The Good Life

The Godfather at 50

Conceived as a quick payday fashioned from a lurid novel, the landmark gangster movie became a cultural phenomenon and quite possibly the greatest movie ever made
| By Marshall Fine | From The Godfather, March/April 2022
The Godfather at 50
Not simply a movie mobster, Don Vito Corleone, as played by Marlon Brando (right) in The Godfather, became the very symbol of an underworld kingpin.

A movie magnate awakes in his palatial home to find the severed head of his prized stallion tucked between his bloodstained sheets. A motorist tries to hurry through a toll booth only to be hemmed in and then mowed down by assassins with submachine guns. A patron retrieves a hidden pistol from a restaurant lavatory and uses it to dispatch his dinner companions—one of them still holding a forkful of veal.

That level of gore—only halfway through the movie—sounds like the stuff of third-rate horror flicks. And yet The Godfather, which shocked audiences of the time, is revered a half-century later as a cinematic classic, a sweeping epic with Shakespearean overtones. Critics proclaim that it rivals such masterpieces as Citizen Kane and Casablanca for distinction as the best movie ever made. It is so deeply ingrained in the culture’s psyche that almost everyone has a favorite line ready to uncork under the right circumstances: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse;”  “Leave the gun, take the cannoli;” “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes;” “Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family;” “And at that meeting you will be assassinated.”

The Godfather, which turns 50 this year, is still hot on the minds of critics—
as well as audiences—as if it were born yesterday. This is a movie that struggled against all odds even to be made, only to make its mark as a perennial favorite.

The Godfather, released in March, 1972, was voted No. 1 in readers’ polls in Time Out (1998), Entertainment Weekly (1999), and Empire magazine (2008 and 2017). A 2014 poll by the Hollywood Reporter of more than 2,000 industry members in Hollywood also put it at No. 1. So did an Internet Movie Database ranking in 2012. And it threatens to nudge Citizen Kane aside on the lists of critics and film historians, moving up to second place in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years, 100 Films” list, as well as in the all-time rankings on MetaCritic.

Yet these honors hardly reflect the impact that Coppola’s film has had over the past half-century on moviegoers, filmmakers and the motion-picture industry. Actress Talia Shire, Coppola’s sister who plays Connie Corleone in all three Godfather films, says, “It’s a film that transcends time. It is always yesterday with most works of art. But The Godfather—it is. It has an is-ness that comes from the energy of the artists who worked on it.”  

Often imitated, never duplicated, its influence extends not just to the American cultural fabric and a global audience, but even to the American underworld. That’s what the Emmy-winning writer-producer Terence Winter discovered when he 
went to work on “The Sopranos,” a show he says would not have existed without The Godfather.

“The FBI told us they’d picked up wiretaps of meetings of crime families, where they had The Godfather musical theme on a loop, playing in the background,” Winter says. “When we were doing ‘The Sopranos,’ everybody had that movie as a frame of reference. Even the gangsters. Art imitated life, and vice versa.”

And when time came to name the Jersey gang’s strip club they chose Bada-Bing, a phrase that was popularized by the Sonny Corleone character in The Godfather.

The film’s impact was immediate and has been long-lasting. “Watching it was like a before-and-after moment,” recalls the Oscar-nominated writer-director Paul Schrader. Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, says, “I continue to believe it’s a perfect film. The storytelling, the cast, the actors, the editing, the music—there is not anything out of place. It’s a seamless picture. Every time I see it, I’m knocked out.”

Nevertheless, more than one book has been written about the tensions and stress that Coppola faced in bringing Mario Puzo’s best-selling book to the screen. Paramount Pictures, under Robert Evans at the time, wanted to capitalize on the book’s popularity as a movie to be churned out quickly and cheaply. In Coppola, who at that point had only a handful of independent features and one major studio picture (Finian’s Rainbow) to his credit, the studio thought it had a director it could push around. But Coppola stuck to his guns and, despite obstacles, created a cinematic masterpiece.

