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It's no exaggeration to say that Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972) has moved beyond the realm of mere cinema to become a slice of American mythology. There are so many indelible moments in this movie, it's hard to believe that executives at Paramount Pictures originally envisioned it as a quickie gangster flick, an even pulpier interpretation of Mario Puzo's wildly popular pulp novel. The grandeur that informs every frame of The Godfather arose, in large part, from a rich screenplay that resonates on a wide variety of levels, but Coppola's unwavering passion for filmmaking was the glue that held it together. Throw in three or four of the finest screen performances of the 1970s, and this is one time that Hollywood wasn't able to screw up a good thing. But it wasn't for lack of trying.
Describing the plot of The Godfather almost seems redundant - no real film lover is unfamiliar with this movie. Coppola examines the closed-door dealings of Don Corleone (Marlon Brando), a pseudo-benevolent mafia chief who believes, often with guns drawn, that his family comes first. Set in New York and Sicily in the years following World War II, the narrative unfolds like a modern opera, with the Don's clean-cut son, Michael (Al Pacino), slowly becoming embroiled in the type of family business that he purports to detest. Michael, along with his hot-headed brother, Sonny (James Caan), and far more thoughtful adopted brother, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), will be inexorably pulled through a storyline that touches on America's attitudes toward loyalty, power, money, and violence. The Godfather is the very definition of a modern classic and, for once, it really is as good as everybody says it is.
Although he turned out to be the perfect man for the job, Coppola agreed to direct The Godfather for all the wrong reasons. After sinking too much money into scads of state-of-the-art film equipment, then producing George Lucas's box office disappointment, THX 1138 (1971), Coppola's experimental production company, American Zoetrope, was on the verge of financial collapse. On top of that, Coppola owed Warner Bros. $300,000, and had no way of paying them back. Although he initially felt that Puzo's novel was poorly written, he accepted Paramount's offer to film The Godfather simply because he needed the money. That was fine with Paramount - several name directors had already turned them down, and they basically approached Coppola because they knew he was Italian. After all, somebody had to direct it.
It was during a boat ride to Italy, where he would scout locations for part of the film, that Coppola began to notice The Godfather's rich subtext. More than just a gangster story, the narrative could also bear scrutiny as both a family drama and an examination of America's cut-throat corporate structure. (It's not without reason that the first line of dialogue in the film is a man solemnly intoning, "I believe in America.") Coppola's eye for the Big Story would eventually expand the project far beyond its middle-brow origins.
Coppola would fight battles of one form or another throughout the production, including a lengthy tussle with an organization known as the Italian-American Civic Rights League, which felt that The Godfather would somehow besmirch the character of law-abiding Italian citizens across the country. But some of Coppola's toughest moments came during casting, especially when Paramount's executives refused to hire the two actors he most wanted for the film - Marlon Brando and Al Pacino.
Actually, the studio's position isn't all that hard to understand, if you can just erase your memory of the finished picture. Pacino had only made three movies at the time (two small roles in Me, Natalie and Out of It (both 1969) and the lead in The Panic in Needle Park ), and even Coppola felt that Pacino dropped the ball when he forgot his dialogue during his audition. However, Coppola continued to support Pacino, and the producers relented, even though they felt that such big-name stars as Warren Beatty (!), Robert Redford (!!), or Burt Reynolds (!!!) better suited their needs. Still, it would be a while before the dust settled around Pacino. Paramount almost fired him several times in the early phase of filming. It wasn't until they saw the intense sequence in which Michael murders two men in an Italian restaurant that they knew they had a winner on their hands.
Then there was Brando. To say that Brando was disliked by film producers in 1971 would be a vast understatement. The actor seemed to honestly enjoy sabotaging his movies through carefully applied fits of boorish behavior, and he was utterly incapable of common graciousness. Mean-spirited, childish, intimidating...Brando could be a smorgasbord of pointless antagonism. Paramount President Stanley Jaffe grew so tired of hearing Coppola announce that Brando was the only person who could play Don Corleone, he eventually forbid the filmmaker to even broach the subject. Instead, everyone from Anthony Quinn to Ernest Borgnine to producer Carlo Ponti was suggested. At one point, even Danny Thomas expressed strong interest!
