Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Birthday Take: Francis Ford Coppola in "The Godfather Part II" (1974)

Left to right: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Francis Ford Coppola
Born: April 7, 1939 (76 years old)
Nomination: Best Director - The Godfather Part II (won)

The Take

How do you choose one film from Francis Ford Coppola to pay tribute to? In the 70's alone, he had involvement with six Oscar-nominated films, four of which he directed (all of which had Best Picture nominations) and three of which remain renowned classics. It is tough to really pin down what exactly to note Coppola for most because of this. He is easily one of the most audacious and cinematic of American directors during this time. However, since we've already discussed The Godfather in honor of Marlon Brando, let's pay tribute to his other masterpiece that is arguably better (I'd say so) than the first: The Godfather Part II.

If anything, the film seems more like a fluke considering how few sequels actually are worth acclaim (The Bells of St. Mary's, a sequel to Best Picture winner Going My Way, is the only other one to this point to get nominated) let alone win Best Picture. However, there is something to the magic of the sequel. It doesn't so much retread territory as explore the Corleone story line from the perspectives of the rising power of Michael and a flashback to a time when Vito was starting to come into power. If the first one was about legacy, the second one was more veiled as a study of the American dream of becoming a successful businessman, albeit with the mob. Opening up on a trip to Ellis Island, a young Vito comes alone and deals with the process of being assigned an identity and thus must form his legacy from there. If anything, The Godfather Part II is an origin story for what has somehow become a franchise with a trilogy, various video games, a TV series and memorabilia. 

While the film is a lot more narrative driven, it is funny that Coppola won Best Director for this film over the first, which went to Bob Fosse for the on par classic Cabaret. Still, the award seems a little bit more like it was due to be given to him. The film is no slouch, but considering that it was up against Chinatown, it is hard to make arguments on splitting the category. However, Coppola knows how to use his imagery in expansive ways. Most scenes are recollections of the first, but done so with a new bravado. If anyone is to complain about Coppola's diminishing talent in the decades to follow, just note that he was always experimental and challenging. Even in his lesser films like Twixt, he tries something different. That is why The Godfather series feels so fresh yet so timeless. It is the perfect understanding of how to use cinema.

What arguably makes this more impressive is how this film managed to compete in the Best Picture field against another Coppola film: The Conversation. It isn't a pity nomination either, especially since it is a timely study of wire tapping and features one of Gene Hackman's best performances. It isn't easy to understand how one director was able to make such everlasting work in one decade beginning with his screenplay for Patton and ending with his labor of love Apocalypse Now. He had the track record that few could dream to have. Even his peers such as Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese cannot compare to that level of acclaim. Not only did he make a great sequel, he made compelling cinema that meant something. 

The one benefit of all of this is that Coppola's massive impact, including winning five Oscars including an Irving G. Thalberg Award, he will have plenty of fodder for future Birthday Take columns. However, I want to pay tribute not only to probably my favorite of his, but to recognize him as a director who challenged the medium and turned mythology and immigration into epic themes that wouldn't have fit into the first nor would it have worked without the first one. While some could argue for and against The Godfather Part III's merit (I think it's fine), nobody should deny the impact that Coppola made on film not only personally, but through his production company American Zoetrope, which brought us American Graffiti, and countless relatives including Oscar winners Sofia Coppola, Nicolas Cage and nominees like Roman Coppola. Somehow the name has become synonymous with masterful films in ways that other creators of the "best film ever" titles such as Orson Welles or Milos Forman haven't achieved. On top of many other obvious things, that's quite noteworthy.

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