Writings About The Movies

The Godfather at 50

As The Godfather celebrates its 50th Anniversary, we recall the moment—25 years ago–when Sheila took stock of the film’s timeless appeal.

Thinking about The Godfather

by Sheila Benson

Francis Coppola took Mario Puzo’s informed, pulpy best seller about a fictional Mafia family and made a great American saga, at the same time he launched the careers of Al Pacino, Diane Keaton and James Caan and gave Marlon Brando his most towering character.  Now 25 years later, these early days of the Corleones are still riveting and impeccable, as Pacino’s Michael is drawn into the family business after a nearly-fatal attack on his father, and intramual Mafia killings sweep the families.  To see this masterwork, godfather of endless, seedy copies, is to realize how far American filmmaking has fallen since.

Henry Hill, the Lucese crime family wiseguy made infamous later by Good Fellas, came out of The Godfather twenty-five years ago, stuck his hand in his pocket, tucked his gun in his waistband, and said, “Wow!  I’m part of that world.”

At least, that’s how he remembered it, a quarter-century later. That’s when a TV film crew came to talk to him for yet another crime documentary, this one on the first hundred years of the New York mob.

You’ve seen that show: the grim-faced narrator, a procession of black and white stills of middle-aged guys lying dead in large pools of blood. But “Empire of Crime” had what passes for panache in that genre: it also sought out the pompadoured daughters and girlfriends of mob bosses, breathtakingly into denial, and it went for details of mob life.

The most riveting detail was the role of The Godfather in the lives of these mobsters: it was their training film.  Like Henry Hill (who couldn’t become a fully “made”man because he was only half Sicilian) , a lot of the young Mafiosos hadn’t grown up in the tradition, so to learn how to behave, they flocked to The Godfather.

It’s such a nice mental picture.  Scuzzy wiseguys studying Francis Coppola’s flourishes:  the kissing of hands, the granting of favors on a wedding day. Rolling the words around in their mouths, “Luca Brasi [or fill in the names] sleeps with the fishes,” and that unrefusable offer.  A return to elegance, but don’t slip on that blood there.

Yet a movie’s catch phrase is just that, as lasting as a comet.  You shudder to think how many people are trying out Donnie Brasco’s range of “fuhGETaboutids” at this very moment, but at least you know it’ll be gone before the summer.  What made The Godfather something so different?  How did it travel so quickly and so deeply into the DNA of our culture — something I suspect a twenty-fifth anniversary re-issue will only reinforce.

First, it was daring.  Cinematographers did not keep their characters’ eyes shadowed and unreadable before The Godfather.  They did not light interiors so you’d be hard pressed to read your newspaper indoors. Coppola’s masterly Gordon Willis did.  (He’s not nicknamed The Prince of Darkness for nothing.) It’s hard today – when The Godfather’s rich murkiness has become the international standard – to realize just how bold it was. (Try Harlan Lebo’s exceptionally thorough new book, “The Godfather Legacy,” a detailed account of the trilogy, and among its delights you’ll find Willis’ guiding principals for the look of the films.) These cameras didn’t zoom or dart or whirl around.  They did go high up for an occasional, majestic overview but generally they framed the action in a painterly fashion, what Willis calls tableau style.

The Godfather was measured and it was thoughtful. Coppola was brave enough to fly in the face of the Thirties’ gangster tradition of fast movement and snappy, barked speech.  As though he didn’t know that Mario Puzo’s best seller was supposed to be pulpy sensationalism, he gave it weight and moral heft.  Souls were being lost here; for this he gave his characters the time that was due them. 

After the toll booth massacre, the camera studies the scene for a long interval; there’s that little sound as a piece of bullet-riddled glass falls, then a minute of emptiness.  This was not the tempo of American movies at this time. Even Bonnie and Clyde¸ the model for this bullet-riddled execution, stayed closer to its victims than this bleak, pensive still life does, inviting you to remain unsentimental.

