The Godfather. One of the most successful and influential works ever created. The Godfather was written in 1969 by author Mario Puzo and was on the New York Times Best Seller list for over 65 weeks, with more than 9 million copies sold worldwide. The movie adaptation came out in 1972 and is considered to be, arguably, the best gangster movie ever made.
It became an instant hit and is now a world-renowned classic. It was the highest-grossing film of 1972 and for a while was the highest-grossing film of all time. It was also the first film to earn $1 million per day. The dramatic crime novel reached a huge audience and was considered to be the defining portrait of the Mafia in the 20th century. The film adaptation, however, reached much further in terms of its audience and influence.
Critical Acclaim of The Godfather
The Godfather featured two largely famous actors–Robert De Niro and Al Pacino–in lead roles and is credited for catapulting Diane Keaton and Marlon Brando to all-star status. The film was nominated for 11 Oscars, and although it ultimately won only 3 Oscars, it won several Golden Globes and countless other awards. Marlon Brando won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo won the Academy Award for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), and The Godfather won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1973.
On top of his Oscar, Mario Puzo also won the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Drama in 1973 and 1975 for The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. The Godfather Part II also won six Academy Awards in 1975, including the award for Best Picture and Francis Coppola’s Best Director win.
The Godfather wasn’t just commercially successful, it also influenced cinematic culture. Due to the success of Puzo’s novel, The Godfather movie adaptation was one of the most anticipated films to ever be put into production. The standards were so high that Paramount considered dropping the option entirely due to concerns of not being able to meet the hype it was receiving or live up to fans’ expectations. Other adaptations, such as Gone with the Wind, had also been surrounded by high expectations, but it was nothing compared to the excitement of The Godfather adaptation.
Entering a New Era of Filmmaking
The financial success of the film changed the strategy used by studios to premiere their movies. Before The Godfather was released, standard practice for studios handling an expected box office hit was to open in only one or two theaters, generally in New York City and Los Angeles, and then add theaters weekly until the top 200 markets were reached, generally in a month. Paramount, however, had different plans for their action-packed gangster movie.
They premiered The Godfather in New York City and in their second week expanded to over 150 theaters across the nation, earning over $1 million before wide releasing it. In 1973, The Exorcist, a Warner Bros. film, opened on 30 theater screens in over 20 cities across the U.S., earning a little less than $2 million before its speedy wide release. When Jaws, a Universal Pictures film, came out in 1975 it opened on 500 theater screens across the country.
Films ranging from the 1920s through the 1960s often focused on the actor. Studios would create personas for their actors and would then rely on those personas to carry them through their films and into stardom. In the late 1960s, the landscape for cinema was beginning to change, and studios were more willing to take chances on independent filmmakers and lesser-known actors. This led to a wider appreciation from audiences of newer talent on screen and seamlessly shifted American film into the 1970s Auteur renaissance.
The Auteur renaissance, also known as the New Hollywood, is generally seen as the golden age of movie making in which passionate directors were given more freedom to defy exhausted conventions used in Old Hollywood. The Godfather is considered by many to be one of the sparks that set the nation ablaze in this new Hollywood renaissance and era of filmmaking.
This time period is generally considered to be the most experimental period of movies since silent films. Since box office success relied much less on the invented recognizability of actors, the strategy for reaching stardom changed. Method acting was on the rise and proved to be a successful way to reach fame for many, including Marlon Brando and his portrayal of Vito Corleone.
The Lasting Impact of the Film Adaptation
The film’s lasting appeal can be credited to its trailblazing visual style and unique performances. The Godfather alludes heavily to past gangster films, and the acknowledgment of the history of the American gangster film goes a long way for audiences and older generations. The fact that it is often credited as the bridge between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood is also a contributing factor to its lasting relevance, as people everywhere, not just film students, can appreciate the impact this movie had on modern cinema.
The visual style of the film is unique and contributes greatly to the plot. The darkness and contrast of colors, as well as other visual aids used throughout the film, tell the audience that the exploration of the movie’s themes–such as morality, crime, and justice–is going to be multifaceted. In addition to the performances, the storyline was so compelling because it implied that the plot was rooted in the culture of Italian American immigrants, who brought their way of life from their old country to America, making the characters seem more human and, ultimately, worth caring about.
The 50th anniversary of The Godfather was in March of 2022. Movie theaters across the country re-released the movie for screening for certain amounts of time, and a 50th-anniversary version of both the book and the film was released. When The Godfather first came out, it was met with backlash and controversy, mainly from the Italian American community.
The Backlash from the Public
The Italian-American Civil Rights League, headed and founded by Joe Colombo, the head of the Colombo crime family–one of the five families–launched a protest rally turned sold-out benefit in Madison Square Garden in 1970 that raised almost $500,000 and was headlined by Frank Sinatra. Colombo and his organization argued that the film depicted Italian Americans in a negative light and would lead to a widely held perception of Italian Americans as being the largest purveyors of organized crime. Colombo and his group also argued that the word ‘mafia’ was itself a racial slur and that the FBI was harassing and persecuting all Italian Americans.
The organization was founded during events leading up to the Madison Square Garden benefit when Colombo’s son, Joe Jr., was arrested by the FBI and charged with a conspiracy to melt coins and sell the silver. It started with Joe Sr. organizing protestors to picket the FBI building in New York. After Joe Jr. was acquitted and released, the organization’s focus shifted to a new goal: changing how Italian Americans were treated and perceived within popular culture. They believed that stopping the release of The Godfather could help them achieve this goal.
Eventually, Al Ruddy, the leading producer of The Godfather at Paramount, met with Colombo and won over the angry crowd, suggesting Colombo read the script and if he found anything offensive, they could potentially strike a deal. Colombo ended up only wanting one thing to change, the use of the word ‘mafia’, and Ruddy agreed. The upheaval caused by Colombo and his organization ultimately created more publicity for the film and won a small victory for Italian Americans.
51 years later and the film is considered to be a timeless classic that will continue to entertain generations for years to come.
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