Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The Godfather

The Godfather touched a nerve with its dark vision of the American dream

The Godfather
Photo: Paramount/Getty Images

The Popcorn Champs

The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?

“I believe in America.” Those are the first words spoken in The Godfather. We hear them before we even see the face of the character speaking them, the undertaker Amerigo Bonasera. Bonasera came to America from Italy, and he found a place in this land by doing everything he thought he was supposed to do and keeping away from unsavory elements. But then Bonasera learned, painfully, all the reasons why he should not believe in America—his daughter was assaulted here, and the country’s justice system was set up to protect the boys who assaulted her.

Bonasera tries to maintain his posture as an upright member of the American community; he doesn’t even drink the whiskey that the criminals put in front of him. But an upright citizen is not what Bonasera wants to be. He wants revenge. He wants blood. And so he comes to seek it from the mobster that he’s been avoiding, the one he’d always thought he should stay away from because he “didn’t want to get into trouble.” Don Vito Corleone understands. “You found paradise in America,” he says. And then Corleone orders violence done.

The story of Amerigo Bonasera barely has any effect on the grander narrative of The Godfather, the biggest movie blockbuster of 1972 and, for a few years, the highest-grossing film of all time. In that opening scene, Don Vito ominously foretells a time when Bonasera will have to do him a favor. When that moment arrives—the only other time Bonasera shows up in the film—all he has to do is his job. He’s not roped into a criminal conspiracy; he merely has to make the body of the Don’s dead son Sonny into something presentable.

And yet with that masterful slow zoom, the uninterrupted shot of a man talking as the camera slowly pulls out from his face, director Francis Ford Coppola introduces his themes and brings us into the world of the film. He’s showing us America as a rotten place, and he’s showing us vulnerable people who need to do rotten things to survive in it. It’s a bleak image, and yet it’s endlessly compelling. Coppola wanted The Godfather to be an indictment of American capitalism, of the way it turns human interactions into cold-blooded calculations. But funny things happen when movies enter the larger culture and become part of mass consciousness. Authorial intent never ends up mattering.

But those ideas are there in the movie, if you’re looking for them. In that opening scene, Vito Corleone’s face emerges slowly from the darkness, a manifestation of evil. The Corleones are a family, and yet they end up killing each other, or causing each other’s deaths, in the name of business. There’s depravity everywhere in the film—the square-jawed cop in the mob’s pocket, the predatory film executive, the abusive husband, the turncoat mob soldiers. Greed and lust for power turn all the characters into monsters. At the meeting of the Five Families, Barzini cracks a joke about how “we are not Communists,” and everyone laughs.

Michael Corleone’s transformation is the real story of the movie. He starts out vaguely amused, but also repulsed, by his background. Soon enough, though, he’s lecturing Kay, his future wife, about how naive she is to think that “senators and presidents don’t have men killed.” Throughout, Michael is so competent and cool and steely—so easy to root for—that we almost miss the moment when he becomes something truly demonic. By the time of the stunning baptism/murder montage, a scene that’s tonally closer to The Exorcist or The Omen than it is to any other gangster film, Michael is a satanic force. In effect, the movie tells in three hours the same kind of corrupting-the-innocent story as Breaking Bad did over its entire run.

And yet almost nobody thinks of The Godfather as a polemic, mostly because it’s too good for that. In its grand, operatic sweep, The Godfather also presents its characters as eternal human archetypes in a mythic American saga. Actual mobsters loved the movie, and a conservative viewer could take ideas from the film—the importance of family and tradition, for instance, or the meritorious success of master businessmen—and draw entirely different conclusions. In the book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Robert Towne, Coppola’s buddy who did some uncredited script work on The Godfather, calls the picture “kind of reactionary… a perverse expression of a desirable and lost cultural tradition.”

The whole arc of Fredo Corleone, the ineffectual middle brother, has become a sort of cultural shorthand; if you’re the Fredo in a family, you’re the useless one, the one who fucks things up for everyone else. This past summer, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo exploded on camera upon being called “Fredo,” calling the term “an Italian aspersion” and “like the N-word for us.” But Fredo isn’t the most evil Corleone; he’s just the least competent one. It’s pretty telling that we’ve all agreed the worst Godfather character is the one who’s just not that good at committing crimes.

But that’s how cultural myth-making works. Images go out into the world and take on lives of their own, and there’s no better example of cultural myth-making in American cinema than The Godfather. Every moment in the film feels iconic. Consider the brief story of Luca Brasi, the hulking Corleone hit man played by the former pro wrestler and mob enforcer Lenny Montana. Luca Brasi only actually does two things in The Godfather: He nervously gives Vito Corleone an awkward speech, and he gets killed. That’s it. But because of the chilly and reverent way the other characters talk about Luca Brasi—almost always his full name, like it would be disrespectful to shorten it—Luca Brasi became a touchstone reference anyway. The rap artist Kevin Gates named a whole mixtape series after him, an honor that has not been extended (at least to my knowledge) to any other dead two-scene bit-part movie characters.