Creating this film, however, was far from pleasant for the director. “To me, it was just a horrible experience. I hated it. I still hate the memory of it,” Coppola told Cigar Aficionado editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken in an exclusive 2003 interview. “I didn’t even know the picture was any good until a friend of mine …looked at it and said, ‘This is terrific.’ ”

The studio fought Coppola on everything from the brooding, shadowy cinematography of Gordon Willis and the cost of location shooting in New York City to casting choices. It seems impossible to believe today, but no one but Coppola wanted then-unknown Al Pacino to play Michael Corleone (Paramount’s Evans wanted Robert Redford). And despite his legend and 1954 Oscar for On the Waterfront, the studio was dead-set against casting Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone, the Godfather himself. Brando had a reputation for being difficult to work with and hadn’t had a hit in a decade. He was forced to film a screen test before his casting was approved, a test Coppola disguised as a friendly meeting, complete with cigars and Italian food (see sidebar, page 48).

Coppola spent the first two weeks of production hearing rumors that the studio was ready to fire him and replace Pacino. Then he shot the story’s pivotal moment. The scene is unforgettable: Pacino’s Michael sitting in a Bronx restaurant negotiating with Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo under the watchful eye of the corrupt police captain McCluskey over Italian food, much of the dialogue—in Sicilian—not translated. Michael at this point is thought of as harmless, an Ivy Leaguer who isn’t involved in the bloody business of the Corleone family. Sollozzo has tried unsuccessfully to murder the Godfather, and is hoping to negotiate peace, but Michael returns from the lavatory with a revolver, and shoots both men dead in a spray of blood. The studio, which had been closely monitoring the dailies, was blown away. Coppola had saved both his, and Pacino’s, job.

The movie served as a coming-out party for a new generation of movie stars, even as it provided a feast of older character actors. “The Godfather spoke to the changing times,” says Annette Insdorf, Columbia University film professor. “The confrontation between two generations of actors was exciting to watch—the changing of the guard from veteran actors like John Marley, Sterling Hayden and Richard Conte, to Al Pacino, James Caan, Talia Shire.”

Many of the actors who played major roles were nominated for Academy Awards for their work on the film, including Pacino, Caan and Robert Duvall. Pacino, Duvall and Diane Keaton would go on to win Oscars in subsequent films. John Cazale, who played the feckless Fredo, would act in a remarkable string of five movies that would be nominated for Best Picture in a career that spanned just that number of years.

And, of course, there was Brando. He was considered the most influential film actor of his time when he emerged in the 1950s with the classic films A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. But a series of stinkers in the 1960s earned him a reputation as box-office poison. The Godfather would prove to be the actor’s second Oscar-winning role despite that the opinion in Hollywood at the time was that the actor was washed up.

The original material for the film–Puzo’s 1969 novel–was a desperate effort by a serious writer to craft a book that would become a commercial success, says the journalist Nicholas Pileggi, who co-wrote the screenplays for Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino. A friend of Puzo’s, Pileggi says the author was looking for a way out of the kind of hackwork that had sustained him and his family in the 1950s and 1960s.  “Mario was writing magazine pieces by day and novels at night,” Pileggi says. “He wrote about the world he knew.”

Puzo’s novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965), was well reviewed but didn’t sell. Inspired by the lives of his parents, particularly his mother, the book focused on Italian immigrants who find a hard life raising children in New York during the Great Depression and World War II. “But no one was looking for a novel about the Italian immigrant experience in the early years of the 20th century,” Pileggi says. He points to two real-life news events that Puzo drew upon to craft a bestseller: the 1957 police raid that rounded up 63 leaders of American organized crime at a summit meeting in Apalachin, New York; and the televised congressional testimony of mob-soldier-turned-informant Joseph Valachi, who detailed the existence and structure of the Mafia in 1963.

“Apalachin, in 1957, exposed the fact that there was actually organized crime made up of Italians and Jews,” Pileggi says. “It was this billion-dollar corporation that they’d put together across the country. Nobody had believed it before. The FBI said there was no such thing, particularly J. Edgar Hoover.”

Puzo saw a way to marry the immigrant world he’d been writing about with the organized-crime world he’d been reading about in the news.

“After Apalachin,” says Pileggi, “you have Valachi explaining how the five families took over Las Vegas. All the stuff in Mario’s book—he latched on to everything Valachi said and put it into the novel. For Mario, it meant that, instead of writing a boring story of immigrant Italians, he had an interesting story about criminals, something that was of interest to the country. He stopped writing about his mother and moved to the Corleone family.”

We see shades of Apalachin in The Godfather as FBI agents hover over Connie’s wedding, taking down license plate numbers, an occurrence that spurred the real-life raid. The Valachi testimony as well as the Kefauver Hearings, another televised introduction to the underworld, are alluded to in the scenes in The Godfather Part II that portray congressional testimony.

