Once Upon a Time there was… Francis Ford Coppola

The Godfather





Once upon a time, there was Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather.

When audiences discover The Godfather, the year is 1972.

Adapted from the bestseller by Mario Puzo, The Godfather is the story of an Italian-American family, the Corleones, from 1945 to 1955 in New York. The patriarch, Don Vito Corleone, reigns over an underground empire, composed of large-scale mafia trafficking. In the recesses of his estate, in the dimly-lit office where one speaks in hushed tones, the godfather decides, then delegates, his violent intentions. When the question of his succession suddenly arises, Michael, the wisest son, until that moment utterly against his father’s activities, steps up and advances.



The Godfather is one of the best-known films in the world. Yet initially, its screenplay was refused everywhere. Filmmakers like the monumental Sergio Leone, the solid Richard Brooks or the political Costa Gavras all turn it down, because The Godfather is, first and foremost, a producer’s project; the project of legendary Robert Evans, with the young fit physique and invariably handsome face. A true Californian of the 1960s.

When Coppola is offered the script, he accepts.

The Godfather, at the beginning, it is thus a commissioned film. Coppola would have to fight constantly to be able to execute his great artistic vision in the face of countless obstacles.

On the casting side, there’s talk of Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Sylvester Stallone, Peter Falk, or Mia Farrow and even Frank Sinatra, who volunteers to be in the film.

But the essential role to cast is the character of Michael. Evans brings up the theoretically un-Italian-looking Robert Redford or Ryan O'Neal. The names Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Martin Sheen or James Caan circulate. Coppola wants an unknown. In Hollywood, the physical aspects of young leading men are undergoing changes and opening up to alternate standards of beauty that speak to their power, intensity of or individual style of acting. Actors from the East Coast like Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino strongly stand out. Coppola chooses Pacino, who is considered too short at 1m65cm (5’4”). Pacino is a true-blue New Yorker. Barely known, he was noticed in The Panic in Needle Park, a beautiful independent film by Jerry Schatzberg, in which Pacino plays a young, unkempt, scraggly-haired addict, deeply in love. The always well-coiffed Michael will be played by him! The accompanying cast members: James Caan, Talia Shire, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and John Cazale.

On the set, the atmosphere is heavy because Coppola is permanently under surveillance by Paramount Studios, who threaten to fire him at every turn. Fortunately, the filmmaker is surrounded by a team of geniuses, including artistic director Dean Tavoularis, chief operator Gordon Willis, Federico Fellini’s official composer, Nino Rota, and a detail we cannot forget, Marlon Brando.

Brando at the time is seen as more of a legend than an actor for the public. For the producers, it means huge potential hassles. Brando has the reputation of being unmanageable and above all, is too expensive. But Coppola is sure it has to be him. The clip below explains how Coppola negotiated Brando for the role.



Coppola remembers his dealings with Paramount and their 3 conditions: 1, Brando must make the film for free, 2, Brando must do screen tests, and 3, he must make a security deposit of 1 million dollars in the bank in case something goes wrong on the set. Coppola’s answer? “I accept!”

And he does well to accept, because The Godfather becomes the highest grossing movie of 1972. The plantary sensation would then be followed by a remarkable, powerful sequel in 1974: The Godfather: Part II, and 16 years later in 1990, The Godfather: Part III. 

The Godfather would also pick up three Oscars: Best Film, Best Actor for Brando and Best Adapted Screenplay. A very interesting turn of events, when we think that for Coppola, The Godfather and all its shady operations was a metaphor for American capitalism.

The movie is also a triumph for New Hollywood, an artistic movement led by a group of young directors who would establish a totally emancipated way of making movies: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Brian de Palma. With them, Francis Ford Coppola creates a new family. The keyword of the Coppola galaxy is Family. 



In the interview above, Coppola says, "I always thought that those get-togethers with my uncles and my cousins always were high points to me and I learned to turn to them when I was in trouble, and I reached out wherever I could for those things that I knew were definite because I had lived that way and as the movies were made, one after another, more and more, The Godfather became just kind of the biggest home movie in history!”

So is The Godfather a banal, amateur family movie? Yes. But that’s not all.

It is also a film where there is unexpected beauty and magic. Certain moments are the most impactful when they are short, like the scene shot in Sicily, where Michael Corleone is hiding for the necessary time for people to forget that he committed assassinations in America. This Sicilian sequence is magnificent because it is utopian. It makes us believe, for a moment, that one can erase the American criminal reality and find paradise in Italy, the country of origin. Michael Corleone indeed forgets everything and suddenly falls in love with a very young woman that he will simply court, then marry. Below you can hear the music and atmospheric sound of the ephemeral and carefree happiness that provides a momentary escape from the general psychopathy that runs throughout The Godfather.




Seeing it for the first time, or seeing it again today, The Godfather is perennially a masterpiece. Coppola films the apparent banality of family life, which deals with crimes as one would negotiate merchandise for supermarkets. This discrepancy, the calm manner in which the characters treat their horrific affairs, is astounding. There are few scenes of violence, but when they occur, they are atrocious, definitive and therefore chilling. Compared to them, most of the time, The Godfather is a muffled movie. If we look at it closely, it is a film as sad as the business being unfolded, because it is a film of conciliabules, boards of administration, shady bankers, in brown and black. It is a film of the seated character with his back stiffly upright in an armchair to show he fears nothing, that he is all-powerful and thus master of himself and others. It is a slow-moving film with a flexible rhythm. A paradox for the movie’s focus that nevertheless remains violence, American violence, violence one can typically find in oneself. It is also a film of windows, with the blinds perpetually lowered in The Godfather, or the tiles patterned like spider webs in The Godfather: Part II, illustrating to what degree this family is a prisoner of its actions. From this perspective, Coppola offers The Godfather a metaphysical scope that makes it unforgettable, in addition to being aesthetically an outstanding film.


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