March 15 has been known for millennia as a crucial turning point in Italian — and, in fact, human — history. On that date in 44 B.C. — “The Ides of March” in the ancient Roman calendar — mighty conqueror and all-powerful emperor Julius Caesar fell prey to the knives of trusted aids and politicians turned conspirators and assassins.
Nearly 2,000 years later — and 45 years ago today, to be exact — another saga of Italian conquerors and emperors, also full of blood and intrigue, similarly captivated observers worldwide and reinvented culture from the moment it first happened onward.On March 15, 1972, director Francis Ford Coppola’s sprawling, epic, immortally awe-inspiring adaptation of the Mario Puzo novel The Godfather initially exploded onto movie screens.
The Godfather landed with mammoth fanfare as a masterpiece, an instant classic, and a box-office blockbuster. To this day, The Godfather still ranks high on any sensible list of the greatest films ever made.
In addition to establishing Coppola as the leading filmmaker of the daring “New Hollywood” of the ’70s, The Godfather resurrected then-fallen film legend Marlon Brando, in the title role of Don Vito Corelone, to even greater icon status. The movie also made instant superstars of newcomers Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Diane Keaton.
On a broader scope, though, The Godfather reinvented not just cinema, but also theater, literature, television, and even news reporting in terms of storytelling — in particular whenever it involves mobsters and/or organized crime.
Compelling outlaws and “black hat” villains have figured into the filmgoing experience since the birth of the medium. In the 1930s, Warner Bros. became a powerhouse studio by specializing in gangster pictures that blasted audiences with the dynamic likes of Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and George Raft.
Still, such productions always boasted clear-cut “good guys” versus “bad guys,” and no question existed as to which side would get its proper comeuppance by the end.
Coppola changed all that. He mined Puzo’s pulpy source novel for grand operatic elements and rendered them all the more powerful by clouding the constraints of traditional morality. The result was The Godfather’s Shakespearean scope and universal connection with all audiences.
After all, when Shakespeare wrote about the ruling class — his play Julius Caesar being just one example — his real focus was on interpersonal drama among dynasties and power collaborators who lived outside the laws of the commoners.
Thus, along with the real-life Kennedys, The Godfather’s realer-than-life Corleones became, in essence, America’s own royal family.
As such, The Godfather continues to influence so much of what we see, read, and hear. On a more pinpointed level, it also serves as the opening chapter of a quintet of masterworks of mob-based entertainment. So, on this anniversary day of the first time Don Corleone made the world an offer none of us could possibly refuse, let’s look at that flawless Gang of Five.
THE GODFATHER (1972)
The original stunner takes place in post-World-War-II New York City, and chronicles the transition of power from the aging Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) to his youngest child Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), the one son the Don had worked hard to always steer away from the family business.
James Caan ignites the screen as hotheaded heir apparent Sonny Corleone. John Cazale broods brilliance as slow-witted brother Fredo Corleone. Robert Duvall shines as Tom Hagen, their adopted German-Irish sibling turned lawyer and family advisor (“consigliere”).
At the Academy Awards, The Godfather took home the Best Picture, and Puzo and Coppola won for Best Screenplay. Brando got his Best Actor Oscar but infamously sent actress Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse the honor as a protest of Hollywood’s depiction of native Americans.
Pacino, Caan, and Duvall all competed for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Joel Grey in Cabaret. They’d all get other chances, though.
THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
Impossibly, The Godfather Part II expands the range and reach of the Corleones’ story and, even more impossibly, the general consensus is that this sequel — which Francis Ford Coppola said he made only because Paramount Pictures “made me an offer I couldn’t refuse” — is even greater than the original Godfather.
Part II flawlessly jumps between 1950s Nevada, Cuba on the eve of the Castro revolution, turn-of-the-century New York, and Sicily at various points in the family’s history, all of it adding up to a cohesive saga that no other screen epic has come close to equaling.
Robert De Niro took home an Academy Award for his star-making turn as young Vito Corleone. Part II also won Best Picture, and Coppola got Oscars for both writing and directing.
There is, frankly, no reason to delve into The Godfather Part III (1990). Not here, not ever.
