Great Movies: Price of the Ruthless Quest for Power: 'Godfather Part Two'

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By Mark R. Gould

As you watch a humorless Michael Corleone destroy the lives of those he once loved in the Godfather Part Two, the film becomes a Shakespearean tragedy that unfolds during  booming post World War Two America.

The film is a meditation on success and the price you pay for the ruthless quest for power. Michael is the youngest son of Vito Corleone, the son his father hoped would find a different path to success than the family business. Despite being a war hero, revenge is in his DNA, and rules when rival gangsters almost kill his father.

Although it won the 1974 Academy Award for Best Picture, some prominent reviewers did not appreciate the film’s style of cutting between the present in New York City and Havana and the past in Sicily. However, over the years, Godfather Part Two has become recognized as one of the greatest films ever made.

Unlike  The Godfather (1972), director Francis Ford Coppola (b.1939) was given near-complete control over the production. In his DVD commentary, he said this resulted in a film that ran very smoothly, considering that it was shot in multiple locations and told two parallel stories within one film.

Coppola shot The Godfather Part Two at the same time as The Conversation (1974) with Gene Hackman.  The  The Godfather Part Two won an Academy Award for Best Picture.

However, the film almost collapsed before it went into production. Al Pacino was very unhappy with the script and threatened to pull out of the film. Coppola spent an entire night rewriting it before giving it to Pacino for his review, which he approved.

Francis Ford CoppolaIn the documentary The Godfather Family: A look Inside, Coppola stated that three weeks prior to Part II being released, people who previewed the film said it was disorganized and hard to follow. Coppola and the editors returned to the cutting room to improve the film's narrative structure.

In the 2002 poll of the Sight and Sound magazine, Coppola ranked #4 in the directors' top ten directors of all time and #10 in the critics' top ten directors of all time. Four of Coppola's films- The Godfather,  The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now and Patton are featured in the Writers Guild of America’s List of   101 greatest screenplays. Three of his films are featured in AFI's 100 Years…100 Movies: The Godfather (#2), Apocalypse Now (#28) and The Godfather Part II (#32).

In 1998, the Directors Guild of America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2010, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored  him with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award

After graduating from Hofstra University, Coppola enrolled in the University of California at Los Angeles,  He then enrolled in UCLA Film School for graduate work in film. At UCLA, Coppola directed a short horror film and a film about a sculptor’s nightmares coming to life.

He directed a soft core porn film in 1962. The film failed to attract any attention. Prolific low-budget producer Roger Corman hired him to dub and re-edit a Russian science fiction film, which he turned into a sex-and-violence monster movie entitled Battle Beyond the Sun, released in 1962. Corman then hired him as dialogue director on Tower of London (1962), sound man for The Young Racers (1963) and associate producer of The Terror (1963).

On a budget of $40,000 ($20,000 from Corman and $20,000 from another producer who wanted to buy the movie's English rights) Coppola directed, Dementia 13, his first feature from his own original screenplay. Somewhat superior to the run-of-the-mill exploitation films being turned out at that time, the film recouped its shoestring expenses and went on to become a minor cult film among horror buffs.

In 1965, Coppola won the annual Samuel Goldwyn Award for the best screenplay written by a UCLA student. He did some script doctoring for This Property Is Condemned (1966) and Is Paris Burning? (1966). Coppola then purchased the rights to the David Benedictus novel “You're a Big Boy Now." This was his UCLA thesis project that also received a theatrical release. The movie brought him some critical attention.

Following the success of You're a Big Boy Now, Coppola was hired to direct the movie version of the Broadway musical Finian's Rainbow, starring Petula Clark, in her first American film, and veteran Fred Astaire. The Youth Movement was starting in Hollywood, so studio chief Jack Warner gave Coppola the assignment. He took his cast to the Napa Valley for much of the outdoor shooting, but these scenes were in sharp contrast to those obviously filmed on a Hollywood sound stage, resulting in a disjointed look to the film. Dealing with outdated material at a time when the popularity of film musicals was slipping, Coppola's result was only semi-successful, although the film is a wistful farewell to the wonderful performer, Fred Astaire.

