For most people in my age range, from 20 to about 30, The Godfather is a quintessential element of American film. It’s really hard for me to picture movies without The Godfather somewhere in the background, and I’m not sure why.
Most people my age automatically associate Marlon Brando with this movie in particular, not necessarily with many other great films Brando made during his career. It’s a movie that’s still referenced and still watched today, and even though it’s now over 35 years old, it still seems pretty fresh.
I actually own the Godfather trilogy on DVD. I and II have received repeated viewings in my household. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve never made it through a single, whole viewing of Part III, mainly because it’s an awful piece of dreck, as most know. The only reason I can think of why I own it is that as a film nut, it feels wrong not to own the entire trilogy, but rather only two-thirds.
Back to the original, however. It’s obviously a well-crafted movie. The sets, costume design and lighting seem pitch perfect. The music is amazing. I can think of several movies, however, that have had all of these elements but fail to stick in the American psyche as firmly as The Godfather.
One of the main elements here is casting. The struggles Francis Ford Coppola went through trying to get Al Pacino cast as Michael are well-documented, since the studios were dead set against him, but Pacino is perfect as Michael Corleone. Whenever Pacino is brought up as an outstanding actor, a few movies (like Heat, Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico) come to mind, but none as vividly as The Godfather. Pacino takes a likeable character who is devoted to his family, a war hero who is initially presented as the most noble and honorable of his family and finely crafts him into a man driven by circumstance, his family’s choices and his own conscious choices into a ruthlessly cold monster. Pacino’s real genius is that it could be remarkably easy to hate and despise Michael Corleone, but the viewer sympathizes with him and roots for him all the way through Part I (the viewer/Michael schism, in my opinion, doesn’t come until Part II.) Marlon Brando is stellar as Don Corleone and the supporting cast does a wonderful job. Brando’s obviously given credit where credit is due, but in my opinion Pacino’s the cog that makes the machine work.
The story is classically American. It’s the veritable American dream, just in crime instead of an “honest living”. Don Corleone rises from nothing to have everything and his sons are in line to inherit his little empire. But the family is also typically dysfunctional. Connie Corleone marries a worthless abuser and her brother Sonny is constantly helping her out. Sonny’s no better, as he’s a serial cheater who even finds ways to philander during Connie’s wedding. Fredo is bumbling and needs constant supervision, while Michael’s practically the Boy Scout of the family. Don Corleone is the glue that holds the family together and they begin to rip apart at the seams quite quickly when he’s gunned down.
The movie, in the end, is about a family at the mercies of and done in by its own choices, whether its to look the other way or live a life outside the law, or to make bold rash decisions. Each choice leads the family down a separate path; but one could argue that many of them all lead to the same path in the end: death, as the Don and his wife die of old age, Sonny at the hands of a murderous gang, and part of Michael effectively dies when he commits murder and takes over as head of the family.
It’s a powerful story that resonates with people on a fairly epic scale. Out of all of the Best Picture Winners, this is easily in the top three of all time.