In an attempt to become a movie buff, I'm watching every Best Picture winner ever. A daunting task for someone who hasn't even seen Jaws. To save you a ton of time, I’ll document my adventure here, and we can become movie buffs together.
In case you need a refresher course: The Godfather was released in 1972 and nominated for 11 Academy Awards. It won three, including Best Picture, Best Lead Actor (Marlon Brando), and Best Writing for an Adapted Screenplay. The movie also features fantastic performances by Al Pacino, James Caan, and Robert Duvall, all of whom received Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations.
The film stirred up a lot of controversy at the 45th Academy Awards, as Brando refused his Oscar, instead sending Sacheen Littlefeather to the podium in objection of how Native Americans were portrayed in Hollywood films. Al Pacino boycotted his nomination because he felt he should have been nominated for Lead Actor (he’s got a point). It also received a Best Musical Score nomination that was retracted after they discovered the composer used essentially the same score in a 1958 film.
For those who need a plot recap, “Don” Vito Corleone (Brando) is the head honcho of the Corleone crime family. The family gets into a sticky situation with a drug dealer who doesn’t take rejection well, kicking off a mafia war between the five big New York crime families. It escalates quickly. Don Vito finally dies — of natural causes! — and his son Michael (Al Pacino) goes from reluctant youngster to trigger-happy mobster and takes over as The Don. In the meantime, a lot of people are murdered.
The movie is awesome. I spent most of the three hours petrified at the constant threat of someone being off-ed. The acting was (obviously) incredible (four nominations? fuggetaboutit!). The writing sharp, with “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” besting any crime movie quip that came after. But the suspense was what struck me most. Director Francis Ford Coppola does some amazing emotional puppet mastery, including this Italian restaurant scene.
Looking at it through the lens 2013, however, the most impressive part of this movie is its legacy. Let’s start with the characters created, particularly the brilliant Marlon Brando. Vito Corleone became an iconic mob movie character as the old boss with a raspy voice. There’s something about his understated delivery that feels like he’s doling out slow-cooked meatballs of wisdom. He speaks softly and carries a big machine gun, and that’s cool. But creating iconic mob movie characters, imitated by movies, shows, impressionists and comedians for years to come, is the just the beginning of The Godfather’s influence.
Beyond characters, The Godfather is basically “the godfather” of its genre. Many have personal favorites, from Scarface to Goodfellas to The Departed, but much like Jordan will always be the greatest basketball player, no one dares question The Godfather as king of the mob genre. You'll find it atop any list of the best mafia movies. And you won't find many that came out before it — it’s the OG of G movies.
But once again, let’s go further, because The Godfather isn’t just one of the best gangster movies ever, it’s one of the best movies ever, period. The gangster and crime movies that came before it could never quite vie for Best Picture, the closest being more film noir than gangster. Also, never before had such a violent film ever won Best Picture. Nominated? Maybe, but no winners. So now, you’ve got this murderous masterstroke expanding what’s acceptable as brilliant cinema. Only after its victory did other violent films start winning, with The Godfather: Part II, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, and Silence of the Lambs following as bloody best pictures.
To stop here though, we’re once again selling The Godfather short. Let’s hop off the silver screen and into your speakers. Even as "Gangsta Rap" has quieted in the 2000s, the concept of "Gangstas" and "Gs" is so intertwined in modern hip hop and pop that Miley Cyrus thinks she’s totes gangsta. Go back to when rap was picking up steam in the late 80s, some of the biggest names were taking cues from the glorified mob families in gangster flicks, and it wasn’t just in their music. Picture a rapper sitting in a plush leather chair, dressed in a silk Italian suit and smoking a cigar. That’s Don Vito. The normally kung-fu minded Wu Tang Clan released Wu-Gambinos and gave themselves mob names. It became ingrained in their images, from style to name, a foundation of their personas.
We can even balloon The Godfather's influence all the way to modern day pop culture. America’s fascination with gangsters goes back to the 1930s. Al Capone is notorious for being a bloodthirsty criminal, but he was practically a hero among the depression’s hard-hit middle class. He was booting the system, and the system had let them down. There’s a part of us that finds these people somehow heroic, if not simply fascinating. And here we are, 80 years later, and while a real mobster might dip in and out of the news, the idea of gangsters and crime families is stronger than ever, thanks to a genre that started with … well, you know.
Does it hold up? Let’s put it this way. Of all the Best Picture winners I’ve seen so far, this is the only one that I’d say is … wait for it ... culturally transcendent! So, yeah, if this movie comes out today, it’s winning 2014 Best Picture. No doubt. The Departed probably owes The Godfather a slash credit for its own victory.
As time goes on, fewer and fewer young people will probably watch The Godfather. But they’ll watch mob movies, they’ll listen to hip hop, and they’ll probably hear someone do a Godfather impression. You don’t ever have to watch this movie to be influenced by it, and that’s an honor higher than any Academy Award.