How Coppola’s ‘Godfather’ at 50 Remains the Best Film of All Time
Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece released half a century ago on March 14, 1972 has become a phenomenal success in the history of cinema
Three men were having a leisurely lunch at La Scala, the fine-dining Italian restaurant in downtown Manhattan, on a freezing afternoon in March 1971. Seated across from Montreal-born Hollywood producer Albert Ruddy was Nat Marcone, the president of the Italian-American Civil Rights Association. League, and Anthony Colombo, whose father Joseph Colombo Sr was a notorious leader of organized crime in Brooklyn. In addition to the menu of the well-equipped restaurant famous for its Neapolitan cuisine, the locked scenario of Ruddy’s latest film The Godfather was also placed on the table.
Shooting for the movie based on the best-selling novel about a New York crime family was just weeks away, but the mafia wouldn’t The Godfather be made. Ruddy had received threats of boycotts, strikes and demonstrations. Anthony, the twenty-six-year-old military academy graduate, quietly requested the words “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” be removed from the script, and Marcone felt that using those words would defame the Italian-American community. . As a member of the Jewish faith, Ruddy knew all about racial bigotry and needed no further convincing. He accepted the suggestions without any argument. The three men walked out of La Scala with smiles on their faces and their faith in America intact. Suddenly, all threats evaporated and the demonstrations were called off.
It was professional, not personal. Behind the scenes of The Godfather began when a writer, Mario Puzo, awash in gambling debts, was forced to cut a deal for his Sicilian gangster novel project with Robert Evans at Paramount Studios in Hollywood for just $12,500. His novel, The Godfather with the remarkable central character of Don Vito Corleone, became the first paperback to sell six million copies after being on the bestseller list for a record 67 weeks in America. It was also the most popular novel across Europe and a film version seemed a real likelihood. However, no Hollywood film had ever surpassed the extraordinary success of a bestselling novel.
On the west coast of America, a broke 29-year-old filmmaker, Francis Ford Coppola of Italian descent, was spending time with his family. Paramount’s Peter Bart has suggested the name of this UCLA film school grad as the go-to director for Puzo’s gigantic bestseller. Coppola’s friend George Lucas, the visionary filmmaker, foresaw the project’s potential and insisted it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. Over the next few weeks, Coppola painstakingly sketched the gargantuan novel at Cafe Trieste in San Francisco. He later noted, “During this second reading, much of the book fell into my mind, revealing a story that was a metaphor for American capitalism in the story of a great king with three sons: the eldest received his passion and aggressiveness; the second his gentle nature and his childlike qualities; and the third, his intelligence, cunning and coldness.
Against Paramount’s wishes, he set the film in 1940s New York and decided to cast Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Cann, Diane Keaton and her sister Talia Shire in the lead roles. The studio has reached the roof. A Paramount executive looked Coppola straight in the eye and said, “Francis, Marlon Brando will never appear in this picture…” But Coppola fought hard for his casting choices and he ultimately won. The budget went from $1 million to $6.5 million.
A few days before filming began, Coppola gathered his cast at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, and with the Corleone family finally seated around a table together, rehearsals began. Then, on March 23, 1971, he began filming the Italian-American family saga about an elderly mob boss, Don Vito Corleone, and his potential heirs – the brash Sonny, the emotionally fragile Fredo, and the youngest son university-educated war hero. Michael. Jazz singer Morgana King, cast as Mama Corleone, was highly sought after during production due to her Sicilian heritage. The role of Luca Brasi, Don Corleone’s ruthless enforcer, went to a six-foot-six, 320-pound giant named Lenny Montana who visited the film set as the bodyguard of a real-life boss. the Mafia.
With his key team of cinematographer Gordon Willis, production designer Dean Tavoularis and costume designer Anna Hill Johnstone surrounding him, Coppola invented the classic vintage film look with vintage cars, street lamps, trolleys and even prices, circa 1940s, pasted in store windows. The attention to detail was astounding and even the vintage car sound effects had been recorded in a car museum. With the studio threatening to replace Coppola, the director took spur of the moment risks where necessary and did his best to create the period vibe that is visible in every scene.
Coppola’s cinematic genius brought to life the twenty-minute opening sequence of Corleone’s lavish traditional family wedding. The causeway ambush that killed Sonny was taken down in a single take. The director approved of Brando’s improvisation on the spot in the scene of Vito having a heart attack while playing with his grandson. Coppola eclipsed all of his peers in the now classic blood baptism scene when Michael, while serving as godfather at Connie’s baby christening, defeats the Corleone family enemies and rightly assumes his father’s mantle. For added authenticity, Coppola cleverly inserted his family into the film with his daughter Sofia, wife Eleanor, and sons in the Baptism scene. From afar, it looked like Coppola was making a home movie for a mafia family.
