The Godfather (Best Picture, 1972)
It seems appropriate that the movie that got me started on this whole project should fall around the halfway point. Last spring, I watched AMC a lot because they have the CSI: Miami reruns. Quiet, you. I like that show. Anyways, they started showing ads for a weekend-long Godfather marathon. I guess they planned to show the trilogy over and over and over or something. I mean, they’re long movies, but it’s not like watching all three extended-edition Lord of the Rings films.
My initial reaction on watching THE GODFATHER is holy moly, WHAT A CAST. Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton…. And every scene feels like I’ve seen it before. It’s kind of like CASABLANCA that way. THE GODFATHER is so much a part of American culture, so deeply ingrained into our collective psyche, that it feels familiar even to someone who hasn’t seen it before. It’s been spoofed and homage-d and referenced endlessly. There are a lot of movies in this project that have been great movies, classics, even, but they don’t come close to this one. Of the films so far in the project, I’d say THE GODFATHER joins CASABLANCA and GONE WITH THE WIND at the pinnacle of movie classics. They’re the royalty, sitting up there on top of Mt. Everest, as film after film strains to mount the slopes. In a documentary on Hollywood history I watched recently, there was discussion of a woman (I forget her name) who invented the concept of “It.” As in, that actress “has It.” “It” is nebulous, an undefinable quality that makes something or someone mesmerizing. “It” is perhaps related to charisma, but it’s more than charisma or sex appeal or overwhelming talent.
THE GODFATHER has “It.” The casting is brilliant. The lighting and cinematography and editing and screenwriting – all perfect. Apparently the producers wanted Laurence Olivier for Don Corleone originally, which is one of those casting stories that in retrospect is a “you wanted WHAT?!” – kind of like the story that the creators of THE WIZARD OF OZ wanted Shirley Temple to play Dorothy. Olivie
r in Brando’s place would have completely changed the film. I can say that with the benefits of hindsight, of course, but having seen Brando in ON THE WATERFRONT and Olivier in REBECCA and HAMLET, I think Brando’s a much more logical choice for this Mafia boss who has probably had to fight his way up through the learn-or-die underworld. Olivier strikes me as too aristocratic. And I hardly recognized Al Pacino OR Diane Keaton.
THE GODFATHER has “It.”
The Sting (Best Picture, 1973)
I have a strangely vivid memory from childhood of standing in the independent video rental store that used to be in my hometown, staring at the VHS cover of THE STING while my dad tried to convince me it would be funny.
It certainly has its moments, though I wouldn’t call it a laugh riot. I also suspect it would have gone completely over my head as a child. I can’t remember if we rented it that time or not, and I have no idea why the memory stuck. The basic idea is con men conning con men conning con men, and so forth. And I’m a little surprised my computer didn’t explode from the gorgeous combination of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, both pre-leathery-skin. Holy moly are they handsome. Sharp 1930s attire suits them!
I don’t really have much to say about THE STING. It’s a good movie, and I can certainly see how it’s considered funny, but to be perfectly honest, it didn’t hold my attention. Kind of a letdown after THE GODFATHER. And again, where are the women? Both movies in this pair have female supporting roles, but they are minor roles. Of course, I say that, and in the next pair I get Nurse Ratched. So be careful what you wish for, right? If you adjust for inflation, THE STING is one of the most successful movies of all time – top 20, or something like that. To me it feels lightweight, and I’m a little surprised that it was in the Best Picture category. Not because it’s poorly made, because it isn’t, but because the trend of the 1970s has so far been for gritty, heavy, dark movies. THE STING is comparatively fluffy, even with the gangsters and guns and dead con partners and revenge.
It’s especially disconcerting because THE STING is sandwiched between two GODFATHER movies – not known for being fluffy! If the Academy Awards reflect what the Hollywood establishment is willing to accept as top-of-the-line, what is the explanation for THE STING? It was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won seven, including for direction and the screenplay, though none of the acting awards. Maybe awards ceremonies paid more attention to popularity at that time. Maybe I’m missing something. Or maybe the Academy just wanted something lighter after the preceding string of grimmer fare.
If it’s the latter, then it was a brief respite. The 1970s best pictures, as a group, look pretty dark.
Next Up: The Godfather Part II (Best Picture, 1974) and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Best Picture, 1975)