Cast: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Diane Keaton
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Adapted Screenplay (Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola)
Oscar Nominations: Best Director (Francis Ford Coppola), Best Supporting Actor (James Caan), Best Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall), Best Supporting Actor (Al Pacino), Best Sound (Charles Grenzbach, Richard Portman, Christopher Newman), Best Costume Design (Anna Hill Johnstone), Best Film Editing (William H. Reynolds, Peter Zinner), Best Original Score (Nino Rota) – revoked
SUMMARY: Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is the head of one of New York’s crime families in the mid-1940s. He has three biological sons: Santino, or Sonny (James Caan), who is next in line to be head of the family; Fredo (John Cazale), who is involved only on the outskirts of the business, and Michael, a recently returned war hero who has little to do with his family, and nothing to do with their business. The Don also has a daughter, Connie (Talia Shire), who gets married to Carlo Rizzi at the beginning of the movie, as well as an adopted son, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), who serves as the Don’s consigliere. At the time of his daughter’s wedding, the Don is extremely powerful, and is able to grant various favors with little effort. One of these is for his godson, famous singer Johnny Fontane: when a studio head refused to give Johnny a part he wanted, the studio head woke up with the severed head of his prized horse in his bed. In December of 1945, the Corleone family is approached by Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo about investing in his drug business. Sollozzo is already involved by the Tattaglia crime family, but needs the Don’s political connections. However, the Don does not like narcotics, and believes that getting involved in them will be a fatal move for the family; he declines the offer. To keep tabs on the Tattaglias, he sends strongman Luca Brasi to infiltrate them. In retribution, Sollozzo has Brasi killed; he also orders the Don to be killed, and kidnaps Tom Hagen. Hagen is ordered to persuade the family to negotiate with Sollozzo, then released. Although the Don is shot five times, he survives, and is taken to a hospital where he is under public and private guard at all times. When his son Michael goes to visit one night, he finds that the guards as well as the hospital staff have disappeared: he is narrowly able to save his father from another assassination attempt. Hotheaded Sonny, who is temporarily in charge, orders the murder of Tattaglia’s son. To get revenge for his father, Michael decides to involve himself with the family, and volunteers to be the gunman in a hit on Sollozzo and his bodyguard (a New York police captain). After he kills both men, Michael is forced to flee to Sicily.
The Five Families begin an all-out war with each other; Michael’s brother Fredo takes refuge in Las Vegas, with a partner of the Corleone family. Sonny remains in New York. Around this time, Sonny learns that his brother-in-law Carlo is beating his sister, Connie. After one beating, Sonny promises to kill Carlo if he ever hits Connie again. Sometime later, Carlo goes after Connie, and she calls Sonny. On his way to her house (alone), Sonny is stopped at a toll booth and gunned down. Meanwhile, in Italy, Michael has met and married a local Italian girl, but learns that things are getting more and more dangerous for both him and his family. When a bomb intended for him instead kills his wife, Michael returns to New York. After Sonny is killed, the now-feeble Don Corleone makes arrangements to end the war. When Michael returns, he reunites with old girlfriend Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), and marries her. He then takes over as the head of the Corleone family, assuring Kay that he intends to legitimize the business. In reality, Michael makes arrangements to avenge the Corleone family, particularly Sonny. Michael travels to Las Vegas to pursue the family’s interests out there; he is troubled to see that Fredo has become more loyal to his Vegas boss, Moe Greene, than to his own family. Although Michael offers to buy Greene out, the man disdainfully refuses and insults Michael and his family. Don Vito Corleone, who never fully recovered from the shooting, is finally felled by a heart attack. Before he died, he told Michael that an assassin would be coming for him, and that the betrayal would come from someone in the family business: the betrayer would be the person who proposed a meeting between Michael and the Barzini crime family. At Vito’s funeral, one of the Corleone capos, Tessio, asks Michael to meet with Don Barzini. Michael agrees, and schedules the meeting for the same day as the baptism of Connie’s new baby (which Michael and Kay are godparents to). While the core of the Corleone family are at the church, associates murder Moe Greene and Tessio, as well as the heads of every other crime family in New York. After the ceremony, Michael confronts Carlo about Sonny’s death: Carlo admits that it was him that set Sonny up for Barzini. Michael assures Carlo that he will not kill him, but when Carlo gets into a waiting car, one of the capos garrotes him. When Connie learns of her husband’s death, she flies into a rage at Michael, and tells Kay that Michael is responsible for all the deaths that day. Michael vehemently denies this to his wife, and Kay believes him. However, moments later the capos arrive, and Kay sees and hears them address Michael as Don Corleone.
MY TAKE: This is a pretty complex plot, but it’s amazingly easy to follow, which is a tribute to its screenplay and director. The film doesn’t provide any narrative on the workings on the mob (hierarchy, etc); it just jumps right in, but the viewer still knows what’s going on. It’s also got an all-star cast, although at the time most of the actors were relative newcomers. Three actors from the film were nominated for Best Supporting Actor at that year’s Oscars, though amazingly none of them won.
Let’s admit it: everybody secretly admires the power that Don Corleone has, and the way he runs his business. He’s efficient, filthy rich, filthy powerful, and doesn’t seem to cause unnecessary harm, or to hurt people who don’t hurt him. Of course, basically everything that he’s doing is illegal, and there are people behind the scenes who are definitely being hurt by his business, but we don’t see them. It’s another testament to the writing and directing that the audience comes to sympathize deeply with a man who is the head of one of New York’s most powerful (and dangerous) crime families. It’s also interesting to watch Michael’s transition from estranged, upstanding son to Don Corleone. At the beginning, Michael seems to have a lot of disdain for the family business (which he completely understands), and expresses a reluctance to get involved in any way. However, after his father is shot some switch in Michael gets flipped; he is pushed totally over the edge by the murder of his wife in Sicily. The man who once seemed to be honest, decent and caring rapidly turns into a cold-blooded criminal who rules his family with an iron fist. Think about it: he kills his brother-in-law on the day of that man’s child’s baptism – and Michael is the godfather of that baby, who just held him during the ceremony! Furthermore, Michael had kept Carlo very close to him in the previous months, even letting him in on deeper levels of family business. It’s impressive in a sick, twisted way.
Fun facts: The various actors in this movie have received 30 Oscar acting nominations, and won five times. Here’s the breakdown:
- Marlon Brando: 8 nominations, 2 wins
- Al Pacino: 8 nominations, 1 win
- Robert Duvall: 7 nominations, 1 win
- Diane Keaton: 4 nominations, 1 win
- Talia Shire: 2 nominations
- James Caan: 1 nomination
Talia Shire received an Oscar nomination for her role as Michael’s sister Connie in this movie. Her other nomination was for the role of Adrian in Rocky. Try not to yell, “Yo, Adrian!” at the screen.
John Cazale plays Michael’s brother Fredo. There’s quite a few interesting things about Cazale: in 1976, at the age of 40, he was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer, which would kill him two years later. During his film career, he made only five feature films, and was never nominated for an acting Oscar. However, each of those five films was nominated for Best Picture, and three of them won. Footage of Cazale appeared in The Godfather Part III, which was released after his death in 1978: it was also nominated for Best Picture. Cazale also had a career in theater work, which is where he met his famous fiancé: Meryl Streep. The two were living together and engaged when Cazale died; when he was in the hospital, Streep stopped working in order to stay in the hospital with him. Cazale died before they could get married.