“The Godfather,” wrote the late Roger Ebert in 2010, “comes closest to being a film everyone agrees about.” Who can disagree? By all known markers of Hollywood and, more impressively, world cinema success, Francis Ford Coppola’s beloved gangster chronicle is an enduring cultural object. Audiences loved it, then and now; same to critics the world over, who’ve canonized this movie, its 1974 sequel, and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now — all of them made in the Seventies, a 10-year span that has publicly defined Coppola’s career ever since — as among the greatest films of all time.
There was the record-breaking box office. There were Oscars. There were star-making roles for the likes of incumbent upstarts like Al Pacino and Robert Duvall and then-unknowns who’d been plucked from open casting calls, like Abe Vigoda. There was the Don himself: Marlon Brando, for whom the movie (alongside Last Tango in Paris, released the same year) offered something like a career revival. Brando was hardly old enough to be a patriarch — at 47, he was in some ways a youthful choice to play a character with so formidable a sense of authority and time-earned wisdom as Don Corleone — but his presence nevertheless helped to draw a line from the classical Hollywood system that dominated through the mid-Sixties to the new Hollywood being ushered in by directors like Coppola, Steven Spielberg (whose Jaws was only a few years away), George Lucas (a key collaborator on The Godfather), and Arthur Penn (whose era-defining Bonnie and Clyde, from 1967, is referenced outright in one of the most famous scenes of Coppola’s movie: the stylishly gruesome death of James Caan’s Sonny Corleone).
It’s all too easy to mythologize. Who can help it? The Godfather is a movie about a generational shake-up, the ushering in of a new guard with firm but flexible ties to the old world, the anointing of a new, reluctant hero — Michael Corleone — who was neither too violently disruptive to be trusted with the family’s future (like his hotheaded brother Sonny) nor a flailing, incapable pushover, like Fredo. He is the Goldilocks-perfect solution to the law of succession’s enduring problem: the smooth, unruffled maintenance of power.
The movie itself, meanwhile, has gone down in history as an example of what it depicts — an almost too-appropriate metaphor. At its center, the reluctant hero: Coppola, who was not Paramount Pictures’ first (or second, or third) choice to helm the movie and who had, in the first place, taken the assignment in part because he was in debt. Paramount bought the rights to Mario Puzo’s novel before that novel was a bestselling sensation, with plans to make a cheap adaptation and (the thinking went) lean on a talented younger director to bring it in on time and on budget, with little fuss and a hint of real, homegrown Italian American flair.
The movie became far more than that, obviously — in part because that younger director, who would later say that he was hired out of a belief that he would be easier for the studio to push around, wasn’t as easy to push around as advertised. Coppola fought for certain choices, decisions that are now so tied to the movie’s success that it’s hard to imagine how vehemently the studio disagreed. For example, the casting of Brando. Nino Rota’s timeless score. And even the movie’s setting: There was a time when The Godfather was intended to be set not in the New York of the 1940s, as in the novel, but in the Midwest of the 1970s. With hippies. All of this from a director that the studio threatened to fire starting as early as the first few weeks of production, even after seeing the dailies for what would become some of the movie’s most famous scenes (for example, the two-for-one shooting of drug baron Virgil Sollozzo and his corrupt police lackey, Captain McCluskey).
The irony is almost too rich. Here comes the new guard: clad in period clothing, working in a foundational movie genre, with classically astute camerawork and stylistic nods not only to adventurous contemporaries like Bonnie and Clyde, but to the earlier Hollywood that was ostensibly on its way out the door. For a step toward Hollywood’s future, which it was in many ways, the movie had quite a way of looking toward the past. The sequels to The Godfather would go on to prove what was already clear as of the bloody Baptism that marks movie’s still-shattering climax: This is a story of continuity, not change. History will repeat itself. Michael starts the movie with no intention of becoming his father, then becomes his father; the first sequel will twine the two men’s fates even more closely; in the sequel after that, he’ll think he’s out, like he was when all of this nonsense started, but nevertheless get pulled back in.
This year’s 94th annual Academy Awards eerily coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of The Godfather’s release, which makes Godfather nostalgia even more tempting to indulge than usual. It seems we can’t help but be a little corny about why the movie is good, what it means, and what current releases are doing wrong in failing to do more of the same. Coppola’s film is a classic example of those movies we keep hearing about in the run-up to nights like this, those blessed popular objects Hollywood “doesn’t make any more,” the kind of unifying consensus picture (both artistically great and widely loved, with the box office receipts to prove it) that makes current anxieties over the relevance of the Oscars feel a little pathetic. The stories we spin about that vaunted pageant nowadays — of the telecast’s declining ratings, the failure to nominate “popular movies,” the overriding sense of movies’ declining influence as an art form and moviegoing’s degraded importance as a social activity — seem incredibly hard to imagine from a 1970s perspective. The “smaller” best picture winners of that decade, budget-wise, range from the little-movie-that-could vibes of Rocky to the humble two-hander Kramer vs. Kramer to, yes, the first Godfather movie.
Two of the aforementioned movies would go on to become monolithic franchises, which is another bit of history known to repeat itself: franchise potential is Hollywood’s idea of an offer that can’t be refused, even when it really should be, even when the fun has long outstayed its welcome. We can speak nostalgically about what movies like The Godfather and for that matter Rocky meant to the culture; we can seek to harken back to the era in which the Oscars, and the movies that the Academy honored, had the mix of iconic name-recognition and personal artistry that this era seemed to celebrate.
It’s a drastic oversimplification — not least because of money. But that doesn’t stand in the way of our tendency to exaggerate the merits of the past. What will “save” the Oscars, we’re told, is the acknowledgement of more pop fare with wider cultural awareness, more celebrities, more reignition of the movie pleasures that the New Hollywood generation fashioned into a popular mode. The fact remains that the most important difference between The Godfather and even the best Marvel releases, which are routinely snubbed of the industry’s highest honors, isn’t a matter of style or even quality, but of money: not the money made, but the money needed to make it. The relative investments; the chances taken — or not — to guarantee returns on those investments.
The Coppola of the early Seventies didn’t expect The Godfather to be the hit that it was. In retrospect, even the option to fail on the studio’s dime — something Coppola would do, by financial standards, in the years to come, and despite which he would endure — can look like artistic freedom compared to the tentpoles of today. Failure hits differently when many more millions of dollars, and a greater chunk of studios’ bottom lines, are at stake. The Godfather was a studio movie made in what, by many accounts, feels like a renegade spirit (by inside-Hollywood standards), so much so that Coppola would be subjected to overhearing members of his crew doubting his abilities out loud and nudging for his replacement. It’s the New Hollywood narrative in a nutshell.
It all feels like hagiography now, overstated but true: The upstart outsider wrestling for a seat at the table. Rewatching it now, one thing that stands out about The Godfather isn’t how fresh it is for a movie of its time, as the narrative surrounding it implies, but rather how eagerly we’ve been encouraged to drain it of that freshness. It’s the old guard now, and it has cast a long shadow. Complaints about current Hollywood’s failure to recapture the industry’s past are a little too slow to question why the present should resemble the past — and slower still to wonder whether what’s considered Oscar-worthy today really is so different. Even when independent Oscar movies lean more toward mass appeal than not — whether or not the masses are watching. Even when made in the spirit of taking risks, these movies share continuity with what came before. The question is bigger than telecast ratings, bigger than what happens on one particularly glamorous night of year. It’s a question of what we want the Hollywood of the future to be. And the answer, as of right now, looks more like the past than we’re ready to admit.