Sunday, December 20, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "The Godfather Part II" (1974)

Robert De Niro in The Godfather Part II
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.


Background Information

The Godfather Part II
Release Date: December 20, 1974
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Written By: Francis Ford Coppola & Mario Puzo (Screenplay), Mario Puzo (Novel)
Starring: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall
Genre: Crime, Drama
Running Time: 202 minutes

Oscar Wins: 6
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Art Direction - Set Direction
-Best Original Score

Oscar Nominations: 5
-Best Actor (Al Pacino)
-Best Supporting Actor (Michael V. Gazzo)
-Best Supporting Actor (Lee Strasberg)
-Best Supporting Actress (Talia Shire)
-Best Costume Design

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Chinatown
-The Conversation
-Lenny
-The Towering Inferno

And the winner is...

There is no sequel that quite holds the reputation as that of director Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Part II. For starters, its reputation among critics and fans is that it is the best sequel ever. Depending on what circles you travel in, many would even argue that it surpasses the original. No matter what the views are, the film is a miracle of film making that expands on the original story and adds a certain depth to its characters. The film's innovations are still being imitated today with many films attempting to capture the magic found in the Corleone Family's journey. It is an ode to Italian culture as well as the epitome of what great cinema can be - proving at the same time that a sequel doesn't always have to be mutually exclusive with the word inferior.

The film was approved before The Godfather was even released. The buzz around the original 1972 film was so overwhelming. Due to that film's success, they gave Coppola the rights to make another one, though the director initially turned it down. He had trouble making the first and felt that hiring someone like Martin Scorsese, of whom was then an unknown. When it was finally accepted that he would have to direct, Coppola made a series of requests. Beyond the initial total control, he wanted to be able to do various other projects, which included producing The Great Gatsby and directing The Conversation. The only catch was that he had to have a sequel out by Christmas 1974. With the help of returning writer Mario Puzo, they created a script that was only half-based on Puzo's original novel, with most of the modern day scenes being created from scratch.

The casting was a bit of a mess. Coppola wanted Marlon Brando back to reprise his role as Vito Corleone for one scene. He would accept, but felt that he had too many problems with the studio. Likewise, James Caan promised to return, but on the grounds that he get paid his salary for The Godfather for significantly less work. Coppola cast Robert De Niro as Vito after seeing Scorsese's Mean Streets and remembering that he auditioned for a small role in the first one. Among the returning players was Al Pacino, who initially refused. He felt that the script needed significant rewrites before he could approve. Coppola did them over the course of an evening, at which point things carried on. The director also wanted Elia Kazan for the role that Lee Strasberg would play. Despite this not going over well, Strasberg's choice to be introduced shirtless was itself inspired by Coppola's exact meeting with Kazan over the casting.

De Niro was probably the most dedicated to the film. Among his smaller problems was whether or not to grow a mustache. He also put on weight in order to better resemble Brando. In order to get into the role, he lived in Sicily for three months and learned the language. Majority of the language that the actor speaks in the film is Sicilian. Meanwhile, Pacino developed pneumonia and delayed shooting in Santa Domingo for a month. The script also experienced several changes thanks to improvisation from the actors as well as later considerations by Coppola. The famous scene in which Diane Keaton announces her abortion to Pacino was initially written as a miscarriage, but changed to an abortion in order to add levity. Likewise, Stasberg suffered from an illness during shooting. As a result, his character was rewritten to be old and dying to avoid delaying production.

Editing went on up until the final release date. Early reviews were very skeptical of the film, believing that its flashbacks were incomprehensible. Coppola claims that he cut down on them to help the story flow better. In some ways, being the sequel to The Godfather inevitably hurt the critical reception, as many believed it to be great, but not as good as the first - which many latter reappraised it as a classic. Despite being a very big hit and being the highest grossing film of the year for Paramount (and fifth overall), the film still failed to surpass The Godfather in box office revenue.

The Oscars featured an overwhelming 11 nominations for the film. It was also the first sequel to have a total of five acting nominations. Beyond being the first sequel to win Best Picture, it was the first film to have an actor win who spoke a different language (De Niro with Sicilian). De Niro also held another honor, as he became the first actor to win for portraying a previous winner (Brando in the original). Among the more nonsensical wins, Nina Rota's score won Best Original Score. This is only shocking because his work on the original was rejected for featuring previously existing music. However, his work in Part II featured themes from the original. The ceremony was also not without controversy, as many believe Pacino's Best Actor loss to Art Carney (Harry and Tonto) to be one of the greatest upsets in history. Of course, Pacino's eventual win for Scent of a Woman was itself controversial because it wasn't even considered to be his best work. The film won Best Adapted Screenplay despite half of the film being original material.

The film's legacy is pretty much well known. It is considered one of the best sequels of all time, though rarely has it surpassed The Godfather on various critics list. Among its lesser known reputations, Part II was also the first film to use the roman numerals to indicate a sequel (it since has become commonplace). The film was later joined with The Godfather (and later The Godfather Part III) to form a televised version called The Godfather Legacy - shown almost in chronological order, and all three equaled just short of 10 hours. The film continued the popularity of Italian mafia movies, which would continue to exist. Scorsese would even direct his own version later called GoodFellas (which itself competed against Part III). Even TV series, specifically The Sopranos, owe a lot of credit to establishing iconography and rules to mafia pop culture. The franchise was so successful that it also had a restoration rerelease and a video game.

For many, it is difficult to determine which one of The Godfather films are in fact better. To some extent, this argument holds weight largely thanks to their impressive continuity and craft. While Coppola's work may never have hit the high point again, it at least reflected why he is one of the greatest directors of his era. When given total control, he was able to create a vision that was satisfying and more immersive than any other mafia series had done before. The drama was real, and the phenomenal performance in all three by Pacino reflects why he he is among the best actors. Still, it's hard to not even utter The Godfather Part II without having a connotation of greatness. It comes with the title, and that may be among the biggest honors one could ever hope to have.

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