by Brian Viner: Film-lovers have a treat in store in 2022. The greatest movie ever made is getting a 50th anniversary re-release, and if you’ve never seen The Godfather on the big screen, then make a note of Friday, February 25. It’s a cinematic offer you can’t refuse…
Of course, there are plenty of other contenders for the title of greatest movie ever made. My friend Avril thinks it’s Mamma Mia!. More discerning judges, dare I say, choose the Orson Welles classic Citizen Kane, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, or David Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia.
But those of us who think it’s The Godfather, know it’s The Godfather. And one of the most remarkable things about Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece about a Mob family in 1940s New York, and their battle for supremacy with the Mob’s other leading families, is that it was every bit as eventful off screen as on.
Indeed, it ignited a war between two of the most powerful forces in 1970s America: the titans of Hollywood and the Italian-American overlords of organised crime. It also rescued Paramount Pictures from ruin, and changed film-making for ever.
But before it was a film, it was a book. Mario Puzo was a writer up to his neck in debt, with five children and a destructive gambling habit when, in March 1968, he managed to get an audience with Robert Evans, the head of production at Paramount, a film studio also on its uppers.
Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone and Al Martino as Johnny Fontane in The Godfather
Evans badly needed a hit — not that he thought there was even a sniff of one in the 60 pages of an unfinished novel Puzo brought with him, which he titled Mafia.
Paramount had just made a picture about organised crime, The Brotherhood, which had been a flop even with Kirk Douglas as the lead. Evans wasn’t interested in making another. But feeling sorry for a guy clearly down on his luck, he offered Puzo $12,500 for the movie rights, assuming he’d never see him again.
That there are conflicting versions of that tale indicates the magnitude of what happened next. Puzo finished writing his book, changed the title to The Godfather, and it became a publishing sensation, shooting to the top of bestseller lists all over the world.
There had been a multitude of books and films about the Mob, but never one that delved into their personal lives like The Godfather did, first in Puzo’s novel and subsequently in Coppola’s screen trilogy.
When television much later got in on the same compelling act, with the unsurpassable HBO drama The Sopranos, the debt was made crystal clear, with characters referring simply to ‘One’ (meaning Coppola’s 1972 film), and ‘Two’ (meaning his equally brilliant 1974 sequel, The Godfather Part II).
Despite the book’s gigantic success, Paramount still didn’t want to make the movie. ‘Sicilian mobster films don’t play,’ Evans reiterated. However, he was stirred into action when Burt Lancaster’s production company offered to pay $1 million to buy out the $12,500 deal with Puzo, which would secure Lancaster the title role of Don Vito Corleone.
Evans immediately decreed nobody would make the movie but Paramount. Frank Sinatra, however, didn’t want anyone to make it at all. Enraged by the character of over-the-hill crooner Johnny Fontane, which everyone knew was based on him, Sinatra was reportedly considering legal action to stop production of the film.
There was an unseemly altercation at an LA restaurant one night, when Ol’ Blue Eyes saw red. Encountering Puzo, who by then had been engaged to write the script, Sinatra screamed that he was nothing but a ‘pimp’.
There had been a multitude of books and films about the Mob, but never one that delved into their personal lives like The Godfather did. Pictured: James Caan’s Sonny Corleone gets gunned down in The Godfather
Sinatra wasn’t the only Italian-American concerned about the making of The Godfather. The heavyweights of the Mob were edgy, too. They felt the film would reflect badly on Italian-Americans in general, perpetuating the idea that they were all crooked.
Without recognising any irony, they sent their enforcers to deal with the situation. One, foreshadowing perhaps the most famous scene in the film, arrived in Hollywood offering Paramount $1 million to drop the picture.
In the film, Don Corleone’s consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) is sent out west to persuade producer Jack Woltz to give Johnny Fontane a part in his new movie. When Woltz refuses, he wakes up one night to find the severed head of his beloved thoroughbred racehorse in his bed. In life as in art, the tactics got heavier as soon as the bribe was rejected.
Following several death threats, the film’s producer, Al Ruddy, even took to wearing a Groucho Marx disguise. And just after Evans’s wife, the actress Ali MacGraw, had given birth to their son, he received a call in his New York hotel suite threatening the baby’s life. ‘Don’t shoot no movie about the family here,’ said the anonymous caller.
In the film, Hagen tells Woltz that if he hires Johnny, his union problems will ‘go away’. In real life, The Godfather’s New York shoot was bedevilled by issues with the Teamsters union.
They were engineered by the forbidding Joe Colombo, who saw no conflict between his day job, as boss of the Colombo crime family, and the mission of the Italian-American Civil Rights League, which he founded in 1970, to change how Italian-Americans were depicted in popular culture. Evans and Ruddy had no choice but to meet Colombo to negotiate, and took Coppola with them.
The ambitious young director had been hired only after numerous others ruled themselves out. So did Coppola at first. He thought the book was ‘sleazy’. But like Puzo before him, he was broke.
The meeting with Colombo took place at the Park Sheraton Hotel in midtown Manhattan. For anyone who knew the history of the New York Mob, it was a location loaded with sinister resonance.
In 1957, crime boss Albert Anastasia had been shot in the head, on the orders of rival mobsters Carlo Gambino and Vito Genovese, while sitting in the Park Sheraton barber’s chair. Fans of the film will recall the same happens to Las Vegas casino owner Moe Greene.
Yet despite those ominous undertones, or possibly because of them, Ruddy handled the negotiations brilliantly. He agreed to show the script to the League and delete all mentions of ‘Mafia’ and ‘Cosa Nostra’. He offered to give the proceeds from the New York premiere to the League’s hospital fund.
