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The Godfather Retrospective

The Godfather


 

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is a rare thing: An artfully made crowd-pleaser that smashed it at the box office and delighted both critics and a mainstream audience. Over half a century since it premiered in New York, the magisterial mob epic now occupies lofty positions in IMDb’s viewer-rated Top 250 (#2) and Sight and Sound’s once-in-a-decade poll (#12). 

Yet for all its enduring success, there was a time when the powers-that-be didn’t want the movie made. The executives at Paramount Pictures had low expectations and the real-life mafia exerted their own sinister pressure in an attempt to keep it from the screen. In the end, the studio and the mob formed an unlikely alliance to pave the way for a cornerstone of American cinema.


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The story goes that Mario Puzo was desperate for a hit. The Italian-American novelist was in debt, owing his bookies ten Gs and needing some fast cash to get them off his back. To that end, he showed up at Paramount Pictures in 1968 with the first part of a new novel that he hoped to flog to Robert Evans, the studio’s head of production, to give himself a little breathing room. It was called Mafia, and Puzo’s hook was that the word had never been used before in a book or film title. Evans reluctantly signed the deal with no idea that he would soon have a blockbuster on his hands.

Evans got the rights to the novel cheap. When it was published in 1969 with a new title, The Godfather, Puzo’s book became a runaway smash, spending 67 weeks in the New York Times bestseller list. Even so, Paramount still weren’t terribly enthused about the prospect of turning it into a movie. Gangster flicks weren’t in vogue at the time and their most recent entry into the genre, The Brotherhood starring a grossly miscast Kirk Douglas, was a box office disaster.

 

The Godfather - First Edition Book

The First Edition of Mario Puzo's The Godfather

 

The pressure was on, however, and they needed to make a decision. Burt Lancaster wanted to buy the rights to The Godfather for $1 million with a view to playing the titular character himself. So the studio handed the project to Al Ruddy, who had only produced one film but had an unlikely hit TV show to his name, Hogan’s Heroes, a comedy about wily Allied POWs in a Nazi camp. His remit was to make a film so authentic that you could “smell the spaghetti” and do it cheap, given an initial budget of $2.5 million to bring Puzo’s ‘40s-era tale to a modern setting.

Several directors were initially approached including Sergio Leone, Otto Preminger, Peter Bogdanovich, and Arthur Penn, but they all passed before a young filmmaker named Francis Ford Coppola eventually got the gig. He was ideal for two reasons: First, he was Italian-American, an important factor for the film’s aspirations to authenticity. Secondly, the studio thought he would work cheap, coming off the back of middling success with The Rain People and Finian’s Rainbow.

 

Francis Ford Copolla - Director

Francis Ford Copolla 

 

Coppola’s previous films certainly didn’t give much of an indication that he was about to turn Puzo’s page-turner into one of the great American movies. Indeed, Coppola also turned down the job at first because he thought the book was too lowbrow. But his own studio, American Zoetrope, needed the money to pay off debts to Warner Bros for George Lucas’s sci-fi debut THX 1138, so Coppola signed on to direct the mob flick.

Once Coppola was onboard, he started thinking big. Not only did he want the film to be as authentic as possible, he also saw it as a chance to make a grand statement on American Capitalism. To give The Godfather the realism they sought, Coppola insisted on two things: Puzo’s original 1940's setting was essential and it should be shot in New York rather than sound stages. That would mean moving the entire production to the streets of Little Italy, the domain of the powerful Mafia families at the heart of the story itself.

 

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By the time Mario Puzo’s novel hit the shelves in 1969, many Americans were well-versed in Mafioso lore. In 1931, the Five Families of New York were established after Joe Masseria, an old-school Sicilian crime boss, was rubbed out during the brutal and bloody Castellammarese War. A deal was brokered that organised the feuding factions into five distinct families with their own territory: Lucchese, Bonnano, Colombo, Gambino and Genovese, all overseen by Salvatore Maranzo, who declared himself capo di tutti i capi, the boss of all bosses.

