“Nothing has hurt people more in this country than wanting to be in the movies.”
So said Edward Hayes, a sagacious New York lawyer who has been in some movies himself and been portrayed in others (“Bonfire of the Vanities”).
He has also defended bad guys who have risked life, liberty and wealth (usually cash) in pursuit of stardom. To Hayes, El Chapo — Mexican drug kingpin, killer and escape artist — must be a familiar sort. He’s just another schmuck who wants to be in pictures.
For that reason, El Chapo — Joaquin Guzman Loera to his mother and the police — contacted Sean Penn to see about a movie.
El Chapo (“Shorty”) was in hiding, having gone for a shower six months earlier and vanished down the drain. He plopped into a tunnel and on to a waiting motorcycle, surfacing as a free man and, without a doubt, movie material.
Through a star of Mexican soap operas, Kate del Castillo, Guzman somehow got in touch with Penn. We know this from Penn’s account of their meeting, recently published in Rolling Stone.
He called El Chapo “a simple man, from a simple place” engaged somehow in the complex task of keeping a good part of the world supplied in dope.
Penn apparently thought there might be a movie in Guzman’s tale, all those murders notwithstanding. They are unfortunate, but can be dealt with in rewrite and, of course, flashbacks to an impoverished childhood.
Somewhere along the line, however, Penn decided that El Chapo’s story could not make a movie. I feel this is totally wrong. I see Danny DeVito in the role, his charm and insouciance taking the edge off the occasional murder and masking the nature of the enterprise, which after all is drugs, addiction, death ... blah, blah, blah.
Barring that, Penn could do a movie about himself — how against great odds and risking his own life (and the livelihood of his agent!) he was flown from California to Mexico and then to an airstrip in the jungle from where he went overland by car possibly past bandidos to a small village so remote only a movie star and a soap-opera actress could find it.
I know, I know: Is this a comedy or a drama? It is both.
To understand that, we must return to Eddie Hayes who in 2006 was defending a certain Stephen Caracappa.
Along with Louis Eppolito, Caracappa was a retired New York City cop who had augmented his meager salary by doing the odd murder for the mob.
Both men were suckered into admitting their crimes when an informer, pretending to be a Hollywood producer, got them to talk about their endeavors.
In Eppolito, the informer had the right guy. He had already appeared in the classic mob movie “Goodfellas” and had written a script, the so-far unproduced “Murder in Youngstown.” (HBO, wake up!)
So, what Hayes knew was that some people will do anything to be in the movies. The two retired cops just could not help themselves. A movie beckoned. Premieres. Stars. Banal questions from TV reporters. Maybe a broad or two. Certainly a spin in a Bentley. They talked. They opened up. They are now in prison. For life.
El Chapo did something similar.
The man has odd tastes, for sure — homicides, drugs, widespread corruption and, the last straw, calling Donald Trump “mi amigo” — but he needed verification from Hollywood. He was struck. Star-struck.
He knows, as does what’s left of the American mob, that you ain’t nobody until you are somebody in the movies.
We have it on the word of Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano that real mobsters like himself looked to “The Godfather” the way housewives do Oprah Winfrey.
They used the movie’s theme for their weddings, funerals and baptisms, and copped lines like “I’m gonna make you an offer...” by way of business chit-chat.
The movie so thrilled Gravano that it spurred him to greater productivity, executing nearly as many people as the Saudi royal family on a slow weekend. “I only did, like, one murder before I saw the movie,” he conceded. He went on to do 18 more.
This story is not over yet. El Chapo risked everything for a movie and now, to the appropriate music, he may be extradited to the United States.
There, Penn might visit him and take it all down. He’d better hurry, though. Soon, Penn will be too old to play Penn.
Richard Cohen is a nationally syndicated columnist.