And most seductively of all, he said he would cast lots of Colombo’s associates as extras. They were killers and extortionists, many of them, but like everyone else they adored the idea of being in the movies.
Overnight, all the New York locations that had been mysteriously closed to the film-makers — a funeral parlour in Brooklyn, a house on Staten Island they wanted as Don Corleone’s home — miraculously became available.
While Ruddy tackled real life, Coppola was having headaches with make-believe. Casting The Godfather was the greatest challenge of his career so far, especially the part of Don Corleone.
From the outset he wanted either Marlon Brando or Laurence Olivier, but Olivier, then in his mid-60s, wasn’t well enough and Paramount executives were horrified by the idea of Brando, whom they thought a ‘has-been’ with a disruptive reputation.
They were even more fiercely opposed to Coppola’s choice for the film’s other key role, Don Corleone’s youngest son, Michael. They wanted Robert Redford, Ryan O’Neal, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson or Dustin Hoffman; he wanted the unknown Al Pacino.
Italian-American Mafia boss Albert Anastasia smiling in a park in Italy in the 1940s
The wife of his friend and fellow director George Lucas urged him to stick to his guns. ‘Cast Al, he undresses you with his eyes,’ she said. More importantly, Mario Puzo agreed that Pacino, a theatre actor who had never been in a film before, would be perfect as Michael.
‘I’ve never been surer of anything in my life,’ Puzo told Coppola. But it was Evans, habitually referring to Pacino as ‘that little dwarf’, who needed persuading.
Coppola tried everything to get his way with both Brando and Pacino. According to a new book about the making of The Godfather, Mark Seal’s Leave The Gun, Take The Cannoli (named after one of the film’s more memorable lines), when Paramount president Stanley Jaffe ordered Coppola to forget Brando, the director, who had suffered epilepsy as a child, feigned a fit.
Aghast, Jaffe agreed to consider Brando, but only if he would submit to a screen test.
Terrified of appearing to belittle such a mighty actor, Coppola astutely presented it to Brando as a ‘make-up test’. It turned out to be one of the most famous screen tests in movie history.
The director brought plates of prosciutto and Italian cheeses to Brando’s home on Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills to help him get into character.
And, inexorably, the 47-year-old star, after walking into the room in a kimono, his long blond hair tied back into a pony-tail, transformed himself into the hunched, mumbling, ageing Don. Al Ruddy later called it the ‘Miracle on Mulholland’.
The executives duly backed down and eventually approved Pacino, too.
Franco Citti as Calo (left) and Al Pacino as Michael Corleone (middle) in The Godfather, the movie based on the novel by Mario Puzo and directed by Francis Ford Coppola
There is so much that makes The Godfather great, but casting is the heart of it. With James Caan, John Cazale and Coppola’s own sister Talia Shire as the Don’s other children, plus Duvall, and Diane Keaton as Michael’s girlfriend Kay, the class shows in every perfectly composed frame.
Compounding that is Coppola’s extraordinary flair for storytelling, aided by the superb screenplay, which he and Puzo worked on together. Then, of course, there’s Nino Rota’s unforgettable music, another triumph for the director, because Evans wanted Henry Mancini, composer of The Pink Panther theme.
Coppola threatened to quit if Rota didn’t get the job, and once again he got his way.
The Godfather opened across the United States on March 24, 1972, ten days after its New York premiere, with cinemas ordered not to interrupt its nearly three-hour running-time with a routine intermission. Ruddy and Evans weren’t sure what to expect.
Had Coppola made a masterpiece for the ages or a high-profile flop? The premiere audience had received the film in disconcerting silence — but only, it transpired, because they were so overwhelmed.
In less than a fortnight, The Godfather shattered box-office records still held by the 1939 epic Gone With The Wind. Legendary directors such as David Lean and Frank Capra sent Coppola fan letters. And people queued for hours, to the extent that the Los Angeles Times published a list of tips on how to pass the time while doing so.
But mobsters didn’t want to have to wait. Ruddy organised a special screening for them, and if he hoped to keep it discreet, he failed.
Outside, about 100 limousines disgorged wise guys and their companions, and the cinema’s projectionist later reported that one of them had handed him a $1,000 tip.
Movie executives were fiercely opposed Coppola’s choice of Al Pacino (pictured) for the film’s other key role, Don Corleone’s youngest son, Michael
Mobsters who had tried to stop the film became its most adoring fans. Overnight, they adopted its one-liners. Before The Godfather, no Mafioso talked about making someone an offer he couldn’t refuse. It was a Puzo original. But after The Godfather, it became common Mob parlance.
The colossal box-office returns continued to roll in: The Godfather was anointed Best Picture at the 45th Academy Awards and Paramount turned into the most successful and powerful film studio in the world.
Then, two years later, Coppola did it again, making the greatest sequel of all time, The Godfather Part II, which also won Best Picture. As the young Vito Corleone, Robert De Niro won an Oscar. Coppola catapulted him to stardom just as he had Pacino.
The final film in the trilogy followed in 1990 and is the weakest of the three. But it still has many virtues, courtesy of its remarkable director who, with the first two instalments especially, changed Hollywood for ever.
He elevated the art of complex storytelling and compelled studios to invest in a new generation of now-legendary filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas.
In that sense, those directors’ mid-1970s pictures — Jaws, Taxi Driver and Star Wars — all owe something to The Godfather.
All are great movies. But only one is the greatest.