The historic agreement led to a relatively peaceful and lucrative period for the gangs, but their inner workings became a matter of public interest in 1962. A Genovese soldier, Joseph Valachi, killed a man in prison, fearing that he was an assassin sent by his boss, Vito Genovese. Rather than serve a life sentence and still worry about getting whacked, Valachi opted to stand as a State witness and give extensive testimony to a Senate Committee regarding the shadowy Cosa Nostra. 

 

Joe Valachi - Mafia Informant

Mafia Informer Joe Valachi

 

Valachi became the first member of the American Mafia to openly acknowledge its existence and the televised hearings were sensational, capturing the imagination of millions of Americans. Puzo’s book gave them more of what they craved, a violent and salacious tale of organised crime and treachery, and The Godfather became one of the best-selling novels of all time. For his part, the author claimed that he didn’t know any mobsters in real-life, basing much of his research on stories he had elicited from casino pit bosses and dealers in Las Vegas.

Although the novel was heavily fictionalised, Puzo had taken inspiration from the real mafia for many aspects. Don Vito Corleone was reportedly based on Frank Costello, a loyal friend and associate of Lucky Luciano. Costello had played a key role in the Kefauver Hearings investigating organised crime in the early ‘50s and survived a hit in 1957, much like the character in the story.

Then there was Johnny Fontane, the crooner who asks Don Vito for help getting a part in a movie that will re-launch his career, resulting in the infamous horse’s head scene. Puzo maintained that Fontane wasn’t based on Frank Sinatra, but there certainly were some parallels. Ol’ Blue Eyes was well-known for buddying up to high-profile mob figures and performed at the wedding of Philadelphia boss Angelo Bruno’s daughter. The legend goes that Sinatra received help extricating himself from an ruinous contract with bandleader Tommy Dorsey from his pal, Willie Moretti. Moretti was an underboss in the Genovese Family and allegedly persuaded Dorsey to release Sinatra for just one dollar by shoving a gun in his mouth. Later, rumours persisted that mob influence also helped the singer land his plum Oscar-winning part in From Here to Eternity. Perhaps wisely, Puzo refused to let Sinatra’s lawyers see the book while it was work in progress.

 

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Once Coppola’s adaptation of The Godfather received the green light, it quickly attracted attention from the Mob. Around the same time, Joe Colombo, head of the Colombo Family, had kicked back against prying from the FBI by setting up the Italian-American Civil Rights League, claiming that the Feds’ investigation was unfair persecution. One of the League’s main goals was to eliminate use of the word “Mafia,” which they saw as discriminatory towards Italian-Americans. 

The League quickly gained major traction, with members picketing the FBI headquarters in March 1970 and around a quarter of a million people showing up to their inaugural rally. The Godfather movie also found itself on Colombo and the League’s hit list, with members of the production team - including Bob Evans and his wife, Ali McGraw – receiving death threats and bomb scares at the offices of Gulf & Western, Paramount’s parent company in New York.

 

Head of the Italian-American Civil Rights League, Joe Colombo

Head of the Italian-American Civil Rights League, Joe Colombo

 

It was clear to Al Ruddy that The Godfather wouldn’t get made without placating the mafia first. Aside from the threats, the mob could potentially shut down the Teamsters, who would provide a vital supply network for a major location-based shoot. So Ruddy showed a great deal of courage by arranging a meeting with Colombo so the crime boss could read the screenplay. The way he pitched it, the movie wouldn’t single out Italian-Americans as violent and corrupt, because it also featured plenty of unsavoury Irish and Jewish people, too. 

Sitting down with Colombo, Ruddy presented the mobster with the 155-page screenplay. It turned out that Colombo wasn’t much of a reading type. After sifting through a few pages, he conferred with his underlings, declared that they trusted Ruddy after all, and shook hands on a deal provided that the word “Mafia” was excised from the screenplay. Ruddy gratefully agreed and no doubt suppressed a triumphant smirk – the word was only used once in the entire script.

