The Godfather

Dir: Francis Ford Coppola, 1972. Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton. Drama.
The Godfather

If you watch any of the terrific documentaries on films of the last fifty years (The Kid Stays In The Picture, A Decade Under the Influence, Visions Of Light, etc) you will notice there is ONE film that comes up over and over, its influence and success massive, the impact it had on the public and the industry indescribable. If you polled people, I bet it would make as many favorite ten-best lists as any other movie. If I happen upon it on TV I set sucked right in. It's the Gone With The Wind of its time.... Yes, you know what we are talking about, The Godfather. Perhaps the greatest movie ever made.

Of course this is the epic story of a post-WWII Italian American family. Vito, the Patriarch (Marlon Brando), is the head of the Corleone crime organization. The film opens at the wedding of his daughter, Connie (Talia Shire). His oldest son, Fredo (John Cazale), is a rather weakly type. His next son, Sonny (James Caan), a hothead womanizer, is the heir to take over the business. There is also an adopted Irish American son, Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall), who works as the family’s lawyer. His youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), is there with his new girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton). He is not part of the family business; as a collage graduate and a "war hero" there are expectations for greatness cast upon him. In a nutshell, The Godfather is a tale about how Michael evolves from clean-cut, all-American wanna-be to the head of the family when his father dies and his brother Sonny is murdered. And he ends up becoming even more ruthless than his father ever was.

It’s been said that Michael’s evolution is symbolic for America. Returning from a more-or-less heroic war in Europe, America was naive about the corruption and evil that lays just under its surface. An assignation attempt on his father and beaten face from a cop turns Michael into an amoral near-sociopath. Hiding out in Italy, he falls for a local girl (the sexy Simonetta Stefanelli). When a bomb blows her up he returns to the States, woos and eventually marries his less exotic waspy girlfriend. He tells her that the Corleone business is on the verge of going legitimate, but it’s a lie. Instead he murders all his rivals and moves the business from the old ethnic neighborhood out West (Las Vegas). The American dream?

The making of the film itself is legendary. Robert Evans, the then head of Paramount Pictures, optioned the rights to his friend, author Mario Puzo’s pulpy gangster novel, then the book became an international best seller. They wanted an Italian-American at the helm and they ended up having to chase the up and coming young auteur Francis Ford Coppola to get him to agree to direct and write the screenplay. He was hot off writing the screenplay for Patton (and winning an Oscar for it), but his slim directing credits at the time were less impressive, including the dour road movie The Rain People, the fun coming of age picture You’re a Big Boy Now, the low budget Psycho rip-off Dementia 13, and the horrible big budget musical Finian’s Rainbow.

Coppola, though, fought with the suits like an old pro and was able to assemble his dream cast. As the aging Mafia Don, Coppola got Brando who, by then, no one at Paramount wanted to touch - he was known for trouble on the set and a decade of bombs, with bores like Reflections In A Golden Eye and Night Of The Following Day, though actually a film like Queimada (Burn!) was an underrated gem. Today it seems like a given, maybe the greatest actor of all time, but at the time he was dead in the water. He was forced to give a screen test, where he wowed the suits and worked for less money.

The suits also wanted a more established actor like Ryan O’Neal or Robert Redford to play Michael. Apparently every actor in town read for the role, including Caan who had worked with Coppola on The Rain (as did Robert De Niro and Martin Sheen). However, after a long give & take period, Coppola was able to get Al Pacino, then an unknown stage actor with only one major film credit under his belt as a junkie in The Panic In Needle Park.

The rest of the cast would be filled with great character actors like Richard S. Castellano (Oscar nominated for Lovers And Other Strangers which also featured Diane Keaton), Sterling Hayden (Dr. Strangelove), Richard Conti (I’ll Cry Tomorrow), and Abe Vigoda (TV’s Barney Miller and its spin-off, Fish). Both Coppola and Pacino claim they spent the entire production of the film waiting to be fired. One interesting tidbit… The suits at Paramount weren’t always wrong, case in point: Coppola’s original cut of the film was less than two hours long. Executives had to convince him to recut the film and give it its now more epic length of 175 minutes.

The film was an enormous success, receiving a bucketful of Oscar nominations, winning for Best Picture of the year. Though Coppola would win for the screenplay, he lost out on the directing award to Bob Fosse for the rather boring Cabaret. That movie’s Joel Grey would also win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, beating The Godfather’s trio of Pacino, Caan, and Duvall (TRIVIA: the fifth nominee was Eddie Albert for The Heartbreak Kid). For The Godfather, Brando would earn his second Oscar (the first was in 1954, much deservingly for On The Waterfront). However this time he would famously decline the award on the grounds of Hollywood’s treatment of the American Indian, sending actress Sacheen Littlefeather in his place. Still, The Godfather would reestablish him as the actor of his generation; he would follow The Godfather up with his amazing performance in Last Tango In Paris (and garner another Oscar nomination).

With the success of The Godfather the rest of the cast were no longer unknowns, nor the director, and most would join him two years later for The Godfather Part II. It would also take home the Best Picture Oscar and many consider it a better film, more epic in scope then Part I. Personally the flashbacks to Vito as a child and young man (played brilliantly by Robert De Niro), coming to New York from Italy, are wonderful and I wish it had been an entire film about him. The contemporary scenes (the 1950s) of the Corleone family now living in Lake Tahoe, being lead by Michael, are less riveting. It’s still good stuff, but the Senate Organized crime hearings, the fall of Batista's Cuba, and Michael’s ugly relationship with Kay can all feel a little over-stuffed. The simplicity of Part I is more concise, therefore in some ways more dramatic and moving. Part II is also missing Brando’s big presence, as well as Caan’s Sonny (who does appear in a flashback when Sonny introduced his sister to her soon to be husband). Michael is so brutal in Part II that it always comes as a relief when the more likable young Vito returns to the screen. And some years later in 1990, Coppola patched together a Godfather Part III. I find it best to ignore it like it never happened, especially since, by then, Pacino had entered the scratchy voiced, over-acting period of his career, a sharp contrast to his work in the first two Godfather films and his amazing 1975 performance in the exceptional Dog Day Afternoon.

The Godfather would have a cultural impact, being spoofed on Saturday Night Live and in comedy clubs. Comedian David Frye made a now legendary comedy recording called Nixon Meets The Godfather, where seeking aid from his Watergate crisis Nixon is given an offer he can’t refuse. Instead of the Vatican and George Hamilton’s tan, perhaps it would have been the perfect plot for Godfather Part III. In the meantime, Part I (and Part II) continue to captivate new generations of film watchers, film makers, and wanna-be wise guys (the gangsters on TV’s The Sopranos seemed to reference it almost weekly).

Like other films that become the ultimate statement about their subject (Gone With The Wind was the ultimate Civil War epic and The Sound Of Music was the ultimate film about Austrian folk singers fleeing the Nazis), The Godfather (with a lot of competition from other films and TV shows) is the ultimate gangster flick. But it’s more than just a "gangster flick." Aided by Nino Rota’s beautiful score and Gordon Willis's powerful, shadowy cinematography (after The Godfather he was forever known as "The Prince Of Darkness"), besides being a film about crime, Coppola also created a film about family, dreams, and betrayal of dreams - a film about America.


The Godfather won three Oscars: Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was nominated for an additional eight Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Al Pacino), Best Director, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Sound.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 12, 2010 12:29pm
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