Johnny Fontane sat in the huge recording studio and figured costs on a yellow pad. Musicians were filing in, all of them friends he had known since he was a kid singer with the bands. The conductor, top man in the business of pop accompaniment and a man who had been kind to him when things went sour, was giving each musician bundles of music and verbal instructions. His name was Eddie Neils. He had taken on this recording as a favor to Johnny, though his schedule was crowded.
Nino Valenti was sitting at a piano fooling around nervously with the keys. He was also sipping from a huge glass of rye. Johnny didn’t mind that. He knew Nino sang just as well drunk as sober and what they were doing today wouldn’t require any real musicianship on Nino’s part.
Eddie Neils had made special arrangements of some old Italian and Sicilian songs; and a special job on the duel-duet song that Nino and Johnny had sung at Connie Corleone’s wedding. Johnny was making the record primarily because he knew that the Don loved such songs and it would be a perfect Christmas gift for him. He also had a hunch that the record would sell in the high numbers, not a million, of course. And he had figured out that helping Nino was how the Don wanted his payoff. Nino was, after all, another one of the Don’s godchildren.
Johnny put his clipboard and yellow pad on the folding chair beside him and got up to stand beside the piano. He said, “Hey, paisan,” and Nino glanced up and tried to smile. He looked a little sick. Johnny leaned over and rubbed his shoulder blades. “Relax, kid,” he said. “Do a good job today and I’ll fix you up with the best and most famous piece of ass in Hollywood.”
Nino took a gulp of whiskey. “Who’s that, Lassie?”
Johnny laughed. “No, Deanna Dunn. I guarantee the goods.”
Nino was impressed but couldn’t help saying with pseudo-hopefulness, “You can’t get me Lassie?”
The orchestra swung into the opening song of the medley. Johnny Fontane listened intently. Eddie Neils would play all the songs through in their special arrangements. Then would come the first take for the record. As Johnny listened he made mental notes on exactly how he would handle each phrase, how he would come into each song. He knew his voice wouldn’t last long, but Nino would be doing most of the singing, Johnny would be singing under him. Except of course in the duet-duel song. He would have to save himself for that.
He pulled Nino to his feet and they both stood by their microphones. Nino flubbed the opening, flubbed it again. His face was beginning to get red with embarrassment. Johnny kidded him, “Hey, you stalling for overtime?”
“I don’t feel natural without my mandolin,” Nino said.
Johnny thought that over for a moment. “Hold that glass of booze in your hand,” he said.
It seemed to do the trick. Nino kept drinking from the glass as he sang but he was doing fine. Johnny sang easily, not straining, his voice merely dancing around Nino’s main melody. There was no emotional satisfaction in this kind of singing but he was amazed at his own technical skill. Ten years of vocalizing had taught him something.
When they came to the duet-duel song that ended the record, Johnny let his voice go and when they finished his vocal cords ached. The musicians had been carried away by the last song, a rare thing for these calloused veterans. They hammered down their instruments and stamped their feet in approval as applause. The drummer gave them a ruffle of drums.
With stops and conferences they worked nearly four hours before they quit. Eddie Neils came over to Johnny and said quietly, “You sounded pretty good, kid. Maybe you’re ready to do a record. I have a new song that’s perfect for you.”
Johnny shook his head. “Come on, Eddie, don’t kid me. Besides, in a couple of hours I’ll be too hoarse to even talk. Do you think we’ll have to fix up much of the stuff we did today?”
Eddie said thoughtfully, “Nino will have to come into the studio tomorrow. He made some mistakes. But he’s much better than I thought he would be. As for your stuff, I’ll have the sound engineers fix anything I don’t like. OK?”
“OK,” Johnny said. “When can I hear the pressing?”
“Tomorrow night,” Eddie Neils said. “Your place?”
“Yeah,” Johnny said. “Thanks, Eddie. See you tomorrow.” He took Nino by the arm and walked out of the studio. They went to his house instead of Ginny’s.
