Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

The Best Picture Project: The Godfather (1972)

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 (sitting there and watching 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:

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  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. The film’s editing, topped with a memorable musical score, and a 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. 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.

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25 Responses to “The Best Picture Project: The Godfather (1972)”

  1. iluvcinema

    Hiya!

    This is a great analysis that puts The Godfather into a wonderfully accessible cinematic and cinematically relevant frame.

    Excellent perspective!

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  2. Marianne

    I always liked Diane Keaton’s part. I wondered what I would do if I were her. It’s an amazing film and the fact almost anyone can quote it and everyone recognizes it shows how affective it was/is.

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    • le0pard13

      Hey, Marianne. I very much agree with you about the film and Diane Keaton’s role. She could have gotten lost in this male heavy cast of characters, but surely wasn’t. She’s memorable in a way that’s as poignant as Michael’s decisions in the story. Thanks for reading and adding to this, my friend.

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  3. rtm

    I’m so glad you decided to go with this film, Michael! Growing up with my two brothers who adored this film, I totally see why this absolutely deserved a Best Picture win. It’s such a complex story and full of intriguing, brutal characters, no wonder it’s become such an enduring classic.

    I had no idea Coppola was almost replaced by Elia Kazan, that’s so interesting. It’s a pity that he lost the Best Director award that year.

    Thanks again for taking part, I REALLY appreciate you taking the time.

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    • le0pard13

      Well, when you offered me some Best Picture from the 70s it was a pretty instant choice on my part. ‘The Godfather’ is everything you say it is. And Coppola’s role in the final result, even over the inane selection for Best Director, is pretty self-evident. His and the film’s success are joined at the hip. Thank you so much for the invitation, your wonderful encouragement, and comment, Ruth.

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  4. NeverTooEarlyMP

    Great review. I’d forgotten that this was one of the years when Picture and Director split. I suspect it’s one of those cases where Fosse had been in the industry longer, and as a result the popularity factor gave him the lead.

    I’ve always wondered how much the sequel win helps in making this one of the more well-known Oscar winners in history. It was always destined to be a classic, but the double win makes the series a classic!

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    • le0pard13

      Great to see you here, NTEMP. Welcome. Yeah, this is one of those Picture/Director splits for the ages that The Academy still has to live down when people look back. I wish I could explain it (or somehow fathom the reasoning behind it). And yes, the sequel has proven to be quite the follow-up that made both it and the original a pair for the ages, alright (I think that’ll be seen in my AFI Top Ten genre ranking come March). Many thanks, my friend.

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  5. Novroz

    You know, I think I need to rewatch this movie again one day. I watched when I was still in the hype of action and I found Godfather as terribly boring.

    Now that my taste of movie had changed, I rhould give this movie another change.

    Great post Mike.

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    • le0pard13

      Oh, yes. Please give this one another screening, Novroz. As my colleague J.D. says, “ It’s one of those rare films that holds up and actually improves with age.” Many thanks.

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  6. J.D.

    Another fantastic review! I love this film and Part II even more. Coppola was really firing on all cylinders here and it is even more amazing when you realize all of the challenges he faced along the way. There were so many times it could have all come undone but Coppola and co. held it together and created a classic. It’s one of those rare films that holds up and actually improves with age.

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    • le0pard13

      Yeah, the more people examine it (in front and behind the camera), the more amazing the results. You’re right, too. It could have all gone wrong, but Coppola and company held it together. And you know I’m going to agree with that last sentence of yours, J.D. Heartfelt thanks.

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  7. Max

    I think it could be argued that ‘The Godfather’ is the best ‘Best Picture’ winner ever made. There have been many films that never got the award or even considered that people might consider stronger, but when it comes to films that won the little gold trophy this is my favorite.

    I always thought Diane Keaton was really good in these films until I recently saw her in Annie Hall and Manhattan. Those performances really elevate her talents in my eyes. There’s endless words that could be said about this classic. Thanks for the review.

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    • le0pard13

      We are simpatico on this, Max. And you know I’m going to agree with you about Diane. It’s why I’m scheduling another stint with the family Corleone real soon. Great comment, my friend. Thank you very much.

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  8. Eric

    Fantastic post, sir. I watched The Godfather for the first time during high school, and it was too “slow” for my attention span at the time. I re-visited it a few months ago, and it really blew me away. Just an amazing film all-around.

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    • le0pard13

      Hey, Eric. It’s great you re-visited the film and that you enjoyed it more. This film just gets better with age and later screenings, I think. Many thanks.

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  9. Paula

    Michael, what a fantastic post about one of my favorites. My mother’s parents immigrated from Italy in the 20s so this film is difficult for me to get any distance from…not that our family was in the Mafia! Just because so much is familiar. Only lately have i realized how cinematically good it is. Very good points about its context in the ’70s. And I never knew Coppola was almost replaced…I think that would have been a big mistake!

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    • le0pard13

      Hey, Paula. Welcome and I’m glad you could stop by. I think you’re right about this one, and why someone like Coppola could deliver this experience so thoughtfully and so personally. Quite a number of things aligned so perfectly with this film, including the time it came into being. I think fans of the film are ever so thankful that Coppola wasn’t replaced (sometimes the studio gets things right). Love this comment you’ve shared, Paula. Thank you very much for reading and adding to this.

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  10. fogsmoviereviews

    Nice post. Very nice.

    I’m going to disagree that II couldn’t exist without I though. I mean, obviously it wouldn’t, but if you showed it directly to some new kid today who had never seen I, I bet they still think its awesome…

    Just sayin’

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    • le0pard13

      I think both are awesome films, no doubt. Favoring one over the other is purely a matter of personal choice, but I don’t think anyone would be unhappy if they only had their second pick in this to watch again. Thanks very much, Fogs.

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