Saturday, March 24, 2012

 

America's first family

NOTE: Ranked No. 19 on my all-time top 100 of 2007


KATIE COURIC: What is your favorite movie?
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Oh, I think it would have to be The Godfather. One and two. Three not so much. So — so — but that — that saga I love that movie.…It's all about family. So it's a great movie.
From CBS News interview during 2008 campaign

"I always felt it was a film about a family made by a family." — Francis Ford Coppola


"When we were editing…, The French Connection came out and I went to see it. It was this great, dynamic, exciting filmmaking…and I remember thinking, 'Compared to that, The Godfather is going to be this dark, boring, long movie with a lot of guys sitting around in chairs talking." — Francis Ford Coppola on the DVD commentary for The Godfather

By Edward Copeland
I swear I remember seeing The Godfather in the theater in its original run. Never mind that I didn't turn 3 until a little more than three weeks after its debut. (My parents cast no light on the veracity of my claim. My dad thinks I'm right because he says, "We took him to everything" but my mom doubts the story, given my age and the film's content.) Who's to say when The Godfather actually surfaced in our city anyway? They didn't hit thousands of screens simultaneously as they do now — movies had different release patterns then, more staggered. Honestly, I can't say I remember specifics from that early viewing, but I do recall other things. We bought and played The Godfather board game, which can be described best as sort of a Mafia-theme hybrid of Risk and Monopoly where players try to take over eight Manhattan neighborhoods — Upper West Side, Harlem, Park West, The Docks, The Bowery, Midtown, Wall Street and Lower East Side — by controlling them with one of these rackets: Bookmaking, Extortion, Bootlegging, Loan Sharking or Hijacking. Like houses and hotels in Monopoly, each of the racket pieces came at a different price with Bookmaking being the most expensive, Hijacking the least. Building your rackets also cost more in some neighborhoods than others. I played this game before I started kindergarten, but we didn't play much because even adults found it complicated. (Read the rules in detail here.) I just wish I knew if we still had the game somewhere. I do remember we owned the boring, rectangular box edition, not the edition that came in a case shaped like a violin. The first time I remember scenes from The Godfather relate to NBC's 1977 airing of the film, complete with its disclaimers assuring viewers of Italian descent that the Corleones in no way represented all Italian Americans, not that Italians were mentioned by name (something prompted by the protests launched by the Italian-American Civil Rights League, an organization founded and funded by real-life mob boss Joe Colombo Sr.). I’m not certain when I viewed the film uncut for the first time and had aged to the point where I could appreciate it. I know I read Mario Puzo's novel around seventh or eighth grade and realized, as I had when I read Peter Benchley's Jaws in sixth grade, that sometimes the trashiest, most awful novels translate into the best movies. When The Godfather turned 25 in 1997, fortuitous timing placed me in New York for a theater trip at the same time the movie played at a midtown cinema. Hearing the first few notes of that theme — heaven. You could say that The Godfather, which opened to the public 40 years ago today after previous premieres in New York and L.A., has occupied a more constant presence in my life for most of my years than my real godfather. What I find harder to fathom: That Paramount Pictures originally intended this film to be a quickie with a budget of around $2½ million and the studio only hired that 31-year-old director who never had helmed a hit because the suits figured Francis Ford Coppola would be easy to push around. The worst-laid plans of mice and studio executives…



