As I hadn’t read the bestselling book—just heard about it—when I went to see THE GODFATHER in March 1972 I knew very little about the story. Thus, I came to it fresh. Since the film had opened nation-wide ten days after it premiered I went with my first wife the weekend after it opened. The movie theater had a massive screen—perhaps the biggest screen I had ever seen. And, as I like to sit in the front row center, the only thing in my line of vision was that screen. The theater, which had a seating capacity of 1500 was packed. There wasn’t an empty seat. Rarely have I gone to a movie in such a large theater when it was SRO. I count them on one hand.
From the moment the film came on that screen until it ended, I was taken up in an incredibly powerful form of narrative movie making. Each scene, in itself, as it pushed the narrative along was compelling and rich with detail and nuance. Frankly, I couldn’t and didn’t take my eyes off that screen during the film’s nearly three hours. The music, the acting, the story; all the elements that make a movie came together flawlessly were there. It was everything I hope a movie would be when I bought a movie ticket but very few rarely are.
Since I had just seen THE TEN COMMANDMENTS the week before in its last re-release before being sold to ABC (and becoming a TV perennial) I had an interesting perspective how really innovative THE GODFATHER was. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is a classic Hollywood Studio movie; a fantasy experience detached from anything approaching reality. THE GODFATHER—with its dark golden look—was anything but that. The film achieved a stylized realism with that look, establishing an overall tone that enhanced the experience of the film.
A few years earlier Elia Kazan (who directed Brando in Streetcar, Zapata and Waterfront) was asked by Dick Cavett about Brando’s decline as an actor. Brando’s 60s film work with very few exceptions had greatly diminished his reputation and many thought Brando as a great actor was a thing of the past. Kazan was not of that school and, so, answered that there was always something unique in a Brando performance no matter the quality of the film, that was special and he predicted that Brando would eventually once again give a great performance. In time Brando would give two; The Godfather and Last Tango a year after that.
In THE GODFATHER Brando does things that still, after watching the film countless times, amazes me. Some of these touches have become legend. The use of the cat in the opening scene is one. Jimmy Caan has said watching Brando’s work on that scene he learned more about acting than from all the acting classes he had ever taken.
At the meeting of all the Dons when Brando rises—still recovering from his gunshot wounds—and indicates with a hand movement for Duval to help him. It not only adds immensely to the character but allows us to understand that, despite the iron will of the man, how fragile he is right then. Brando’s performance is filled with touches like this; touches that have made Brando’s acting legend.
Another example is in the in his last scene plays with Pacino. Brando gets up and sitting beside his son on the sun chair he talks about what he had wanted for Michael and his disappointment at how it all turned out. The way he speaks, the pauses, the thoughtful expressions; Brando uses them all to make it obvious to us how diminished the Don is and the fact that at this time in his life he has been pondering the purpose and meaning of his life. It’s never said or written. It’s entirely in Brando’s performance. Then of course the death scene. The orange peel turned into monster teeth was all Bando; something he did with his own children. With this one touch he makes this one of the most memberable death scenes ever filmed. Trained by and, always remaining a Stella Adler actor, Brando brought a larger than life aspect to his performances. With moments of extreme brilliance these bits of business always add to his characterizations. As there is so much more he did in the film, I wish I had the time and space to write about it.
When I purchased the wonderful Blu-Ray restoration Coppola’s commentary was a revelation as I finally learned how the film was made and how much was happenchance and Coppola’s being on the spot creative making things work. I suggest if you want to learn more about The Godfather you purchase the Blu-Ray. After listening to it I realized how much the film benefited from both luck and when everything went wrong everything went right and it was almost as if was destiny made this a great film.
The following year Brando appeared in LAST TANGO IN PARIS. He is simply incredible in that movie. It opened a year after the Godfather. It was such a great performance that after he declined the Oscar for THE GODFATHER he was still nominated for LAST TANGO. In fact he put so much of himself into that performance that Brando never did that again and after that with few exceptions mailed in his performances refusing to work more than two weeks on any individual film. A great loss to all of us but we still have THE GODFATHER and LAST TANGO.
When THE GODFATHER was sold to TV NBC paid $10,000,000 for a single showing. It broke the record GONE WITH THE WIND had set a few years earlier. Other than shortening a bit of the violence—which at the time was considered quite extensive—and dubbing a few words (Prick became stick and son-of-a-bitch became son-of-a buck.) it was pretty much the same film. But, having seen it on that big screen it seemed incredibly diminished. Thank God I never have to see TV edits of films again due to home video, cable and streaming. Looking back it seems to me the dark ages.
Two years and a half years later came THE GODFATHERII. At first I didn’t like the sequel but over time have come to appreciate the tragic Shakespearean elements that Coppola brought to the film as well as to GODFATHER III, a shamefully underappreciated film.
Then of course there is the GODFATHER SAGA. First appearing on NBC two years after the release of Godfather II its rethink of the two films is fascinating. It was of course extremely interesting to see the parts of the film trimmed and even cut. There were so many of these touches which gave even more depth to the film. (There was other material which understandably were cut for good reason.) Although only released in VHS in a slightly different edit, it’s never been on DVD or BLU-Ray but it is available on HBO in a beautifully restored version.
Normally, back in 1972, with at a running time of nearly three hours, THE GODFATHER would have been released as a Roadshow with reserved seats in one theater a city and, following the Roadshow, a general release eventually branching out to theaters all over the country. Instead, THE GODFATHER opened a wide general release—a few hundred theaters as opposed to the four thousand theater releases today—and so it racked up money incredibly fast. In a short time it became the highest grossing film in history knocking both GONE WITH THE WIND and THE SOUND OF MUSIC—which had been battling for the title since 1965—out of that race. And because of the wide release of this film, the wide release of JAWS three years later and STAR WARS five years later (both becoming respectively the highest grossing films of all time) this completely changed the decades old release patterns of first run films transforming it into what we have today.
Finally, when the studio went back to do the restoration they discovered that Gordon Willis–known as “the Prince of Darkness—did shoot the film dark. But that golden look that everyone remembers when they think about the film wasn’t in the camera negative. It was achieved when Willis did the color timing in post production before the prints were prepared. So, in the restoration after having worked off the negative they also needed to restore Willis’ timing. So on a big screen TV you can now see THE GODFATHER today just as I saw it in March 1972. And, I would also like to say, that the film hasn’t aged a day. It is as good now—perhaps even better—as it was then.