Coppola then co-wrote the script for Patton in 1970 along with Edmund H. North. It earned him his first Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

“I wrote the script of Patton. And the script was very controversial when I wrote it, because they thought it was so stylized. It was supposed to be like, sort of, you know, The Longest Day.  And my script of 'Patton' was -- I was sort of interested in the reincarnation. And I had this very bizarre opening where he stands up in front of an American flag and gives this speech. Ultimately, I wasn't fired, but I was fired, meaning that when the script was done, they said, "Okay, thank you very much," and they went and hired another writer and that script was forgotten. And I remember very vividly this long, kind of being raked over the coals for this opening scene,” said Coppola.

“Even after the director was persuaded to keep the scene intact, George C. Scott refused to do it, as he believed it would overshadow the rest of his performance. The director lied and assured him that it would be shown at the end. The movie opens with Scott's rendering of Patton's famous military "Pep Talk" to members of the Third Army, set against a huge American flag. Coppola and North had to tone down Patton's actual language to avoid an R rating; in the opening monologue, the word "fornicating” was used when criticizing the  Saturday Evening Post. Over the years, this opening monologue has become an iconic scene, and has spawned parodies in numerous films, political cartoons and television shows.

The release of The Godfather in 1972 was a milestone in cinema. The near 3-hour-long epic, which chronicled the saga of the Corleone family, received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics, and earned  Coppola the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, which he shared with Mario Puzo,  However, Coppola had to face a lot of difficulties while filming The Godfather.

He was not Paramount's first choice to direct the movie; Italian director Sergio Leone was initially offered the job, but declined in order to direct his own gangster opus, Once Upon a Time in America.  Peter Bogdanovich was then approached but he also declined the offer and made What's Up, Doc?  Bogdanovich has often said that he would have cast Edward G. Robinson in the lead.

According to Robert Evans, head of Paramount Pictures at the time, Coppola also did not initially want to direct the film because he feared it would glorify the Mafia and violence, and thus reflect poorly on his Sicilian and Italian heritage. However, Evans specifically wanted an Italian-American to direct the film because his research had shown that previous films about the Mafia that were directed by non-Italians had fared dismally at the box office, and he wanted to, in his own words, "smell the spaghetti." When Coppola hit upon the idea of making it a metaphor for American capitalism, however, he eagerly agreed to take the helm.

Casting proved to be a battle Royale.  Coppola stuck to his plan of casting Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone, though Paramount wanted either Ernest Borgnine or Danny Thomas. At one point, Coppola was told by the then-president of Paramount that "Marlon Brando will never appear in the film.'

When he took on The Godfather, Coppola was in financial trouble. The first film from his studio, American Zoetrope, George Lucas's stark science fiction downer, THX 1138, had so enraged Warner Bros. that they'd demanded their money back, leaving Coppola deep in debt and unsure of his future as a film-maker. Lucas advised him to do The Godfather, and everything changed.

"I didn't know anything about gangsters," Coppola said. "I had never met a gangster. I knew they were Italian-Americans so I just made them like my family in terms of how they ate, say. Also, New York Italians speak with a New York accent, they don't 'speaka lika dis'. So I just was true to what I saw with my uncles and my father. And although they were musicians, I used my own family."

Coppola fought hard to cast the likes of Marlon Brando (the studio also suggested Laurence Olivier) and the then little-known Al Pacino, and survived threats to replace him during production. He was vindicated when The Godfather became a huge success. The film-maker won his second Oscar for screenwriting, Brando was named best actor, and the film was awarded best picture. "After The Godfather, I was pretty much able to do what I wanted," he said.

After pleading with the executives, Coppola was allowed to cast Brando only if he appeared in the film for much less salary than his previous films, perform a screen-test, and put up a bond saying that he would not cause a delay in the production (as he had done on previous film sets). Coppola chose Brando over Ernest Borgnine on the basis of Brando's screen test, which also won the support of the  Paramount leadership. 