For the 40 years since its release, the imbedding of The Godfather in our culture borders on the astounding. In college, when I foolishly reviewed any damned thing for which I had a free pass, I endured 1989's awful Troop Beverly Hills with Shelley Long (when was the last time you heard a reference to that film?) Edd "Kookie" Byrnes (we're going to put your pop culture knowledge to the test today) played the father of one of Long's young girl scouts, a struggling actor. As Shelley solves all her troop's problems by the end, Edd gets a job of some sort and the big payoff joke turns out to be when he turns around with cotton in his cheeks doing a bad impression of Marlon Brando's Vito Corleone. I even noted in my college paper how timely a joke that was, 17 years after the film's release. Of course, the following year, Brando showed him how you really spoof Vito Corleone when he did it brilliantly himself in Andrew Bergman's terrific comedy The Freshman. Now, those two films and the board game and recent video games hardly represent the only, best or worst influences the 1972 film had on our culture (Actually, The Freshman, might be among the best). I'm saving The Sopranos and Goodfellas for a different section later, but it should be noted that long before Tony started seeing Dr. Melfi (or De Niro sat down with Billy Crystal in Analyze This the same month), Saturday Night Live produced a sketch on Jan. 10, 1976, where John Belushi played Vito Corleone attended group therapy to discuss his feelings about the Tattaglia family. Guest host Elliott Gould assumed the role of the therapist. Hell, variations on "make him an offer he can't refuse" by itself have been heard, said and repeated so often that it's taken a place among all those familiar phrases that you wonder where they originated only to learn that Shakespeare penned them. Offhand though, I can't think of any other film that cuts across generations and classes and races with its impact. Many popular films have come and gone in the four decades since The Godfather premiered, but when you start listing the titles where references to them can be recognized by nearly anyone, even those born well after they came out, maybe Star Wars comes to mind as another film like that (the original trilogy anyway — can anyone quote something from the prequels?) Glancing at the practically meaningless Top 10 grossing films at the domestic box office right now, few injected themselves as deeply into daily lives as The Godfather with the exception of Star Wars and maybe E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, though I don't hear the references to it as I once did. (For the record: 1. Avatar, 2. Titanic, 3. The Dark Knight, 4. The Phantom Menace, 5. Star Wars, 6. Shrek 2, 7. E.T., 8. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (bonus points to anyone who knows which one that is), 9. The Lion King, 10. Toy Story 3.) Can anyone recall anything about the No. 1 grossing film except the colors blue and green? Even today, The Godfather, using mostly 1972 dollars, comes in at No. 279 with its gross of $134,966,411 (wedged between, Lord help the Corleones, Patch Adams and the 2006 Incredible Hulk). Of course, when you adjust ticket prices for inflation, The Godfather would rank No. 23 and its haul would total $617,963,700. As has been the case for a long time, the leader of the adjusted box office remains Gone With the Wind with a take of $1,582,009,400.

I Believe in The Godfather


COURIC: Do you have a favorite scene?
OBAMA: Love — love those movies. I — you know — so many of them. I think my favorite has to be — you know, the opening scene of the first Godfather where, you know, the opening scene of the first Godfather where the caretaker comes in and, you know, Marlon Brando is sitting there and he's saying "you disrespected me. You know and now you want a favor." You know it sets the tone for the whole movie.…I mean there's this combination of old world gentility and you know, ritual with this savagery underneath.

