Early in The Godfather, Corleone consigliere Tom Hagen visits the palatial home of Jack Woltz, head of Woltz International Pictures and a clear facsimile of Harry Cohn, founder of Columbia Pictures. Hagen, played by Robert Duvall, has been dispatched to Hollywood to convince Woltz (John Marley) to hire family friend Johnny Fontane (Frank Sinatra, basically) for his latest picture. Negotiations don't go well – though all is settled once a horse's head is slipped into the movie mogul's bed.
Watching the scene this week, for perhaps the 13th or 14th time, I couldn't help but think that it just might take a stable-side decapitation to convince any major studio to make The Godfather today. A big-budget, three-hour family drama with a past-his-prime star, few known supporting actors, relatively subdued action and an ending that's hugely depressing? Modern Hollywood would laugh Francis Ford Coppola out of the room, ordering him to come back only once he figured out how to crack a Honey, I Blew Up the Kid reboot starring Dwayne Johnson and featuring Kevin Hart as the giant baby (wait, this actually might be in the works).
Yes, it's true that even back in the early seventies, when Coppola started production on his adaptation of Mario Puzo's novel, the film ran up against its fair share of resistance. Paramount fought the casting of Marlon Brando for Vito Corleone, wary of his recent flops. Robert Redford or Warren Beatty were seen as more bankable picks than Al Pacino. The original screenplay didn't include enough violence to satisfy fiends of the gangster genre. It was going to be too expensive to shoot on location in New York – why not set it in Kansas City? Yet Coppola fought for his vision, and The Godfather became the highest-grossing film of 1972, and is now one of the most acclaimed movies of all time.
But as the film enjoys its 45th anniversary this year – complete with screenings at select Cineplex theatres this weekend – it's worth taking a closer look at just how radical a proposition it once was, and what Hollywood could learn from its massive, and enduring, success.
Famously, Coppola's film opens with a 26-minute-long wedding scene, in which characters both major and minor weave in and out of the action, and the power dynamics of the Corleone family are subtly revealed. It's an expert exercise in world-building, in characterization, in grounding a narrative in a particular time and place. And it would likely not pass muster if it were left in the hands of today's fickle studio executives. Where is the action, where are the whiplash on-screen titles indicating who is who, where are the opening credits, even? Most modern blockbusters are produced as if audiences cannot be trusted with assembling their own interpretations of a story – everything must be spoon-fed in as blunt a fashion as possible (on-screen placelines are a particular epidemic of late, ensuring no one moviegoer is faced with an unfamiliar, and thus assumingly unsettling, locale).
Yet thanks to Coppola's nuanced direction and his sharp script co-written with Puzo, The Godfather gives its audience the benefit of the doubt, confident that they will piece together the puzzle the filmmakers are building, in due time.
The length of the opening scene offers a lesson in itself. How often today does it seem that films unspool in a mad rush to jump from set piece to set piece? There is no such exhausting sprint here, no sense of a producer panting behind the scenes, drowning in flop-sweat and wondering aloud, "Well, what's next???" Coppola builds his story slowly and builds it carefully. As for any expectations of violence – this is a mob movie, after all, and one based on a spectacularly violent and trashy bestseller – there's certainly a sense of malevolence at the Corleone compound, but the first death doesn't even occur until 45 minutes in. The bloodshed, Coppola assures us, can wait. And once it does arrive, it will mean that much more, thanks to the strongest set of characters ever committed to screen.
Today, "characters" in Hollywood-speak can often be swapped out for "brands." Tent poles build upon well-known mythos, using already established identities (superheroes, but also long-exhausted genre archetypes such as the Gruff Action Star or the Ready-for-Comeuppance RomCom Cad) to create character-for-dummies templates. Here, we're treated to legitimately compelling, original heroes, villains and everyone in between – all ostensibly cling to a "type," but sketched in such a confident manner that they transcend expectations. By the time three hours have passed, you know Sonny, you know Michael, you know Vito, you know Kay and you know Fredo. Whatever happens to them, you're forever invested.
It's a perversion in that investment, though, that drives the current Hollywood agenda: sequelization. Coppola did the impossible and created a follow-up that, arguably, triumphs over the original. (Although The Godfather: Part II acts as both a sequel and a prequel, and had a vast amount of material from Puzo's novel to draw from.) Yet even he fell prey to the easy promises of a franchise, decades later turning in The Godfather: Part III, which left such a bad taste in devotees' mouths than not even the strongest gulp of grappa could wash it out.
Still, The Godfather proves that, despite apparent studio disbelief, mature audiences will support a smart, ambitious film that operates outside the franchise sandbox. If, that is, someone is willing to fund it. The first Godfather cost $6.5-million (U.S.) to produce, or about $38-million today. That figure might not seem exorbitant, but such mid-budget, mature-audience-centric releases are simply no longer of interest to the major producers. If it doesn't have six-film potential, if it isn't based on nostalgia-inducing intellectual property, if it cannot promise ancillary products such as TV shows and fast-food tie-ins and amusement park rides, then why bother? Coppola himself said as much this past spring, when he celebrated The Godfather's anniversary at the Tribeca Film Festival. "It would never get through the process of getting an okay," the director said. "Nothing can get a green light unless it's a movie that they can have a whole series of them and pretty much a Marvel Comics-type of thing."
Cue the horse's head. Or, more likely, Dwayne Johnson as Mikey Corleone in The Godfather: Resurrection.
The Godfather screens June 4 and 7 at select Cineplex locations across the country (cineplex.com).