Even though his standing as the film's would-be director was now on very shaky ground, Coppola persisted in his defense of Brando. After several weeks of wrangling, it was decided that Brando could have the role, but only if he worked for a portion of the net profits (with no salary), and if he would agree to take a screen test. You know, just to make sure.
Realizing that Brando would never agree to an audition, and shouldn't be expected to, Coppola cooked up the kind of creative solution that's long been his hallmark as a filmmaker. He simply dropped by Brando's house one morning and videotaped the actor casually trying to 'find' the character. Coppola never told Brando that he was actually auditioning for the role while he experimented with various voices, postures, and old-man gestures. Jaffe and his cohorts were so blown away by Brando's on-tape transformation into Don Corleone, they couldn't wait for him to sign a contract. (It should be noted that, aside from a penchant for mooning the cast and crew, Brando was basically a gentleman throughout the shoot, and won an Oscar® for his trouble. He made a public fuss over refusing to accept it, of course, but that's a different story).
Casting aside, Coppola had to worry about keeping his own job once filming began. Paramount started to worry when the early rushes seemed far more somber than the type of picture they wanted to put on the market, and Coppola often seemed to be at a loss on the set. He and his brilliant cinematographer, Gordon Willis, were also at each other's throats on a regular basis. Coppola became convinced that some of his co-workers were spying on him, then reporting their findings to Paramount. No wonder he started to view the movie as a Shakespearean tragedy.
"Always remember three things," Coppola told an aspiring director while working on The Godfather. "Have the definitive script ready before you shoot. There'll always be some changes, but they should be small ones. Second, work with people you trust and feel secure with. Remember good crew people you've worked with on other films and get them for your film. Third, make your actors feel secure so they can do their job well." Then he paused, and added, "I've managed to do none of these things on this film."
A particular low point for Coppola came during, of all things, an innocent visit to the rest room. He was already having a tough day on the set, and was forced to contend with strong rumors that Paramount wanted to replace him with director Elia Kazan. While sitting in a stall, Coppola heard a couple of crew members enter the restroom to wash their hands. Not knowing who was beyond the nearest door, the men started venting about Coppola's apparent lack of competence. Embarrassed, Coppola lifted his feet off the floor so the disgruntled crew members wouldn't recognize his shoes.
Needless to say, the pieces eventually fell into place. The Godfather would go on to become the highest grossing film in motion picture history (at that time), easily outdistancing a southern-fried monolith called Gone with the Wind (1939). It would also be nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando), and Best Screenplay (Puzo and Coppola). The film spawned two sequels, and is considered by many people to be the single greatest picture of the 1970s. Certainly, it ranks among the top six or seven works of a masterpiece-heavy decade.
Producer: Albert S. Ruddy
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay: Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola (based on the novel by Mario Puzo)
Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Editing: William Reynolds, Peter Zinner, Marc Laub, Murray Solomon
Music: Nino Rota
Music Director: Carlo Savina
Production Design: Dean Tavoularis
Art Design: Warren Clymer
Special Effects: A.D. Flowers, Joe Lombardi, Dick Smith, Sass Bedig
Set Design: Philip Smith
Stunts: Paul Baxley
Costume Design: Anna Hill Johnstone
Makeup: Phil Rhodes
Cast: Marlon Brando (Don Vito Corleone), Al Pacino (Michael Corleone), James Caan (Sonny Corleone), Richard Castellano (Clemenza), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), John Cazale (Fredo Corleone), Sterling Hayden (McCluskey), John Marley (Jack Woltz), Richard Conte (Barzini), Diane Keaton (Kay Adams), Al Lettieri (Sollozzo), Abe Vigoda (Tessio), Talia Shire (Connie Rizzi), Gianni Russo (Carlo Rizzi), Al Martino (Johnny Fontane), Morgana King (Mama Corleone), Lenny Montana (Luca Brasi), Alex Rocco (Moe Greene).
by Paul Tatara