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“I Believe in America”

Fifty Years of ‘The Godfather‘

· 13 min read
“I Believe in America”
United Archives / Alamy 

A few years ago, before Chris Cuomo was fired from CNN for a breach of journalistic ethics, he nearly got into a bar brawl. “Don’t insult me like that,” the news anchor barked at a young man standing near him. “I’ll fucking throw you down these stairs like a fucking punk.” What had provoked this explosive reaction? The young man had called Cuomo “Fredo”—an epithet which Cuomo claimed is so offensive to Italian Americans that it’s “like the N-word for us.” That the slur required no elaboration is a reminder that Francis Ford Coppola’s epic crime saga The Godfather remains instantly recognizable 50 years after the release of its first installment.

Since 1972, a vast, ever-expanding library of books about the film has accumulated. In addition to Coppola’s Godfather Notebook and his assistant Ira Zuckerman’s Godfather Journal, these include The Godfather Legacy by Harlan Lebo, The Godfather Book by Peter Cowie, The Godfather Companion by Peter Biskind, The Annotated Godfather by Jenny M. Jones, The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions by Mario Puzo, and Hollywood Godfather by Gianni Russo, who plays Carlo in the film. And that’s not counting Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Robert Evans’s The Kid Stays in the Picture, or any number of other histories and memoirs that touch on the film. Probably no movie in Hollywood history, not even Citizen Kane (1941), has been so thoroughly examined, analyzed, and discussed.

Which is why, when Mark Seal’s new book Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli came out last fall, I didn’t immediately rush out and buy a copy. The title didn’t help matters—it sounded more like a category on Jeopardy! than a serious work of film history. Furthermore, I wondered what Seal’s monograph could possibly have to offer that the others didn’t. The answer, it turns out, is comprehensiveness. Seal doesn’t excavate much new ground, but he catalogues old findings better than anyone else before him. The book not only covers the making of the movie but also the writing of the novel, the life and career of its author Mario Puzo, and the history of the Profaci crime family, whose boss Joe Colombo tried to keep the film from reaching theaters, fearing it would make the mafia look bad.

Some, no doubt, will find all this a bit much, but anyone who’s read the previous literature on the film will know that the story of the production is just as engrossing as the picture itself. Bad blood makes for good copy, and there was plenty of the former between Coppola and Robert Evans, the head of production at Paramount Pictures. Coppola only got the job because, first, he was a writer as well as a director and could therefore help revamp the screenplay; second, he was Italian American, which Evans assumed would bring the movie authenticity; and third, Evans couldn’t find anyone else suitable to accept the job. Coppola was the mogul’s 13th choice, after Fred Zinnemann, Franklin Schaffner, Arthur Penn, and nine other directors declined his invitation.

Al Pacino, Director Francis Ford Coppola, James Caan, "The Godfather" (1972) Paramount Pictures

Coppola also said no at first. He couldn’t stand the novel. “I got only about fifty pages into it,” he remembered. “I got to the part about the singer supposedly modeled on Frank Sinatra and the girl Sonny Corleone liked so much because her vagina was enormous. I said, ‘My God, what is this? The Carpetbaggers?’ So I stopped reading and said, ‘Forget it.’” He also hated the thought of making a big-budget studio movie. If he’d had his druthers, he would have spent his entire career making arthouse films, like his previous picture, The Rain People (1969), which he had shot on the fly with hardly anyone looking over his shoulder. He and his friend George Lucas had moved to San Francisco to get away from Hollywood executives. A year later, the studio they started, American Zoetrope, was $600,000 in debt, and the sheriff was threatening to put a chain on the door. It was Lucas who insisted Coppola make The Godfather: “Don’t turn it down. We are broke. We’re out of business.” Coppola grumbled that he wanted to make The Conversation, and complained that the book was sleazy. “Well,” Lucas replied, “find something in it that you like.”

What Coppola liked was the family dynamic—the story of an aging patriarch and his three sons. The problem was that Robert Evans hated everything Coppola liked. Evans wanted Robert Redford to play Michael Corleone, the Don’s youngest son and eventual heir to his throne. Or maybe Alain Delon or Ryan O’Neal. Anybody but Coppola’s top choice, whom Evans called “that midget Pacino.” In the title role, Evans wanted Carlo Ponti, an Italian movie producer who’d never acted before, or perhaps Ernest Borgnine. None of the studio brass wanted Marlon Brando, who was considered washed up and more trouble than he was worth. Suggested alternatives included George C. Scott, Richard Conte, and Anthony Quinn.