As one of the premiere “New Hollywood” filmmakers, director Brian De Palma (Carrie, Dressed to Kill) was a close friend and casual collaborator of Francis Ford Coppola.
It only makes sense, then, that just as Coppola had provided Marlon Brando with his perfect comeback gangster vehicle with The Godfather, De Palma would do the same for Al Pacino via Scarface, a remake of a 1932 Howard Hawks classic inspired in large part by real-life crime lord Al Capone.
After five misfires or full-on flop films in a row, Pacino ached for a role that would launch him back on top. Scarface’s Cuban refugee turned Miami cocaine kingpin Tony Montana did just that.
Critics initially lambasted Scarface as unrealistic, melodramatic, and psychotically violent. Audiences snorted it up for all those exact same reasons.
Almost immediately, Scarface turned into a cherished classic that never fails to deliver an insanely over-the-top good time. Most famously, the hip-hop world has embraced Scarface as its own official movie of choice.
For the past two decades, both Universal Studios and rap artists all over the planet have pleaded with Brian De Palma to allow them to release a version of the movie featuring a new, all hip-hop soundtrack. De Palma has consistently said no way. It seems that no one has made him an offer he can’t refuse … yet.
Goodfellas ranks second only to the first two Godfather films in artistry, impact, importance, and all-around mind-blowing, bone-breaking, blood-spattering entertainment value.
Esteemed filmmaker Martin Scorsese initially broke out in 1973 with Mean Streets, a dazzling low-level mobster knockout set in the director’s home turf of Little Italy in Manhattan. In fact, it was off the strength of his turn as Johnny Boy in Mean Streets that Robert De Niro got cast in Godfather Part II.
Goodfellas is adapted from the book Wiseguy, the life story of true-life New York Mafia turncoat Henry Hill by author Nicholas Pileggi. Ray Liotta stars as Hill, backed by De Niro as “Jimmy the Gent” Conway and, in an Oscar-winning whirlwind performance, Joe Pesci as lunatic killer Tommy DeVito.
The plot spans from 1950s Brooklyn to the 1978 Lufthansa Airlines heist at JFK Airport orchestrated by Jimmy the Gent that netted $6 million cash (which would be about $22 million today) to the downfall of the gang and Hill’s betraying his cohorts to go into the Witness Protection program.
Not one less-than-perfect moment exists in Goodfellas. Still, the film was famously passed over at the Academy Awards, with only Pesci taking home a trophy. He also made history by delivering the shortest acceptance speech in Oscar history, simply saying, “It’s my privilege!” Ours, too, Joe.
Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, and writer Pileggi teamed up again for Casino in 1995. It’s a fine film, but it largely plays like outtakes from Goodfellas spiced up by a volcanic performance from Sharon Stone.
THE SOPRANOS (1999 – 2007)
The present “Golden Age of Television” in which we presently live initially burst to life at 9 P.M. on Sunday, January 10, 1999, when HBO broadcast the debut episode of The Sopranos.
Boasting an entirely unique take on mob life and a breakout cast of character actors in the leads who would prove to be nothing less than geniuses, The Sopranos chronicled the comic and tragic adventures of New Jersey crew run by perpetually put-upon Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini).
Tony suffered anxiety attacks brought on a lifetime of emotional torment from his cruel mother Livia (Nancy Marchand) and his unending struggle to simultaneously rule as a ruthless thief, killer, pimp, and crime boss while also being a good husband to his wife Carmella (Edie Falco) and a dad to his two children, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and A.J. (Robert Iler). For relief, Tony visited psychiatrist Dr. Jenifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco, who played the female lead in Goodfellas).
The Sopranos mesmerized the public and dominated the cultural conversation like nothing else during its six-season run. Its final episode, which ends on perhaps the ultimate note of ambiguity, remains a topic of endless divisiveness and debate. Even those who hate the show’s closing moments, though, have to admit that as a means of bookending the modern mafia masterpiece era ignited by The Godfather, that was one hell of a way to go.
Main photo: Marlon Brando, The Godfather/publicity still [promotional image]