J Paul Getty might have had all the money in the world but neither all the king’s horses nor all the king’s men can save Ridley Scott’s movie again. Some viewers will remember the 1973 kidnapping of Getty’s 16 yr old grandson and the gruesome amputation of his ear after the richest man in the world refused to pay the ransom, but especially for viewers who weren’t around then, this movie will make little sense We begin with Michelle Williams as the mother of four Getty children sired by one of J Paul’s sons They soon divorce and in that settlement she agrees to take no money on condition that she get sole parental custody In rapid order, we see that her ex-husband has descended to the depths of drug addiction in Morocco where her oldest boy, Paul, loves to hang out. Yanked back to Rome where mother and siblings live, we see little of his lifestyle but from his long unkempt hair, we can guess that his father has been an unfortunate role model. He is seized off the street by a Calabrian gang that sets their opening ransom at 17 million dollars. The patriarch refused to pay anything, claiming that we he to succumb to this blackmail, there would be 14 other opportunities for kidnap and extortion, and Paolo, as he is known, is left imprisoned by the gang for many many months.
We are left to wonder why his mother never appeals to the families of the boy’s numerous half-siblings to help her raise money. J Paul Sr had been married 5 times and presumably not all of his ex-wives were as noble and short-sighted as she was - nor do we see her try to borrow money from friends of the family, businessmen or bankers. Since she is played not as a flower child but as a common sense source of stability who wears suits and pumps, none of this behavior rings true. Though the three other children are show on screen early on, they are unaccounted for during this tragic event, leaving us to question how they are dealing with this frightening episode and why they were in the screenplay at all.
Also left out of the film is Getty’s other stated reason for his refusal to pay In his autobiography, he claimed that “acceding to the demands of criminals and terrorists merely guarantees the continuing increase and spread of lawlessness, violence and such outrages as terror-bombings, “skyjackings” and slaughter of hostages that plague our present day world.” (As I See It - J Paul Getty, 1976) This was and remains a cogent rationale that certainly merited some consideration to give Getty’s character more dimension than the stereotypical view of a skinflint Scrooge. The coda to the kidnapping is not in the movie but is possibly more tragic than that event. After his grandfather paid the much reduced ransom price, Paul returned to the U.S where he soon after became a full-time drug addict. He suffered a stroke brought on by his lifestyle and was left partially paralyzed and blind and speechless for the rest of his life, dying at the age of 54.
Perhaps more interesting than the film itself is the wonder surrounding the sui-generis extraction of Kevin Spacey’s completed performance as Getty and its replacement by Christopher Plummer. Mr. Spacey has never been tried or convicted of a crime and the notion that he is unfit for an audience’s view is bewildering. Considering that Charles Manson memorabilia sells for sky-high prices and that Son of Sam serial killer gets heart surgery paid for by taxpayers - some of whom are his victims’ survivors - what are we to make of excommunication because of show-biz buzz? Ridley Scott claims to have been wary of a possible decision by “others” to withhold the film from distribution because of the current climate regarding sexual harassment. Instead, in a film about the odious behavior of a man who refused to be victimized by criminals, Scott made a film in which a highly acclaimed actor is victimized by the director’s fear of public opinion. Now there’s a plot for a movie about threats by a man called McCarthy and that brave Hollywood response of blacklisting…….
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