By the time it finished its run, "The Godfather" had
the biggest box office gross of all time. It would remain
the highest-grossing film until "Jaws" three years later.
Of all the films that have held that title, "The Godfather"
may be the best. Unlike later title-holders like "Star Wars",
"E.T." or "Titanic" that relied at least partly upon
special effects, the success of "The Godfather" came
from its script, story, and characters. Perhaps better than
any other film, "The Godfather" combines outstanding production,
conventional storytelling, and commercial success.
The film was based on the best-selling novel by Mario Puzo,
who also co-wrote the screenplay with the director,
Francis Ford Coppola. Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is
The Godfather, the Don (head) of a successful, tightly-knit
family whose business is organized crime. Heir apparent
is impulsive, hot-tempered Sonny (James Caan), whose brothers
are brooding Michael (Al Pacino), who tries to seperate himself
from his criminal family, and Fredo (John Cazale), who can't
seem to do anything right. Vito has also adopted level-headed
Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall), now the family lawyer. Michael's
second wife is Kay (Diane Keaton).
The film is set in the 1950s. Vito's refusal to enter the
lucrative drug rackets puts him at odds with other Mafia families.
A war between the families follows. Events place Michael
as the Don, who plots vengeance against those who opposed or
betrayed the Corleone family. Along the way, Michael changes
from an idealistic and independent young man to a calculating,
ruthless Mafia Don.
"The Godfather" has little comic relief, but the film is rich
with ironies. 'Family' is considered to be very important by
the Mafia leaders, and yet their very actions lead to the
destruction of their own family. 'Loyalty' to the family is
also vital, enforced by 'hits' that punish betrayal, and yet
family members regularly betray one another. While Vito's word
is his bond, the same doesn't apply to his son Michael, a
smooth operator for whom words are merely another tool for
information or influence. Non-Sicilians are outsiders, kept
from knowledge of the 'family business', and even adopted son
Hagan is sometimes excluded. Women are relegated to being
household servants and child raisers, although this role gives
them a longer lifespan than their vendetta-targeted husbands.
"The Godfather" won only three Academy Awards. But they were
important ones: Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando) and Best
Screenplay. There were also nominations for Best Director
(Coppola), Best Supporting Actor (Pacino, Caan, Duvall),
Best Editing and Best Sound. Oddly, Nino Rota wasn't nominated
for the compelling, mournful score, although he did win the
British Academy Award for Original Film Music.
Pacino must have been surprised to have been nominated as a
supporting actor, since he saw more screen time than Brando.
But the Academy probably did not want to split the votes between
Brando and Pacino. "The Godfather" recovered the languishing
career of Brando, who did not attend the Academy Awards ceremony.
He instead sent a minor actress who posed as an Indian named
Sacheen Littlefeather, who refused the Oscar on the grounds that
Hollywood discriminated against Indians. Brando was nominated
for Best Actor the next year for "Last Tango in Paris",
demonstrating that the Academy didn't hold a grudge.
Copyright © 1997 Brian Koller