 

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Getting the Mob onside was just half the battle as Francis Ford Coppola encountered major static from the studio when it came to casting The Godfather. One of the main sticking points was who would portray Don Vito Corleone. Laurence Olivier, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, George C. Scott, Anthony Quinn, and Orson Welles were all in the frame at one point or another, but one thing was for sure – the studio definitely didn’t want Mario Puzo’s preferred choice, Marlon Brando.

Puzo had even gone so far as to write a letter to the actor, imploring him to take the part. The author felt he was the only person who could successfully play the ageing crime boss. By that stage of his career, however, Brando had developed a reputation as a difficult actor who was box office poison. Brando himself needed persuading to audition for the role after a hiatus in his career. He was not in a good place personally, at a time in his life when he was in debt, hooked on medication, and was in danger of losing visitation rights to his children.

After months of arguments, Paramount agreed to consider Brando on three conditions: He would receive no money up front; he would have to pay for any overruns caused by his temperamental behaviour; and he would need to do a screen test.

What happened next is Hollywood lore. Coppola carefully avoided wounding Brando’s pride by pitching the test as a little improv to warm up for the role at Brando’s Los Angeles home. With the cameras rolling, Brando demonstrated just why he was so revered as an actor despite his troublesome reputation. He coloured his blonde hair with shoe polish, stuffed tissue into his cheeks, jutted out his jaw, and transformed himself into the ageing mafioso before the director’s eyes. Job done. The tape convinced the studio that Brando unequivocally was their Don Corleone.

 

Marlon Brando as Don Corleone in The Godfather

 

Another bone of contention was casting the film’s other key role, Michael Corleone, the straight-arrow War Hero who reluctantly steps into his father’s shoes and ends up losing his soul. Coppola wanted a relative unknown for the part and set his mind on Al Pacino, who had made a big impression on the director with his performance in Panic in Needle Park. The Paramount executives weren’t so keen. Aside from Pacino lacking star power, they also felt he was way too short – Bob Evans reportedly referred to him as a “runt.”

The studio wanted a more marketable name to play Michael, and Dustin Hoffman, Martin Sheen, Ryan O’Neal, Jack Nicholson, and James Caan were all considered for the part. Coppola stuck to his guns and Paramount eventually agreed on the proviso that Caan played hothead Sonny Corleone. This was another height thing. Carmine Caridi was originally given the part but he towered over Pacino. Caan was several inches shorter, making him more believable as Michael’s quick-tempered big brother.

 

Marlon Brando, James Caan and Al Pacino in The Godfather

 

With the three leads in place, the cast was rounded out with Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, John Cazale, Sterling Hayden, and Coppola’s sister, Talia Shire. Shire was one of several Coppola relatives who played a part in the film, and some real-life mobsters also landed small roles. The most notable was Lenny Montana, who so memorably portrayed Vito Corleone’s loyal hitman Luca Brasi. Montana was a former pro wrestler who had worked as an arsonist and enforcer for the Colombo Family. One thing he wasn’t was a natural actor, but his hesitation paid dividends thanks to Coppola’s quick thinking. The scene with Brasi rehearsing his speech for the Don in the opening wedding scene was actually Montana trying to memorise his lines. The director trained a camera on him and let it roll, capturing the moment.

Filming began in New York during March 1971 and, for a story that was inspired by real-life characters and events, reality soon imitated fiction. While Coppola was orchestrating the pivotal scene where Michael’s hitmen wipe out his rivals while he is attending a baptism, Joe Colombo was shot three times by an assassin at an event sponsored by the Italian-American Civil Rights League. He was left paralysed by the attack and passed away several years later.

 

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As the auteur-led American New Wave was moving towards a more gritty and authentic style, Coppola’s film didn’t look like a regular mainstream Hollywood production. Although it certainly looks more handsome and glossy than something like Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, it still caused consternation for Paramount executives when they reviewed the early footage. Cinematographer Gordon Willis bathed many of the indoor scenes in shadows, reflecting the murky morals and sinister dealings of the mafia. Conversely, sepia tones were used for the Sicilian segment after Michael guns down Sollozzo (Al Letteri) and corrupt Captain McClusky (Sterling Hayden), giving a romanticised view of the Corleone Family’s homeland.

