It starts with sad notes on a trumpet and an undertaker’s shaky credo, “I believe in America.” It ended as a critical and popular sensation, the first motion picture to take in a million dollars a day, nominated for 10 Oscars and the opening salvo of a trilogy that has thus far taken in nearly a billion dollars in revenue worldwide.
“The Godfather” is back.
To mark the 25th anniversary of its debut, Paramount is re-releasing Francis Ford Coppola’s two-hour, 55-minute film--taken together with “Godfather II” as great and lasting an American epic as the past quarter century has produced--this Friday in 20 theaters nationwide, with Mann’s Chinese getting the Los Angeles booking.
New prints have been struck for the occasion (though the well-traveled original negative was not restored) and the film’s soundtrack has been digitally remastered and transformed from mono to stereo. A new book, “The Godfather Legacy,” has come out crammed with behind-the-scenes details of a motion picture that author Harlan Lebo calls “that rarest commodity in filmmaking: an overwhelming financial success that is also a creative masterpiece.”
While the M-word is probably the most overused and abused in the critical lexicon, there can’t be much doubt that “The Godfather” merits the description. Its dark-side-of-the-American-dream story of Michael Corleone’s rise to power as the modern successor to his aging father, Don Vito, emerges gradually from a welter of incident, a thrust and parry of action and reaction, betrayal and revenge that demands to be described as Shakespearean.
It’s not only that this film, like those 16th century dramas, can be watched repeatedly without loss of interest. It’s that “The Godfather” is overflowing with life, rich with all the grand emotions and vital juices of existence, up to and including blood. And its deaths, like that of Hotspur in “Henry IV, Part I,” continue to shock no matter how often we’ve watched them coming.
Yet though its characters are as out-sized as any of Shakespeare’s nobility, “The Godfather” also benefits by the attention it pays to humanizing detail, to small moments like a little girl dancing on hulking Tessio’s shoes at Connie Corleone’s wedding or its authentic sense of Italian family dining. Excessive but natural, larger than life yet always lifelike, “The Godfather’s” people are grounded in an underlying reality that is completely recognizable.
The collaboration between director and co-writer (with novelist Mario Puzo) Coppola and meticulous cinematographer Gordon Willis expressed a different kind of duality. Both literally and metaphysically, “The Godfather” alternates between darkness and light, between the Don’s funereal study and his daughter’s sun-lit wedding, between the pure love of Michael for his Sicilian bride and the messes his siblings have made of their marriages. And, most famously, in the intercutting between the baptism of Connie’s son (played by baby Sofia Coppola, later notoriously featured in “Godfather III”) and Michael Corleone’s brutal assumption of power.
None of this, of course, would work as well as it did without the exceptional ensemble acting, which extended down to character actors like Richard Castellano as Clemenza, a workaday mobster with a “leave the gun, take the cannoli” attitude. And when it comes to stars like Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton, it’s almost shocking to realize how early in their careers this film caught them, at a time when they were light on their feet and the characters they played had yet to ossify into Mafia cliches.
Looming above all these players, even for the long stretches when he’s not on screen, is Marlon Brando as Don Corleone. It’s a commanding performance in every sense, part realistic, part theatrical, filled with showy gestures and real artistry. For every scene that skirts the edge of excess, there are beautiful, almost unnoticed moments, like the magisterial way the Don plays with a kitten while conducting business. And it’s in his foibles, his fondness for fresh fruit and his family, that we come to feel the essential humanity of the man.
While seeing “The Godfather” on the big screen again is to frankly marvel at how undated it remains, reading about it in Lebo’s book, Peter Biskind’s earlier “The Godfather Companion” and the files in the motion picture academy’s Margaret Herrick Library generates wonder of a different sort. How, given the chaos that attended every step of its creation, did this film possibly turn out so well?
For almost every creative decision, even the ones that seem obvious now, was taken in the face of intense opposition by someone. Even the original novel, which ended up on the bestseller list for 67 weeks and sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, was unlikely: Its author, Mario Puzo, had never known a real gangster when he began to write a book that he initially called “Mafia.”
