I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. The next on my list was the 1972 winner, The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and James Caan. I first watched this movie about 10 years ago.
The Godfather is a drama about the inner working of the Corleone crime family, as power is transferred from the patriarch, Vito (Brando), to his son, Michael (Pacino). With its rich dialogue and stark violence, The Godfather set the standard for all mafia films to follow.
The other Best Picture nominees that year were Cabaret, Deliverance, The Emigrants, and Sounder. The Godfather also won Oscars for Best Actor (Brando) and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Mario Puzo's book).
As the movie opens, Vito is hearing petitions from a host of supplicants on his daughter's wedding day, following a Sicilian tradition to honor such requests on a day of celebration. As we see Vito in his element, dispensing his own form of justice, we begin to understand both the man and how he's been running his operation. We also gain insight from Michael, who is just beginning to date Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) and who gives her important background information on some key players who walk by their table.
At the time, Michael is a college graduate whose future is uncertain, although he swears to Kay that he plans to make his father's operation legit. Throughout the course of the movie, however, reality refuses to synch up with Michael's plans. He soon comes face to face with the violence of his father's world and must make a decision as to how to react.
There are many famous moments in this movie, and perhaps I would spoil nothing by revealing them here, but I believe in avoiding spoilers, so I won't give any away. I will say, however, that if this is your first time watching this movie, you are bound to be shocked and disgusted at some of the unexpected events.
The Godfather has to be one of the most quoted movies in the lexicon of American film, in part because it has such an excellent script, adapted by the Coppola and Puzo after Puzo's book by the same name. The dialogue is, at the same time, seemingly realistic and yet elevated to an almost Shakespearean degree.
Brando's character, Vito, is one of the most widely quoted, because he gets some of the best lines. But really, this is Pacino's movie: as he makes choices about the future of his life and what he values most. The best fiction plots center on change and development of characters, and this movie certain offers such a progression.
To make his character look "like a bulldog," Brando wore an appliance made by a dentist, now on display at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York. He based his husky whisper on real-life mobster Frank Costello, whom Brando had seen on TV during the Kefauver hearings in 1951. Famously, he did not attend the Oscar ceremony but sent Sacheen Littlefeather to represent him. When Roger Moore presented her with the Best Actor statuette, she snubbed him and gave a speech about the film industry's mistretment of American Indians.
The movie is a family film in more than one context, as Coppola used many family members on screen: his sister Talia Shire portrayed Connie Corleone; his mother Italia Coppola was an extra in the restaurant meeting; his father Carmine Coppola is the piano player in the Matress sequence; his sons Gian-Carlo Coppola and Roman Coppola are extras in another scene; and his daughter Sofia Coppola is the baby at a baptism at the end of the film. In addition, Keaton based her portrayal of Kay on Coppola's wife, Eleanor Coppola.
While set in the 1940s, the movie has a timeless feel, so that aside from the period cars, it could take place at any time. Much of the film is shot on location, which also helps establish a realistic feel. There are many improvised moments in the film, which also aid the authenticity. The film does not glamorize the violence. As mobster after mobster is gunned down, there are no slow motion acrobatics, no dramatic music, no extended death scenes. With a few exceptions, these deaths don't even evince much reaction from witnesses. As one of the characters puts it, after all, it's not personal; it's business.
It's funny that The Godfather has inspired so many copycats, because it should have been the last mob movie, dispelling myths and focusing on grim reality. That may be what inspired its many imitators: the desire to expose truth of the underworld.
Then again, as this movie proved, there is money to be made by telling such a story well. And filmmaking, above all, is a business.
Rating (5 out of 5): *****
Dialogue and storytelling is more important than flashy action scenes.