While writing his own nonfiction look inside New York’s crime families, Honor Thy Father, Gay Talese found himself comparing notes with Puzo, who was writing The Godfather. (Talese and his cousin, Pileggi, had first sought him out after admiring The Fortunate Pilgrim.) “He was accustomed to making no money and wasn’t sure he’d make anything on The Godfather,” Talese says. “I had a No. 1 bestseller with Honor Thy Father–and his book was bigger. Before that, he was scuffling.”

“Mario’s book was a page-turner,” Pileggi adds. We’re not talking about Tolstoy. What Mario put together was this serious fictional world and a news story, along with his talent for writing page-turning novels. He was just the man for it. He always said that if he knew it was going to be successful, he’d have written it better.”

Just as the film heralded the arrival of Hollywood’s new generation, the book and the movie both represented a cultural transition from tales of the Old West to tales of the big city. Gangster films had been a staple since the Great Depression, but the Western dominated well into the 1960s. Robert Thompson, trustee professor of television, radio and film at Syracuse University, points out that even as the American Western myth, was collapsing it was being replaced by the new urban myth of the gangster. “The Godfather brought the idea of the Italian-American mobsters to the center of popular culture.”

It wasn’t just the idea of Italian-American criminals—but the casting of Italian-American actors to play them. Hollywood had spent almost 70 years 
trying to reach the broadest possible audience by avoiding ethnicity as much as possible in casting. The Brotherhood, a 1968 film with a Mafia story, had starred Kirk Douglas. But Coppola insisted on filling as many roles as possible with actors who were obviously Italian. “Before that, I don’t think I could name a Mafia movie with Italian-American actors,” Winter says. “When they did The Valachi Papers, they got Charles Bronson. There had not been an authentic depiction of the Italian-American experience until that movie. Thank God for Francis Ford Coppola casting Italian-Americans.”

Ironically, The Godfather was not technically a Mafia movie. Pressured by the Italian anti-defamation movement of the time, the studio agreed not to use the word “Mafia” in the film at all. Audiences caught on anyway.

For many who weren’t Italian, the movie was also a deep dive into a culture they may have only seen through the window of a pizza parlor. Right from the opening scene in which a supplicant begs a violent favor from Don Corleone on the day of his daughter’s wedding, the film is imbued with a deep sense of family, respect and honor—even among killers and thieves. Moments later, we see the pageantry of the Sicilian wedding itself, a gala event of tradition juxtaposed with an endearing frivolity.

When Corleone’s son Michael flees to Sicily to escape a murder rap, we get sweeping views of the pastoral landscape from which the culture arose. But, with its own scene of explosive violence, the segment also underscores how deep the roots of treachery and mayhem grow.

The Godfather turned into the biggest-grossing film of 1972, taking in more than $130 million in North America (which would be almost $900 million in today’s dollars) and more than $240 million worldwide. The film won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando) and Best Screenplay (Coppola and Puzo), though the Best Director award went to Bob Fosse for Cabaret, not Coppola.

Barker, of Sony Pictures Classics, was a high-school senior in Dallas when the film was released. He and a group of friends all skipped school to drive across town to the one theater where The Godfather was having its opening day. “We saw the film many, many times,” says Barker, who has sat through at least 40 viewings over the years. “We ended up creating this Godfather family of friends, this huge group who fancied themselves as characters from the movie. We memorized the dialogue and would say it to each other.”

Winter was too young to attend an R-rated film alone in 1972. But an older sister, who was minding him, wanted to see it. “She swore me to secrecy and dragged me along,” Winter says. “At 11, I couldn’t make heads or tails of the plot. But it was the first time I saw a guy get shot in the face. How many times have I seen the movie since then? A hundred, maybe? I bet I could write about 85 percent of the script from memory.”

Killings abound in the film, which easily earned its R-rating with copious amounts of violence. People are blown up in exploding cars (poor Apollonia), pulverized by shotgun blasts, choked to death (Carlo, answering for Santino) even stabbed and then choked (fearsome Luca Brasi, built to take a beating but undone by the blade and the garrote). In a film that’s loaded with gore, perhaps the most notorious slaying is that of Las Vegas mobster Moe Greene, who is shot through his bespectacled eye while lying on a massage table. Greene’s graphic demise is part of a montage of executions that are interspersed with scenes of Michael Corleone becoming a godfather to his nephew, all while a priest reads baptismal rites and stately church music plays. Add to that the elimination of two traitors, and all family business is settled in one day. And yet the tableau is operatic.