Because The Godfather is so immaculate historically, it will never date.  If you’ve seen a DeMille “historical” epic, reeking of the year in which it was shot instead of the period in which it was set, you know that’s not always a given.  You might wish that Diane Keaton’s hairdresser had access to the imperceptible wigs that have come along since 1972, but Dean Tavoularis’ production design isn’t just accurate, it’s brilliantly selective. As a result, The Godfather remains as reliable as an Alfred Steiglitz photograph; you can believe that this is exactly how one slice of America lived from the mid-Forties to the mid-Fifties.

To all this, add the acting of an extraordinary ensemble, perfectly cast and working in an amazingly understated style, considering that the basic stuff of the story was melodrama.  What young audiences can’t appreciate is that these young stars, Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton were made by their performances here, and the studio fought nearly every bit of casting, including and especially Marlon Brando.

There was, and there is, something powerfully satisfying about Coppola’s vision of this crime family as a family, even one this devoted to a bloody perversion of the American dream.  There was a howl, originally, that his skill as a filmmaker had made the Corleones undeservingly mythic, but one thing about myths: the stuff they’re made of is universal and enduring.  

© 1997 by Sheila Benson, Microsoft’s Cinemania Online.  All Rights Reserved.

Two Minute Oscars

Sheila created an annual column called “Two Minute Oscars” with an eye toward celebrating one-scene wonders—those actors who’d achieved a measure of movie immortality with a well-delivered zinger or a perfectly timed shrug. The idea was pure Sheila, who had a special place in her heart for artists who were content to practice their craft as part of a whole, with no expectation of glory. Sheila threw a little glory their way for many an Oscar season, first in Interview magazine, then in Microsoft’s Cinemania Online and other publications.

Two Minute Oscars for 2005

The Two-Minute Oscars were created more than a decade ago, to celebrate great but fleeting performances, fully rounded characters who live in our memory well after their time onscreen.  Their roles may not even have a name or a full page of dialogue, but because of these actors’ commitment — and sometimes decades of experience — their films acquire a true sense of proportion.  Best recent example:  the great Lois Smith, keeper of a dangerous greenhouse in Minority Report.

Here are this year’s best, a Two-Minute Oscar to each of them:

1) Roberta Maxwell, as Jack Twist’s deeply understanding mother at the end of Brokeback MountainWhen the mourning Ennis visits Jack’s room, you know who has maintained it, in one of the few gestures of love tolerated under his father’s flinty, queer-hating meanness.  

2) Graham Greene as the courtly, romantic Texas rancher, Calvin Manygoats, in Transamericastruck mightily by trans mom Felicity Huffman, but possibly not the man to learn her whole story. . .quite yet.  

3) Winsome Brown, a red-haired lamppost of a beauty in Heights, who injects Glenn Close’s Manhattan birthday gala with brio and her demonstrated theory that everything sounds funny when spoken with an Aussie accent.

4)  Mario Schiano as the sage professor of medicine in The Best of Youth who warns new graduate Nicola to take his talent and go far away from Italy, “a dying country, run by dinosaurs,”  thus forecasting Italy’s immediate future while recognizing that he himself is one of those dinos.  

5.) Ralph Fiennes, absolutely terrifying and completely otherworldly as Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,  whose towering power comes from acting chops, not make-up — or even the absence of a nose.

 6.)  Allie Mickelson, as Laura Kinney, the poised, quiet Kansas high school girl who finds her schoolmate’s body as Capote opens.  Later, when Truman and Harper Lee interview her, Laura’s empathy with his “outsider” status makes her entrust them with her best friend Nancy’s diary.

 7.) Omar Metwally, the Palestinian who meets Eric Bana’s Israeli assassin on a staircase in Munich, and brings so much young energy and passion to what is essential a political treatise that you miss him when he’s cut down, virtual seconds later.  

  8.)  Rachel Nichols, the hot, flashy teenage baby sitter from The Amityville Horror, who takes particular glee in telling the new occupant’s children about the house’s gruesome murder-history, only to become so terrified herself moments  later that she becomes a literal ambulance case.  