 

Composer Nino Rota

Composer Nino Rota

 

The muted visuals were matched by Nino Rota’s elegant score, which again was met with initial disapproval from Bob Evans at Paramount who felt it was too “highbrow.” Coppola eventually convinced him that it was the right soundtrack as it sounded distinctly Italian and matched the themes of the film. Rota would receive an Oscar nomination for his work, but the nod was later withdrawn when it was judged that he borrowed a little too heavily from music he had written for a 1958 movie called Fortunella.

 

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The Godfather premiered in March 1972 and it was an instant success. It smashed box office records on the way to becoming the highest-grossing film of the year and displaced Gone With the Wind as the all-time top rentals earner, a title it held for just a few years until Jaws came along and invented the summer blockbuster.

Critics went wild for the film and it also earned 11 Oscars nominations, although Rota’s nod for Best Original Dramatic Score was later revoked. The 45th Academy Awards threw up a bizarre quirk: Although The Godfather won Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor for Brando, Cabaret took home eight golden statuettes and beat Coppola’s film in several categories, including Bob Fosse for Best Director and Joel Gray for Best Supporting Actor over Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, and James Caan, who were all up for the same award. In typically idiosyncratic style, Brando chose to use the ceremony as a platform for his political activism, sending Sacheen Littlefeather to turn down the award on his behalf.

 

An original movie poster for the film The Godfather

 

Not only did the general public, critics, and Academy members love The Godfather, the Mob adopted it as their own, too. Some felt it legitimised their criminal activities and mafia figures were observed adopting the body language and vernacular of the film. James Caan’s improvised “Ba-da Bing!’ entered the lexicon, later becoming the name of Tony Soprano’s club in the multi-Emmy winning show The Sopranos

The Godfather was a true success story in every aspect, playing like the cinematic equivalent of a timeless tune from the Great American Songbook. Aside from making a cracking movie, Coppola succeeded in his loftier goals: Although glossed in sepia-toned ‘40s nostalgia, it was a film of its time about every other era, before or since, in the epic immigrant tale of the United States and the dubious merits of the American Dream.

 

An original movie poster for the film The Godfather Part II / 2

 

The Godfather: Part II followed in 1974. Coppola re-teamed with most of his principal cast, added Robert De Niro as a young Don Vito Corleone, and the film became a victory parade. It was the first sequel to win Best Picture as it secured six Oscars, including a well-deserved award for Coppola, and widely became revered as superior to the first film. A belated third part followed in 1990, The Godfather III, in which Coppola’s daughter, Sofia, took plenty of flak for a poor performance in an important role. Although it was still nominated for a bunch of Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, it was probably a threequel we could have done without. Even so, it did little to dilute the power and cinematic heft of the first two films.

 

An original movie poster for The Godfather Part III / 3

 

Over half a century later, there has been little to knock The Godfather off its perch as a cornerstone of American cinema, although in recent years there has been a little kickback against it as a “guy’s movie” that definitely doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. Only Diane Keaton’s Kay is really a character in the film and she has little agency, while Vito Corleone’s wife barely gets a few lines. But to criticise the movie for being macho, chauvinistic, and patriarchal is missing the point . By definition, it is about the patriarchy and a condemnation of aggressive masculinity. Even Michael, who is initially portrayed as a sensitive person who abhors the criminal dealings of his family, loses his morals and his soul when he steps into that toxic environment.

Ultimately, The Godfather plays so well because it is a family saga rather than “just” a regular gangster movie, one that takes on Shakespearian proportions as we watch Michael’s rise and spiritual fall. He is doomed from the start, reluctantly chasing the shadow of his father, who is mythologised as a ruthless but honourable man. The tragedy is that Michael has no choice: When his family is under mortal threat, his only way to protect them is to step into Don Vito’s shoes as Sonny is too volatile and Fredo is a liability. By doing so, he relinquishes any chance of happiness or a normal life, symbolised by the famous final shot of his office door closing on his wife – in that moment, Michael has chosen his real Family.

 

So there you have it, our retrospective on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. How does it rank for you compared to other gangster movies, and the other two parts of the saga? Let us know!




 

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