Prologue Prologue TO THE MATTRESSES!
Let’s go to bed,” Robert Evans said in his grand Beverly Hills home, which the movies built.
The house, known as Woodland, was a “hidden oasis”—a French Regency estate, a “miniature palace,” Evans called it. It was walled off from the world on two private acres, shaded by hundred-foot-tall sycamores, redolent with the scent of thousands of roses. Once the residence of Greta Garbo, it had been, for forty years, the proud habitat of the mogul who turned Paramount Pictures, on the precipice of collapse, into the most dominant force in film.
Evans, the impresario who had risen from the womenswear business of New York City to international fame and fortune as an actor-turned-producer-turned-studio chief, was now seventy-eight, his voice strangled by strokes. But his mind was still sharp, and his home was lined with photographs should his memory ever lapse. He lived with those memories: the ghosts of the greats who gathered here, the deals that were consummated here, the movies that were screened here, and the loves that were kindled here.
It was 2008, and I had come to interview Evans for a Vanity Fair magazine story about the making of his most celebrated movie, The Godfather. He was prepared for me. His butler, Alan Selka, a very proper Englishman, opened the doors and escorted me to the dining room, where I waited for Evans at a table covered with clippings and mementoes from the production and its aftermath.
When the master made his entrance, it was impressive: his black hair slicked back, his face deeply tanned, his smile a dazzling white, his eyes staring out through rose-colored glasses. When he launched into his memories of the movie, his voice was as deep and melodic as a cello sonata.
“It’s stranger than fiction,” he told me.
Then Evans, a legendary lothario, suggested we go to bed together.
“What?” I blurted out.
A fire had consumed his famous screening room in 2003, Evans explained, and since then he and his friends had watched movies in his bed. I followed him to the master bedroom. In his heyday, Evans entertained so many starlets here that his housekeeper would place the name of the previous evening’s date on a card beside his coffee cup the next morning, so he could address her properly at the breakfast table. He had become production chief of Paramount Pictures in 1966, at the tender age of thirty-six, resuscitating the moribund studio and guiding it from the grave to its former glory with hits like Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, and The Godfather. He helped propel the career of his close pal Jack Nicholson, who starred in his studio’s 1974 production of Chinatown. His ex-wives numbered seven, including the actresses Ali MacGraw, Leslie Ann Woodward, Catherine Oxenberg, and Miss America Phyllis George.
Now, Robert Evans, a master of staging and seduction, was leveling his immense powers of persuasion on me. The butler arrived with food and drink, and a large television screen was readied to run parts of The Godfather.
“Take those shoes off,” Evans commanded as I hovered next to the bed, which was very large and covered in fur. There was a story he wanted to tell, and it might take a while.
So I climbed into bed with Robert Evans to hear the story of the film that had both made him and destroyed him. Today the movie features prominently in virtually every list of the all-time greats, a masterpiece that, upon each viewing, reveals some new jewel or fresh truth. But the process of making it was unlike that of any film before or since. Hollywood’s greatest movie about the Mafia seemed to have been produced in some ways in tandem with the Mafia, as the capos of the Mob went to war with the tough guys of the movie business, in some instances trading places, mobsters as actors, filmmakers as fixers. And no one knew the behind-the-scenes story better than Evans, who had financed its struggling author, green-lighted its development, hired its producer and director, and fostered its creation, some would say far too obsessively for a studio head, until the movie became a global hit, and, for Evans, a curse.
His mind slipped back across the decades, to the grandest night of his life: March 14, 1972, the world premiere of The Godfather. A freak snowstorm had paralyzed New York City, but the advance buzz on the movie was red hot, its star Marlon Brando featured on the covers of both Life and Newsweek. And there he was, Robert Evans, Paramount’s head of production, entering the Loew’s State Theatre with his third wife, the actress Ali MacGraw, on one arm, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on the other.
“When the lights went down and Nino Rota’s music swelled, my whole life seemed to pass before me,” he would write in his 1994 autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture. “Watching this epic unfold, I felt that everything my life was about had led up to this moment.”
