As 'The Godfather' heads back to theaters, we look back at its strange dance with Oscar
It’s been 40 years since Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s seminal crime novel “The Godfather” was released in theaters. To mark the anniversary, Paramount Pictures, in a partnership with Cinemark Theatres, is re-releasing the restored version of the film in 55 Cinemark XD auditoriums on Thursday, March 1.
"There is no greater iconic film than ‘The Godfather,’” states James Meredith, VP of Marketing and Communication at Cinemark in the press release. “It has set the standard for story-telling, launched a generation of great actors and provided movie-goers an unparalleled experience.”
Indeed, “The Godfather” is considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made, which makes its rather nebulous relationship with Oscar all the more interesting. In looking back, one gets the sense that the AMPAS was in an argument with itself during the 1972 season.
There were two films poised to sweep the Academy Awards that year, “The Godfather” and the Bob Fosse's musical “Cabaret.” The former was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and, as we will see below, won three, including Best Picture. The latter was nominated for 10 and won eight, including Best Director. “Cabaret," in fact, set a record that year for most Oscar wins sans Best Picture, just ahead of “A Place in the Sun” and “Star Wars,” both of which had six wins that did not include Best Picture.
The Academy seemed to understand that “The Godfather” represented a significant achievement in filmmaking but was, perhaps, so taken aback by its financial and aesthetic success that they were not prepared to fully back it with a sweep. (The film emerged from a troubled studio with a contentious relationship with the man at the helm.) Or, perhaps, they were (consciously or not) simply splitting the difference with “Cabaret.” Of course, that presupposes that the AMPAS voters operate with some sort of hive mind, which, they do not.
Let's look at each nomination individually, as Kris did with “Titanic” when the 3D footage for the re-release was screened earlier this year, in an attempt to suss out the Academy’s judgments with hindsight as our guide.
BEST PICTURE (WON)
Well done, Oscars. It’s impossible for me to argue with this win, and I say that as someone who happens to love both Bob Fosse and “Cabaret.” The other nominees that year were "The Emigrants," "Sounder" and a third strong contender for Best Picture, “Deliverance.” “Deliverance” and “Cabaret” are each films that have maintained their place in cinema history as time has passed. And I feel strongly enough about each to recommend a first or second viewing, though that may make for a Daliesque double feature.
Ultimately, however, it is “The Godfather” that left the deepest, most lasting impression on the landscape. It is a shattering metaphor for capitalism set against a world of violence that we, as the audience, feel the same attraction/repulsion towards that the central protagonist does. It is a familiar story that takes place in an unfamiliar realm drawn with rich and vivid character renderings. It is simply, and against all odds, one of the most outstanding cinematic achievements of all time.
BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE: MARLON BRANDO (WON)
This one is a bit tricky. I wouldn't say Brando did not deserve the win over his competition: Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier in "Sleuth," Peter O'Toole in "The Ruling Class" and Paul Winfield in "Sounder." Indeed, it’s fair to say that Brando easily won on merit. But I think this nomination is an example of the Academy putting a supporting actor in the Best Actor field and the leading actor (Pacino) in the supporting field.
BEST DIRECTOR (LOST)
The Best Director honor, as mentioned, went to Bob Fosse for “Cabaret.” Now, allow me to become a bit effusive. Fosse was a genius. Truly. He was a genius and an innovator as a musical theater dancer, choreographer and director. He was well established, respected and beloved (as well as hated) as a director at the time of this win. However, to my way of thinking, his true masterwork was his gorgeous autobiographical exploration of his own relationship with obsession, ambition and death in 1979’s “All That Jazz.” If you have not yet seen that film, I implore you to do so tonight. And then call me. I’d love to discuss.
Having said all that, this award was Coppola’s. But he was a relatively new director at that point and had a notoriously antagonistic and problematic relationship with Paramount throughout the course of production (he was a last ditch hire after Sergio Leone and Peter Bogdanovich passed) and was nearly fired on several occasions. He went over budget, over schedule and argued at every turn. Indeed (and this is guesswork), there may have been those who credited the film’s success to then studio head Robert Evans despite Coppola’s efforts. Those inner politics must (at least to some degree) play into how a voting member ultimately casts his or her ballot, for better or worse. The other nominees that year were John Boorman for "Deliverance," Joseph L. Mankiewicz for "Sleuth" and Jan Troell for "The Emigrants"
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY (WON)
Coppola had already won an Oscar as the co-screenwriter of “Patton.” So, it may well have been that the Academy felt some measure of safety in casting their vote in this direction. We must always bear in mind that Hollywood is run primarily by three guiding forces: fear, ego and desire. There is of course a genuine passion for film and craft in play, as well as a drive toward financial and/or artistic success, but we count those as desire.