9.)  Walid Afkir, the Algerian son from Caché  whose confrontation scene with  beleaguered TV intellectual Daniel Auteuil is knife-edge perfection: it can be taken either as the fury of an innocent man or as a barely-disguised threat.

10.)   Dallas Roberts as Sam Phillips in Walk the Line, who won’t listen to amateur singer Johnny Cash’s wan imitation gospel, and single-handedly goads him until “Folsom Prison Blues” and the true Cash sound comes into being, right there in the studio.

© 2005 by Sheila Benson.  All Rights Reserved.

Two Minute Oscars for 1996

Movies that stick with us are made not only by their stars but by their ensembles.  They get their texture when small parts are played with throwaway authority.  The Academy doesn’t have a slot for these great miniatures, it’s up to us.

Thus, The Two Minute Oscars, for roles too small to be nominated, too fine to be forgotten.

For examples from The Two Minute Hall of Fame, think of Helena Kallianiotes in Five Easy Pieces, as the motor-mouthed hitchhiker obsessed with “filth.”

Think about Jeff Goldblum in Annie Hall, desperately trying to remember his mantra.  Remember Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver, one of Travis Bickle’s creepiest fares, watching his wife silhouetted in another man’s window, with murder on his mind.  Think of Mickey Roarke’s arsonist in Body Heat.  (On second thought, considering that career, think about Ishtar’s blind camel.)  In retrospect, these scenes also pegged the times in which they were made as indelibly as a Nehru jacket or a beehive hairdo.

There were more great Two Minutes than usual to choose from this year, a hopeful sign, I think. When scripts get pared down to the hero, his buddy, the girl and the bad guy, the skeleton cast of too many big American movies lately, you lose more than detail and nuance. You lose the kind of delight that people used to carry away with them, remembering moments as good as these.  

1.)  Susan Barnes, as the furious motel manager in Leaving Las Vegas, her bayonet smile fixed and shiny, who orders Elisabeth Shue and Nicolas Cage to take their liquor and their loud talk and leave.

2.)   Lisa Nicole Carson, as the zestful, life-loving Coretta in Devil in a Blue Dress¸ a woman who knows everything about just what hits the spot, and makes sure that Easy Rawlins does too.

3.)  George Segal, with a faint corporate sheen of sleaze, as To Die For’s convention keynoter, a TV exec only too happy to give Nicole Kidman a little private coaching on how to get ahead in television.

4.)  Madeleine Kahn, as that irrepressible straight-shooter Martha Mitchell, the scourge of politics, the bane of her Attorney General-husband’s life, but absolutely the gusto of Nixon.

5.)  Hugh Laurie, as Sense and Sensibility’s curmudgeonly husband. Afflicted with a non-stop-talking wife, Mr. Palmer comes out from behind his newspaper just long enough to reveal his genuinely generous and noble character.

6.)  Kim Staunton, as the staunch wife of Heat’s parolee Dennis Haysbert, whose attempt to go straight has brought him to a kitchen job from hell.  Her scene as she tells him her pride in him is one of the film’s most haunting; she raises our emotional stakes in the furious action scene to come. 

7.)  John C. Reilly, as the exquisitely delusional drummer in Georgia, somehow convinced that his heroin problem is behind him and best in the mad, funny scene as he and Jennifer Jason Leigh drink to their future as they effectively obliterate their present.

8.)  Richard McCabe, the chunky, inconsolable Captain of Persuasion, whose fiancée has died while he was at sea and whose only solace is poetry.

9.)  Elliott Gould, as the sports-fan-father of one of Kicking and Screaming’s perennial students, a man almost terminally befuddled when his wife announces that she’s thrown in the towel.

10.) Penelope Wilton, as the flamboyant Lady Ottoline Morrell, Carrington’s party-giver extraordinaire.  Wilton manages eccentricity without caricature, her Ottoline is a woman who can stroll her gardens with five leashed pug dogs or throw herself into London’s latest dance rage with the same élan. 

© 1996 by Sheila Benson.  All Rights Reserved.