“Two hours and fifty-six minutes later, Diane Keaton asked Al Pacino if he was responsible for all the killings,” Evans wrote.
“No,” Pacino lied.
Then the credits rolled. Evans sat in the premiere audience, stunned in the darkness, along with everyone else. “No applause,” he wrote. “Not a sound—just silence.”
It’s a bomb, he thought, then turned to MacGraw and Kissinger, their faces solemn.
But it wasn’t a bomb—it was a cultural phenomenon. The audience was in tears. When the lights went up, Kissinger turned to Evans. “Bob,” he said, “when you can sit and watch a gangster who’s killed hundreds of people, and yet when he dies the audience is crying, you’ve made yourself a masterpiece.”
After the screening, during an ecstatic party in the ballroom of the St. Regis hotel, Evans played master of ceremonies, “introducing anyone and everyone”—the writer, the director, the cast, all of whom were on their way to becoming legends. And Paramount was on its way to becoming one of the richest and most powerful studios in Hollywood. “The Godfather did more business in six months than Gone with the Wind did in thirty-six years,” Evans said. “It was the first time a picture opened in four hundred theaters.”
In the process, the film created something Hollywood had never before imagined possible: a work of art that is also a blockbuster.
“The screaming, the fights, the threats that never let up since day one of filming, were worth it,” Evans concluded. He paused at the memory of the battles—over the script, the cast, the location, the budget—that had threatened to derail the movie before a single frame was shot.
“The fighting,” he sighed. “Tremendous fights.”
Fifty years after its premiere, so much has been written about The Godfather, yet some things remain overlooked, or misrepresented. Many accounts of the movie are more Hollywood legend than historical fact, as many of those involved in its making have sought to play up their role in its creation. Thus, some of what has been said and “written about The Godfather is wrong,” said Peter Bart, who was present throughout the film’s birth as Evans’s second in command at Paramount.
I wanted to know how the film was created—“behind the screen and in front of the screen,” as Evans put it. In the process, I hoped to learn not only the secrets of the movie itself but also what it revealed about creating great and enduring art. Through years of research, and interviews with everyone from studio executives to Mob affiliates, I have sought to untangle the competing narratives and self-aggrandizing contentions that continue to enshroud the film. The real story, I found, is like the man I climbed into bed with—an unlikely amalgamation of brute force, artistic choice, market necessity, genius, and dumb luck. Evans would be dead a dozen years after his bedroom confessions, but now, after half a century, the film he banked everything on has attained the status of myth, an integral part of America’s collective consciousness. Based on one of the bestselling novels of all time, it revitalized Hollywood, saved Paramount Pictures, announced the arrival of Francis Ford Coppola as one of the great directors of the new era of film, minted a new generation of movie stars, made its writer, director, and producer rich, and sparked a war between two of America’s mightiest powers: the sharks of Hollywood and the soldiers of the Mob.
“It’s the best picture ever made,” Evans told me in bed that day. “It broke a whole barrier of film. It was opera, it was new filmmakers, great ideas, and fighting the organization. And I loved fighting the organization.”
“What organization were you fighting?” I asked.
“Paramount,” he said—meaning not just the studio, but the way movies had always been made. “The Boys,” he added, meaning the Mob. “But they’re both the same. Everything is monetarily focused. And I was looking to touch magic. Magic, to me, lasts longer. Why is it that Mozart is remembered far longer than Napoleon? Because the world of art is remembered far longer than the world of greed.”
Just then, as if on cue, the lights in the bedroom dimmed. The screen flickered to life, the soundtrack swelled, and the now-famous cast began to parade before us, like decorated soldiers who had triumphed in a long and bitter war. The Godfather once again wove its hypnotic spell. Yet the tale it told is eclipsed by the story of how it came to be. Years before its first words were committed to paper, it began with a body engulfed in flames, cities stricken with fear, and real-life criminals who survived to reveal a world of violence and betrayal beyond the imagination of any writer.