There are so many brilliant touches within The Godfather. There’s the casting: Marlon Brando, the king of method acting, plays a figure that commands the same type of reverence that the film’s younger actors would naturally pay to Brando himself. The opening wedding scene allows anyone watching to see the way the family members interact, and understand how the picture’s world works in the process. The scenes in Sicily seem to take place in another century, an idyll where people follow conventions that are almost feudal and where the young men are “all dead from vendettas.”

It’s such a confident, beautifully told story that it’s hard to believe how many times it almost went wrong. Robert Evans, the young head of Paramount, had to fight his corporate bosses for The Godfather to be made, even though it was based on a runaway bestseller that the studio had bought the rights for cheap when it was still a manuscript. A few years earlier, Paramount had flopped with the Kirk Douglas mob movie The Brotherhood, so execs were skittish. But Evans knew that The Godfather could be something special.

In his memoir, The Kid Stays In The Picture, Evans says that he went back and looked at a ton of old gangster movies that hadn’t worked, realizing they’d been made by Jewish directors and stars. Evans, who is Jewish himself, decided that he wanted an Italian-American director, one whose touch could make audiences “smell the spaghetti.” (Evans really writes like that.) But Paramount still offered The Godfather to a dozen directors before settling on Coppola, whose previous works hadn’t exactly inspired a lot of confidence. For his part, Coppola didn’t love the idea of directing the movie. He thought the novel was trashy, and he had his own visions that he wanted to realize. But his budding production house American Zoetrope owed hundreds of thousands to Warner Bros., and his friend George Lucas convinced him that he needed to do it.

Initially, Warner Bros. had envisioned The Godfather as a low-budget movie. They wanted to move it to a contemporary setting, adding references to hippie culture; Coppola had to fight them on that. He also spent months trying to get Marlon Brando and Al Pacino cast in the film. Brando was a legend, but he was viewed as a difficult weirdo who hadn’t made a good movie in years. Pacino, meanwhile, was a no-name who Evans thought was too short. (Evans reportedly called Pacino “that little dwarf.”) In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Coppola says, “If I hadn’t’ve fought, I would have made a movie with Ernest Borgnine and Ryan O’Neal set in the ’70s.”

By pretty much every account, the production of The Godfather was an absolute nightmare. Coppola feuded bitterly with Evans and with cinematographer Gordon Willis. As a result, Coppola was reportedly almost fired multiple times; Evans apparently had Elia Kazan lined up and ready to take over. Only Brando’s loyalty, the book’s enduring popularity, and the Oscar that Coppola won for writing Patton saved him. In The Kid Stays In The Picture, Robert Evans insists that Coppola handed in a beautifully shot but cold and empty movie, and that he had to spend months in the editing room to fix it by making it longer and more atmospheric. Coppola and Evans feuded over credit for the movie for years, even when they worked together again on the 1984 flop The Cotton Club.

And yet you can’t see any of that discord on the screen, so maybe that’s just the movie business acting the way the movie business is supposed to act. And none of that rancor hurt the movie financially: When it came to theaters, The Godfather outperformed everyone’s expectations to a massive degree. Studio executive Frank Yablans booked the film into multiple theaters per town, breaking with Hollywood convention and allowing more people to see it than would’ve otherwise been possible. (In the coming blockbuster era, Yablans’ strategy would become common practice.) Coppola, who’d taken a small fee to direct the film, had a share in the profits, and he got rich.

The Godfather touched a cultural nerve in ways that few films before it had, and lot of that comes down simply to how good it is. It really is a miracle of moviemaking, and it remains almost compulsively re-watchable today. But The Godfather also spoke to its cultural moment. As a period piece, it was a sort of tour through recent American history. (The Godfather’s story starts in 1945, but that’s only 27 years before it came out. A story set in 1992 might not seem so exotic to us now.) And it spoke to a growing cynicism, a sense that the American dream that the public had been sold was not all it was cracked up to be.

Shortly before his death, Don Vito Corleone looks at the life he’s built for himself and his family. One of his sons has been horribly murdered. Another is pampered and useless. Another has been forced to take up the violent life that he was supposed to transcend. “I refused to be a fool, dancing on the string held by all those big shots,” the Don says. But in that refusal, he’s simply become a big shot himself. That’s an American tragedy.

The contender: The box office history of 1972 is wild. The Godfather’s greatest competition was the impressively dumb disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure, and some of that year’s other big hits were just straight-up porn flicks like Deep Throat and Behind The Green Door. But 1972 was also full of ambitious, personal efforts, many of them from promising directors. Many of which have since entered the pantheon: What’s Up, Doc?, Deliverance, Jeremiah Johnson, Cabaret, and Last Tango In Paris all came out in 1972, and they all made money. And then there’s The Getaway.

These days, it seems like The Getaway is mostly remembered for being the movie where Ali MacGraw, then Robert Evans’ wife, left Evans for her co-star Steve McQueen. But The Getaway is also an utterly badass piece of work, an expert white-knuckle action flick, and probably my favorite non-Godfather movie from 1972. The Getaway is also the biggest hit of director Sam Peckinpah’s career, and the moment where Peckinpah best balanced out his commercial instincts and his squalid misanthropy. Thanks to McQueen’s icy charisma and Peckinpah’s knife-edge mayhem, The Getaway is an all-time neo-Western banger.

Next time: The Exorcist disturbs the shit out of America.