Review by: Larry Thomas
Hollywood has always been fond of making films about families. There was the long running series centered on Judge Hardy and his family, particularly his rambunctious son Andy. There were single films like Meet Me in St. Louis, Life with Father, and Cheaper by the Dozen, all extolling the virtues of American family life. But never before in movie history was there a famiglia like the Corleones.
On this date in 1972, The Godfather premiered, and not only did it make stars, resurrect a career, and become a world-wide sensation, it also became engrained in the filmmaking lexicon and contributed oft-used quotes to our American vernacular.
In Cincinnati, if you wanted to see The Godfather, it required a trip downtown to the International 70 Theatre near the corner of 6th and Vine. It was a grand old movie palace, seating some 1200 moviegoers, which was eventually destroyed to put up another generic office building.
To get to that opening day, though, a lot of odds were defied. No studio wanted to touch the project. It was a three-hour epic chronicling a decade in the life of an Italian-American crime family. The director, Francis Ford Coppola, had only made a few indie flicks, and the musical Finian's Rainbow, a box office disaster, although he had won an Oscar for co-writing Patton. The star was to be Marlon Brando, who was considered poison at the ticket wickets. And other important roles were to be filled by a bunch of young performers who had never been in a big film before: Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Diane Keaton.
Finally, cash-strapped Paramount Pictures, desperate for a big hit decided to roll the dice, with a moderate budget of six million dollars. These days, that amount wouldn’t cover the catering bill for a mega-hit movie.
Naturally, the studio had its own ideas about how the film was to be made. Paramount wanted Laurence Olivier or Danny Thomas as Don Corleone, and Ryan O’Neal or Robert Redford to play the youngest son Michael. And they weren’t thrilled about Coppola either, preferring Italian director Sergio Leone, who turned down the project, but went on to later make his own gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America. But Coppola’s vision prevailed and the film was made his way, although the nervous studio kept a “standby director” on the payroll just in case Coppola had to be fired. The young director, determined to have a hit, was on his best behavior and brought the film in under schedule and on budget.
The Godfather was an enormous hit both critically and commercially, garnering glowing reviews and grossing eighty-one-and-a-half million dollars in its initial run. In the days before home video and digital downloads, it ran for months in the best theatres.
Paramount made buckets of money. Coppola and his cast saw their careers take off like gangbusters. Even veteran character actors like Sterling Hayden, Richard Conte and John Marley parlayed their meaty roles into more steady work. But not everything has a happy ending. Al Lettieri, who played Virgil Solozzo, died three years after the film’s release from a heart attack at age 47. John Cazale, an up-and-coming performer was the third Corleone brother, Fredo. He died at age 43, five years after The Godfather, from bone cancer. Cazale only made six films in his short career, but five of them were The Godfather, The Godfather Part 2, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter, an impressive resume under any circumstances. But just imagine what the future could have held for that career had he lived.
The Godfather was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including three of the five slots in the Best Supporting Actor category. It won three: Adapted Screenplay by Coppola and Mario Puzo, author of the novel; Best Actor Marlon Brando…which he refused to accept, causing a further stir when he memorably sent supposed Indian princess Sasheen Littlefeather, to make a speech on behalf of the plight of Native Americans; and Best Picture. It fueled production on two sequels. The Godfather Part II also won a Best Picture Oscar, becoming the first, and so far only, sequel to do so. The Godfather Part III was not well received by the critics or the public, but is certainly not as bad as its perceived.
Anytime you hear someone say, “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” thank The Godfather. Anytime you hear someone say, “he sleeps with the fishes,” thank The Godfather. Anytime you enjoy watching an episode of The Sopranos, thank The Godfather.