By this time it was late afternoon. Nino was still more than half-drunk. Johnny told him to get under the shower and then take a snooze. They had to be at a big party at eleven that night.
When Nino woke up, Johnny briefed him. “This party is a movie star Lonely Hearts Club,” he said. “These broads tonight are dames you’ve seen in the movies as glamour queens millions of guys would give their right arms to screw. And the only reason they’ll be at the party tonight is to find somebody to shack them up. Do yov know why? Because they are hungry for it, they are just a little old. And just like every dame, they want it with a little bit of class.”
“What’s the matter with your voice?” Nino asked.
Johnny had been speaking almost in a whisper. “Every time after I sing a little bit that happens. I won’t be able to sing for a month now. But I’ll get over the hoarseness in a couple of days.”
Nino said thoughtfully, “Tough, huh?”
Johnny shrugged. “Listen, Nino, don’t get too drunk tonight. You have to show these Hollywood broads that my paisan buddy ain’t weak in the poop. You gotta come across. Remember, some of these dames are very powerful in movies, they can get you work. It doesn’t hurt to be charming after you knock off a piece.”
Nino was already pouring himself a drink. “I’m always charming,” he said. He drained the glass. Grinning, he asked, “No kidding, can you really get me close to Deanna Dunn?”
“Don’t be so anxious,” Johnny said. “It’s not going to be like you think.”
* * *
The Hollywood Movie Star Lonely Hearts Club (so called by the young juvenile leads whose attendance was mandatory) met every Friday night at the palatial, studio-owned home of Roy McElroy, press agent or rather public relations counsel for the Woltz International Film Corporation. Actually, though it was McElroy’s open house party, the idea had come from the practical brain of Jack Woltz himself. Some of his money-making movie stars were getting older now. Without the help of special lights and genius makeup men they looked their age. They were having problems. They had also become, to some extent, desensitized physically and mentally. They could no longer “fall in love.” They could no longer assume the role of hunted women. They had been made too imperious; by money, by fame, by their former beauty. Woltz gave his parties so that it would be easier for them to pick up lovers, one-night stands, who, if they had the stuff, could graduate into full-time bed partners and so work their way upward. Since the action sometimes degenerated into brawls or sexual excess that led to trouble with the police, Woltz decided to hold the parties in the house of the public relation counselor, who would be right there to fix things up, pay off newsmen and police officers and keep everything quiet.
For certain virile young male actors on the studio payroll who had not yet achieved stardom or featured roles, attendance at the Friday night parties was not always pleasant duty. This was explained by the fact that a new film yet to be released by the studio would be shown at the party. In fact that was the excuse for the party itself. People would say, “Let’s go over to see what the new picture so and so made is like.” And so it was put in a professional context.
Young female starlets were forbidden to attend the Friday night parties. Or rather discouraged. Most of them took the hint.
Screenings of the new movies took place at midnight and Johnny and Nino arrived at eleven. Roy McElroy proved to be, at first sight, an enormously likable man, well-groomed, beautifully dressed. He greeted Johnny Fontane with a surprised cry of delight. “What the hell are you doing here?” he said with genuine astonishment.
Johnny shook his hand. “I’m showing my country cousin the sights. Meet Nino.”
McElroy shook hands with Nino and gazed at him appraisingly. “They’ll eat him up alive,” he said to Johnny. He led them to the rear patio.
The rear patio was really a series of huge rooms whose glass doors had been opened to a garden and pool. There were almost a hundred people milling around, all with drinks in their hands. The patio lighting was artfully arranged to flatter feminine faces and skin. These were women Nino had seen on the darkened movie screens when he had been a teenager. They had played their part in his erotic dreams of adolescence. But seeing them now in the flesh was like seeing them in some horrible makeup. Nothing could hide the tiredness of their spirit and their flesh; time had eroded their godhead. They posed and moved as charmingly as he remembered but they were like wax fruit, they could not lubricate his glands. Nino took two drinks, wandered to a table where he could stand next to a nest of bottles. Johnny moved with him. They drank together until behind them came the magic voice of Deanna Dunn.
