Behind the Godfather Story: “In the end, this crew of certifiable misfits delivered a full-blown masterpiece”

From a Washington Post book review by Glenn Frankel headlined “Behind ‘The Godfather,’ misfits, showdowns, and the real mob”:

The director had four unremarkable feature films and a handful of soft-porn skin flicks on his résumé. The star was a washed-up and unreliable former deity who couldn’t memorize his lines, was deeply in debt and was pondering his third divorce. The co-star was a high school dropout and former messenger boy whom the studio suits considered too short, too old and too inexperienced for the part. And the man overseeing the production was an insufferable narcissist with a blossoming cocaine habit and a glamorous wife who was about to dump him for Steve McQueen.

They fought with one another and with their doubting overseers at Paramount Pictures, exceeding their budget, their deadline and the patience of all involved. But in the end, this crew of certifiable misfits delivered a full-blown masterpiece — “The Godfather,” which the American Film Institute ranks as the second-greatest American movie of all time (just behind “Citizen Kane.”)…

The 1972 movie revitalized Hollywood, elevated Francis Ford Coppola to the ranks of great directors, rescued the career of Marlon Brando and helped create a new generation of movie stars: Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton. It spawned two sequels, one of them brilliant (“The Godfather Part II”), the other meh (“The Godfather Part III”). But do we really need to read again how Brando dyed his ponytail with black shoe polish, stuffed his cheeks with cotton balls and lowered his voice two octaves for the screen test that got him the starring role?

Mark Seal, a longtime movie writer for Vanity Fair, clearly believes we do. And after resisting the idea as long as I could, I have to confess that his book, even with the inside-joke title of “Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli” (an improvised line in the movie), captured me with its joyful energy, extensive research and breathless enthusiasm.

While Coppola was creating cinematic mob bosses, producer Al Ruddy was negotiating with a real one: Joseph Colombo Sr., the head of one of New York’s five main crime families and founder of the Italian American Civil Rights League. Ruddy agreed to delete the terms “mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” from the movie and to turn over proceeds from the film’s New York premiere to the league’s hospital fund. In return, Colombo gave his blessing to the project and delivered cooperation and tranquility from the city’s powerful labor unions.

The tougher battles were between Coppola and the studio execs, who constantly threatened to fire him. “It was the most miserable time of life,” he tells Seal. He fought viciously with Evans over the movie’s nearly three-hour length, music and somber tone. Then Evans fought with the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board, whose censors demanded cuts in three scenes considered excessively violent. The scenes stayed in; the movie was rated R.

Both Coppola and Evans feared that the movie would bomb. But an early preview changed their minds. When the film ended, Seal reports, there was silence — no applause, nothing. Audiences were stunned by the artistry of what they had seen, and they’ve been stunned ever since.

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