Is there any midlife moment more poignant, painful even, than when a father introduces his teenage son to The Godfather, and the reaction is “Little slow”?
Slow? We’re talking about the greatest movie of all time here! Not just a cinematic masterpiece, but for my generation, a touchstone of masculinity, what with Sonny’s tinder-box machismo, Clemenza’s murderous avuncularity, and Michael’s transformation from sensitive idealist to heart of stone. The Godfather isn’t just a movie. It’s something to be passed down, the way Don Corleone passes on his wisdom to his sons: “Never tell anyone outside the family what you’re thinking again.” At least that’s what I want The Godfather to be. But is it?
Celebrating 50 years since its release in 1972, Francis Ford Coppola’s epic achievement is back in the pop-cultural consciousness. A new edition of Mario Puzo’s bestseller has been released with an intro by Coppola, along with a “50th Anniversary Edition” of The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, and The Godfather: Part III (the latter being the critical flop Coppola tried to salvage last year by editing it a little and rebranding it The Death of Michael Corleone). Paramount+, the streaming arm of the studio that made The Godfather, recently aired The Offer, a series about the making of the movie, built around its unlikely producer Albert S. Ruddy, an ex–Rand Corporation card-puncher whose principal credit had been the World War II POW camp sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. Most recently, the death of James Caan generated fond memories of his legendary turn as Sonny.
I can’t get enough of any of it. Have you seen Robert De Niro’s audition for the role of Sonny? Or Caan reading with Diane Keaton to play Michael? These auditions were filmed by the wife of Coppola’s disciple George Lucas. “Give it to Al Pacino,” she said: “He undresses you with his eyes.” Keaton also thought Al was cute. I happily dive down all those rabbit holes. If I’m scrolling through channels and land on The Godfather, I still can’t stop watching it all the way to the end no matter how many times I’ve seen it.
So what is this magic that gives Coppola’s masterpiece its enduring appeal—well beyond, say, the movie that won eight Oscars in the year The Godfather won only three? (That movie was Cabaret.)
Robert Evans—the garmento-turned-actor-turned– studio head who ran Paramount and got The Godfather made against considerable odds—says in his memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture that good movies don’t come out of everyone getting along. Passion, and the conflict that goes with it, is what makes a great film.
The Offer makes the Evans-Coppola dynamic seem like a lovefest. (They are superbly played by Matthew Goode and Dan Fogler.) But this was hardly the case. Although it was Evans who recruited the young, arty Coppola to direct, their feuding started early in the process and continued almost to Evans’s death in 2019. The first major battle was over casting. Coppola wanted Pacino. “That shrimp,” as Evans called him, was a respected but little-known New York stage actor. He had starred in Israel Horovitz’s play The Indian Wants the Bronx with John Cazale, who would play Fredo in Godfathers I and II. But prior to The Godfather, Pacino’s only film credit was Panic in Needle Park, a downer from 1971. In Evans’s mind, he was no movie star. He wanted Ryan O’Neal, newly famous from the Paramount blockbuster Love Story, or Robert Redford. In The Offer, there’s a scene with Evans and his wife, Ali McGraw—O’Neal’s co-star in Love Story—watching Panic in Needle Park. McGraw is mesmerized by Pacino: “I can’t take my eyes off him.” Evans relents.
That probably never happened, but one thing Pacino did have going for him was being Italian. His mother’s family was, in a bizarre coincidence, from a town called Corleone in Sicily. The blue-eyed O’Neal and Redford couldn’t even get the Italian words right in their auditions. And the Italian thing was important to Evans. Once the studio acquired the rights to Puzo’s novel and was trying to figure out how to make it into a good gangster movie, Evans and his deputy Peter Bart looked at every bad gangster movie made in the previous 20 years and realized they had one thing in common: All had been directed by, produced by, or starred Jews. Evans and Bart were Jewish, but they knew The Godfather should feel Italian. “I want to smell the spaghetti sauce,” Evans told Bart.
And in fact, watching the scene with Corleone’s caporegime Clemenza in his apron calling Michael over to the stove because “you might have to cook for 20 guys someday,” you can taste the salsiccia. Richard Castellano, who played Clemenza, was Italian-American. So was Coppola’s sister Talia Shire (Connie) and Gianni Russo (her abusive husband, Carlo). The list goes on. The exceptions were Marlon Brando and Caan, a Jew born in the Bronx and raised in Queens. For the iconic scene in which Sonny makes fun of Michael for offering to assassinate their Sollozzo and Captain McClusky—“Ba-da-bing, you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit!”—Caan’s improvised ba-da-bing was inspired by the (Jewish) comedian Don Rickles.
The other viciously disputed bone of contention between Evans and Coppola was the editing. Evans claims that the original cut Coppola delivered was short—a little over two hours—and left out all the good stuff. Which Evans says he then had to put back in. Coppola claims he delivered the film at its contractually required length, and it has long been speculated that he produced a deliberately lousy version so the studio would have to restore it to full length or else release a dud. Either way, in The Kid Stays in the Picture, Evans says that the most famous bit of editing in the film—intercutting between Michael at the baptism of his nephew (“Do you renounce Satan?” “I do renounce him”) and the murders of the heads of the “Five Families”—was not Coppola’s doing. It was a cutting-room eureka of one of the film’s six editors, Peter Zinner, who was nominated for but didn’t win an Oscar (he lost to Cabaret, just as Coppola lost the director trophy to Cabaret director, Bob Fosse).
