The following is from Anthony Marra's Mercury Pictures Presents. Marra is the New York Times bestselling author of The Tsar of Love and Techno and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and longlisted for the National Book Award.
When you entered the executive offices of mercury Pictures international, you would first see a scale model of the studio itself. Artie Feldman, co-founder and head of production, installed it in the lobby to distract skittish investors from second thoughts. Complete with back lot, sound stages, and facilities buildings, the miniature was a faithful replica of the ten-acre studio in which it sat. Maria Lagana, as rendered by the miniaturist, was a tiny, featureless figure looking out Artie’s office window. And this was where the real Maria stood late one morning in 1941, hands holstered on her hips, watching a pigeon autograph the windshield of her boss’s new convertible. She’d like to buy that bird a drink.
“It’s a beautiful day out, Art,” Maria said. “You should really come have a look.”
“I have,” Artie said. “It made me want to jump.”
Artie wasn’t known for his joie de vivre, but he usually didn’t fantasize about ending it all this close to lunch. Maria wondered if the Senate Investigation into Motion Picture War Propaganda was giving him agita, but no—the crisis at hand was on his head. His bald spot had finally grown too large for his toupee to conceal.
Six other black toupees were shellacked atop wooden mannequin heads on the shelf behind his desk, where a more successful producer might display his Oscars. They were conversation starters. As in, Artie began conversations with new employees by telling them the toupees were the scalps of their predecessors.
As far as Maria could tell, the six hairpieces were the same indistinguishable model and style, but Artie had become convinced that each one crackled with the karmic energy of the hair’s original head, unrealized and awaiting release, like a static charge smuggled in a fingertip. Thus, he’d named his toupees after their personalities: The Heavyweight, The Casanova, The Optimist, The Edison, The Odysseus, and The Mephistopheles. Artie had never felt more at home in his adoptive country than when he learned the Founding Fathers had all worn toupees, even that showboat John Hancock. The only one who hadn’t was Benjamin Franklin. And look how he turned out: a syphilitic Francophile who got his jollies flying kites in the rain.
“Maybe the toupee shrunk,” he said, still hoping for a miracle. “I think you’ll need one with more coverage, Art.”
“That’s the second time this year. Christ, when will it end?” “Life’s nasty and brutish but at least it’s short.”
“Yeah? I’m not so optimistic.”
Artie didn’t believe in aging gracefully. He didn’t believe in aging at all. At fifty-three, he maintained the same exercise regime that had made him a promising semi-professional boxer before a shattered wrist forced him into the only other business to reward his brand of controlled aggression. (He still kept a speedbag mounted to his office wall and liked to pummel it while in meetings with unaccommodating agents.) Sure, maybe he lost a step; maybe his knees sounded like a pair of maracas when he climbed stairs; maybe the boys in the mailroom let him win when he challenged them to arm-wrestling matches—but he wasn’t getting old.
Or so Maria imagined Artie telling himself. In truth, she’d begun to worry about him. In four days, he would sit at a witness table on Capitol Hill, where he would testify alongside the heads of Warner Bros, MGM, Twentieth Century–Fox, and Paramount. It was shaping into a pivotal confrontation between campaigners for free speech and crusaders for government censorship. But as far as Maria could tell, Artie was more preoccupied with his toupee than his opening statement.
On the topic of censorship, he said, “Have you heard back from Joe Breen?”
“Earlier this morning.”
“And? Will he approve the script for Devil’s Bargain?” Maria said nothing.
“I’m going to pull the rest of my hair out, aren’t I?” “I’m afraid so,” she admitted.
Maria had started working at Mercury a decade earlier, rising from the typing pool to the front office. At the age of twenty-eight, she was an associate producer and Artie’s deputy, a job that demanded the talents of a general, diplomat, hostage negotiator, and hairdresser. Among her duties was getting every Mercury picture blessed by the puritans and spoilsports who upheld the moral standards of movies at the Production Code Administration. The grand inquisitor over there was Joseph Breen, a bluenose so distraughtfully Catholic he’d once bowdlerized a Jesus biopic for sticking too close to the source material; apparently, a foreign-born Jew advocating redistribution smacked of Bolshevism to Breen. Committed to making pictures gratuitously inoffensive, Breen withheld Production Code approval from any movie dealing with contentious subjects. Throughout the 1930s, if you only got your news from the local picture house, you’d find the American South untroubled by Jim Crow and Europe untouched by fascism. But by late summer 1941, not even a force of blandness as entrenched as the Production Code could keep the European crisis from the screen.
