Sunday's home-delivered Los Angeles Times came wrapped in one of the legacies of the Tribune ownership era. Instead of the real front page, there was a fake front page that was actually a promotion for the January movie "Gangster Squad." The Times under Tribune began to sell its front page presence like this for movies, of course. There was no chance anyone would mistake Sunday's wrap around the front section for real news. But this time, the stories were real in the sense that the words had previously appeared in the Times. And the fake byline — Paul Lieberman — is actually the name of a former Times staff writer.
"Gangster Squad," you see, is based on a front-page series that Lieberman wrote for the paper in 2008. The series, also called Gangster Squad, retold the story of the LAPD's notorious, off-the-books unit that broke many laws on a mission to eliminate mob influence in the Los Angeles of the 1940s and 50s. Lieberman's research added tons of detail to the public record, including the story behind the 1959 murder I've mentioned here a few times, of bookie and would-be mob boss Jack Whalen at Rondelli's Italian restaurant on Ventura Boulevard. In the movie opening on Friday, the Eastside's own Jewish mobster, Mickey Cohen, seems to be a big part of the story. Cohen is played by Sean Penn. The trailer I've seen suggests that Cohen learned his criminal ways around East Coast mafiosos, while books like John Buntin's "L.A. Noir" have made it pretty clear that Cohen was a bad apple before he ever left Boyle Heights (he grew up a block from the Breed Street shul.)
While the ad pages wrapping this morning's Times are clearly marked "advertisement," the Times did introduce a little language that muddies the picture a bit. Each page carries an invitation to click on a Times website "to search and purchase other Los Angeles Times archives." Just in case you failed to grasp that the fake stories were actually real.
As for "Gangster Squad," I can't tell from the trailer if this an LA film I'll see. The reviews will really decide it for me. I don't crave yet another rendition of those bad old LAPD years — the gruff be-hatted cliche cops all end up seeming the same, whether they are actually played by Nick Nolte or not. The trailer left me with the uncomfortable feeling that the story might sink into an unintentional comedy of LA tropes, but maybe not. I hope not.
Though Lieberman's stories in the Times provided the inspiration, "Gangster Squad" (directed by Ruben Fleischer) was actually written by Will Beall. He was a homicide detective in South LA for the LAPD who began writing novels. Scott Foundas at the LA Weekly traces Beall's evolution from cop to screenwriter. Excerpt:
"Like a lot of other stuff in my life, I sort of fell backwards into it," screenwriter Will Beall says of his unexpected perch atop Hollywood's A-list. Unexpected, because just five years ago Beall was busy working for Tinseltown's second most famous employer, the L.A. Police Department, where he was a homicide detective in South Central's notoriously rough 77th Division. Then he published his first novel, the gritty rookie-cop saga "L.A. Rex," which earned Beall plaudits from Joseph Wambaugh, fellow LAPD vet–turned-author, plus a gig adapting the screenplay for über-producer Scott Rudin.
When that script landed in seventh place on 2009's "Black List" — the annual insider survey of the industry's best unproduced screenplays — Beall officially traded in his holster for the latest version of Final Draft.
Today, name a hotly anticipated Hollywood tentpole movie and chances are the 40-year-old Beall is writing it or has been asked to, including two long-gestating projects with large, hard-to-please fanboy constituencies: "Logan's Run" and the DC Comics all-star jam "Justice League." Which, as screenwriting beats go, can definitely be a dangerous part of town.