In honor of The Academy Awards this Sunday, my dear friend Ruth over a Flixchatter is doing a mini-blog-a-thon for the occasion. In looking at Best Pictures by decade, she generously offered me a shot at contributing one for a particularly turbulent ten-year period. Without hesitation, I choose the film that’ll reach its 40th anniversary this year, one memorable enough that it christened another series of mine, already. It is a motion picture that was distinctly of the 70s, endures without a trace of wistfulness even decades later, and yet still casts a long shadow.
If anything is certain in this year or the next, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will invariably get something wrong. They’ve awarded the Oscar to a picture, actor/actress, or [insert writer, producer, etc.] that have a) jaw-dropped the audience (there and on television), the media, and certainly the nominees, immediately, or, b) after thoughtful rumination years later, everybody and their grandmother saw it for what it was. A mistake. To keep it manageable, we won’t even go into those Oscar snubbed. It’s why discerning blog articles by colleagues like these abound at this time of year:
- IS ‘BAFTA’ GAINING ON ‘OSCAR’ IN THE PRESTIGE STAKES? by Ronan Wright, Filmplicity
- 10 Times Oscar Got It Right by Nick Prigge, Anomalous Material
At least that didn’t happen for the Best Picture category during the first half of the 1970s — I always point out the Rocky and Kramer vs. Kramer picks occurred during the latter portion of that decade. Besides, I’ll argue till I’m blue in the face that the most worthy of them in this distinguishable stretch landed the same year I graduated high school in ’72, The Godfather.
Looking back, it was quite the task handed the young Francis Ford Coppola by Paramount Pictures in directing such a project (he was almost replaced by Elia Kazan by studio heads part way through). I mean the 1969 novel by Mario Puzo represented one of the most popular page-turners of the 60s. It introduced a whole new lexicon to crime writing, in actuality, after its arrival. And that blockbuster of a book could have gone oh so wrong in its film adaptation. Yet, the film that came from it did not pale — far from it, in fact.
Like the novel, the work is more of an experience than simple movie viewing by those who caught it. The Godfather remains a rich, textured depiction of crime family life, one where the family remains the central, operative word. Even though the film can be shockingly violent, its tale never loses the audience because it embodied a special collection; ethnic gangsters existing in a country made of immigrants, and in a way not seen before in movies. We develop a stake with those criminals byway of ancestry, their familiar roots as newcomers, and their dark efforts to better a group held together by blood or marriage.
Furthermore, the 70s, given the times and the dissolution so prevalent in the era, were very much the home of the anti-hero. This was another key reason the film registered so completely with audiences. Michael Corleone’s journey as an outsider (even within his clan), to intuitive insider and ultimately head of an organized crime dynasty is the core of the story. Even if you look upon the family as corrupt and brutally vengeful, you still relate with the character as he prevailed against the adversity surrounding him. His actions, though awful, remained noble in a way that only sought to help those he loved.
Together with a cast for the ages (Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Sterling Hayden, Talia Shire, Richard Castellano, Abe Vigoda, John Casale and more), nothing came close to matching this repertoire of actors hitting their marks. The Godfather persisted in being a drama that reached almost epic proportions in the years that cross its lens, many representing some real crime history of this country. It managed its Best Picture feat against a good stock of candidates, too. As Laurie Boeder noted a few years back it won out:
“… over the decadent, dark Cabaret; the worst canoe trip ever in Deliverance; Depression-era drama Sounder; and coming-to-America drama The Emigrants.”
Everything worked for it. A compelling story adapted extraordinary well by the author and the young director in charge and breaking through, film editing, a memorable musical score, and cast performances that were second to none in this or any other year. Of course, The Academy being who they are, missteps were bound to happen and immune this film was not. Its noted cinematographer, Gordon Willis, was not even nominated for his splendid work on the picture, and one of the all-time great (read infamous) Oscar mistakes occurred when Coppola lost the Best Director award to Cabaret‘s Bob Fosse that year (and this comes from a diehard Fosse fan, mind you).
This modern classic would go on to spawn what many argue to be the best sequel ever in The Godfather Part II, two years later. It’s a remnant few in cinema can lay claim upon, let alone Oscar winners. I cannot give a number to the articles, opinions, or comments I’ve read through the years that state the 1974 Best Picture was as good as, or even exceeded, the original film. It’s a valid assertion (and Coppola, again at the helm, would finally pick up the Director’s Oscar for something more than worthy and way beyond the dreaded ‘make up’ call). The follow-up successfully used material not adapted from the novel and additional story supplied by the author to great effect. Yet, I’d counter that ‘better’ contention with this. Part II succeeds because it is a sequel. It builds beautifully upon a foundation already laid out by The Godfather. Without it, the continuation doesn’t exist. Only the renowned 1972 film can stand alone. It is why that distinct pair of films continues to be the best one-two punch ever for a decade in motion pictures, and one known for its share of haymakers.