In the spring of 1998, my friends and I were just barely out of film school, wondering what our future would hold, when Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood came out. In that page-turning tell-all, the most important American directors and stars of the 1970s — including Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Warren Beatty — looked back at what has become known as the New Hollywood era, a rule-breaking period when young upstarts challenged the studios, producing a series of maverick films that defined a turbulent time. But alongside chronicling the making of, say, Days of Heaven, Biskind dished on cocaine abuse and infidelity, of bad boys acting like golden gods. It was all so intoxicating for a recent college graduate: The film industry sounded pretty damn wonderful.
“What surprised me was the extent to which these people did themselves in, going berserk on drugs and intoxicated with power,” Biskind told the New York Times about Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which was condemned by many of his interview subjects as sordid and slanted. (“I’ve actually never read the book,” The Exorcist director William Friedkin said in 2013, “but I’ve talked to some of my friends who are portrayed in it, and we all share the opinion that it is partial truth, partial myth and partial out-and-out lies by mostly rejected girlfriends and wives.”) “Some people think I trash the decade,” Biskind said. “But that’s not my intent. These filmmakers acted badly but made wonderful movies, and in certain ways they’re all very appealing.” The inspiration for Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which became a bestseller, hit Biskind while interviewing filmmakers when he worked at Premiere. “They talked about the 1970s with enormous nostalgia,” Biskind recalled. “They said this period would never come around again.”
Those directors were right, and in a sense modern-day Hollywood remains in thrall to the memories of the halcyon 1970s. Whether you were working in the business at that time — and remember the freedom given to talented risk-takers — or of a younger generation envious of your predecessors, the New Hollywood era is beloved both because of its films and (thanks to books like Biskind’s) its hedonistic behavior, helping to cement an idea that you couldn’t have had one without the other. That’s a fantasy, of course, but it’s one we apparently can’t get enough of — and it returns with a vengeance in The Offer, the new limited event series from Paramount+.
Over its 10 episodes — the first three premiering on April 28th, with a new installment becoming available each subsequent Thursday — we follow the story of the making of probably the greatest film of the New Hollywood era, The Godfather. It’s a very silly series, filled with the kind of shallow insights and superficial characterizations you expect from officially sanctioned biopics. (Paramount released The Godfather almost exactly 50 years ago, and the series is “based on the experiences” of Albert S. Ruddy, who was the film’s producer and is The Offer’s heroic main character.) Prepare yourself for several layers of hagiography and airbrushed nonsense — including moderately well-known actors doing impressions of world-famous filmmakers, actors and industry titans.
Which is not to say that The Offer still can’t be very entertaining, albeit in a trashy way. But among the fantasies that it’s peddling, perhaps the one that’s most blatant is the notion that Hollywood was once ruled by a bunch of dick-swinging dudes who rolled the dice and bet big on themselves, refusing to be cowed by the suits and the number-crunchers. The Offer is total bullshit, but if you can see past its rose-colored portrait, you might still have a pretty fun time.
The Godfather isn’t just one of the most celebrated of American movies but also among the most storied. We’ve all heard the tales: how director Francis Ford Coppola kept running the risk of being fired; how Paramount head Robert Evans didn’t want theater actor Al Pacino to play Michael Corleone; how it was considered foolish to cast Marlon Brando, who’d fallen out of favor in the early 1970s. But like so many classic films, The Godfather is revered in part because it shouldn’t have succeeded — gangster pictures had lost their popularity, it was three hours long — and those initial obstacles only burnish the film’s legend. The Godfather’s staggering achievement is even more impressive when you know everything working against it.
So it makes sense that Paramount, which has struggled in the last few years, would want to make a big deal out of the movie’s golden anniversary. Not only has The Godfather been rereleased this year, but The Offer serves as, essentially, a 10-episode advertisement for the movie, which won Best Picture and sparked two sequels — the first of which also won Best Picture. But with these kinds of biopics, it’s important to keep in mind whose story is being told, and in the case of The Offer, the POV belongs to Ruddy, the brash upstart who talked his way onto the Paramount lot, convinced that he would be an amazing film producer. Given a chance by Robert Evans, who appreciated the kid’s hutzpah, Ruddy took on Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel about an Italian mob family, turning it into the cinematic masterpiece we all know. In The Offer, we meet all the major players — Coppola, Pacino, Brando, Evans, Puzo — but it’s all told from Ruddy’s perspective. He’s the man with the plan, the quick-thinker, the smooth operator. The Godfather was the triumph of many, but The Offer wants us to remember that Ruddy may be its most unheralded champion.