Many movies start impressively. Even more come up with "wow endings" — the kind a drunk Rick Blaine lashes out at Ilsa about in Casablanca. Both Casablanca and The Godfather deliver those sort of conclusions and Casablanca tosses in one of the most memorable closing lines in film history. You could name lots of films that ended with terrific last lines. "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."; "The stuff that dreams are made of."; "Mother of Mercy! Is this the end of Rico?"; "Oh, no! It wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast."; "I'll go home, and I'll think of some way to get him back! After all, tomorrow is another day!"; "All right, Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my close-up."; "Well, nobody’s perfect."; "Shut up and deal."; "I'm not even gonna swat that fly. I hope they are watching. They'll see. They'll see and they'll know and they'll say, 'Why, she wouldn't even harm a fly.’"; "Never you mind, honey, never you mind."; "What do we do now?" What I do is stop because I think you got my point several last lines ago. My destination for this section on The Godfather isn't that the movie contains a brilliant closing bit of dialogue because that happens to be one of the few things it doesn't possess. Then again, it doesn't need one because instead we get the pleasure of viewing one of the best closing images of all time. Back to the above clip, the scene President Obama cited as his favorite. While I consulted some lists to see if I suffered from cinematic amnesia, I couldn't think of a lot of movies that open with great lines. Shockingly, most of these lists I found didn't remember The Godfather but included movies as recent as Black Swan and Million Dollar Baby, where I barely recall details from the films let alone opening lines and others included what really weren't opening lines, the memorable bit coming after some other chatter. (I love Goodfellas to death. I love Goodfellas more than The Godfather, but enry, Tommy and Jimmy say other things in the car before Henry in voice-over speaks those great words, "All my life, I always wanted to be a gangster.") Others cited Annie Hall with Alvy's great joke about the lousy food "and such small portions" but to me, that's opening joke, not a line. Great opening to a film, but not exactly line. (Brief aside, isn't it odd to think that in the early 1970s, while making The Godfather, Diane Keaton started dating Al Pacino, but they broke up eventually and she went from him to Woody Allen?) As always, there's "Rosebud" in Citizen Kane, but don't you think Orson Welles would feel sort of insulted if anyone really stay tuned to his film based on Charles Foster's last word? If you haven't played that YouTube clip above yet or if you have, play it again. You could play it for her — you can play it for me! Pardon me. What? You didn't know Rick Blaine was an inhabiting spirit? Don't worry — he hails from the White Lodge. You back? Good. Four simple words, said in darkness. "I believe in America." What a pithy, magnificent way to begin this small-scale epic and emphasize its overarching themes at the same time, As the image comes in to view and the viewer meets the undertaker Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) and listens to him to tell Don Vito Corleone about the attack on his daughter, we slowly start to see parts of Brando, first his hand. In the DVD commentary track that Francis Ford Coppola recorded, Coppola explains how that beginning came to be. Originally, he'd planned to just dive in to that 25-minute wedding sequence so he could introduce all the characters. (Another aside: Why does it seem that directors who had their breakthroughs in the 1970s do the best commentaries? Coppola, Scorsese, the much-missed Altman. A better question: Why the hell don't Woody or Spielberg do them?) After Coppola had written a few pages of the screenplay, he showed it to a friend. At the 1970 Oscars, Coppola won the adapted screenplay prize for co-writing Patton, which had that very memorable opening in front of that American flag (YouTube only has the audio) so the friend suggested Coppola should come up with an unusual opening along those lines. Coppola thought about it and went back to Puzo's novel, recalling that what struck him about the wedding opening had been the idea of the Sicilian tradition that the don had a duty to grant people's requests on his daughter's wedding day. OF the stories in the book that stood out to him the most was that of Bonasera, the undertaker, so that's how "I believe in America" the words were born. Coppola also tells how, for 1971, the way they pulled off the opening camera move was considered "high-tech." Slow pullbacks as utilized there just weren't done. They had to program a computerized zoom lens for the exact length of time Bonasera's monologue would last in order for the shot to work. Pretty damn amazing. The bigger issue working its way through the scene contrasts the lives two Italian immigrants made for themselves in American, already, in a way, setting up for The Godfather Part II, though that thought hadn't crossed Coppola's mind since throughout the commentary he discusses his constant fear of being fired. The undertaker made an honest living, raised a family and went to the police for justice, as he thought good Americans should do. Instead, he gets slapped in the face when the boys who attacked his daughter, disfiguring her in some way, while found guilty and sentenced to three years receive a suspended sentence and walk out of the courtroom back on the streets. We don't know the story of young Vito Andolini yet — and we won't in this film. However, basically arriving alone, he soon learned to help himself and that's what he did — through illegal enterprises rising to a power base of fear and respect. The American dream worked out very differently for him. His oldest son Santino, or Sonny (James Caan), can't keep a lid on his temper and by all rights should be Vito's successor. The next son, Fredo, sickly as a child, weak and rootless, the family doesn't know where he belongs. (Played by the gone-too-soon John Cazale, an actor who must hold the distinction of only making five feature films and having all five nominated for the Oscar for best picture with three winning. He died of cancer at 42 and was engaged to Meryl Streep at the time.) The youngest son, Michael (Pacino), just returned from fighting in World War II and also got higher education. He's been kept removed from the family business, because his father never wanted this life for him. Things change. Finally, they have baby sister Connie (Talia Shire, Coppola's real-life sister and Jason Schwartzman's real-life mom) whose wedding all the opening ceremony concerns as she weds Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), who Vito warns everyone to keep out of family business. Last but not least, the Corleones embrace Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) as an adopted son, now the family lawyer and consigliere. Michael courts Kay Adams (Keaton), a teacher whom he shocks with tales from his family such as when she asks about one man sitting and talking to himself. That's Luca Brasi, he tells her. Lenny Montana, a professional wrestler, played Brasi and that scene where he rehearses his speech to the don came out of necessity because Montana couldn't get through his scene with the legendary Brando because of his nerves. Coppola quickly added the practice scene to go before the scene between Vito and Luca, something Brando didn't help by taping a card to his forehead that read, "Fuck You." Montana kept trying to get that line out though. "Don Corleone, I am honored and grateful that you have invited me to your daughter…'s wedding…on the day of your daughter's wedding. And I hope their first child be a masculine child. I pledge my ever-ending loyalty." Shew. The story that Michael shares with Kay about Luca and his father and the pop-singing sensation Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) who arrives at the wedding to sing, surprising even Kay, sets her back a bit.
MICHAEL: Well, when Johnny was first starting out, he was signed to a personal services contract with this big-band leader. And as his career got better and better, he wanted to get out of it. But the bandleader wouldn't let him. Now, Johnny is my father's godson. So my father went to see this bandleader and offered him $10,000 to let Johnny go, but the bandleader said no. So the next day, my father went back, only this time with Luca Brasi. Within an hour, he had a signed release for a certified check of $1000.
KAY: How did he do that?
MICHAEL: My father made him an offer he couldn't refuse.
KAY: What was that?
MICHAEL: Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract. That's a true story. That's my family Kay, that's not me.