No one wants to be “wrong.” Indeed, an abject sense of terror surrounds the very idea (for a number of legitimate and self-created reasons). As such, many are loath to make a bold choice or an unusual decision. Data and reassurances must be in play before we stake our name on any given person or property.
The other nominees in the field were “Cabaret,” “The Emigrant,“ “Pete 'n' Tillie” and “Sounder.”
The performances in “The Godfather” rightly dominated this field of nominees. The award ultimately went to Joel Grey for his role as the Master of Ceremonies in “Cabaret.” This is a tough one. Grey delivered a compelling and indelible performance (if intrinsically somewhat broad). Caan, Pacino and Duvall each delivered powerful, nuanced, textured and equally indelible performances in “The Godfather,” however. As a voter, it would have been challenging to choose between the three, and it may have been simpler just to default to Grey, who had already won a Tony. (And, no doubt, vote splitting figured in as well.) Ultimately, Pacino simply did not belong in the field, and the Academy was not yet prepared to give him the Best Actor nod that he so richly deserved.
Eddie Albert was also nominated for his portrayal of Mr. Corcoran in “The Heartbreak Kid.” So I kind of feel bad for Eddie.
BEST COSTUME DESIGN (LOST)
Confession: I’ve not seen “Travels with My Aunt,” the film that won this category, so I’ll go ahead and give the Academy the benefit of the doubt on this one. The other nominees included “Lady Sings the Blues,” “The Poseidon Adventure” and “Young Winston.”
BEST FILM EDITING (LOST)
Again, there is no clear cause for uproar with this loss. David Hildyard and Robert Knudson’s editing on “Cabaret,” which took home the Oscar, really was spectacular. The other nominees were “Deliverance,” “The Hot Rock” and “The Poseidon Adventure.”
BEST SOUND MIXING (LOST)
“Cabaret” won for sound as well, and it was well-crafted and evocative work. I’d have to watch each of the films again to really have a definitive take, but my sense is that this was an appropriate choice. I do have an odd inclination to screen “The Poseidon Adventure,” which was also nominated for sound, to see if that may not have been a miss. I’d likely have been pleased with either “The Godfather” or “Cabaret” taking home the Oscar in Editing and Sound. My memory of “Cabaret” tells me that the sound win was rightly and richly deserved, though. The other nominees were “Butterflies are Free” and “The Candidate.”
BEST SCORE (NOMINATION RETRACTED. YEP.)
To add to the drama of the proceedings, this is the AMPAS’s official description of the debacle surrounding the film's score:
“'The Godfather' score, composed by Nino Rota, was originally announced as one of the five official nominees. It was later pointed out that portions of the score and the main theme were composed by Rota for his score to the 1958 Italian film, 'Fortunella.' The Music Branch was given this information and re-balloted to determine the fifth nomination. The list of six films they were to choose from were the remaining five of the top 10 preliminary listings, plus 'The Godfather' score. The results of the re-balloting was that the fifth nomination became 'Sleuth,' composed by John Addison.”
So, as much as we all love “The Godfather”'s score, and I can hear its bittersweet, menacingly melodious tones floating around my mental ether as I type, it was simply not meant to be. (Though we can take umbrage with the music branch's regulations if we wish, a branch still embattled to this day.)
Aside from the wins and losses, it is also notable that “The Godfather” (shockingly) failed to receive a nomination for either Best Cinematography or Best Art Direction (both of those honors went to “Cabaret,” ultimately). Cinematographer Gordon Willis wasn't even recognized with a nomination for the series until "Part III" in 1990. He received an honorary Academy Award in 2009. Again, not to take anything away from “Cabaret,” but the cinematography in “The Godfather” was simply breathtaking, however, as was the art direction. They at least deserved the recognition of a nod, if not the win.
I’m sure we each have our own “Godfather” moments and memories to share: the first time we saw it, the well-meaning neighbor we secretly called Fredo (just me?), our favorite sequence in the film and so on. As for me, I have a rather unusual connection with the film. As a prime example of my bizarre “very New York, I lived the film 'Heathers' in Brooklyn” High School experience: My best friend and I would watch the film repeatedly and then she would make lists of the classmates we had "in our pocket" and those we had to "take down." Yep. In my mind I was Tom Hagen, but in reality I think I was Sonny. Alas.
Locations and show times for “The Godfather” re-release can be found at www.cinemark.com. The studio also plans to re-release “The Godfather Part II” in partnership with Cinemark on April 19th. It is somewhat fitting to revisit this, the follow-up to a darkly told allegory for capitalism, so soon after tax day.
Take a look at the trailer for the Cinemark engagement below.
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