1972: The Godfather
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather is the Mona Lisa, Mount Rushmore, Beethoven’s 5th. It’s become a veritable holy text, recited chapter and verse by its devotees. And, like many such objects of devotion, the actual substance of it often gets overshadowed by the level of adoration heaped upon it. There are people who call it the greatest movie of all time who have probably haven’t viewed it as a movie in a long time.
I’ve never been one of those people. While my esteem for The Godfather is great, it’s not even my go-to gangster film. That honor will forever belong to GoodFellas. For me, it’s the difference between grand opera and punk rock. One might be stately and powerful and filled with prestige, but the other one just brims with energy and an anarchic spirit that makes the former sometimes look, well, a little old-fashioned. In the midst of a period in American film when a new breed of filmmakers were making their mark, The Godfather feels like a statement that how they used to make ’em was still pretty viable.
None of which is meant to diminish the grandeur of what Francis Ford Coppola achieved here. The opera comparison feels apt. It’s a story of family and emotion and honor and betrayal and revenge told on a grand stage, and Coppola would in fact make an opera the centerpiece of the finale of the third film in the series. But instead of German mythology or Italian melodrama, and despite its ties to the Old Country, The Godfather is a uniquely American story, embracing the sweeping saga of the immigrant with all the promise and pitfalls encountered by those who came here to start a new life. It’s no accident the first line of the film is, “I believe in America.” Where else could a little orphaned boy one day become Don Corleone? And where else could such a man be admired?
For a long time, this film was the province of my parents. I was too young for it, both in my eyes and theirs, and my early memories of it stem mostly from their excitement over the chronological re-edit of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II that aired on NBC in 1977. I actually read Mario Puzo’s novel before I saw the film in its entirety, as part of an English assignment to read a book on which a movie was based. But I couldn’t tell you much about the book today. Like Jaws, it’s been completely replaced by its adaptation. And, also like Jaws, it’s essentially a pulpy read transformed into something much greater by its transition to the screen.
There are times I feel like I don’t appreciate The Godfather enough, that I should be one of those devotees. But I want to love it as a movie, not a monument. I want “Leave the gun, take the cannoli” and “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” and the wedding reception and the gun in the bathroom and the oranges to remain thrillingly cinematic, not stolidly admired. Maybe it is the opera to GoodFellas‘ punk rock, but hey, people are still listening to Carmen.