The Godfather was a much unappreciated movie when we were making it. They were very unhappy with it. They didn't like the cast. They didn't like the way I was shooting it. I was always on the verge of getting fired. So it was an extremely nightmarish experience. I had two little kids, and the third one was born during that. We lived in a little apartment, and I was basically frightened that they didn't like it. They had as much as said that, so when it was all over I wasn't at all confident that it was going to be successful, and that I'd ever get another job.”

Not too long ago, Esquire magazine asked Coppola if he had ever seen "The Sopranos." His answer?  I never saw ‘The Sopranos.’ I'm not interested in the mob."

Read the entire interview,"Francis Ford Coppola: What I've Learned," at Esquirecom.


Visit your local library for more information about Francis Ford Coppola.

Francis Ford Coppola on Worldcat.

The Francis Ford Coppola Encyclopedia
James M. Welsh and Gene D. Phillips and others, (2010).
This encyclopedia focuses on the entire career of Francis Ford Coppola, whether a screenwriter, producer, director, or even vintner. Though the majority of the entries cover individuals (actors, writers, cinematographers, and more) and films, others cover influences, nonfilm projects, and a variety of additional topics, among them American Zoetrope (Coppola’s studio), Cannes International Film Festival, and The Old Guard (the U.S. Army ceremonial unit honored in the film Gardens of Stone).
— Excerpt of review by Patricia Hogan first published December 31, 2010 (Booklist Online).

Francis Ford Coppola: Interviews
Gene D. Phillips and Rodney Hill, editors, (2004).
Coppola’s lofty reputation rests entirely on the remarkable films he made in the 1970s: The Godfather and its sequel, the less-heralded masterpiece The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now.The 10 interviews collected here, drawn from mainstream newspapers and magazines, film journals, and other sources, date from 1968, when Coppola’s first studio picture, Finian’s Rainbow, was near release, to 1997, when he was working on a pedestrian adaptation of a John Grisham novel. — Excerpt of review by Gordon Flagg first published September 15, 2004 (Booklist).

Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola
Gene D. Phillips, (2004).
Phillips depicts Coppola’s career as a struggle to exist as an “artist in an industry,” showing that the auteur theory has validity even within today’s Hollywood system. He valiantly attempts to make this case by giving equal time to Coppola’s less-celebrated efforts, arguing effectively for the underappreciated Bram Stoker’s Dracula , which he maintains reinvented the horror film much as The Godfather had the gangster film, but less successfully for “gun for hire” jobs such as the John Grisham adaptation, The Rainmaker . — Excerpt of review by Gordon Flagg first published May 1, 2004 (Booklist).

Francis Ford Coppola: A Filmmaker’s Life
Michael Schumacher, (1999).
Schumacher posits a wealth of details about all aspects of the creation of most of Coppola’s films. In detail, he works on Dementia 13 through John Grisham’s The Rainmaker (with enough discussion to situate in the director’s oeuvre the three films that were barely features, e.g., the HBO special Rip Van Winkle), charting Coppola’s techniques with actors and crew, the integration of his family into the work, and his well-publicized battles with Hollywood executives. Excerpt of review first published September 15, 1999 (Booklist).

Whom God Wishes to Destroy: Francis Coppola and the New Hollywood
Jon Lewis, (1995).
Once, in a pensive mood, Coppola borrowed from Euripides to express his views on Hollywood: “Whom God wishes to destroy, he first makes successful in show business.” To find out about Coppola, Lewis studied the business aspect of the film industry in the 1980s, because Coppola wanted to godfather his way into the business—own a studio (Zoetrope), distribute his films, and maintain a film crew. This at a time when studios were being gobbled up by conglomerates and the price to be a player was rising constantly. Certainly a measure of madness was operating. The cost of making his very first film at Zoetrope, One from the Heart, brought him down.
— Excerpt of review by Bonnie Smothers first published July, 1995 (Booklist).


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