Thompson, who has taught courses on the film, had to wait until its release on broadcast TV to see it. “It had a very, very big impact on me,” Thompson recalls. “And this was in spite of the fact that there were commercials and I was watching it on a 19-inch screen and it was broken up over two nights and all the swearing and violence and sexuality had been taken out.”

And The Godfather had its share of sexuality as well. In a time when the big screen was just getting accustomed to nudity, there was the thunderous tryst between Sonny and a bridesmaid, taking place even as the wedding party was in progress. We see Michael through two loving, but lusting romances. And always looming in the background is the understated sense of casual sex with mistresses, hookers and waitresses.

Talese recalls attending a screening with Pileggi, going in with little anticipation but quickly realizing he was watching something special. “In the middle of the film, we looked at each other and said, ‘This is fucking amazing.’ We knew it was a masterpiece after the first hour,” he says. “It became the Mafia movie and, decades later, that’s still true.”

“You watched it and thought, this is the real thing,” Pileggi remembers. “Italian characters had never been feared until The Godfather. In the movie, they were invested with power. It was directed with a gravitas that made it a serious movie.”

Indeed, the movie elevated the book which, while a bestseller, had never been thought of as serious literature, in the way Puzo’s earlier books were. “Coppola brought opera to a crime novel,” Talese says. “He brought his own particular genius. Coppola grew up with a sense of the operatic and The Godfather is an opera. The combination of Puzo and Coppola created that.”

Still, Coppola himself always recognized what Puzo brought to the table, something that was pointed out to him personally on one occasion. “Once we were somewhere and he had some character with him,” Coppola told Shanken in 2003. “And the guy looked at me and he says, ‘Hey, you just remember: you didn’t make him; he made you.’ And it was true.”

The film’s influence—and that of its sequel, which came out in 1974 and won six Oscars, including Best Director for Coppola—can’t be overestimated. From Goodfellas to “The Sopranos” and beyond, the movie has embedded itself in popular culture. Brando even spoofed the Don Corleone character in the 1990 comedy, The Freshman, about a film student who takes a course on The Godfather and meets a “man of influence” played by Brando with the same gravelly, nasal voice that spawned a million bad imitations. That’s not to mention the lines from the film that have filtered into everyday usage by people who may have no idea that they are quoting The Godfather: “It’s not personal. It’s just 
business.”  “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.” “Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.”

And, of course, “Bada-bing.”

In 2019, then-CNN anchor Chris Cuomo got into a public scuffle outside a watering hole, when antagonists baited him by calling him “Fredo,” a reference to the weakest of the Corleone brothers. Cuomo was caught on a video posted to YouTube saying that “Fredo” was “like the n-word for us.”

Thompson also marvels at the film’s resilience in the face of constant tinkering and reworking by Coppola. Aside from the versions edited to FCC standards for broadcast TV, Coppola also reedited the first two Godfather films, which tell stories from different time periods in nonlinear style, into one chronological story combining the first two films as The Godfather Saga. And he continued the story with The Godfather Part III (1990), which he reedited and released as The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone at the end of 2020. “It really works,” Thompson says. “And I usually don’t like those kind of ‘redux’ projects.”

The Godfather remains a kind of touchstone, not just for its original fans but for the generations that have followed: “It transcends generations because it is so brilliantly executed,” Thompson says. “The structure, the performances, the story—they all continue to make this a movie that people relate to.” He even sees a connection for the film’s new generation of viewers between The Godfather and the superhero comic-book movies that have come to dominate Hollywood. “In a sense, a lot of what is appealing in a superhero film was also there in The Godfather,” he says. “There was this sense that they had powers that regular people didn’t. Here’s the idea of somebody who actually gets stuff done. That’s what the opening scene is about—that people come to him with their problems instead of the police or the government.”

The Godfather, says Barker, seems timeless. “It stands the test of time, like Casablanca. It’s not dated in any way.”

“Nothing about it feels hokey and old,” Winter says. “It’s been 50 years since The Godfather. But it still feels modern.”

Marshall Fine has been a contributing editor since 2008.

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