|Donnie snags Lefty: "I got him--I got my hooks in the guy."|
Johnny goes undercover.
Based on the New York Times bestseller, Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia by Joseph D. Pistone, this film gives a realistic account of mafia life. There's no glamour or grandiosity about it: They spend their days meeting on the street corner, waiting for instructions from the boss. They make minor drug deals and steal parking meters. Occasionally, they are unnecessarily violent and kill people (usually within their own organization).
This true story details Joe Pistone's 6-year infiltration into New York's mafia world in the 1970s under the persona "Donnie Brasco." Posing as a jewel thief, Donnie (Johnny Depp) first befriends Lefty (Al Pacino), who takes him under his wing and shows him the ropes of mafia living. Soon, Donnie's loyalty to his work and to Lefty clash, leaving him alone, confused, and in danger.
"Johnny Depp grows up!"
|It's the shades.|
I never really saw it that way. This is a different kind of movie, but all of Johnny's movies are different from the last--That's one of the many Joys of Johnny. But, like some of Johnny's other characters, this guy was alienated and lonely. As director Mike Newell notes, he's locked in his own head, saddened and stressed by the pressure.
To prepare for this role, Johnny spent a lot of time with the real "Donnie Brasco," Joe Pistone. "I studied him like he was a science project," Johnny says. "I mean, I really sponged as much as I could from the guy." Mike Newell noticed: "The thing he got out of Joe is this extreme immobility in his face. If you look at him, he almost doesn't move his face at all in the movie. It's like a mask. You can never tell what Joe is thinking." In the end, I think Joe Pistone approved of the performance: "He picked up all the mannerisms, the voice--It's kind of eerie."
1. Mike Newell. I was most eager to see this movie because of its director, Mike Newell, who is best known for his 1994 comedy hit Four Weddings and a Funeral--the movie that made Hugh Grant a star. However, my favorite Mike Newell film, Enchanted April, came two years earlier. That quiet, beautiful movie follows four British women--strangers--who decide to escape the dreariness of London's rainy season and spend a month renting a villa in Italy, where they rekindle romances and find new love. (It will make you think that all you have to do to fix your life is rent an Italian villa with strangers for a month of sunshine and flowers.) "I was sick of charm," Mike Newell says of his decision to direct Donnie Brasco. But I paced the floors waiting to see how he would bring the sensibility of Enchanted April to a movie about the mob.
As I suspected, he brought such a new perspective to Donnie Brasco that it doesn't really fit under the mafia movie label. The story is more about friendship and loyalty than car chases and machine guns. By the end, you feel bad for the "bad guys" and bad for Donnie, who feels bad for them too. Mike Newell said he thought a lot about Arthur Miller's classic play, "A Death of Salesman," while planning to make Donnie Brasco. I totally get it! And, you will too when you see this movie.
2. The script. This is a sad movie, but I love that it has funny moments and how complete and authentic the story is. You'll recognize every character and know what they're about through simple actions or dialogue. Nominated for an Oscar, the screenplay written by Paul Attanasio, captures it all--the language, the differences between Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the conflict between Donnie's undercover life and his real one. Best of all, it's given us great words like "fuggetaboutit" and "fugazi."
|Al, in even cooler shades.|
So, hearing that Johnny would be playing "Donnie Brasco" opposite Al Pacino as "Lefty Ruggero" was thrilling. "When you look at all the characters that Al has played, there's something inevitable about him playing Lefty," Paul Attanasio
4. The supporting cast. This movie has some of the best mafia guys in it, including Michael Madsen and Bruno Kirby. But the scenes that were brightest for me were all the domestic ones with Joe's wife Maggie (Anne Heche). Anne Heche is only in a few scenes but she makes the most of them all. I think the marriage counsellor scene is my favorite of the whole movie. Anne Heche won the Best Supporting Actress Award from The National Board of Review for work in Donnie Brasco.
5. Johnny. I love everything about this performance; there are so many layers. "Johnny is one of those actors who performs like a long distance runner. In any film, you stay with him throughout in anticipation of the finale," Mike Newell says. "He tells you a story in his own good time. And, more important, you are willing to wait for it." Joe Pistone agrees, "He brought a sensibility to the part. That's a side of my not many people see." In his review of Donnie Brasco, Gene Siskel called Johnny the film's secret ingredient--a big, big talent to watch. (I say that all the time!)
Can you believe they were filming in a card shop in my neighborhood in Brooklyn while I was living there for my internship? (See the Florida gift shop scene.) I felt the vibes but was never lucky enough to discover anything interesting around town. I guess he was working undercover.
The secret is out!
This is the moment when Donnie's real identity is revealed. (I'm not giving anything away here, am I? You knew they'd all find out eventually, right?) Against his wishes but for his safety, the FBI pulled Joe Pistone out of the undercover operation 6 years after it began. Here, Lefty (B.J.) can't quite believe it, despite the photographic evidence they provided.
Joe Pistone's work led to 200 indictments and 100 convictions. The mob still has a $500,000 contract out on his head.
Johnny takes on a tough story that's a tough sell and a tough job--writing, directing, and starring in The Brave.
(Note: Except for my drawing, all images © Tristar Pictures.)