Earning nine Academy Awards between them, The Godfather & The Godfather Part II screen back-to-back as Tribeca Film Festival’s Closing Night Gala at Radio City Music Hall, with Oscar-winning director Francis Ford Coppola and his legendary cast, including: Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, and TFF’s own godfather, Robert De Niro, in a once-in-a-lifetime conversation to celebrate one of the most influential film sagas of all time, for its 45th Anniversary reunion event.
The iconic film series that brilliantly unfolds around a charismatic patriarch, Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) — who heads an organized crime dynasty, and transfers control of his underground empire to his ambivalent son — is arguably one of the world’s greatest cinematic masterpieces. It started a franchise that Francis Ford Coppola, himself, was doubtful could make its way to the finish line — at least with him still onboard — given every obstacle that stood in his way of realizing a vision he was ready to fight for, while being constantly put in his place. From being told a big “NO” that he couldn’t cast the “risky” Marlon Brando, and another for porosing to shoot on the actual streets of New York City instead of on a studio lot, to even getting pushback, particularly from his own community, for arguably romanticizing the Mafia and all its violence and stereotypes. Something Coppola also readily admits, but attributes to the great, compassionate performances of his fine cast who brought their gangster characters to life with empathy, in 3D. No great win is easily earned.
A recent New York Times article on the “The Godfather Notebook,” a gorgeous, ‘newly published’ coffee table book — which shows in detail, through sketches and notes, how Coppola brought Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel to life — describes the film as “a narrative of capitalism in America, as seen through the spilled blood and guts of one family.” Coppola’s challenging experience of making the first film — that brought the world to its feet — still brings up conflicted memories for the seasoned filmmaking master, who was then a 29-year-old with an unapologetically strong vision, a growing family he had to feed, and a mandate to please the powerful studio heads that brought him on to the controversial project. In looking back, the refreshingly candid Coppola shares, “That movie took 60 days, and it was miserable, not to mention the months after of jockeying over the cut. So my reaction is usually of panic and nausea, but that has nothing to do with how it is for the audience”.
Described by the Tribeca Film Festival as a “chilling portrait of the Corleone crime family’s rise and near fall from power in America,” it’s ironic to hear how little power the fastidious beleaguered young director had before the franchises took off! Besides having to listen to the studio buzz around him that he would inevitably be replaced — i.e., fired — Coppola further expands on why shooting was such a kill-joy back then: “It was insecurity. I was so young. I was hired because I was young. A lot of important directors turned it down. Elia Kazan turned it down. Costa-Gavras turned it down, a whole bunch of important directors. So the philosophy was, let’s get someone young, who could presumably be pushed around. Also, I was Italian-American, and that was good, because it meant if the studio got flak they could simply say, ‘But it was an Italian-American director’. And I was someone they could get for a good cheap price.”
However, with the phenomenal success, critical acclaim, and audience embrace of Godfather I, by the time he embarked upon shooting the sequel, he was in a very different space and place and recalls, “Part II was a joy. I had total control.”
A total believer in collaboration, who’s stated in several interviews that he’s been ‘blessed’ to work with so many geniuses behind-the-scenes in his crew, Coppola was fortunate enough to bring on enthusiastic, top-notch, visionaries to his production, to make their impression on his celluloid baby. Godfather I & II boast a V.I.P. roster of visualists that includes a list of award-winning legends, in their own right: from cinematographer Gordon Willis, capturing the moody darks and lights; to production designer Dean Tavoularis replicating 1930s, ‘40s, and 50s New York City immigrant hub, both outdoors and indoors; to costume designer Anna Hill Johnstone’s (Part I) and Theadora van Runkle’s (Part II) inspired choices and attention to detail; to make-up artist Dick Smith, who gave Brando his infamous jowls; to special effects expert A.D. Flowers, seamlessly rendering fiction into reality. And of course, the list goes on and on, as it takes more than a village of talent ‘backstage’ to make a masterpiece.
Visionaire has put together a flashback sneak peek to toast the gorgeous Godfather film series’ anniversary, its unforgettable visuals, and its legacy’s impact in cinematic history, which continues powerfully into today.
by LISA COLLINS
Excerpts from The Godfather & The Godfather Part II © 1972, 1974 Paramount Pictures