In response to pro-interventionist messages in recent movies, a group of isolationist senators accused Hollywood of plotting with Roosevelt “to make America punch drunk with propaganda to push her into war” against Germany and Italy. Congressional hearings were hastily arranged to investigate these charges and propose legislative remedies. And Artie Feldman, ever reliant on the free publicity of controversy to find an audience, wanted to both undermine the legitimacy of the investigation and capitalize on his newfound notoriety with Mercury’s next movie.
Maria passed Artie the script she’d received back from the Production Code Administration that morning. Joe Breen had rerouted scenes with the frantic arrows of a besieged field commander. Devil’s Bargain was a clever idea—no matter her misgivings, Maria would admit that much. Written by a German émigré, it retold the Faustian legend through the story of a Berlin filmmaker who agrees to direct indoctrination movies in exchange for the funding to finish his long-gestating magnum opus. In a pivotal sequence, a visiting delegation of American congressmen watches one of these propaganda films and leaves the theater persuaded that the real enemy to peace is not in Berlin but in Hollywood. Of course, insinuating that US senators were easily duped conspiracists ensured the script would never receive Production Code approval. Maria supposed she should feel disappointed, yet for reasons she would not admit to Artie, she was relieved Joseph Breen had sentenced Devil’s Bargain to death by a thousand cuts.
“I’m surprised he didn’t censor the spaces between the words,”
Artie said, flipping through the blue-penciled script. Maria’s marginalia were heavily seasoned with profanity and exclamation points. “Breen’s always had it in for me. I’ve never understood it.”
“You did call him a ‘great sanctimonious windbag’ in the New York Daily News.”
“I was misquoted. I never called him ‘great.’” Artie tossed the script on his desk and peeled off his hairpiece. His liver-spotted scalp resembled a slab of pimento loaf. Maria always found the sight of it oddly moving, a sign of the trust established over the ten years they had worked together. Artie allowed no one else at Mercury to see him in between toupees. He turned to her and said, “What do you think—any chance we can salvage this?”
Artie assumed Maria’s background made her a natural fit for supervising the production of Devil’s Bargain. Long before she became his second-in-command, Maria and her mother had fled Italy as political exiles after Mussolini had her father, one of Rome’s most prominent lawyers, sentenced to internal exile in the Calabrian hinterlands. Over the years their correspondence had imbued Maria with a contempt for censors and a talent for circumventing them.
Sometimes she felt life had professionalized her to hide in plain sight. Fascism and Catholicism had educated her in navigating repressive ideologies, and growing up a girl in an Italian family meant you were, existentially, suggested rather than shown. Gesture and insinuation comprised the Italian American vernacular, from mamma to Mafia, and coming from a diaspora where desires and death threats went articulately unspoken, Maria had a knack for smuggling subtext past the border guards of decorum at the Production Code Administration. Nevertheless, in the case of Devil’s Bargain, she agreed with the censors’ decision. Meddling in politics was for the rich, the powerful, or the self-destructive; she learned this from her father’s example and had no wish to become him.
“I think this one is well and truly Breened,” she said.
Artie nodded and tossed the toupee into the trash. He replaced it with the richer sable of The Mephistopheles. Its deployment was cause for hope, not least for its wider coverage. To conserve its occult charge, he spared The Mephistopheles for the most important negotiations. Artie was trying to establish a new credit line to ensure financing in case things went south in Washington. He and his twin brother, Ned, had a meeting that afternoon with Eastern National, a consortium of hard-charging Wall Street slicks who likely knew the etiquette for expunging drunk-driving fatalities from the legal record.
Securely helmeted, he swiveled around in his desk chair. “How’m I looking?”