Starting the movie train rolling was Peter Bart, now the editor in chief of Variety but in 1967 a key executive working under Paramount head of production Robert Evans. It was Bart who bought Puzo’s novel on the basis of an outline and 100-plus pages of manuscript. Al Ruddy was brought in to produce, though his best-known credit was the TV series “Hogan’s Heroes.” Directors Fred Zinnemann, Richard Brooks, Costa-Gavras and Peter Yates turned the project down, and when it was offered to Francis Ford Coppola, he initially said no as well.
In his early 30s, Coppola was better known as a screenwriter (a shared Oscar for “Patton”) than as the director of “You’re a Big Boy Now” and “The Rain People.” Wanting independence from Hollywood, he’d started American Zoetrope in San Francisco, but deepening financial troubles made him agree to deal with a book he’d at one time dismissed as “cheap and sensational.”
Though it’s impossible to think of the film without him, Puzo and Coppola’s first choice for the Don, Marlon Brando, nearly didn’t get the part. Paramount President Stanley Jaffe was against the idea until, in a situation that has since crept into Hollywood legend, Brando agreed to do a screen test in makeup. Next stop, Sacheen Littlefeather.
Given that the studio had made a fuss about casting unknowns, Variety couldn’t resist a needling headline when the lead role was announced: “No Stars for ‘Godfather’ Cast--Just Someone Named Brando.”
For two other key roles, Coppola turned to actors he’d worked with before--Caan as Sonny Corleone and Duvall as consiglieri Tom Hagen--both of whom had been in “The Rain People.” He also pushed for Al Pacino, then mainly known as a New York stage actor who’d debuted against Patty Duke in “Me, Natalie” and gone on to the little-seen “Panic in Needle Park.”
Some of the other casting choices seemed equally eccentric. Gianni Russo, a nonprofessional with an unlimited supply of nerve, talked himself into the role of Connie’s husband, Carlo Rizzi. And Lennie Montana, a professional wrestler who was serving as a bodyguard when producer Ruddy met him, was cast as hit man Luca Brasi. According to Harlan Lebo, Montana “used muscle-tensing tricks learned in his days as a wrestler to make his face purple and his veins swell” in his death scene.
Just as interesting were the people who didn’t get parts. Robert De Niro was an unsuccessful candidate for Sonny Corleone and was actually cast as Paulie Gatto, the Don’s bodyguard. If he hadn’t left the picture to take the role Al Pacino vacated in “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” De Niro wouldn’t have been able to play the young Vito Corleone in “Godfather II.”
Though Paramount toyed with the idea of shooting the film in Cleveland, Cincinnati, even Kansas City, Manhattan proved to be the inevitable choice, though coping with 120 locations was one of the several stressors on director Coppola. He also had to deal with lobbying from the Italian-American Civil Rights League (which led to the removal of the few uses of “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” in the script) and pressures from the studio to keep costs low.
Rumors were rife that director Elia Kazan, who had worked with Brando with great success, was going to replace him. “He even dreamed,” writes Lebo, “about Kazan coming up to him on the set and taking over the reins--a director’s equivalent of the student nightmare about missing final exams.” Coppola did get help, but it was from Robert Towne, who wrote the key garden scene between Brando and Pacino and was publicly and generously thanked by Coppola when he picked up his screenwriting Oscar.
Once it opened, “The Godfather” became an enormous success, and the public’s will to know focused on all kinds of unlikely areas, including the horse’s head (a real one that was obtained from a rendering plant in New Jersey) that ended up in studio head Jack Woltz’s bed. “There were many people killed in that movie,” the fed-up director was quoted as saying, “but everyone worries about the horse.”
Bringing everything full circle, the movie “Godfather” led to the publication of stories about the intersection of truth and fiction. Puzo himself, in a book called “The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions,” wrote of an encounter he had in a Los Angeles restaurant with Frank Sinatra, often mentioned as a possible model for the book’s singer Johnny Fontane.
Sinatra, Puzo wrote, “started to shout abuse. . . . The worst thing he called me was a pimp, which rather flattered me. But what hurt was that there he was, a northern Italian, threatening me, a southern Italian, with physical violence. That was roughly equivalent to Einstein pulling a knife on Al Capone.”