It is nearly impossible today to have no knowledge of The Godfather. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you have probably seen some parody or heard a line taken from the film. Surely you’ve heard of an offer you can’t refuse? My earliest memory of this film would have to be around age seven, with my dad channel surfing one night. It was an early moment in the film, my dad knew what was about to happen and built it up for me. There was a man waking up in his bed, then blood, then he discovered the severed head of a horse between the sheets at his feet. I think my dad explained it in a simple way, “That’s what happens when you don’t listen to The Godfather.” Something along those lines. Of course I had nightmares, but those quick scenes my dad would show me of different movies (when my mom wasn’t in the room to discourage it) always peaked my interest and made me come back to see the rest of the movie later. It was the kind of childhood trauma that has lead me into this intense love of film.
Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is the aging head of the New York mafia family. On the day of his daughter’s wedding, he is busy listening and granting any reasonable request guests bring to him. An old Sicilian tradition, and with his long mafia reach he is getting some tough, but still reasonable requests. Youngest son Michael (Al Pacino) has just returned from WWII and is dating Kay (Diane Keaton), who seems to be the only blond at the wedding. He tells Kay that he doesn’t want to be part of his family’s business. After an assassination attempt on Vito, Michael steps up, saves his father’s life from attackers coming to the hospital to finish the job. Now Michael is in and wants revenge on his father’s attackers. He does the family proud and goes into hiding in Italy for a while. When he returns, Vito prepares to hand the family business over to Michael.
All this big talk of mafia hits and offers you can’t refuse may initially turn people away from the film, thinking they couldn’t possibly identify with such immoral characters. The thing is, the whole story is told from inside the mafia, the family. When someone hurts one of your own, revenge just becomes justice. We are not shown any civilian victims at the hands of the family, just equally corrupt people who got what was coming to them. All the violence we are shown can be justified by mob rules. Even when the police are involved, they are the crooked cops and we are fine with their demise. To think of this as the family business and the sons simply helping and protecting their father, brings more sympathy to the characters. Clever.
In this harsh mafia world, there is little use for women. They are the domestic creatures expected to prepare food and create sons to one day continue the business. When Michael takes a wife in Italy, they don’t even speak the same language. No big deal, right? My biggest gripe is wondering why Kay married Michael after not hearing from him for over a year. Perhaps it was just the desperation of being an old maid in the forties. Fact is, the deeper Michael gets in the business, the further he has to be from Kay. I’m afraid she’s just going to become that trouble making woman who doesn’t know her place in this mafia family.
Marlon Brando’s Oscar winning performance is unforgettable, and so was his refusal of the award. To make Vito look more like a bulldog, Brando wore a mouthpiece during filming. He based the husky-whispering voice off real life mobster Frank Costello. At the Academy Awards ceremony, he sent Sacheen Littlefeather (birth name Maria Cruz) to refuse the award for him, protesting against Hollywood’s misrepresentation of Native Americans.
Brando’s protest couldn’t change the fact that The Godfather and his role in it are some of the most iconic pieces of American cinema. Francis Ford Coppola’s direction was masterful and instrumental to winning Best Picture. The Godfather is one of those movies that everyone should see at some point. It’s smart, beautiful in it’s subtlety and one of the most well written pieces of American cinema.
“Only don’t tell me you’re innocent. Because it insults my intelligence and makes me very angry.”