Then an actual incident in New York mimicked the cinema. On June 28, 1971, a few blocks from the shooting of The Godfathera hitman posing as a photographer pulled out a gun and lambasted Joseph Colombo Sr. The hitman was instantly killed at the scene, but Colombo Sr remained in a coma until his death.
Coppola’s screen version of Mario Puzo The Godfather opened its doors in New York on a rainy Wednesday in March 1972 fifty years ago and the Corleone family entered into mythology. Vincent Canby, in his review of The New York Times, called it “one of the most brutal and moving chronicles of American life ever conceived within the confines of popular entertainment”. It was considered the cinematic equivalent of Shakespearean dramas about royal succession, power and allegiance. Marlon Brando’s portrayal, 47, of Don Vito Corleone, the fearsome and aging Sicilian-born leader of a Long Island-headquartered organized crime family, with receding hairline, cheeks stuffed with cotton wool , asthmatic voice and measured movements set the pitch for the entire saga. Brando gently stroking his cat and sorting people out was even appreciated by true godfathers far away in Sicily.
Unknown actor Al Pacino’s performance as Michael Corleone drew the most applause. In the film, he skillfully took on the responsibility of the Godfather and continued the family’s legacy of dealing with organized gangsters, rogue cops, unscrupulous judges, and corrupt politicians in America. His character arc as the introverted youngest son who blossomed into a figure of immense gravity and ruthless emotional reserve became an example of modulation. The film, which delivered a harsh statement on the futility of violence, revitalized Brando’s stumbling film career and launched Pacino into stardom.
Even James Caan’s supporting roles as Sonny, John Cazale as Fredo, Diane Keaton as Kate, Robert Duvall as Don Corleone’s consigliere Tom Hagen, Richard Castellano as Clemenza and Al Lettieri’s Sollozzo connected with their characters to create unforgettable screen performances. Audiences loved watching Al Martino, as moaning Johnny Fontane was slapped by Brando, John Marley’s Jack Woltz waking up in his Hollywood mansion with Khartoum’s head on his bed, the encounter with drug dealer Sollozzo, the shooting at the restaurant, the congregation of the chefs of the Five Families of New York and the romantic scenes set in the Sicilian countryside.
The circular motion of the “Godfather Waltz” created by music composer Nino Rota evoked endless nostalgia and added beautifully to the Corleone family’s on-screen supremacy. The well-crafted dialogues, “Leave the Gun. Take the Cannoli”, “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fish”, “never take sides with anyone against the Family again. Never,” and “Never tell anyone outside the family what you think again” have become part of the American lexicon. However, not everyone in America was happy with the film. According to a New York magazine Mario Puzo’s play, he was pitted against Frank Sinatra at a Los Angeles hotspot over the apparent similarities between the singing star and Johnny Fontane’s character in the film.
On March 27, 1973, during the Oscars in Hollywood, Coppola and Puzo won the Oscar for best screenplay based on material from another medium. Brando received the Oscar for his portrayal of Vito Corleone but refused to accept it in protest at the film industry’s treatment of Native Americans. The Oscars evening also belonged to Albert Ruddy since his production won the prize for best film of the year. In a moving speech, he said, “America needs the film industry, and the film industry needs the United States…The American dream and what we all want and for me at least is represented by this (Oscar). It’s there for everyone if we want to work, dream and try to get it.
With three Oscars and the highest-grossing film of the year, art and arithmetic finally emerged victorious. Subsequently, two more Godfather films were produced and they won nine Oscars combined, grossing over $1.1 billion after adjusting for inflation. Cinematographer Gordon Willis also received an honorary Oscar in 2009. Now in 2022, the attraction of The Godfathercontinues and a television series, The offerproduced by Paramount about making the film from Albert Ruddy’s perspective is set to launch in April 2022.
The film was extremely popular in India. Unrelated to the film’s success, Ruddy’s wife Françoise Ruddy was later appointed by Indian spiritual leader Osho Rajneesh as International Secretary and renamed Ma Prem Hasya. Half a century later when The Godfather celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, the history of this Italian-American clan is romanticized, and their code of loyalty and family honor is still romanticized. Widely considered the best film of all time, Coppola’s cinematic portrayal of the Corleones remains unmatched in film history.
The writer is the author of ‘Subhas Chandra Bose: The Man India Missed the Most’ (2017), ‘Har Dayal: The Great Indian Genius’ (2020) and ‘India on the World Stage’ (2021). His book on “The Life and Times of Vallabhbhai Patel” will be out soon. The opinions expressed are personal.