The Oscar Project has reached the exact halfway point. There were 44 best picture winners before The Godfather and there have been 44 best picture winners since The Godfather. I couldn’t be more pleased that this film currently sits at the center of Oscar history.
There have been countless books and articles written, and documentaries made about The Godfather. I have no illusions that I am going to write something earth shaking or ground breaking about this film. My intent is simply to share some thoughts on the best picture that I’ve seen more times than any other.
This isn’t by any means the full scope of my thoughts on The Godfather. If you want to hear me drone on and on for literally hours let’s grab some stogies and a bottle of Casamigos and I’ll be happy to oblige.
In the meantime, here is The Oscar Project’s take on the 45th Academy Award winner for best picture of the year.
In case for some reason you don’t know about this film (I can’t even imagine) it is based on Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel The Godfather and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The story centers on the Corleone crime family and Vito, its aging patriarch who transfers control to his reluctant son.
The film was the top grossing film of 1972 and was for awhile the highest-grossing film ever made. It was the first R-rated film to make more than $100 million and was #1 at the box office for 12 consecutive weeks. By comparison in 1982 E.T. was #1 for 16 weeks. In 1997 Titanic was #1 for 15. That’s the level of blockbuster The Godfather was in 1972.
It introduced the world to the fresh, young face of Al Pacino and turned nobody bit-part actors James Caan and Robert Duvall into bona fide stars.
It’s shockingly intense, unashamedly bloody and positively riveting. The Godfather is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made and if you haven’t seen it you should.
What first struck me upon this viewing was what a monumental leap this film took compared to any previous best picture winner. It was actually a bit shocking. I won’t belabor the point that I’ve seen this film countless times, both on the big screen and on television, but I didn’t know until this day how remarkably special it really was.
From Marlon Brando’s best actor win to the trio of supporting actor nominees of Pacino, Caan and Duvall, the film is an acting clinic.
It also boasts an incredible Oscar-winning script based on Mario Puzo’s novel. There’s a reason this is one of the most exceptionally quotable movies in history.
“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” – Don Corleone
“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” – Peter Clemenza
“They shot Sonny on the causeway.” – Tom Hagen
“Tattaglia is a pimp. He never could have outfought Santino. But I didn’t know until this day that it was Barzini all along.” – Don Corleone
“It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” – Michael Corleone
It goes on and on and on. I haven’t even scratched the surface.
Coppola’s direction is some of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s a shame he didn’t win the Oscar for this film. More on that later.
Those things are all great. But what really stands out to me are the subtleties. It’s the small things.
It’s the attention to detail as automobiles, hairstyles and fashions evolve through the years. Only once is the year mentioned, near the very beginning, but as the story progresses over the next decade Coppola trusts the audience will figure out what’s going on and when.
Oh, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis are playing Vegas. This must be the 50s now.
Oh, Michael and Kay have a second child now. A few years have passed.
It’s the skipping record player in the hospital when Michael goes to visit his father.
It’s Michael’s physical transformation throughout the film.
It’s the glass etching of the goldfish on the window of the restaurant where Luca Brasi meets Sollozzo and Philip Tattaglia. (This one blew my mind!)
It’s the fact that Michael has perpetual five o’clock shadow because he can’t shave after Capt. McCluskey breaks his jaw.
There’s no dialogue given to these moments. There are no lingering camera shots or artificial scenes making sure the audience “gets it.” They’re just there.
They’re a few of the many unspoken elements that add layer after layer of nuance that most people never notice. I hadn’t before now.
In fact I was a little surprised there was anything I hadn’t noticed before.
What probably struck me the most was how the title of the film doesn’t refer to Vito (Brando) but rather Michael (Pacino). I have thought for a while that this film (and its sequel) is about Michael but I had never connected so clearly that connotation with the title.
But I’ll be perfectly honest with you. This film isn’t without its seams. By that I mean there are a few moments that fall a little short.
There are some subpar performances. Gianni Russo as Carlo, Talia Shire as Connie and even Diane Keaton as Kay just don’t cut the proverbial mustard*. And I don’t think it’s a matter of them standing out against the other impeccable performances. I really think there are moments they pretty much stink.
There was also one scene early on when Tom goes to Hollywood to persuade Woltz to give Johnny the part in that new war film he’s starting next week. The establishing shots and the music felt a little cheesy.
That being said, those minor (so incredibly minor) issues are feathers on the scale weighed against the 10 ton boulder of everything this film does perfectly. It really, really is one of the best. In fact, at the time when this film was released I would say it was probably the greatest movie ever made. As of 1972 it was either The Godfather or Citizen Kane.
But unlike Citizen Kane, when Oscar night rolled around The Godfather was not left out in the cold. But boy was it a close call!
You see, even though The Godfather had the most nominations (10) it was tied with another best picture nominee that year, the musical Cabaret.
Cabaret would go on to win 8 Oscars. The Godfather won only three. Picture, actor and screenplay.
Cabaret still holds the record for most Oscar wins without winning best picture. Its 8 awards included director (Bob Fosse), actress (Liza Minelli), cinematography, score and production design. It reminds me of another musical best picture nominee: La La Land.
Like Cabaret, La La Land had the most nominations that year. Like Cabaret, La La Land won the most Oscars of the night (6). Like Cabaret, La La Land won for director (Damien Chazelle), actress (Emma Stone), cinematography, score and production design. Like Cabaret, La La Land lost to a best picture winner (Moonlight) that only won three Oscars. Picture, supporting actor and screenplay.
I’m not trying to put Moonlight on the same level as The Godfather but sometimes I just marvel at how Oscar history repeats itself.
So how will the second half of The Oscar Project compare to the first? Certainly fairy well. But in the middle of it all is a film that stands as not only the granddaddy of all mafia movies but the gold standard for all films of all kinds.
*I don’t actually think there’s a proverb about mustard. But if there was that’d be cool.