Hot Movie Takes – “A Bronx Tale”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
The movie that Robert De Niro made his directorial debut, “A Bronx Tale” (1993), is a highly personal coming-of-age story for both him and its star and writer, Chazz Palminteri. The two men grew up in the era and around the culture the story depicts, which is 1950s Italian-America. Coming-of-age stories don’t usually have the grit this one does, nor do they have the poetic realism this one finds in the clash between two intersecting worlds with radically different values: the legitimate world of working-class people represented by bus driver Lorenzo and the underworld exemplified by mobster Sonny. Caught in the middle of this tug of war is Calogero, the only son of Lorenzo and the apple of Sonny’s eye. As a child Calogero witnesses a crime committed by Sonny that the boy never reveals. Calogero’s silence earns the respect of Sonny, who unwittingly recruits him into the inner sanctum of his Mafia lifestyle as devoted errand boy and worshipful hanger-on.
Though this grooming into that lifestyle hasn’t resulted in Calogero breaking the law yet, Lorenzo sees that it’s only a matter of time. He strongly disapproves of his son being around that criminal element and he fears he’s losing Calogero to the lure of fast, easy money, expensive cars and an above-the-law attitude. He especially resents Sonny practically adopting his son as a junior Wiseguy, although that’s not what Sonny wants for Calogero at all. Indeed, he tells the boy this is not for him. But Lorenzo doesn’t know that. When Lorenzo finally confronts Sonny, he takes a beating for his trouble but the two men have a clear understanding. Lorenzo will never allow his boy to be seduced into that world. Sonny makes it clear he won’t tolerate being threatened again, Both men accept that crossing the line will mean one of their deaths. Meanwhile, Calogero is torn between his loyalties to the two men he loves and must choose between.
Eventually the choice is made for him. It starts when the teen mobster wannabes he also hangs with go too far with their racist attacks against black youths navigating their streets. Calogero has eyes for a black girl he’s met whose brother is savagely beat by his friends. He knows that if his feelings for this girl, Jane, are found out it will brand him as a traitor to his race. In his xenophobic neighborhood, especially among his peers, an interracial romance is taboo and therefore unthinkable, at least in public.
Sonny warns Calogero away from his impulsive buddies and the stubborn kid only narrowly escapes their ill-fated but inevitable demise. Calogero balances the hard life lessons Sonny and his father impart and he comes to realize the enticing gangster world isn’t all that it appeared to be to his once naive eyes.
By the end, Calogero’s learned to see things more clearly, including the high price that The Life brings, and he no longer feels he has to hide his dating Jane.
De Niro and Palminteri know from first-hand experience something of the streets and pressures and culture clashes the film portrays.
The film is an adaptation of a one-man play Palminteri wrote and starred in. It was such a sensation on the stage, first in L.A. and then in New York, that a bidding war for its screen rights broke out. In the end he adapted the play to the screen for De Niro to direct. The story is taken directly from Palminteri’s own life. He was that boy, the son of a bus driver, who fell under the influence of a local made-guy named Sonny.
Palminteri explained it all in an interview:
“I remembered this killing I saw when I was 9 years old. I was sitting on my stoop and this man killed a man right in front of me.”
The killer’s name was Sonny, a mobster who controlled much of the Bronx neighborhood where Palminteri grew up. The police came, but the young boy kept quiet. Soon after Sonny began taking him under his wing.
“He liked me almost as a son, and he wanted me to do good and he wanted me to go to college. But just by being around and who he was, he was a Wiseguy, he was a boss, I was being influenced by all these guys and their cars and their women.”
Just as in the movie, Palminteri’s father told his son the real hero was the working man, not the gangsters.
“He wrote on a little card ‘The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.’ He used to say to me ‘Don’t waste your talent. Make something out of yourself.’ And he put it in my room and I used to see that all the time. You know, Sonny eventually got killed. And I realized that my father was right. So I thought about this whole thing and I said, ‘Gee, you know what? This would make a great story to write what I learned from both men, and how I became a man.'”
De Niro grew up very differently as the son of accomplished artists and creatives but his life skirted some rougher aspects and he certainly knows well the territory and hazards of interracial relationships.
“A Bronx Tale” is now a musical and in an interview Palminteri said of the story’s enduring appeal across different media and genres and cultures, “I’ve done 60 movies, and people just love A Bronx Tale. It’s strange. Not just here in America, but everywhere—Japan, Europe. I don’t understand it. It touched a chord with a lot of people. I guess what I wrote was archetypes. It’s about so many things, about being the best of who you are. It’s about choices. And the story has just connected to people for so long.”
De Niro explained it this way: “It’s kind of a morality story. It’s got a simple story in a way. It has that kind of timelessness to it.”
As a director, De Niro shows a sure hand with his actors and keeps the story moving along. Whatever he gleaned from Francis Fork Coppola, Sergio Leone and Martin Scorsese in acting in their mob-themed movies, he uses to great subtle effect here as he doesn’t make his own take on that world derivative or half-hearted, but rather orginal and full-blooded.
“A Bronx Tale” also stands as one of De Niro’s best performances. As brilliant as he is in showier roles, I like him best playing average Joes like this. Palminteri has never been better than he is here. Francis Capra as the 9 year-old Calogero and Lillo Brancato as the 17-year-old Calogero are both very good. Brancato infamously ran afoul of the law in real life and served a long prison term. Taral Hicks is dreamy as Jane and it’s shame we haven’t seen more of her over the years. Joe Pesci has a small but vital role at the end that he handles extremely well in adding a final grace note to the story.