Nino, like millions of other men, had that voice imprinted on his brain forever. Deanna Dunn had won two Academy Awards, had been in the biggest movie grosser made in Hollywood. On the screen she had a feline feminine charm that made her irresistible to all men. But the words she was saying had never been heard on the silver screen. “Johnny, you bastard, I had to go to my psychiatrist again because you gave me a one-night stand. How come you never came back for seconds?”
Johnny kissed her on her proffered cheek. “You wore me out for a month,” he said. “I want you to meet my cousin Nino. A nice strong Italian boy. Maybe he can keep up with you.”
Deanna Dunn turned to give Nino a cool look. “Does he like to watch previews?”
Johnny laughed. “I don’t think he’s ever had the chance. Why don’t you break him in?”
Nino had to take a big drink when he was alone with Deanna Dunn. He was trying to be nonchalant but it was hard. Deanna Dunn had the upturned nose, the clean-cut classical features of the Anglo-Saxon beauty. And he knew her so well. He had seen her alone in a bedroom, heartbroken, weeping over her dead flier husband who had left her with fatherless children. He had seen her angry, hurt, humiliated, yet with a shining dignity when a caddish Clark Gable had taken advantage of her, then left her for a sexpot. (Deanna Dunn never played sexpots in the movies.) He had seen her flushed with requited love, writhing in the embrace of the man she adored and he had seen her die beautifully at least a half dozen times. He had seen her and heard her and dreamed about her and yet he was not prepared for the first thing she said to him alone.
“Johnny is one of the few men with balls in this town,” she said. “The rest are all fags and sick morons who couldn’t get it up with a broad if you pumped a truckload of Spanish fly into their scrotums.” She took Nino by the hand and led him into a corner of the room, out of traffic and out of competition.
Then still coolly charming, she asked him about himself. He saw through her. He saw that she was playing the role of the rich society girl who is being kind to the stableboy or the chauffeur, but who in the movie would either discourage his amatory interest (if the part were played by Spencer Tracy), or throw up everything in her mad desire for him (if the part were played by Clark Gable). But it didn’t matter. He found himself telling her about how he and Johnny had grown up together in New York, about how he and Johnny had sung together on little club dates. He found her marvelously sympathetic and interested. Once she asked casually, “Do you know how Johnny made that bastard Jack Woltz give him the part?” Nino froze and shook his head. She didn’t pursue it.
The time had come to see the preview of a new Woltz movie. Deanna Dunn led Nino, her warm hand imprisoning his, to an interior room of the mansion that had no windows but was furnished with about fifty small two-person couches scattered around in such a way as to give each one a little island of semiprivacy.
Nino saw there was a small table beside the couch and on the table were an ice bowl, glasses and bottles of liquor plus a tray of cigarettes. He gave Deanna Dunn a cigarette, lit it and then mixed them both drinks. They didn’t speak to each other. After a few minutes the lights went out.
He had been expecting something outrageous. After all, he had heard the legends of Hollywood depravity. But he was not quite prepared for Deanna Dunn’s voracious plummet on his sexual organ without even a courteous and friendly word of preparation. He kept sipping his drink and watching the movie, but not tasting, not seeing. He was excited in a way he had never been before but part of it was because this woman servicing him in the dark had been the object of his adolescent dreams.
Yet in a way his masculinity was insulted. So when the world-famous Deanna Dunn was sated and had tidied him up, he very coolly fixed her a fresh drink in the darkness and lit her a fresh cigarette and said in the most relaxed voice imaginable, “This looks like a pretty good movie.”
