“Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” – Mario Puzo, The Godfather novel
Released half-a-century ago, The Godfather remains an integral and ageless work of art. Based on the bestselling novel by Mario Puzo and directed by the then up-and-coming Francis Ford Coppola – both of whom worked on the screenplay – The Godfather ingested a wealth of talent. And that’s before we mention Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, John Marley, Diane Keaton and of course Marlon Brando. Together, all this talent tells a story of destiny, responsibility, and revenge. Indeed, The Godfather is an example of the near-perfect movie. And while it can be viewed as an exploration into capitalism and an analogy between reality and the ‘American Dream’, all of this is second to the in-your-face narrative that plays out onscreen.
For the uninitiated, The Godfather focuses on Italian crime family the Corleones. It follows the head of the family, or the ‘Don’ Vito (Brando), who aside from protection rackets also ‘helps’ those who are of use. When he refuses to get involved with drug sales, he is gunned down. Although still alive, his first son Sonny (Caan) takes over. After Sonny in turn gets gunned down, Vito’s youngest son Michael (Pacino) takes over. Completely changing the path in life he had chosen, he finds a hereditary strength and executes a series of revenge attacks on all those who had wronged his family.
There has been plenty of discussion throughout the last fifty years on The Godfather’s glorious aesthetic and depth of the narrative, but I would argue that behind the scenes lies an even more engrossing tale. It is one which will make you view this marvel from a different perspective.
Marlon Brando, even above everyone else, delivers his role with with a dramatic tension that creates a fantastically claustrophobic effect. It will probably be of little surprise that soon after he starred in Coppola’s Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now (1979). For that movie he famously used no script, instead ad libbed his lines: with The Godfather he did something similar to develop that natural flow, using cue cards. Part of the reason given for this was down to the constant re-writes. Another was that it increased his own sense of spontaneity. Looking closely at scenes in The Godfather some can be spotted, for example; Robert Duvall holds them to his chest in one scene, they are placed behind a lamp in another, and legend has it they were taped onto the backs of the other actors.
Similarly, the cat Brando holds in one remarkable scene was not scripted. He just found a stray wandering round the studio lot. The story goes that the cat caused so much extra noise that some of the dialogue had to be re-recorded. He also had a dentist create the implants to expand his jaws – giving him that quietly menacing, bulldog look. Brando was not the only eccentric on set either: Coppola had his own tricks to pull out of the bag. One of the most infamous scenes which is often replicated is when the character of Jack Woltz (John Marley) awakes, pulls back the sheets of his bed to reveal a horse’s head. During rehearsals Coppola used a prop, or rather a fake head. To elicit a more natural response when it came to shooting the scene, he replaced it with a real severed head. Of course he kept the switch a secret from Marley, and those screams of shock are real! The horse’s head apparently retrieved from a dog food factory.
One legend of stage and screen took exception to The Godfather from the start. Allegedly, the late Frank Sinatra felt that the novel’s Johnny Fontane was too similar to himself and indeed his own path to stardom. Sinatra showed a lot of interest in the making of the movie, approaching Coppola for the role that went to Brando, and humiliating writer Puzo in public. He even showed an interest in buying the novel’s movie rights. Apparently Sinatra had associations (friendships) with mobsters: there is a legend they ‘helped’ land him his breakthrough role in From Here To Eternity (1953).
Whatever the truth, the character of Fontane (Al Martino) played a much smaller role in the movie than the book. If any ‘organization’ influenced that decision is not completely clear, though real-life crime family the Colombos were heavily involved in the background. Their own enforcer, former wrestler Lenny Montana appears in the movie as enforcer Luca Brasi. To add one further note of interest, the word ‘Mafia’ is not used at any point in The Godfather.
In the aftermath came the acclaim for The Godfather, and awards were understandably lauded on this groundbreaking work. The movie was nominated for a total of eleven Academy Awards: Marlon Brando was nominated and won the Best Actor Academy Award, which he refused and boycotted the event. Instead Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American activist, took to the stage when Brando’s name was read out, in protest over the depiction of Native Americans in Hollywood films and television. Along with this Al Pacino, nominated for Best Supporting Actor (as well as Cann and Duvall) also snubbed the awards ceremony in response to not receiving a Best Actor nomination. Although as far as we know, no horse heads (real or fake) turned up in anyone’s bed as a result.