Ruddy is played by Miles Teller, whose early promise in films like The Spectacular Now and Whiplash suggested a bright future portraying intense, sensitive men. But then came a few flops and an image-damaging 2015 Esquire interview — its infamous lede was “You’re sitting across from Miles Teller at the Luminary restaurant in Atlanta and trying to figure out if he’s a dick” — which badly tarnished his reputation. (More recently, there were rumors that production on The Offer had to shut down temporarily because he refused to get vaccinated and caught COVID, which he later denied.)
That’s a lot of baggage, but he’s pretty appealing as Ruddy, who once worked as a programmer at the Rand Corporation before breaking into Hollywood by coming up with Hogan’s Heroes, transitioning to film after chatting up Paramount production head Robert Evans (Matthew Goode). Ruddy doesn’t have any experience as a film producer, but he trusts his instincts and carries himself with confidence, assisted incalculably by his shrewd, ambitious assistant Bettye McCartt (Juno Temple), who knows how Hollywood operates and has a million connections across the industry. Soon, Ruddy is bringing together the creative brain trust that will adapt The Godfather from the page to the screen — including Coppola (Dan Fogler), a talented young filmmaker in desperate need of a hit after a couple bombs.
Created by Michael Tolkin, who hatched a much darker vision of Hollywood in his satirical novel The Player (which was adapted into the Robert Altman movie), The Offer has the spirit of a heist movie, with Ruddy and his buddies positioned as an Ocean’s Eleven-style group of misfits who, against the odds, are going to bring their vision to life. Ruddy faces plenty of roadblocks — sometimes Evans, sometimes the corporate bosses (Burn Gorman and Colin Hanks) — but the scariest is easily Joe Colombo (Giovanni Ribisi), a New York gangster who has the power to allow Ruddy to shoot his movie on the East Coast. Ruddy will have to keep on Colombo’s good side, though, which forces him to get entangled in mobster matters that could put his life in jeopardy. But like a far more benign Walter White, Ruddy is always a step ahead of the violent men trying to stop him.
The Offer is overstuffed, folding in a gangster thriller, a Mad Men-esque office drama, a couple love stories and, of course, an elaborate let’s-make-a-movie plotline. I’m not enough of a Godfather scholar to speak authoritatively on any possibly creative liberties taken, but even I recognized some weird omissions and simplifications in the story. That said, much like Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, this series shouldn’t be viewed as a wholly accurate presentation of the facts. They’re both a bit tawdry and juicy, spinning the actual events into a more sensationalized yarn — and, in the case of The Offer, making the process of producing a motion picture seem like an exciting, nerve-racking battle involving a constant scarcity of time and money. It sure looks like a lot of fun.
It’s also a bit of a boys’ club. As with many industries in the 1970s, Hollywood was predominantly male, and Easy Riders, Raging Bulls laid bare those inequalities — largely by having most of the book’s female participants be, in Friedkin’s phrase, “rejected girlfriends and wives.” (Oscar-winning Taxi Driver and The Sting producer Julia Phillips was a rare exception.) In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, it was the guys calling the shots, and the same is true in The Offer, with each of the male characters sporting his own specific brand of colorful personality. Coppola is the neurotic, gregarious artist. Evans is all silky charm and withering quips, played with lip-smacking gusto by Goode, who doesn’t just nail the man’s mannerisms and speaking voice but seems to understand how Evans’ whole life was a kind of performance. Gorman’s Charles Bluhdorn, the head of Gulf & Western, which owned Paramount, is the temperamental nightmare boss, constantly yelling at Ruddy in his Austrian accent when he’s not courting pretty young Bettye. As Barry Lapidus, a fictional Gulf & Western executive, Hanks gives us the stereotypical company man who only cares about the bottom line, lacking the soulfulness to understand that movies are about more than dollars and cents. And Mario Puzo (Patrick Gallo) — well, he eats a lot and smokes cigars.