He felt her stiffen beside him on the couch. Could it be she was waiting for some sort of compliment? Nino poured his glass full from the nearest bottle his hand touched in the darkness. The hell with that. She’d treated him like a goddamn male whore. For some reason now he felt a cold anger at all these women. They watched the picture for another fifteen minutes. He leaned away from her so their bodies did not touch.
Finally she said in a low harsh whisper, “Don’t be such a snotty punk, you liked it. You were as big as a house.”
Nino sipped his drink and said in his natural off-hand manner, “That’s the way it always is. You should see it when I get excited.”
She laughed a little and kept quiet for the rest of the picture. Finally it was over and the lights went on. Nino took a look around. He could see there had been a ball here in the darkness though oddly enough he hadn’t heard a thing. But some of the dames had that hard, shiny, brighteyed look of women who had just been worked over real good. They sauntered out of the projection room. Deanna Dunn left him immediately to go over and talk to an older man Nino recognized as a famous featured player, only now, seeing the guy in person, he realized that he was a fag. He sipped his drink thoughtfully.
Johnny Fontane came up beside him and said, “Hi, old buddy, having a good time?”
Nino grinned. “I don’t know. It’s different. Now when I go back to the old neighborhood I can say Deanna Dunn had me.”
Johnny laughed. “She can be better than that if she-invites you home with her. Did she?”
Nino shook his head. “I got too interested in the movie,” he said. But this time Johnny didn’t laugh.
“Get serious, kid,” he said. “A dame like that cn do you a lot of good. And you used to boff anything. Man, sometimes I still get nightmares when I remember those ugly broads you used to bang.”
Nino waved his glass drunkenly and said very loud, “Yeah, they were ugly but they were women.” Deanna Dunn, in the corner, turned her head to look at them. Nino waved his glass at her in greeting.
Johnny Fontane sighed. “OK, you’re just a guinea peasant.”
“And I ain’t gonna change,” Nino said with his charmingly drunken smile.
Johnny understood him perfectly. He knew Nino was not as drunk as he pretended. He knew that Nino was only pretending so that he could say things which he felt were too rude to say to his new Hollywood padrone when sober. He put his arm around Nino’s neck and said affectionately, “You wise guy bum, you know you got an ironclad contract for a year and you can say and do anything you want and I can’t fire you.”
“You can’t fire me?” Nino said with drunken cunning.
“No,” Johnny said.
“Then fuck you,” Nino said.
For a moment Johnny was surprised into anger. He saw the careless grin on Nino’s face. But in the past few years he must have gotten smarter, or his own descent from stardom had made him more sensitive. In that moment he understood Nino, why his boyhood singing partner had never become successful, why he was trying to destroy any chance of success now. That Nino was reacting away from all the prices of success, that in some way he felt insulted by everything that was being done for him.
Johnny took Nino by the arm and led him out of the house. Nino could barely walk now. Johnny was talking to him soothingly. “OK, kid, you just sing for me, I wants make dough on you. I won’t try to run your life. You do whatever you wants do. OK, paisan? All you gotta do is sing for me and earn me money now that I can’t sing anymore. You got that, old buddy?”
Nino straightened up. “I’ll sing for you, Johnny,” he said, his voice slurring so that he could barely be understood. “I’m a better singer than you now. I was always a better singer than you, you know that?”
Johnny stood there thinking; so that was it. He knew that when his voice was healthy Nino simply wasn’t in the same league with him, never had been in those years they had sung together as kids. He saw Nino was waiting for an answer, weaving drunkenly in the California moonlight. “Fuck you,” he said gently, and they both laughed together like the old days when they had both been equally young.
* * *
When Johnny Fontane got word about the shooting of Don Corleone he not only worried about his Godfather, but also wondered whether the financing for his movie was still alive. He had wanted to go to New York to pay his respects to his Godfather in the hospital but he had been told not to get any bad publicity, that was the last thing Don Corleone would want. So he waited. A week later a messenger came from Tom Hagen. The financing was still on but for only one picture at a time.
