One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 75
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
The Godfather turns 50 this week and I can report that it remains healthy, vital and beloved as it settles into a middle age of unceasing admiration and worshipful status, befitting a work that has moved beyond the realm of cinema to become an immortal slice of American culture.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who also served as co-writer with Mario Puzo, based on the latter’s 1969 bestselling novel, and produced by Albert Ruddy, The Godfather is everywhere this month. The media blitz is unstoppable—all the major news outlets and online sites are doing features acknowledging the film’s golden milestone, Coppola and most of the surviving cast members are appearing on talk shows and online interview forums, and virtually every major print magazine and newspaper is doing a featured story. The New York Times alone has produced no less than six features, including an in-depth interview with co-star Al Pacino, a piece that “explains” the film via seven of its most famous quotes (take the cannoli, please!) and an inevitable, deep-dive trivia quiz.
Premiering on streaming platform Paramount+ next month is The Offer, a dramatic miniseries starring Miles Teller, Matthew Goode and Dan Fogler, about the development and production of The Godfather. Filmmaker Barry Levinson will offer his take on the same story in the upcoming feature Francis and The Godfather. Currently in pre-production, it’s slated to star Oscar Isaac as Coppola, Elisabeth Moss as his wife Eleanor and Jake Gyllenhaal as studio executive Robert Evans.
Last month, Paramount rolled out a shimmeringly restored theatrical edition of The Godfather to limited AMC Theatre locations, with a Dolby Vision makeover (Dolby Labs’ new brand of high-end imaging technology). And on March 22, the studio will issue restored versions of all three films in Coppola’s Godfather trilogy in 4K Ultra HD format for the first time. The release marks the latest new tech edition of the trilogy to arrive, following more than two decades of “Anniversary” restorations and releases that have been dropped every five years or so.
March 2022 feels not unlike the month The Godfather opened in the winter of 1972. Hollywood regularly revives, relives and reaps the rewards of its valuable, time-honored properties, of course, but it all begins with launching a film in a big, big way as well.
The much-anticipated arrival of the film adaptation of Puzo’s The Godfather—and subsequent launch into the stratosphere—started out simply enough, with its premiere March 14, 1972 on a late-season snowy night at New York City’s Loew’s State Theatre in Times Square. The weather didn’t deter an eager crowd from attending the happening—a healthy line of moviegoers snaked down several blocks.
Celebrities were also out in full force. Nicholson, McGraw, Hackman, Welch, Bronson, Coburn and other Hollywood Royalty surnames of the moment were in attendance, along with such notables as the Neil Simons and Mr. and soon-to-be Mrs. Henry Kissinger. Most of the cast, production team and executives were in attendance, save for co-star Marlon Brando and Coppola himself. The director had jetted off to Paris a few days prior, in fear of the critical and public reaction to this, his fourth feature film. Invited guests enjoyed a sumptuous premiere party afterwards at the St. Regis Hotel, which was recounted extensively in the tabloids the following day.
The tabs weren’t the only outlets hungry for coverage. A number of feature articles on the film’s history and production appeared in The New York Times that week, a cover story was published in the March 13 issue of Time magazine and a Fawcett World Library paperback reprint of Puzo’s novel that included a 32-page insert of photogs from the film had been released a month earlier.
The Godfather trickled out to a limited number of theatrical venues its first few weeks in release, creating huge lines outside of movie houses and prompting many theaters to keep the movie running around the clock. By mid-April, the popularity of the film and the very act of attending it became the subject of media stories, including one in the Los Angeles Times entitled “Lifestyles for Waiting in Line to See ‘Godfather.’”
As it became the film du jour and began its dominance of the domestic box office for the next year, The Godfather was embraced by the hungry, growing beast that is American popular culture. Johnny Carson joked about it during his Tonight Show monologue several times a week for months, with a Mob-oriented sketch or two thrown in for good measure.
That autumn, Mad Magazine did a send-up of the film entitled The Odd Father, illustrated by the great Mort Drucker, which, like the film it parodied, was considered an instant classic. Marvel Comics jumped on board that season with the debut of a new supervillain in The Amazing Spider-Man, the cranium-challenged, stylized Mob boss Hammerhead, who nearly ventilated your friendly neighborhood webslinger more than once (and who’s still out there raising hell). And it was only a couple of years later that Saturday Night Live, in its 1975 debut season, gave us John Belushi and his pitch-perfect Brando impression as Vito Corleone detailing his woes at a group therapy session (“The ASPCA is after me about this horse thing…”).
By Labor Day weekend 1972, The Godfather had grossed more than $75 million in North America and became the highest-grossing picture of all time, famously knocking Gone with the Wind off the box-office pedestal it had stood upon for decades. It broke a number of other box-office records over the ensuing months, with profits so high that the earnings for Gulf & Western Industries, Inc, the owner of Paramount Pictures, jumped from 77 cents per share to $3.30 per for the year.
But it’s not The Godfather’s box office heights that keeps it alive today. It was dethroned by Jaws (1975) only a few years later, and then by Star Wars (1976) after that, followed by an unceasing wave of megahits by both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas into the Eighties.
No, it was The Godfather’s resonance with moviegoers and the pop culture surrounding it that maintained its strength and durability. It remains a perennial with the public, because the public regularly watches it and reads about it and loves it. The filmmaker created The Godfather, the studio launched it and we all have kept it alive. Back then and just as it is now.
Anything less would be a crime.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.