo said. "They've got to grab you right away. People watching TV, they're talking to other people, they're fuckin' around, so you got to grab them, and you've got to repeat certain things." He encouraged me to be philosophical. "Look, you're not going to make a perfect movie. Even The Godfather wasn't perfect."
I don't like it when he talks like this. "What was wrong with The Godfather?"
"Remember that cat that Brando plays with? I hated that cat. It's an old trick, and it wasn't an interesting trick. I mean, everybody strokes a fuckin' cat. I shoulda shot that fuckin' cat."
The cat was nothing. The problem here is the entire cast. This is a miniseries in which Kirstie Alley plays a grief-crazed Sicilian widow, Burt Young plays the one role he plays--Paulie from "Rocky," except this time in a suit--and Danny Aiello, as Don Clericuzio, tries not to play Marlon Brando, to no avail. He is forced to repeat such lines as, "The world is what it is, and you are what you are." Then there's Joe Mantegna, all liquidy and annoying and wearing a furry goatee, as Pippi De Lena, the don's nephew and principal assassin, which you know because other characters refer to him regularly as the family's principal assassin. CBS has obviously put into effect its affirmative-action plan vis-à-vis third-string Italo-American over-emoters: Aiello is to Mantegna is to Pacino what Vic Damone is to Tony Bennett is to Frank Sinatra.
Also in a starring role, as Pippi's son, Cross, is an actor by the name of Jason Gedrick, who, according to the very helpful publicity package prepared by CBS, had a starring role in the "critically heralded CBS drama series EZ Streets." CBS also reports that he caught the flu during the filming of The Last Don, but bravely worked despite it. Gedrick possesses, according to the press release, a "shy and self-deprecating manner." It fails to note that he also possesses the acting range of mozzarella.
"H ow was Aiello?" Puzo asked me.
"You know, he's Aiello."
"He's a very fine actor," Puzo said. "He's not as good as Brando. You take what you can get."
"So," Puzo continued, "bottom line: Do I have to leave town?"
"Of course not," I said. "You're not responsible for this." Besides, where do you go when you leave Bay Shore? Smithtown? Yaphank?
"So how many stars would you give it?" he asked me.
Now you have to understand, before I repeat my answer, that I melt before pop-culture greatness, and Mario Puzo is His Royal Greatness himself.
"Uh, two. And a half."
"Okay," he said. "We'll just call that a three."