25 November 2005

100 films: The Godfather

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starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Richard S. Castellano, Talia Shire, and John Cazale
written by: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, from the novel by Puzo
directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
R, 175 min, 1972, USA

The great Shakespearian epic of our time, The Godfather series is perhaps the grandest accomplishment in the history of American cinema. It made stars of several actors and director Francis Ford Coppola, was nominated for a total of 29 Academy Awards, won Best Picture twice, and has inspired numerous entries in the popular lexicon. Part one tells the story of how Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), a civilian war hero, is trust into the family business he said he'd never join and ascends to the throne of the empire.

In retrospect it's hard to imagine, but Paramount was not in favor of Coppola's cast choices for any of the major roles. Coppola set his sights on Brando and Pacino, in particular, early in the process and would not budge as the studio brought in essentially every "name" actor in the greater Los Angeles area to read for the parts[1]. The concern was that Brando was too far gone as an actor and that Pacino had no name recognition, but as usually happens in these scenarios, the director was right and both actors turned in fantastic performances. Brando's Vito Corleone would earn him a Best Actor Oscar[2], as well as inspire a littany of impressions with his raspy delivery. Al Pacino has the most difficult role in the film, as he must portray a transformation from a character with a basic sense of purity to a calculating monster who would have his godson's father murdered on the day of the christening. We see the first steps of this evolution when Michael visits his father in the hospital only to find the guards have been ordered to leave. He springs to action, moving his father and standing up to the corrupt police chief who tries to arrest him. The certainty of his actions speaks volumes about his nature, much more than the speeches he uses to convince himself he's not like his father. He cannot deny that this is part of who he is, it's too deeply ingrained to ignore, and from that moment on he is fully involved. In a memorable scene that may just be the finest moment of Pacino's career, he guns down the police captain and the man who tried to kill his father in a restaurant. Although he may spend the rest of the films striving to regain his legitimacy, his actions over the course of those two days seals his fate.

Francis Ford Coppola is a man heavily steeped in the importance of family and the Italian way of life, and he uses those convictions to really give the film the proper dynamic. He understands how these large families operate, how the various relationships play off each other, and he employs his experiences to add a authentic feel to the proceedings. It's the small things, like adding wine to the pasta recipe, or the importance of operation a Sicilian courtship through the extended family, that sells large chunks of the film. The visual flair of the film is further defined by cinematographer Gordon Willis. The shots he composes are truly a thing of beauty. His is a name too often forgotten when discussing the great film artists.

It has been said that The Godfather has something for everyone. Part soap opera, part revenge flick, part character study, this film runs the gamut of human experiences and emotions. It is worthy of inclusion in any list of the all-time greats.

[1] Including Robert DeNiro, who read for multiple parts and would later play the young Vito in The Godfather: Part II

[2] It was his second win against 8 nominations (the last coming in 1989 for A Dry White Season). He famously sent Sacheen Littlefeather to the ceremony in his place to protest discrimination against Native Americans. Ironically, Littlefeather was just an actor.

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