This was before it became clear just how peculiar Bonanno: A Godfather’s Story (Sunday and Monday, July 25 and 26; 8 to 10:30 p.m.; Showtime) really is. I was going to try to explain the popularity of Mafia movies by speculating that all of us want to be, if not mobsters, at least Italians. Spike Lee, for instance. To be sure, the usual anti-defamation groupies have complained that Summer of Sam insults their ethnic persuasion. But while Spike’s too easily distracted, like an optic nerve on jumping beans, it should’ve been obvious ever since Do the Right Thing, as well as Jungle Fever, that he longs to be an Italian as much as Robert Duvall did in the first Godfather. Maybe, as in grand opera or sports broadcasting, we need to wave our hands around a lot. Maybe it’s the heroic past: Caesar, Dante, Michelangelo, Julius La Rosa. Or the family values: strong men, loyal women, home cooking, upward mobility, great coffee, and a forgiving church when your subscription’s about to be canceled. Or Sinatra and DiMaggio.
Why else would Martin Landau agree to play Joe Bonanno, the last of the extant old-school godfathers – drying out even as we speak like a reptile in the Arizona sun? Or, for that matter, Costas Mandylor to play his father, Salvatore, in the middle of an old-world turn-of-the-century Sicilian vendetta? Or Edward James Olmos to play his mentor, Maranzano, in the bloody skirmishing of crime families during Prohibition? As near as I can tell, about the only thing distinguishing Bonanno from the other hoods in expensive suits like Albert Anastasia, Joe Colombo, Frank Costello, Carlo Gambino, Vito Genovese, Sam Giancana, Vincent “the Chin” Gigante, and Charles “Lucky” Luciano is that he survived to write his autobiography.
Which is the peculiarity of this Bonanno. It is based not only on Joe’s own book, A Man of Honor, but also on Bound by Honor, the equally self-serving memoir of his son Bill, who just happens to be the co-executive producer of the five-hour mini-series. If Joe did only seventeen months in prison for contempt, Bill spent twelve years behind bars. Thus we are vouchsafed an unapologetic point of view from deep inside the very top of the wiseguy pyramid. It will perhaps not surprise you that the Bonannos never shed blood except with the utmost reluctance after every reasonable alternative had been explored. Nor will it surprise you that, just like Marlon Brando, they were opposed to trafficking in narcotics, in spite of the greed of the other families. As we are assured by regular swine-flu booster shots of rhetoric, they were men made entirely out of “honor” and “tradition.” Indeed, by the twelfth time I heard the word honor, I reached for my harmonica.
What will perhaps surprise you is that in the world according to the Bonannos, the anti-fascist newspaper editor Carlo Tresca was murdered not by agents of Mussolini but by a Frank Costello worried about what Tresca, who couldn’t be bought, was doing to the don’s reputation in New York’s Italian community. Joe tells us that he valued Tresca’s courage and was opposed on business principles to the rubbing-out of cops, pols, and journalists but nevertheless had to respect Costello’s “right to protect himself,” and so, in his own words, “I washed my hands” of the affair. Nevertheless, “it was the most difficult moment of my life as a godfather.” Well, you’ve got to feel for him. And what I feel – since Tresca happens to be a personal anarchist-hero of mine, of whom most Americans will not have heard until this mini-series – is nauseated.
And what is likely to astonish you is the blithe assertion by the father-and-son Bonannos that the Mafia, with some help from the usual anti-Castro Cubans, killed John F. Kennedy. Not Joe B., of course, who happened to be in Canada at the time. Nor Bill B., to be sure, who heard about it on the phone. But such godfathers as Sam Giancana of Chicago, Santo Trafficanti of Tampa, and Carlos Marcello of New Orleans, not to mention Johnny Roselli (Bruno Di Quinzio) with a high-powered rifle in a Dallas storm drain. This was after the mob had helped elect JFK as a favor to his father, Joe (Roger Dunn) – Joe B.’s old bootlegging buddy, whose unfortunate stroke on a golf course left him helpless to rein in a rampaging attorney general Bobby.
I have no wish to trip barefoot again over the grassy knoll of the Kennedy assassination. But at least when a James Ellroy or a Don DeLillo entertains similar scenarios, his book is advertised as fiction. And we all know that Oliver is Stoned. But Showtime? Forgive me for failing to pick and choose among production values. I’ve lost my sense of humor about the mob. Bonanno is inexcusable.