Francis Ford Coppola, 1972
“The Godfather is one of those rare movies that pretty much everyone can agree on, and that’s no small thing. There are many masterful movies out there, and plenty of beloved ones besides, but just like you don’t see The Shawshank Redemption figuring prominently on the Sight and Sound lists, neither do you hear about too many people inviting their buds over to drink beer and watch Contempt. Whereas The Godfather- sort of like The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, and Raiders of the Lost Ark- is one of those movies wherein, if you bring it up in conversation, someone will probably say, ‘yeah, The Godfather, that’s a good one,’ followed by much silent nodding in agreement.
“It helps that The Godfather is a textbook case of Hollywood really getting it right, by taking a popular (if slightly trashy) bestseller, finding the right director and trusting him to do his thing, and casting actors, both famous and obscure, who were perfect for their roles. Understandably, the critics raved and audiences turned out in droves. Then, by some happy turn of events, the Academy Awards- an institution historically characterized by a need to insist that, ‘hey, we Hollywood types make Serious Art Movies too!’- had the good taste to choose it as the Best Picture of 1972.
“But the appeal of Coppola’s masterpiece goes beyond mere craftsmanship to something rooted more deeply in the American character. If nothing else, The Godfather is an illustration of outsiders making a name for themselves. If Bonasera claims to ‘believe in America’ in his opening monologue, it’s because he knows that it provides a place for him to succeed where he might not have otherwise, much in the same way Vito Corleone (formerly Andolini) achieved prominence in a society that was still largely hostile, or at best ambivalent, to Italian immigrants. Or look at Tom Hagen, an Irish-American orphan who was adopted by Vito and eventually becomes his attorney and one of his most trusted advisors. Even Michael (Al Pacino) is an outsider to his family, a war hero who has almost no role in the family business until his father gets shot, after which he gradually rises to become head of the family.
“Similarly, the making of the film was a testament to outsiders making good, from Coppola, a young tyro whose highest-profile work to date was the bloated roadshow adaptation of Finian’s Rainbow, to the cast, who represented two generations of the Method. Once an experimental stage performance technique, the Method had two decades before revolutionized screen acting, and The Godfather featured not only Method golden boy Brando at the head of its cast, but also several of his spiritual disciples playing his sons, as well as innumerable other Actors Studio alums in other roles. The casting of Method guru Lee Strasberg in The Godfather, Part II (which may or may not exceed the original film) makes the connection even more explicit.
“But there’s a flipside to the film’s story of outsiders making good, and that can be found in the limitations they, like the rest of us, face on the path to success. For all of Michael’s wealth and power, he never manages to achieve the legitimate prominence (‘Senator Corleone… Governor Corleone’) that his father wishes for him. And so too did Coppola hit a roadblock later in his career, as too many flops and too little discipline made it harder and harder for him to make big-budget movies the way he did back in the 1970s -his way.
“Yet even with the compromises and the sacrifices of Coppola’s career, the man gave American cinema some of its proudest moments. And The Godfather made it all possible.” ~ Paul Clark