Tolkin and his writers follow these men’s saga, with both Ruddy and Evans losing their lady loves along the way. (They’re too committed to the job, you see — too committed to the majesty of motion pictures.) Amidst all that testosterone, Temple is a welcome relief as Bettye, who understands the sexist world she’s in and is sharp enough to know how to navigate her way through. Occasionally, The Offer acknowledges its milieu’s gender inequality, but as has been an issue with other recent TV programs about the past, the showrunners inject a bit of modern-day feminism into a world where it probably wouldn’t have fit — and also feels a bit heavy-handed, no matter the honorable intentions. No, The Offer at its heart is about guys being guys — more specifically, brash self-starters who are masters of their fate. It’s a universe in which people of color barely exist and women show up to support the men.
Obviously, that’s all accurate to the period, but it also significantly undercuts the romantic vision The Offer peddles of a bygone “good old days” when, according to the series, people really cared about film and the bean-counters weren’t yet fully running the show. There’s a sentimentality coursing through The Offer — for the all-mighty theatrical experience, for a time when studios took chances on smart material, for the monoculture — that tends to be especially blinkered in its idolization of The Godfather’s MVPs. Diane Keaton (who plays Michael’s conflicted girlfriend-turned-wife) and Talia Shire (Coppola’s sister, who portrayed Don Vito’s daughter) barely register in The Offer, but there’s an awful amount of attention paid to Al Pacino (Anthony Ippolito) and Marlon Brando (Justin Chambers). Even cinematographer Gordon Willis (T.J. Thyne), undoubtedly a crucial factor in The Godfather’s greatness because of his vivid camerawork, is given enough screen time to be a semi-fleshed-out character. (He basically thinks Coppola’s a putz who doesn’t appreciate his artistry.)
Indeed, for all the lip-service the series pays to how the Bettyes had to fight to make their Hollywood dreams come true, The Offer perpetuates a long-running narrative that it was a bunch of male geniuses who made The Godfather a masterpiece — and that their relatively minor obstacles were somehow herculean tasks they somehow managed to overcome. Sure, a movie as nearly perfect as The Godfather is almost impossible to pull off, but when you’ve got dudes as complex™ and magnetic™ as these men, anything is possible.
Yet despite those major limitations — and the fact that all the tedious mobster intrigue plays like a generic mashup of The Sopranos and, well, The Godfather — there’s plenty of fleeting pleasure in watching Ruddy and his bros guide the movie to completion. At its best, The Offer feels like an insider’s peek at some fragile egos trying to make something great. Whether it’s Pacino’s skittish insecurity or Evans’ flailing confidence once his wife, actress Ali MacGraw (Meredith Garretson), leaves him, the series suggests that these soon-to-be Hollywood icons had their share of struggles, with Ruddy demonstrating a Rat Pack-like swagger as he remains convinced that The Godfather will be an amazing motion picture, no matter how dire things look.
The showrunners invite us to relish in The Offer’s “me and the boys” good vibes as a group of dudes fashion a timeless classic. And, its darker digressions notwithstanding, The Offer does mostly groove along, astonished by the fact that The Godfather came together thanks to a floundering director, an unproven leading man, a producer who’d done basically nothing and a studio head whose cocaine habit threatened to destroy him. (As opposed to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, though, the series doesn’t delve much into the sex-and-drugs side of 1970s Hollywood. Paramount doesn’t want its heroes to look too bad, after all.) Mostly, these guys are portrayed as lovable rogues, and the series consistently is amused that they were able to make anything, let alone a masterpiece.
Where does that leave Bettye? Well, she proves to be Ruddy’s right-hand woman, helping to get him out of scrapes with her guile and savvy, and they become The Offer’s most winning pair. Thankfully, the series never invents a romance between them — and, to be sure, the real Bettye McCartt went on to a prominent career in her own right — but it wouldn’t have made sense, anyway. Ultimately, The Offer is about the bromance between Ruddy and his male collaborators, the guys in the trenches with him. What the show’s less overt about is that it’s also a love letter to an exclusionary, male-dominated film industry whose problematic history we can’t seem to stop celebrating.