Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Nothing But the Best: "The Godfather" (1972)

Left to right: Al Pacino and Marlon Brando
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
Release Date: March 15, 1972
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Written By: Mario Puzo (Novel), Francis Ford Coppola & Mario Puzo (Screenplay)
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan
Genre: Crime, Drama
Running Time: 175 minutes

Oscar Wins: 3
-Best Picture
-Best Actor (Marlon Brando)
-Best Adapted Screenplay

Oscar Nominations: 7
-Best Director
-Best Supporting Actor (Al Pacino)
-Best Supporting Actor (James Caan)
-Best Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall)
-Best Costume Design
-Best Sound
-Best Editing

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Cabaret
-Deliverance
-The Emigrants
-Sounder

And the winner is...

Along with Citizen Kane, there are few films that can tout the honor of being among the most influential and greatest that American cinema has to offer as well as director Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. Released in 1972, it was a film that revolutionized the way that mafia movies were made while helping to create a rich tapestry with an amazing ensemble that brought Mario Puzo's text to life. With limited exceptions, it is considered the greatest crime movie in film history and reflects certain ambitions of its director to create something beyond conventional cinema. With so many iconic lines and moments, it's impossible to imagine a world without The Godfather in it. What's more of a miracle is that it got made as successfully as it did in the first place.

The story goes back to 1967. Paramount Studios had just received an unfinished manuscript to a novel that Puzo was writing. They were so impressed that they bought the rights to it with intention to pay more if it ever became a film. Puzo initially rejected the offer, but later accepted it on the grounds that he needed the money. Considering that Paramount wouldn't have the best track record in the years to come with many of their crime movies failing to turn profits, it looked like Puzo's chances wouldn't hold. When the novel was finally published in 1969, it spent almost two years on the bestseller list with over nine million sales to its credit. Interest role again and the studio made the bold promise of having a film ready by Christmas of 1971 (while The Godfather fell short by a few months, the two sequels would have holiday releases).

Producer Robert Evans was keen on having the director be Italian so that it could be fully ethnic. He ran through a dozen directors that included Sergio Leone and Peter Bogdanovich. Coppola, who had previously refused due to not even finishing the novel, eventually accepted on the grounds that he needed the money. His company, American Zoetrope, had lost money from George Lucas' THX-1138 and need to recoup losses (Lucas repaid the favor by doing uncredited work on the film). Coppola agreed to work with Puzo on the script, though neither were in the same city during the writing phase. Coppola would rip out pages from Puzo's book and outline his script in a journal, of which he additionally used during filming. 

The casting was just as tricky. The studio wanted more familiar and safe actors for most of the roles. Paramount was weary of Marlon Brando's stubborn reputation and initially refused to work with him. They eventually had him sign a waver that production wouldn't slow down because of Brando, and he would work for reduced costs. He even filmed a test video that had him with cottonballs in his mouth and shoe polish in his hair to make him look like a bulldog. Meanwhile, the studio wasn't initially willing to go with Al Pacino, who was then an unknown actor. Coppola was too attracted to his appearance that he refused to give up on him. Comparatively, the remaining actors weren't as difficult to land. In fact, Coppola even had to work for a reduced price despite being well known for turning in projects on time and under budget.

The one catch was that Italian anti-defamation leagues wanted certain excisions from The Godfather. They didn't want Italian stereotypes or specific references to the mafia. While Coppola and Puzo had already kept this to a minimum, they removed the scant references to fit this request. Likewise, they requested them to donate profits from the premiere to their cause. Along with this, Coppola felt that the film would best be shot without modern filming techniques and that every camera was shot as if from a character's perspective. The only stray from this involves an aerial shot, which cinematographer Gordon Willis suggested was to show it from "god's perspective." Willis also relied on overhead lighting, partially due to Brando's make-up. The film would even feature real life Italian-Americans that were not actors in the wedding sequence, who were paid in part to drink homemade wine. Considering that Coppola also featured family members such as sister Talia Shire and daughter Sofia Coppola, it was a film that definitely fit Evans' ethnic to the core request.

The film was a runaway success since the beginning despite being months over its Christmas 1971 due date. Before the film even received a wide release, the buzz was so positive that Paramount green lit a sequel. It would even earn up to $15 million in pre-sales. The word of mouth was so overwhelming that it even became the highest grossing film of all time for a short period (Jaws would usurp it a few years later). While Gone With the Wind is the highest grossing when adjusted for inflation, The Godfather still places among the 25 highest grossing. Among the film's detractors was a group angry over the use of an actual dead horse's head. The head was real all right. However, Coppola claims that he got it from a dog food company and that it wasn't killed specifically for the movie. The reviews were so good that many expected it to sweep The Oscars that year.

To some extent, it ended up doing pretty well with 11 nominations. However, things started to crumble from there. Nina Rota's score was disqualified after it was believed to sound very similar to another pieces that he had written for another film. Two of the actors boycotted the ceremony, though for different reasons. The less remembered one is Al Pacino, who did so on grounds that he felt that he should've received a Best Actor nomination due to his more significant amount of screen time. Brando, who won the field, sent an Indian named Sacheen Littlefeather to accept his award and give a speech about how Indians aren't properly represented in film. It has gone on to become one of the ceremony's most memorable moments. The film itself came up short of sweeping the ceremony, with close competitor Cabaret winning Best Director for Bob Fosse and eight total trophies. Even then, it didn't stop The Godfather from winning the big fields.

The legacy of The Godfather is one that's almost too well documented. On top of being synonymous with the phrase "high caliber cinema," it has pretty much earned the reputation of reinvigorating and setting new standards for mafia cinema (the only film that comes close in reputation since is GoodFellas). The film spawned two additional sequels - both of which earned Best Picture nominations - of which Coppola worked closely with Puzo on (talks of a fourth one disappeared when Puzo passed away). Among the more noteworthy pop culture touchstones that The Godfather influenced was the HBO drama series The Sopranos, which creator David Chase has claimed is a mafia series where The Godfather exists - and of which is consistently referenced in the series. The influence hasn't gone away and remains Coppola's best known work.

The Godfather is a film of towering achievements that it would be hard to not even just appreciate it. However, the fact that the film was initially made because of money issues makes its success all the more impressive. With a large scale and continent-jumping premise, it's a story that has struck a chord with American cinema and hasn't left the zeitgeist since. Many consider it the best work of everyone involved and for good reason. It also helped to change the reputation of Italians in cinema, taking them from goofy to menacing thanks to a complex drama full of family subtext. It's a film that needs no introduction and likely will not whether it's 50 years old or 100 years old. It'll continue to impress new audiences while showing the potential of cinema as an art form.

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