Meanwhile Johnny let Nino go his own way in Hollywood and California, and Nino was doing all right with the young starlets. Sometimes Johnny called him up for a night out together but never leaned on him. When they talked about the Don getting shot, Nino said to Johnny, “You know, once I asked the Don for a job in his organization and he wouldn’t give it to me. I was tired of driving a truck and I wanted to make a lot of dough. You know what he told me? He says every man has only one destiny and that my destiny was to be an artist. Meaning that I couldn’t be a racket guy.”
Johnny thought that one over. The Godfather must be just about the smartest guy in the world. He’d known immediately that Nino could never make a racket guy, would only get himself in trouble or get killed. Get killed with just one of his wisecracks. But how did the Don know that he would be an artist? Because, goddamn it, he figured that someday I’d help Nino. And how did he figure that? Because he would drop the word to me and I would try to show my gratitude. Of course he never asked me to do it. He just let me know it would make him happy if I did it. Johnny Fontane sighed. Now the Godfather was hurt, in trouble, and he could kiss the Academy Award good-bye with Woltz working against him and no help on his side. Only the Don had the personal contacts that could apply pressure and the Corleone Family had other things to think about. Johnny had offered to help, Hagen had given him a curt no.
Johnny was busy getting his own picture going. The author of the book he had starred in had finished his new novel and came west on Johnny’s invitation, to talk it over without agents or studios getting into the act. The second book was perfect for what Johnny wanted. He wouldn’t have to sing, it had a good gutsy story with plenty of dames and sex and it had a part that Johnny instantly recognized as tailor-made for Nino. The character talked like Nino, acted like him, even looked like him. It was uncanny. All Nino would have to do would be to get up on the screen and be himself.
Johnny worked fast. He found that he knew a lot more about production than he thought he did, but he hired an executive producer, a man who knew his stuff but had trouble finding work because of the blacklist. Johnny didn’t take advantage but gave the man a fair contract. “I expect you to save me more dough this way,” he told the man frankly.
So he was surprised when the executive producer came to him and told him the union rep had to be taken care of to the tune of fifty thousand dollars. There were a lot of problems dealing with overtime and hiring and the fifty thousand dollars would be well spent. Johnny debated whether the executive producer was hustling him and then said, “Send the union guy to me.”
The union guy was Billy Goff. Johnny said to him, “I thought the union stuff was fixed by my friends. I was told not to worry about it. At all.”
Goff said, “Who told you that?”
Johnny said, “You know goddamn well who told me. I won’t say his name but if he tells me something that’s it.”
Goff said, “Things have changed. Your friend is in trouble and his word don’t go this far west anymore.”
Johnny shrugged. “See me in a couple of days. OK?”
Goff smiled. “Sure, Johnny,” he said. “But calling in New York ain’t going to help you.”
But calling New York did help. Johnny spoke to Hagen at his office. Hagen told him bluntly not to pay. “Your Godfather will be sore as hell if you pay that bastard a dime,” he told Johnny. “It will make the Don lose respect and right now he can’t afford that.”
“Can I talk to the Don?” Johnny asked. “Will you talk to him? I gotta get the picture rolling.”
“Nobody can talk to the Don right now,” Hagen said. “He’s too sick. I’ll talk to Sonny about fixing things up. But I’ll make the decision on this. Don’t pay that smart bastard a dime. If anything changes, I’ll let you know.”
Annoyed, Johnny hung up. Union trouble could add a fortune to making the film and screw up the works generally. For a moment he debated slipping Goff the fifty grand on the quiet. After all, the Don telling him something and Hagen telling him something and giving him orders were two different things. But he decided to wait for a few days.
By waiting he saved fifty thousand dollars. Two nights later, Goff was found shot to death in his home in Glendale. There was no more talk of union trouble. Johnny was a little shaken by the killing. It was the first time the long arm of the Don had struck such a lethal blow so close to him.