The truth was that Artie exceeded his protégé’s talent for euphemism.
“You don’t look a day over twenty-five,” she said.
This elicited a rare grin from Artie. As a master bullshitter, he encouraged his apprentice’s efforts. Despite her sex and ethnicity, he knew Maria was, at heart, a Feldman Brother through and through. “I pay them to lie,” Artie said, nodding in the direction of the accounting department. “I pay you to be honest.” “Honestly, you look like Elmer Fudd’s dad.” Artie winced. “I don’t pay you to be that honest.” “Then you should pay me more.”
“Let’s not get carried away. But I suppose that’s the impression we want to make on these East Coast bankers. It takes a genius to know when to be taken for a fool.”
Maria smiled. “In that case, you’re a regular Einstein, Art.” “Hey, you laugh, but you of all people should know being underestimated is a competitive advantage. When these Mayflower Society Wall Street suits see me, they’ll think they can use my fedora as a bedpan. It goes against everything they’ve been taught to take a loudmouth immigrant in a bad rug seriously.”
“You look like Elmer Fudd’s dad,” Maria said, “and the Yankee Doodle Douchebag across the table won’t see who you really are.”
“And who am I?” Artie asked.
“At the bargaining table? You’re Mephistopheles.”
Enlivened by the wig’s demonic power, Artie felt ready to slay his enemies. He stood up and stuffed his arms into his jacket sleeves. A canary chirped at him from the brass cage at the end of his desk. The bird had been an anniversary gift from Mrs. Feldman. The accompanying note said Artie could use the companionship. Artie had named the canary Charles Lindbergh, on account of it being an excellent aviator but otherwise a real piece of work. There was comfort, Maria imagined, in reducing one’s enemies to caged and easily throttled creatures.
“Where’s the statement you plan to read before Congress?” Maria asked. “I’ll edit it this afternoon.”
Artie shrugged and said nothing.
“Art. You’re flying to Washington tomorrow morning.”
“I haven’t prepared an opening statement,” he admitted. All at once, he felt very much like the man he spent a great deal of psychological effort convincing himself he was not: a middle-aged narcissist whose bald spot had outpaced his toupees, a guy about to have his loyalties questioned and character maligned on the largest stage in America, an ex-boxer who could defend himself in a dark alley but not in a well-lit hearing room on Capitol Hill.
“It’s going to be a show trial, Maria. It doesn’t matter what I say.
I just… I just don’t see this ending well.”
Rubbing his temples, he seemed taken aback by his own uncertainty. No matter how often he was proved wrong, Artie never stopped insisting he was right. Whether he was speculating on the physics of Joe DiMaggio’s swing, the name of the capital of New Zealand, or Rita Hayworth’s natural hair color, his confidence made you nod in agreement, even if you knew he was talking complete crapola. And now he dropped into his chair as if crumpling beneath the weight of what he did not know and could not predict.
The bleak foreboding in his face concerned Maria. Artie could be maddening, capricious, and self-absorbed, but he had done more to support her career than anyone else. He had promoted her over the protest of male colleagues. He respected her opinion and had faith in her abilities. When he learned another executive had tried to get handsy with her, Artie slugged the guy and gave Maria his job. Editorials denouncing Artie for rending the nation’s moral fabric papered his office wall in lieu of good reviews, but there was no one whose morality Maria admired more than his.
“Listen, how about I come with you to Washington,” she suggested. “We’ll prepare your opening statement on the flight in.”
“You really want to watch me get fed to the lions?” “I’m from Rome. My people invented the sport.”
“That’s very reassuring,” Artie said.
“Besides, my father was a defense attorney in the early days of Mussolini’s regime. I’m not unfamiliar with show trials.”
Artie gave her a grateful nod. “Book yourself a seat on the flight out of Mines Field tomorrow.”
They walked out to the lobby, past the miniature of the studio lot. Out on the street, the heat radiating from the asphalt painted sedans and roadsters in impressionist smudges. Due north, the mansion-heaped hillsides looked like a plutocratic favela. When they reached Artie’s Lincoln, he gave her a letter. “Do me a favor. Get this in today’s mail, will you?”