Where Coppola does deserve credit—and for which he was rewarded with an adapted-screenplay Oscar—is his adaptation, with Puzo, of the novel. The movie, like the book, opens with the wedding of the Don’s daughter Connie, during which Sonny has a dalliance in an upstairs bedroom with a bridesmaid named Lucy Mancini. In the movie, the scene lasts for 30 seconds and deftly tells us who Sonny is—a man who puts passion above reason. In the book, Puzo gives us page after page about this woman Lucy, whose anatomy prevents her from being satisfied by any man except the prodigiously endowed Sonny. It’s pure Harold Robbins, which was entirely deliberate on Puzo’s part. Before The Godfather, he’d written a well-received literary novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, that sold about eight copies. Puzo had mouths to feed, so he decided to crank out a steamy, shocking potboiler that would make him some money. No accident that the horse’s head also comes relatively early in the book. Puzo’s son Anthony says his father cloistered himself in the basement with his typewriter, and when the kids would make noise, he’d shout, “Quiet, I’m writing a bestseller!”
Reading it today, you do come across some now-classic line—“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse”—or a vivid passage like the rant of studio-boss Woltz at Tom Hagen about never giving Johnny Fontaine (modeled on Frank Sinatra) the part in his picture because Fontaine “ruined” one of his protégés: “That girl was beautiful and she was the greatest piece of ass I’ve ever had and I’ve had them all over the world.” But then you have to wade through 20 pages of what can only be described as filler before you find another indelible scene or line.
Puzo and Coppola share screenplay credit, but by both their accounts, Coppola did the heavy lifting while Puzo would offer notes. Example: the aforementioned spaghetti-sauce scene. Coppola originally wrote, “Clemenza browns some sausage.” Puzo crossed out “browns” and replaced it with “fries,” because “gangsters don’t brown, gangsters fry.” Puzo grew up around such men; Coppola didn’t. His father had been first flute in the NBC Orchestra.
The alchemy of The Godfather is how much talent came together in one film: the music by Nino Rota, the cinematography by Gordon Willis, the production design by Dean Tavoularis, a director hungry for greatness, and the cast. Brando was washed up at the time. The Offer re-creates the famous screen test Coppola captured at Brando’s house during which the long-haired hippie pinned his blond locks in the back of his head and slicked it with shoe polish, put cotton balls in his cheeks, and simply became Vito Corleone. Consider Robert Duvall, an actor of unlimited energy, as the still Tom Hagen. And at its center, Pacino, who would never again give a performance of such controlled intensity and chillingly quiet depth. Has anyone?
I’m sticking to the original Godfather here, because, for one, it’s not the 50th anniversary of The Godfather: Part II, which came out in 1974 and which critics often cite as the “better” movie. That’s nonsense. It’s good, very good, but it’s not better, just more overtly political in its indictment of capitalism. “Michael, we’re bigger than U.S. Steel,” boasts the aging Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (played to perfection by Pacino’s Method acting mentor, Lee Strasberg). But ultimately, it’s a sequel. Like all sequels, it milks the success of the original by replicating it. The Godfather opens with a lavish wedding. Godfather II opens with a lavish party celebrating the First Communion of Michael’s son. In the The Godfather, Michael wipes out all his enemies. In The Godfather II, he does it again. And again, for that matter, in Godfather III, and quite stylishly for a movie regarded as dreck.
I don’t share that opinion, by the way. True, Sofia Coppola—who played the crucial part of Michael’s daughter when Winona Ryder dropped out—isn’t the greatest actress in the world. But there’s lots to like in Godfather III. Andy Garcia is all explosive violence and charm as the illegitimate progeny of Sonny and Lucy Mancini’s wedding-day quickie. Talia Shire transforms Connie into the formidable black widow at Michael’s side. The real-world Vatican Bank scandal is an apt stage on which to play out “the death of Michael Corleone.” And of course, it’s got a classic line of its own: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
The reaction of my 15-year-old, Kingsley, to The Godfather is both baffling and not baffling. During the pandemic, he discovered The Sopranos and internalized it to the point where he was walking around doing impersonations of Tony, Sal, and Paulie Walnuts (R.I.P. Tony Sirico, who died two days after James Caan). From there, he moved on to Goodfellas, which led to Joe Pesci and De Niro bits every time he came into the kitchen.
So it was time for The Godfather. His idea, not mine. I’d forced him to watch it years ago, when he was too young. Now he was primed. Of course, I had to watch with him, glancing over to make sure he was picking up all the nuances: “See how Michael snaps the lighter shut, showing his nerves of steel while Enzo the baker is shaking like a leaf?” Yeah, Dad. “I noticed.” As soon as the credits rolled, I asked which he liked better, The Godfather or Goodfellas?
The answer was a dagger to my heart—or at least in my hand, like when Sollozzo and Tataglia kill Luca Brasi. “Goodfellas,” he said.
But, but… I tried to explain that Goodfellas couldn’t exist without The Godfather. That it’s a reaction to The Godfather. It was Martin Scorsese saying, “See, the Mafia aren’t lovable family men, they’re scumbag psychopaths.” Meanwhile, The Sopranos is a rejoinder to Goodfellas, its creator David Chase going back to the source, reassuring us: “No, they are lovable family men.” My son was unmoved by my arguments. I told him never to take sides against the family again. Ever.
Photo: Steve Shapiro/Getty Images
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