Francis Ford Coppola

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) explains to his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) what his father does for a living in Coppola's The Godfather (1972)

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) explains to his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) what his father does for a living in Coppola’s The Godfather (1972)

  • Born: 1939
  • Rank: 24
  • Score: 663.70
  • Awards: Oscar / 2 DGA / BAFTA / 2 Golden Globes / NSFC / NBR
  • Nominations: 4 Oscars / 5 DGA / 2 BAFTA / 5 Golden Globes
  • Feature Films: 24
  • Best: The Godfather
  • Worst: Tonight for Sure

Top 5 Feature Films:

  1. The Godfather – 1972
  2. Apocalypse Now – 1979
  3. The Godfather Part II – 1974
  4. The Conversation – 1974
  5. The Cotton Club – 1984

Top 10 Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1966 – 7th – You’re a Big Boy Now
  • 1969 – 10th – Rain People
  • 1972 – 1st – The Godfather
  • 1974 – 2nd – The Godfather Part II
  • 1974 – 3rd – The Conversation
  • 1979 – 2nd – Apocalypse Now
  • 1984 – 4th – The Cotton Club
  • 1990 – 8th – The Godfather Part III

Francis Ford Coppola was the first of a new wave of directors in two ways. First, he was the first of the film school brats to suddenly spring up and become a major director. Second, he was the first of the Roger Corman disciples to go on and make his own name for himself. In both cases he was setting the stage for himself and the others like him (Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, Demme, Howard) who would start to become major forces in the industry in the 70’s and 80’s. He would take his position at the head of the table with seriousness, helping to create Lucas’ career and casting family members, thus jump-starting careers for his sister (Talia Shire) and daughter (Sofia), while his nephew changed his name to make it on his own (Nicholas Cage).

Think about that moment at the Academy Awards in February, 2007.  The friendship between Lucas and Spielberg is well known.  But it was so important to have Coppola there, the godfather to these other major talents when Marty won his Oscar.  It was only right.  And it made for the nice joke because Lucas, in spite of all his innovations to the film industry, has never actually won an Oscar (while the stats above list Coppola with one Oscar, that’s simply for directing – he also won an Oscar for writing the Original Screenplay for Patton, an Oscar for writing the adapted screenplay for The Godfather and Oscars for both producing and writing the second Godfather, so he actually has five Oscars overall).

Coppola’s actual career as a director has had some considerable unevenness.  He started out with some low budget Corman cheapies, but then made an original, inventive film with You’re a Big Boy Now, a good enough film that Andrew Sarris mentioned him in his book long before The Godfather.  He followed that up with the interesting Rain People and solid Finian’s Rainbow before investing so much of his life in The Godfather.   The first film was one of the greatest films ever made and the second film was even more successful at the Oscars.  In between he made the smaller film The Conversation, which happened to be brilliant and also got nominated for Best Picture.

But then the rest of the decade was bogged down with Apocalypse Now.  When it finally got made it was a masterpiece, but it took its toll on Coppola as is so evidenced in Hearts of Darkness, one of the best documentaries ever made.  And after that, his career never really recovered.  He made the terrible One From the Heart, which was a huge flop and then spent the rest of the eighties making smaller films that he usually didn’t write with the exception of The Cotton Club.  He started the nineties with the third Godfather, which is a very good, but flawed film, then followed it up with the similar very good but flawed Dracula.  But he made the terrible Jack and after the solid Rainmaker, pretty much stepped away for a decade while trying to get Megalopolis made.  He finally returned with the very flawed Youth without Youth and this year’s Tetro (which I have not yet seen) and hopefully will make more films.  A talent like his should never be gone for this long.

The Godfather – #1 film of 1972

This film is a perfect example of looking for well-paced, interesting novels that aren’t necessarily great literature.  The Godfather is a good book, an interesting book, but it by no means a great book.  But the film that was made from it, while not departing particularly much (it is in the second film where it takes the characters to new places) is an unqualified success, one of the few films that is revered on every level.  When it was first released it became the third biggest money-maker in film history (behind only Gone with the Wind and The Sound of Music).  It earned rave reviews.  It won the Academy Award for Best Picture.  It sits on or near the top of every all-time film list (it is currently #2 on the IMdB list and #6 on the external top 1000).  The only film in all of film history that was such an immediate success with both critics and the public and earned Best Picture and still is revered is Gone with the Wind.  But look at the film when it was being made.

First there is the director.  Coppola had done some good work, but he was not a major name and this was a major project.  His films had included Corman cheapies, a bizarre experimental comedy, a small drama and a Fred Astaire musical.

There were the stars.  Marlon Brando in the fifties had been huge, winning an Oscar and earning four other nominations.  But in the sixties his reputation had declined and he was known as a box office flop who was extremely difficult to work with.  During the actual filming Brando refused to memorize his lines and instead read from hidden cue cards.  And James Caan and Al Pacino had done some film work but neither was particularly well known.  Talia Shire was the director’s sister.  Alex Rocco was a Teamster from Boston.

Then there was the subject.  Angry protests came in from the Italian-American community.  Mafia bosses protested and wanted the phrases “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” removed from the film.  Threats were aimed at producer Robert Evans and Paramount Studios.

But then look at the results.

First there is the script itself.  Some of these lines are now among the most famous in film history (“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse”).  There are undercurrents to so many of the lines and the way the family and crime language overlap is masterful.

Then there are the technical aspects of the film.  The Godfather didn’t actually win any technical Oscars; it was nominated for Editing, Sound and Costume Design but lost them all to Cabaret.  But it really is one of the foremost technical films ever made.  Aside from the iconic Score (originally nominated, then withdrawn when it was realized that much of it had been previously written), there is the amazing Cinematography, most notably the final shot of Michael Corleone going to visit his brother in law, his face half hidden in darkness as he embraces his destiny.  Then there is the Sound, the way we slightly overhear conversations, or the sound of Sonny being slaughtered at the toll booth.  There is the amazing Editing, especially as Michael rids himself of all enemies while having his daughter baptized.  There is the phenomenal Art Direction and Costume Design, first the period pieces in New York, then the amazing shots in Italy.  There is even the Makeup, especially the ways the bruises are so perfect on Michael after he has had his jaw broken.

And then there is the acting.  Until the Lord of the Rings trilogy there really wasn’t any film like this with so many great performances at so many levels.  Brando won the Oscar for a magnificent portrayal.  Caan, Pacino and Robert Duvall were all nominated (and all lost to Joel Grey for Cabaret).  Pacino should have won; his performance as Michael in this film is one of the greatest screen performances of all-time.  There are Diane Keaton and Talia Shire, both very good in smaller roles that would be expanded in the later films.  Then there are so many great character actors in the other roles, beginning with Sterling Hayden as the crooked cop, but also from Richard Castellano, John Cazale, Abe Vigoda and Richard Conte.  And the list just goes on and on.

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