The envelope was addressed to German-occupied Silesia, to the last known address of Artie’s older sister. He wrote her every day but hadn’t received a reply in months. It was thin enough to contain nothing at all, yet Maria accepted the envelope in both hands as the true weight drained into it from Artie’s downcast eyes.
Maria put her hand on his shoulder, squeezed once, and slipped the envelope in her purse.
Wanting to change the subject before she could offer words of sympathy, Artie said, “It’s a real pity Devil’s Bargain didn’t receive Production Code approval. Can’t you just picture me touting it in my congressional testimony?”
Maria could. Inevitably, the most creative aspect of any Mercury production was the publicity campaign promoting it.
“I bet no one’s ever plugged a movie before Congress.” Artie turned to an imaginary camera. “If the senators here really want to learn about the dangers of propaganda, I’m happy to offer them complimentary tickets to Devil’s Bargain, opening this December in a theater near you. Remember I’m under oath when I say Devil’s Bargain is the best motion picture of the year—that’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
“You can thank the Pope of the Production Code for saving you from perjury.”
“The Pope of the Production Code, huh,” Artie said. The phrase sent a flicker through his glassy eyes. “You’re from Rome. You must know what’s his name. The pope’s house painter. Michael Angelo.”
“Michelangelo,” Maria corrected.
“Whomever. The point is, that Sistine Chapel is something, isn’t it? You want to know what I think?” She didn’t, but Artie’s opinions moved with the tottery insistence of a drunk barging past the maître d’. “I think this Michael Angelo character must’ve been the Preston Sturges of his time.”
“Sure,” Maria said, smiling. “He was okay.”
“Okay? Okay? Somehow Michael Angelo got away with painting peckers on the pope’s ceiling. And mind you, we’re not talking one or two. There must be dozens up there. I bet the pope can’t raise his eyes to God without getting flashed by some smart-ass saint.”
“Michelangelo had a sense of humor, I’ll give you that,” Maria said.
“I can’t show a husband and wife faithfully married for fifty years sleeping in the same bed without that two-bit Torquemada Joe Breen farting brimstone on me. And yet the pope’s private chapel has more southern exposure than a ballpark bathroom at the bottom of the seventh.”
Artie looked at Maria and across that long stare the musculature conjoining their intuitions flexed.
“You know what? I think Michael Angelo would have done very well in Hollywood. To get away with that, and on the pope’s ceiling. How do you think he did it?”
Maria folded her arms and leaned against the hood of Artie’s Lincoln. “Clearly, he and the pope reached an accommodation,” she said, trying to visualize the Sistine Chapel. “Michelangelo could paint peckers to his heart’s content, so long as he painted them small.”
Maria understood what Artie was getting at. For years, Maria had devised strategies for smuggling the profane beneath the most sensitive censorial snouts. At her best, she passed more colorful bullshit than Babe the Blue Ox. Through charm, flattery, faux naiveté, and veiled threats, she convinced censors of Artie’s honorable intentions the way her father had once persuaded courtrooms to believe in the innocence of the incorrigibly recidivistic. When meeting with Joe Breen to discuss a Mercury production, she dressed demurely, low hemlines and high necklines, no jewelry but a golden cross. She so credibly explained away the innuendos Breen unearthed that the head censor would begin to fear that he was the pervert. Ten minutes later, Breen would be hotfooting his way to midday Mass and Maria would have a Production Code seal for a picture called Aren’t They Cousins? Beneath her cross she was all killer. “I’ll make you a deal,” Artie said. “You find a way to get Devil’s Bargain past the censors and I’ll give you the producer’s credit.” Maria eyed him warily. She’d been an associate producer for several years now and had yet to receive a screen credit, but she distrusted any transaction that gave her what she wanted. “Why now?” “Because you’ve earned it,” he said, offering her his hand. After they sealed the deal with a handshake, he added, “Now go knock Michael Angelo down a peg or two.”
From Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra. Used with permission of the publisher, Hogarth. Copyright 2022 by Anthony Marra.