Paramount’s execs insisted that Brando do a screen test, which Coppola persuaded the actor to agree to on the pretext that it was a make-up test. At the time, Paramount was owned by Charles Bluhdorn, an Austrian-born industrialist who had bought out the studio in 1966. As Bluhdorn watched Brando slick back his hair with shoe polish and stuff wads of Kleenex in his cheeks, he was unconvinced. But by the time the make-up was applied, he’d changed his mind—Brando seemed to have aged 20 years, shrinking into his skin like an over-ripe avocado.

In the end, Coppola got the cast he wanted, including Brando, Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, and Diane Keaton, but he was soon confronting a host of fresh problems on the set. The script wasn’t finished. Pacino sprained an ankle early in the shoot. And Coppola fought constantly with cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose painstaking, classical approach to composition clashed with Coppola’s improvisatory nature and love of arty angles. At least Willis argued with him face to face. Coppola’s most-trusted subordinate, editor Aram Avakian, who’d cut his second feature, You’re a Big Boy Now (1966), was plotting a palace coup behind his back. “Shot by shot it looks great,” Avakian reported to Evans. “Kubrick couldn’t get better performances, but it cuts together like a Chinese jigsaw puzzle. We spent two days in the restaurant with Pacino, Sterling Hayden, and Al Lettieri. Each take was great, but nothing matches. The fucker [Coppola] doesn’t know what continuity means.” Sitting on the toilet one day in the studio men’s room, Coppola overheard two crew members mocking him. “Where did they find this asshole director?” one asked the other. Embarrassed, Coppola lifted up his feet so they wouldn’t recognize his shoes under the door.

Late in the film, after Vito Corleone has died and one of his top lieutenants has turned traitor, Michael saves the family by ordering a swift, savage strike on his foes, eliminating them all in a single stroke. Midway through production, life imitated art. In anticipation of his own dismissal from the picture, Coppola fired Avakian and the five other crew members he suspected of conspiring against him. It worked. The production was thrown into such disarray that Evans and Bluhdorn didn’t dare remove him for fear that it would cause even more chaos on the set.

Things quickly changed after the film was released. Ten percent of Hollywood’s revenue in 1972 came from The Godfather alone. Scalpers hawked tickets for $30 a piece—17 times the standard price. By the end of the year, the film had become the highest-grossing movie of all time. The following March, it won three Oscars, including one for Brando—which he ostentatiously declined—and one for Coppola, for writing the screenplay with Mario Puzo. By the summer of 1972, Paramount was begging him to direct a sequel. The Godfather made Coppola’s fortune, but it also turned him into the very thing he’d always loathed: a Hollywood insider. “It just made my whole career go this way instead of the way I really wanted it to go, which was into doing original work as a writer-director,” he explained. “The Godfather made me violate a lot of the hopes I had for myself at that age.”

Robert Evans could be extremely boneheaded, but he was right about one thing: Coppola did bring authenticity to the film. Having grown up in an Italian American family in the 1940s, he had an eye for the kind of details—the tarantella at the wedding, the homemade anisette in the Don’s office, the cannoli that mustn’t be left behind in the car—that wouldn’t have occurred to other directors. He also knew what not to include. When an assistant suggested that guests at the wedding might be playing bocce ball, Coppola nixed the idea immediately: “Bocce ball is one of those things [non-Italian] people put in a movie about Italian Americans.” Ditto waiters. “Anything you associate with a wedding, in terms of waiters and servants and such, they didn’t have,” he explained. “The women would do it. The food would be sandwiches ordered from Manganaro’s, which is still there on Ninth Avenue, or food that the different women brought.”

Coppola also asked a question that no director of a gangster picture had ever asked before: Where are the children? Generally speaking, filmmakers use kids as little as possible, on the assumption that if they’re not integral to the plot, they’re not needed. But in The Godfather, children are everywhere—bursting into the Don’s study while he's meeting with Luca Brasi, and threatening to scamper behind Clemenza’s car as he’s backing out of the driveway. Notice the little girl dancing on Tessio’s shoes at the wedding and the baby bawling in the background while Sonny tries to talk business on the phone. These details helped to bring the family at the heart of the film to life. Parts of it almost feel like a home movie. As producer Al Ruddy boasted, “It may be the greatest family movie ever made.”

