Moviegoers had little reason to expect much from The Godfather when it was released in 1972. The film was based on a popular though not best-selling novel, made by a relatively inexperienced director, and performed by mostly unknown actors, plus one, Marlon Brando, who was considered well past his prime—all in all, not exactly the classic Hollywood formula for success. Defying the odds, The Godfather went on to become one of the most popular movies of all time. It gave birth to two sequels, the first of which is a masterpiece in its own right, spawned countless clones, launched the film careers of several significant actors, and changed forever what an audience would expect when it entered a theater.
Francis Ford Coppola, the director of the Godfather trilogy, was one of many young directors who came to prominence in the 1970s and challenged the old Hollywood system. His contemporaries included Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, George Lucas, and Stephen Spielberg, among others. This attack on old Hollywood is announced right at the beginning of The Godfather when the lawyer Tom Hagen asks studio owner Jack Woltz to cast the singer Johnny Fontane in a movie. Woltz seems classic L.A.-slick, and we are not surprised when he says no. But we are surprised when we learn why. We expect that Woltz’s excuse will be that Johnny is old and washed-up or that he lacks acting talent, but instead, Woltz says that Johnny is perfect for the part, which is precisely the reason he doesn’t get it. Woltz blames Johnny for stealing a pretty young actress from him and refuses to do anything that will help him rehabilitate his career. In his exchange with Tom, Woltz comes across as materialistic, crass, bad-tempered, vengeful, and bigoted, but Coppola hints that his greatest crime is that he isn’t a real artist. He is in film production only for the sex and the money. Whether he makes a good film is barely a concern.
Coppola’s criticism of the Hollywood system goes well beyond this ugly depiction of a Hollywood producer. The Godfather trilogy criticizes the content and structure of typical Hollywood films. By the 1970s, moviegoers were more film literate than those of earlier generations and demanded more for the price of their tickets. One way to appeal to an audience of both sophisticated and unsophisticated viewers is through what critic Robert Ray calls a “corrected” genre film. A corrected genre film has its share of action sequences that appeal to naïve viewers, but it also includes new stylistic devices and an irony-laced plot that appeal to a more critical audience. In Ray’s analysis of Hollywood films, The Godfather is the paradigmatic corrected genre film. To the naive audience, Michael Corleone seems like a heroic outsider battling against the corrupt system—in effect the hero of a Western set in New York City. A more sophisticated audience sees Michael as duplicitous, immoral, and cruel, and will be repulsed by him. But many people would argue that The Godfather isn’t corrected enough. Subsequent gangster films, such as Scarface, Goodfellas, and Donnie Brasco, as well as the popular TV series The Sopranos, all try to further “correct” The Godfather by presenting a grittier, less glamorous view of Mafia life. But this process of criticizing the myth of the Mafia really began in Coppola’s films. Indeed, the most successful correction of The Godfather is probably The Godfather Part II. (The analysis section will explore this argument in greater depth.)
In addition to spawning numerous “corrected” gangster films, The Godfather’s legacy also includes its amazing cast, with actors such as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, James Caan, and Robert Duvall, who have taken their places among the most successful performers of the past thirty years. No less significant is The Godfather’s rehabilitation of the late, incomparable Marlon Brando. Francis Ford Coppola, the director and brains of the entire operation, would himself become a Hollywood fixture, going on to direct classics such as The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. Certain filmic elements, such as the use of montage in The Godfather or of underexposure in the cinematography of The Godfather Part II, have proven highly influential in the decades since. Lastly, it should be pointed out that the Godfather films took part in the larger social discourse of their times. In 1972 and 1974, when The Godfather and The Godfather Part II were released, respectively, America was experiencing much turmoil and change. Coming on the heels of the turbulent 1960s, while the Vietnam War and the culture wars raged, the Godfather films took part in the New Left critique, exposing the hypocrisy of institutions of power. The Godfather highlights police corruption and the questionable morality of politicians who send their citizens abroad to fight wars. Political corruption is a major theme of The Godfather Part II. The Godfather Part III brings to light the tensions between the worldly and spiritual concerns of the Catholic Church.
The true genius of the Godfather films is that they are historically and socially specific genre films and, at the same time, monumental epics exploring universal themes. Their depiction of the experiences of Sicilian-Americans in the twentieth century speaks to the experience of all American immigrant communities. As exciting and suspenseful as any Hollywood action flick, they are also dramas with as much pathos and emotional weight as any film can have. Today the Godfather films are classic reference points in American culture, but they startled audiences when they were released because they combined styles and genres in a completely new way. That the films look so familiar to us now is the ultimate proof of their tremendous influence.