I can definitely see how “A Bronx Tale” could work as a musical and I hope a touring production of it makes it here one day or else a local theater company puts on its own production of it.
Hot Movie Takes:
Forty-five years later and ‘The Godfather’ still haunts us
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Forty-five years ago “The Godfather” first hit screens and it immediately became embedded in American pop culture consciousness. Its enduring impact has defined the parameters of an entire genre, the mob movie, with its satisfying blend of old and new filmmaking. It’s also come to be regarded as the apogee of the New Hollywood even though it was very much made in the old studio system manner. The difference being that Coppola was in the vanguard of the brash New Hollywood directors. He would go on to direct in many different styles, but with “The Godfather” he chose a formalistic, though decidely not formulaic, approach in keeping with the work of old masters like William Wyler and Elia Kazan but also reflective of the New Waves in cinema from around the world.
I actually think his “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now” are better films than “The Godfather” and “The Godfather II” because he had even more creative control on them and didn’t have the studios breathing down his neck the way he did on the first “Godfather” film.
But there is no doubt that with “The Godfather” and its sequel he and his creative collaborators gave us indelible images. enduring lines, memorable characters, impressive set pieces and total immersion in a shadowy world hitherto unknown to us.
I think it’s safe to say that while any number of filmmakers could have made a passable adaptation of the Maria Puzo novel then, only Francis Ford Coppola could have given it such a rich, deeply textured look and feel. He found a way into telling this intimate exploration of a crime family pursing its own version of the American Dream that was at once completely specific to the characters but also totally universal. Their personal, familial journey as mobsters, though foreign to us, became our shared journey because the layered details of their daily lives, aspirations and struggles mirrored in many ways our own.
In many ways “The Godfather” saga is the classic tale of The Other, in this case an immigrant patriarch who uses his guile and force of personality to find extra legal ways of serving the interests of his people, his family and the public.
Coppola was ideally suited to make the project more than just another genre movie or mere surface depiction of a colorful subculture because he straddled multiple worlds that gave him great insights into theater, literature, cinema, culture, history, this nation and the Italian-American experience. Growing up in 1940s-1950s New York, Coppola was both fully integrated into the mainstream as a second generation Italian-American and apart from it in an era when ethnic identity was a huge thing.
The filmmaker’s most essential skill is as a writer and with “The Godfather” he took material that in lesser hands could have been reduced to stereotypes and elevated it to mythic, Shakespearean dimensions without ever sacrificing reality. That’s a difficult feat. He did the same with “Patton,” the 1970 film he wrote but that Franklin Schaffner helmed.
Of course, what Coppola does in the sequel to “The Godfather” is truly extraordinary because he goes deeper, more epic yet and still never loses the personal stories and characterizations that anchor the whole thing. In “The Godfather II,” which is partly also a prequel, he establishes the incidents, rhythms and motivations that made Don Corleone who he was when we meet him in the first film. Of course, Coppola subsequently reedited “Godfather I and II” to create a seamless, single narrative that covers the genesis and arc of the Corleone empire in America and its roots in Italy.
“Godfather III” does not work nearly as well as the first two films and seems a forced or contrived rather than organic continuation and culmination of the saga.
The best directors will tell you that casting, next to the script and the editing process, is the most important part of filmmaking and with the first two “Godfather” films, which are hard to separate because they are so intertwined, Coppola mixed and matched a great stew of Method and non-Method actors to create a great ensemble.
The depth of acting talent and pitch perfect performances are staggering: Brando, Pacino, Caan, Cazale, Duvall, Conte, Hayden, Keaton, Castellano, Marley, Lettieri, Vigoda, Shire, Spradlin, Rocco, De Niro. Strasberg, Kirby, “Godfather I and II” arguably the best cast films of all time, from top to bottom. One of the best portrayals is by an actor none of us have ever heard of – Gastone Moschin. He memorably plays the infamous Fanucci in Part II. And there are many other Italian and American actors whose names are obscure but whose work in those films is brilliant. Coppola is a great director of actors and he beautifully blends and modulates these performances by very different players.
Coppola’s great way into the story was making it a dark rumination on the American Dream. He saw the dramatic potential of examining the mafia as a culture and community that can exist outside the law by exploiting the fear, avarice and greed of people and working within the corruption of the system to gain power and influence. Personally, I’ve always thought of the films as variations of vampire tales because these dark, brooding characters operate within a very old, secret, closed society full of ritual. They also prey on the weak and do their most ignominious work at night, under the cover of darkness. drawing the blood of the innocent and not so innocent alike. While these mob creatures do not literally feast on blood, they do extract blood money and they do willfully spill blood, even from colleagues, friends and family. No one is safe while they inhabit the streets. Alongside the danger they present, there is also something seductive, even romantic about mobsters operating outside the law/ And there is also the allure of the power they have and the fear they incite.
“The Godfather” set the standard for crime films from there on out. It’s been imitated but never equaled by those who’ve tried. Sergio Leone took his own singular approach to the subject matter in “Once Upon a Time in America” and may have actually surpassed what Coppola did. Michael Mann came close in “Heat.” But Coppola got there first and 45 years since the release of “The Godfather” it has not only stood the test of time but perhaps even become more admired than before, if that’s even possible. That film and its sequel continue to haunt us because they speak so truthfully, powerfully and personally to the family-societal-cultural-political dynamics they navigate. For all their venal acts, we care about the characters because they follow a code and we can see ourselves in them. We are equally repelled and attracted to them because they embody the very worst and best in us. And for those reasons these films will always be among the most watched and admired of all time.