With the 50th anniversary imminent it’s no surprise to see a further addition to the already weighty library of works on The Godfather. What is surprising is just how good it is, wrapping up all previous research as well as adding copious new information about the making of the Mafia saga, in particular relationships between the filmmakers and the Cosa Nostra itself. A battle of egos as much as anything else with a budget that lay in tatters, quite how such a masterpiece emerged could have been a film in itself. Journalist Robert Seal has delivered a riveting book, replete with fascinating anecdotes, and with an insider’s knowledge of how a movie gets put together.
Some of the drama is certainly overplayed, the financial threats to Paramount at the end of the 1960s, the presence on the set of an auditor (hardly unusual with a director who had never handled such a big budget before), and the conflict with legendary producer Robert Evans who, after the event, claimed a greater share of the glory than he was entitled to. Evans at least had a track record – Rosemary’s Baby (1968), True Grit (1969) and Love Story (1970) among his successes during his tenure at the studio – compared to official producer Albert Ruddy with three flops to his name including Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970) and best known for television hit Hogan’s Heroes. But Ruddy was known as a producer who could bring a project in under budget. As an indication of the kind of penny pinching that Evans expected, he made Ruddy buy his own copy of the novel.
Paramount had little interest in Mafia movies after the under-rated The Brotherhood (1968) – reviewed in the Blog – had flopped at the box office and Burt Lancaster was waiting in the wings ready to take the project off the studio’s hands. Compulsive gambler and impoverished author Mario Puzo had no screenwriting credits when brought in to work on the picture. And no idea how to write a screenplay. So he mostly played tennis. His biggest contribution when he was sitting in meetings with little to show for his efforts was to suggest Marlon Brando as star. A suggestion that met with complete silence because Brando was box office poison.
Francis Coppola – himself the creator of three flops and as impoverished as Puzo had once been – was hired as director in part because Paramount got the notion that the reason The Brotherhood had failed was lack of cultural assimilation, director Martin Ritt having no Italian heritage. Coppola was pushed as having an insider’s knowledge of Italians even though as Paramount executive Peter Bart pointed out that he “may have had pasta now and then but I don’t think their family is any more Italian than my family.”
As the makers of Succession have realised, there is a classic story to be told about business inheritance. Coppola wanted to make a movie that was about “more than guns and goons and sex and spaghetti.” He envisaged a “classic succession concerning a great king who had three sons, each of whom had a single element of what made the king great.” Prior to Coppola making his presentation to the studio, Ruddy told him to play up the low budget. Instead, the director gave “one of the great sales jobs of all time” convincing executives to at least give him a shot at doing it his way. He was hired for $175,000 and six per cent of the profits. “I had two kids, a pregnant wife, and no money. I was terrified,” said Coppola.
As well he should have been. Not only did he have mobsters knocking on his door complaining on the one hand about how the film could adversely present Italian Americans and on the other hand determined to land a role in the picture to the extent of paying for their own screen tests. So many talent schools charged $100 to shoot screen tests for any gullible schmuck that Paramount had to take out restraining orders. But made man Gianni Russo did land the role of Carlo Rizzi. Al Lettieri’s brother was involved in the business. Ex-wrestler Lenny Montana with no acting experience was picked out of a crowd watching the shooting to play hitman Luca Brasi.
Although Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine, Laurence Olivier and Rod Steiger were among the stars pitched for the Brando role, Puzo had sent a handwritten letter to Brando imploring him to consider the role. The Brando test, with the star improvising his own make-up, was electric. But the greatest actor of his generation had to accept a pitiful deal – $50,000 for six weeks’ work – though, thankfully, a percentage had been tagged on.
Robert Evans wanted Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty or Ryan O’Neal for Michael. “One of the reasons I got the job,” said Coppola, “was because they thought they could push me around.” He stuck to his guns, holding out for his dream team of James Caan, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton, “eccentric and kind of weird in a way…to enliven the straight boring character” of Kay Adams.
But the casting was just the beginning of a momentous battle to keep Coppola’s vision intact. He came close to getting fired several times (“I was getting fired every other week,” recalled Coppola), especially as the budget, initially figured at $2 million, headed towards $6 million. The story of the shoot is told here in forensic detail. Come post-production, Evans wanted Henry Mancini to do the score so Coppola threatened to take his name off the picture unless the Nino Rota music was kept.
Finally, when the film was ready it was met with – deafening silence. Paris premiere – silence. New York premiere – silence. When Albert Ruddy and Al Pacino watched it in an ordinary cinema with an ordinary audience the result was the same – silence. But the lines around the block indicated something else – a phenomenon.
The only area where author Seal gets it wrong is in his understanding of release strategy. “Its distribution was a revolution,” claimed Mark Seal. Only it wasn’t. I know because I wrote a book on the subject (In Theaters Everywhere if you’re interested) and there was nothing at all novel in releasing a movie in New York in 26 cinemas all at once.
But apart from that glitch, Seal has produced a brilliant, incredibly readable book, that covers the saga of the making of the film in as much detail as an aficionado would want. Drawing on the dozen other books written previously about the film and adding his own fulsome research, Seal has created a book that will be as much a monument to this film as the film is to Hollywood cinema in the 1970s.
In 1972, there was no such thing as a global wide release. Although it was shown in the U.S. in March that year, in Glasgow, Scotland, where I lived, The Godfather did not get its first showing until the end of August. It opened at the ABC 1 in Sauchiehall St in the city centre as well as over the River Clyde at the ABC Coliseum. It was competing with two roadshows, Young Winston and Mary, Queen of Scots at the Odeon 1 and Odeon 3, respectively, Robert Redford in heist picture How to Steal a Diamond at the Odeon 2 and What’s Up Doc? at the ABC 2. Western The Hired Hand was playing the arthouse Cosmo and the arty Made for Each Other at the gigantic Green’s Playhouse. The La Scala had the double bill of Dr No/Thunderball and the Regent was in the second week of Dirty Harry, somewhat unusual in that this was a second run house where pictures were rarely retained.
There were three performances a day for The Godfather but no advance booking – as would have been the case if it had gone into roadshow – so the queues outside both cinemas were huge. It had such an impact on me I saw it twice in the same day. When I moved to London I used to take regular advantage of the double bill The Godfather / The Godfather Part II when it used to play a cinema in Regent St on occasional Sundays, so I have no idea how many times I have seen both. Never enough, I would guess.
Where were you when you first saw The Godfather?
And where will I be on February 26 when The Godfather will be reissued in cinemas all over Britain (and possibly worldwide for all I know)? I leave it to you to guess.
To cash in on the 50th anniversary, cinemas all around the world are planning to screen all three parts of the trilogy. So watch out for them.