In many ways, it’s a variation on King Lear. Like Lear, it’s a succession story about a powerful man deciding who will inherit his empire after he’s gone. However, while Lear wants to pass his kingdom to his favorite child, Cordelia, Corleone wants to prevent his favorite child, Michael, from entering the family business. In each case, the hand of fate intervenes. Just as Cordelia’s finer qualities (her honesty and selflessness) keep her from receiving a share of her father’s kingdom, Michael’s finer qualities (his self-possession and intelligence) make him the Don’s inevitable successor. Sonny is too volatile, Fredo too weak and stupid. Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) might have made a good Don, but he doesn’t have royal blood. Only Michael has the intellect, the pedigree, and the sang-froid required to run the Corleones’ criminal empire.

This is part of why The Godfather feels ageless. Without too much difficulty, the story could be reimagined as an epic poem, a medieval legend, or an Elizabethan play. Yet, if the film’s appeal is perennial, it should be especially resonant now. The movie was the product of turbulent times, both in Hollywood and the world at large. An industry-wide recession from 1969 through 1971 left the American movie business $500 million in the red and 40 percent of filmmakers unemployed. Movie attendance dropped, and output was cut in half. The rest of the country wasn’t doing any better. Between 1960 and 1969, the number of murders in the US rose by 62 percent, while the number of violent crimes more than doubled. Race riots rocked dozens of cities across the country—at various times, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia all burned.

Mired in an unwinnable war in Vietnam, the nation began to divide against itself. At Columbia University, students seized control of administration buildings, holding the dean hostage and demanding the university take steps to combat racism and sever ties with the military. In 1968, Mayor Daley’s Chicago police clubbed and tear-gassed antiwar demonstrators outside the Democratic National Convention. Two years later, after the National Guard shot and killed four unarmed protesters at Kent State University, hippies and hardhats clashed on the streets of New York City. The country, to quote one of the earliest historians of the period, seemed to be “coming apart.”

And yet, these circumstances made The Godfather an enticing prospect to moviegoers in 1972. It recalled a better time in the nation’s history: the dawn of the American century. Vito Corleone may have been a criminal but he was the kind of leader many Americans yearned for in the ’70s—intelligent, resolute, and principled. He could be ruthless, but he was always fair with people, doing favors and dispensing justice with Solomonic sagacity. When the undertaker Bonasera asks him to kill the men who raped his daughter, the Don refuses (“That is not justice. Your daughter is still alive.”), and when Sollozzo tries to interest him in the heroin trade, he declines, even though he knows that by doing so he’s made an enemy. “I had a great deal of respect for Don Corleone,” Brando later explained. “I saw him as a man of substance, tradition, dignity, refinement, a man of unerring instinct who just happened to live in a violent world and who had to protect himself and his family in this environment.”

The screenwriter Robert Towne felt that audiences were attracted to the Don for the same reason. Towne was hired by Coppola to write the short but crucial scene in the garden near the end of the film, in which the Don tells Michael that he wanted another life for his youngest son. “In the seventies,” Towne explained,

when we felt families were disintegrating, and our national family, led by the family in the White House, was full of backstabbing, here was this role model of a family who stuck together, who’d die for one another. The real appeal of the movie was showing family ties in a setting of power. It was really kind of reactionary in that sense—a perverse expression of a desirable and lost cultural tradition, filling people with longing for a family like that, a father who not only knew what was best but, if a guy was giving you a hard time, could have someone kill him.

The parallels between our present moment and the 1970s are unmistakable. All the great plagues of that decade (except for disco) seem to have returned at once: high inflation, rising crime, political corruption, proxy wars with Russia, and a pervasive sense that America has lost its way. The chaos that ensued as the US military evacuated Kabul last year evoked images of the fall of Saigon, and Donald Trump’s attempts to retain the presidency after losing the 2020 election are, if anything, more Nixonian than anything Richard Nixon ever tried. Now, as then, the American movie industry is in the doldrums, and now, as then, Hollywood’s studio heads are desperately searching for a new formula for success.