Kay eventually shows more strength than Karen Hill did in her life with Henry Hill in Goodfellas. Bobby Vinton sent champagne to their table at the Copacabana and impressed her. Of course, the Hills were real. The arc of The Godfather (What — you haven't seen it? Why the hell are you reading this? All these cats have been out of the bag for a long time.) As far as America goes, I've always loved this scene late in the film when Michael suddenly reappears to Kay after hiding in Italy for a few years AND having been back in the U.S. for a year or so. The movie does lack a proper sense of keeping straight how many years have passed. We know it's the 1940s because the war has ended and can narrow it to 1945 when Michael and Kay leave Radio City Music Hall after seeing The Bells of St, Mary's, a second unit shot filmed by George Lucas who worked on the film and owned part of Coppola's nearly bankrupt production company/fledgling dream studio American Zoetrope. As they walk and talk, Michael professes his love and informs her that he's working for his father now, which upsets her. She reminds him that he told her he wasn't part of that world and then Michael tries to make the case.
MICHAEL: My father's no different than any other powerful man. Any other man who is responsible for other people. Like a senator or a president.
KAY: Do you know how naive you sound?
MICHAEL: Why?
KAY: Senators and presidents don't have men killed.
MICHAEL: Oh. Who's being naive, Kay?

I love that. "Who's being naive, Kay?" Then he makes the promise that makes all the wackiness with year counting seem odd: He swears the Corleone family will be completely legitimate in five years. He even adds that his father knows that old ways don't work anymore. Here lies the million-dollar question: Do you think Michael believes that or is he just feeding her a line?

It's Like This, Cat

I have to say about Coppola, assuming he's being forthright in his commentary and that his job hung by a thread during most of the filming of The Godfather, that 31-year-old man held major cajones swinging between his legs. He had made no films of note, as far as Paramount could see (he believes his 1969 feature The Rain People that starred Caan, Shirley Knight and Duvall and featured future Carmela Soprano dad Tom Aldredge got him the job), yet he began the movie with a 25-minute-long wedding sequence — a sequence that didn't get shot until about midway through the production schedule. The studio, production headed then by the infamous Robert Evans, made life even more difficult for the complicated shoot by telling Coppola that the entire wedding had to be done in 2½ days, so the direct felt as if everything was rushed. The problem, you see, The Godfather wasn't your ordinary trashy hit novel. In fact, when Paramount acquired it, the book wasn't even a best seller. Of course, that's because the studio didn't acquire it exactly — they commissioned it. Paramount paid Mario Puzo to write this novel and worked in conjunction with him all the way down the line. That's why they were looking to make a quick, cheap feature to hit theaters just as the novel had been arriving. Unfortunately for Paramount, The Godfather turned out to be its literary equivalent of Springtime for Hitler and the studio suddenly got renamed Bialystock and Bloom. The studio couldn't go the cheap route and had tied this blazing bonanza to someone who they no longer found suitable. Unfortunately for them, all the big-name directors they approached turned them down, because they didn't want to be seen as glorifying the Mafia. The budget jumped, but only slightly. From $2.5 million to around $6.5 million dollars. (Here's a fun statistic: Convert those 1971 dollars to 2011 dollars and The Godfather would have had a budget of $36,101,320.99. Adam Sandler's Jack and Jill had a production budget of $79 million. I tried to see what that equaled in 1971 dollars, but Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator doesn't accept figures greater than $10 million. The total domestic gross, as has been the case with most recent Sandler comedies, came in under the budget at $74,158,157. Who keeps funding these comedies for these insane figures?) Oh, but the casting wars. Writing about the behind-the-scenes turmoil involved with this film almost becomes more interesting than just talking about what's on the screen. That's why this is the first of several posts I'll be parceling out over the next couple of days. They don't need to be read in order, so we won't have to worry about that. Before I wrap this one, which tended to focus on the wedding, I felt I did need to mention that cat. Coppola just found it wandering around the set and threw it into Brando's lap at the last minute on a whim. Of course, Brando loved it and loved playing with it. He hadn't gone way off course to cuckoo town to wear he might have tried to wear it as a hat. Later today (I hope), the fight at the beginning between Coppola and Paramount.

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