As the weeks went by and he became busier and busier with getting the script ready, casting the movie and working out production details, Johnny Fontane forgot about his voice, his not being able to sing. Yet when the Academy Award nominations came out and he found himself one of the candidates, he was depressed because he was not asked to sing one of the songs nominated for the Oscar at the ceremony that would be televised nationally. But he shrugged it off and kept working. He had no hope of winning the Academy Award now that his Godfather was no longer able to put pressure on, but getting the nomination had some value.
The record he and Nino had cut, the one of Italian songs, was selling much better than anything he had cut lately, but he knew that it was Nino’s success more than his. He resigned himself to never being able to again sing professionally.
Once a week he had dinner with Ginny and the kids. No matter how hectic things got he never skipped that duty. But he didn’t sleep with Ginny. Meanwhile his second wife had finagled a Mexican divorce and so he was a bachelor again. Oddly enough he was not that frantic to bang starlets who would have been easy meat. He was too snobbish really. He was hurt that none of the young stars, the actresses who were still on top, ever gave him a tumble. But it was good to work hard. Most nights he would go home alone, put his old records on the player, have a drink and hum along with them for a few bars. He had been good, damn good. He hadn’t realized how good he was. Even aside from the special voice, which could have happened to anybody, he was good. He had been a real artist and never knew it, and never knew how much he loved it. He’d ruined his voice with booze and tobacco and broads just when he really knew what it was all about.
Sometimes Nino came over for a drink and listened with him and Johnny would say to him scornfully, “You guinea bastard, you never sang like that in your life.” And Nino would give him that curiously charming smile and shake his head and say, “No, and I never will,” in a sympathetic voice, as if he knew what Johnny was thinking.
Finally, a week before shooting the new picture, the Academy Award night rolled around. Johnny invited Nino to come along but Nino refused. Johnny said, “Buddy, I never asked you a favor, right? Do me a favor tonight and come with me. You’re the only guy who’ll really feel sorry for me if I don’t win.”
For one moment Nino looked startled. Then he said, “Sure, old buddy, I can make it.” He paused for a moment and said, “if you don’t win, forget it. Just get as drunk as you can get and I’ll take care of you. Hell, I won’t even drink myself tonight. How about that for being a buddy?”
“Man,” Johnny Fontane said, “that’s some buddy.”
The Academy Award night came and Nino kept his promise. He came to Johnny’s house dead sober and they left for the presentation theater together. Nino wondered why Johnny hadn’t invited any of his girls or his ex-wives to the Award dinner. Especially Ginny. Didn’t he think Ginny would root for him? Nino wished he could have just one drink, it looked like a long bad night.
Nino Valenti found the whole Academy Award affair a bore until the winner of the best male actor was announced. When he heard the words “Johnny Fontane,” he found himself jumping into the air and applauding. Johnny reached out a hand for him to shake and Nino shook it. He knew his buddy needed human contact with someone he trusted and Nino felt an enormous sadness that Johnny didn’t have anyone better than himself to touch in his moment of glory.
What followed was an absolute nightmare. Jack Woltz’s picture had swept all the major awards and so the studio’s party was swamped with newspaper people and all the on-the-make hustlers; male and female. Nino kept his promise to remain sober, and he tried to watch over Johnny. But the women of the party kept pulling Johnny Fontane into bedrooms for a little chat and Johnny kept getting drunker and drunker.
Meanwhile the woman who had won the award for the best actress was suffering the same fate but loving it more and handling it better. Nino turned her down, the only man at the party to do so.
Finally somebody had a great idea. The public mating of the two winners, everybody else at the party to be spectators in the stands. The actress was stripped down and the other women started to undress Johnny Fontane. It was then that Nino, the only sober person there, grabbed the half-clothed Johnny and slung him over his shoulder and fought his way out of the house and to their car. As he drove Johnny home, Nino thought that if that was success, he didn’t want it.