MOTW: Five Things You Didn't Know about "The Godfather"

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Francis Ford Coppola's epic masterpiece starring Marlon Brando in his Oscar-winning role as Don Vito Corleone, patriarch of an Italian-American crime family. The classic spans from 1945 through 1955 and also depicts Michael Corleone's (Al Pacino) transformation into a ruthless Mafia boss. Based on Mario Puzo's 1969 novel of the same name.
Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures
April 2nd, 2013

MOTW: Five Things You Didn't Know about "The Godfather"

 

A great film is not so different from a great meal-many meals are good, but it's only those that are seasoned just right, cooked to perfection, and served by an impeccable host on the finest china that truly stand out in our memories, even years later, as great. Most movies are like backyard barbecues, enjoyable enough but not especially noteworthy. Occasionally, you'll catch a flick that's reminiscent of that time your mom served you a plate piled high with canned salmon, Miracle Whip, and peas that had been boiled to an inch of their lives, and when you tried to discreetly feed the dog under the table, even he turned his nose up at the stuff. But every once in a great while, a movie is a masterpiece, like coq au vin prepared by Julia Child herself, served with braised asparagus and a crisp, fruity salad and finished off with a decadent crème brûlée. "The Godfather"-along with its even more iconic sequel, "The Godfather: Part II"-is one of those films, the type you remember even decades after your first viewing as one of the all-time greats.

 

Imagine the number of things that have to go right to create that type of cinematic experience. The right director, the right actors, the right story, the right script, the right audience-every part needs to be note perfect; any part that's out of place will keep the film firmly in the realm of good, but not great-like takeout pizza, Kraft mac and cheese, or a really tasty turkey sandwich, something you enjoy while you have it and immediately forget when it's done. When you take a good look at all the missteps "The Godfather" could have made that would have resulted in a turn for the mediocre, you appreciate all over again just how rare a truly great film is.

 

The Don

 

When Francis Ford Coppola was tossing around ideas for actors to play Don Vito Corleone, he initially said that he wanted Sir Laurence Olivier or Marlon Brando-Olivier because he was brilliant and looked the part, and Brando because he was a younger actor at the top of his game and Coppola wanted to meet him. Olivier was ill and had already stopped working, and Brando was written off as being too young for the role. Everyone from Frank Sinatra to Burt Lancaster volunteered for the part, and Paramount considered Ernest Borgnine, Orson Welles, and Edward G. Robinson, among others. Ultimately, Brando's performance in a bomb of a film called "Burn!" nearly ended his career, and critics began to murmur that he was all washed up. Paramount took advantage of Brando's decreased star power to sign him for a song.

 

Just try to imagine Ol' Blue Eyes-or Ernest Borgnine, for that matter-as Don Corleone.

 

Michael Corleone

 

As a movie studio motivated by the prospect of making money, Paramount saw an opportunity in the role of Michael Corleone to cast a handsome young man who'd appeal to the demographic that makes its movie-viewing choices based on the cast's attractiveness as much as the film's appeal. They said they wanted a Robert Redford or a Ryan O'Neal. Meanwhile, Coppola envisioned no face but that of Al Pacino each time he wrote a scene. Pacino's career had barely made a blip on the Hollywood radar, and the execs were dead against this casting. Coppola wore them down in the end, racking up another casting victory.

 

The Director

 

Speaking of Coppola, the man behind the scenes-and much of the screenplay-was very nearly fired not long into filming. Coppola, with his crazy ideas about getting the casting right and rewriting the script and generally attempting to make a movie that would make money and also be great, had drawn a target on his back early in the process, and when execs didn't like a few initial scenes, word started to travel that he was about to be replaced by Elia Kazan. Brando's reputation for being difficult to work with played a part here; Paramount hoped Kazan would be better able to manage the temperamental actor than the relatively inexperienced Coppola.

 

When Coppola heard this news, he took the opportunity to fire an assistant director and everyone else he felt might betray him. He also went ahead and won an Oscar for "Patton." But when Brando himself threatened to walk off the movie if Coppola were fired, Paramount finally backed down.

 

Dark Cinematography

 

"The Godfather" features a unique lighting style; darkness often obscures characters' facial expressions, which adds a sinister aura to every conversation. It's nuances like this that makes this such a memorable film; mobsters talking loudly in a well-lit diner would not be nearly as powerfully scary, after all. The cinematographer on the film, Gordon Willis, had only one major credit to his name: 1971's "Klute." Still, his style became one of the more cinematically memorable parts of the series, and Willis himself drew the nickname "The Prince of Darkness" from his crew because of his penchant for using lighting contrast to emphasize atmospheres of good and evil.

 

Here's the rub: according to Willis, those dimly lit shots came about because of Brando's excessively heavy makeup. Obscuring his eyes was the only way to avoid drawing attention to the amount of makeup the actor was wearing.

 

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry

 

"The Godfather" features a whopping sixty-one scenes in which characters are drinking, dining, or otherwise surrounded by food. This is not, in itself, one of the many things which makes the movie great-but isn't it funny how forty years later, a movie about bad people enjoying good food can itself be compared to a great meal?