And anyone hoping for the return of films like The Godfather is likely to be disappointed. The difference between 1972 and 2022 is that, 50 years ago, cinema’s problems were merely financial, whereas today they’re existential. The Internet, not the movie theater, has become the place where people go to find entertainment, including movies and TV. The films that enjoy the best returns are franchises, like the recent Spider-Man and Batman movies, while the films that get the best reviews, like King Richard (2021) and The Power of the Dog (2021), are mostly unseen. If The Godfather were released today, it would probably fall in the latter category if it managed to get made at all. Indeed, as Seal’s book reminds us, it was lucky to have been made when it was. Coppola was so certain the film would fail that he knocked out a screenplay for The Great Gatsby (1974) in three weeks, eager to grab a good paycheck while he still could. “I had been so conditioned to thinking the film was bad, too dark, too long, too boring,” he later explained, “that I didn’t think it would have any success.”

And, to be sure, the film has its share of faults. The shots of downtown Manhattan, Hollywood, and Las Vegas are plainly stock footage, and the driving scenes were clearly created using Poor Man’s Process. Coppola also felt, perhaps correctly, that he was too easy on Michael at the end of the film, and that he had failed to show what a monster the young war hero had become—something he made certain he corrected when he directed The Godfather Part II (1974).

These flaws, however, pale beside the picture’s strengths: its cinematography, its suspense, its elegant score, and its indelible performances. Michael’s decline may be much grimmer in the sequel, but there’s something simultaneously sad and satisfying about his transformation in the first film. In Part II, Michael begins and ends as a monster, which is why the flashback scenes featuring Robert De Niro as the young Vito Corleone are such a breath of fresh air, keeping the picture from turning into a dour, one-note affair. In the original, Pacino gives us both the idealistic Michael, before he joins the family business, and the coldblooded bastard, without letting either one feel incompatible with the other. What makes his metamorphosis compelling is that, at each step of the way, his actions don’t appear unreasonable. He becomes a wicked man for all the right reasons, always aiming to protect his family, right up to the moment he has his brother-in-law garroted.

Seal’s book doesn’t dwell much on matters like these, preferring to focus on facts rather than analysis. The decision to make Mario Puzo a major player in the story was a particularly good one. Film scholars generally skate past the novelist as quickly as possible, so they can move on to a discussion of the film, but Seal shows how important Puzo was to the production. Coppola might have known Italian American culture, but Puzo knew the mafia. There’s hardly an incident in the movie that didn’t first appear in the novel. Unlike many novelists, Puzo wasn’t precious about his work, and he had the good sense to stand aside when the filmmakers came up with ways to improve his story.

Probably the best example of this can be found in one the film’s most famous scenes, when the fictional studio head, Jack Woltz, wakes up to find a severed horse’s head in his bed. In the novel, Puzo merely put it on the bed. Coppola slipped it under the sheets, drawing out the suspense as the mogul, first, discovers the blood, and then discovers its source. As much as Coppola has complained over the years—about the book, about Evans, about Aram Avakian trying to have him fired—he was extremely lucky on The Godfather. The novel may not have been great literature, but it contained the blueprint for a great movie. The crew, meanwhile, were a veritable dream team of cinema specialists, from production designer Dean Tavoularis to cinematographer Gordon Willis. Michael Chapman, who’d go on to shoot Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) for Martin Scorsese, even served as a camera operator on the film.

Not everyone hated making the movie as much as Coppola did. Though he knew his career was on the line, Brando was lighthearted throughout the shoot, playing pranks on the crew and competing with Caan and Duvall in a mooning contest. Some on the set even began to suspect that they might have a hit on their hands. When Robert Towne came in to write the garden scene between Michael and the Don, he couldn’t get over how gorgeous the cinematography looked. “It was so good,” he recalled. “I actually thought it was the best footage I’d ever seen, and I told Francis. He looked stricken when I told him, because he thought I was crazy. Because he had basically been brainwashed by everyone. And I thought it was absolutely brilliant.” Towne couldn’t remember how much money they paid him to write the scene but estimated it was a few thousand dollars—not bad for a single night’s work. Afterwards, Coppola asked him if he wanted a screen credit, but Towne refused, feeling he hadn’t done enough to merit one. “Thank me if you win the Oscar,” he said.

Graham Daseler

Graham Daseler is a film editor and writer living in LA. His articles have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the American Conservative, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.

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