On Saturday, March 26th, the Directors Guild of America hosted another event in celebration of their 75th Anniversary. Last month, they honored George Lucas with a screening of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) and discussion between Lucas and Christopher Nolan. This time, the DGA hosted a panel honoring Lucas’s benefactor, Francis Ford Coppola. Unlike the Lucas event, the DGA did not screen one of Coppola’s many feature films, but asked three directors, David O’Russell (Three Kings, The Fighter), Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight, Thirteen), and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) to prepare short reels of some of their favorite scenes as a spring board for discussion. Each director’s selections were fairly classical while also featuring some oddities: Hardwicke picked ten minutes from Apocalypse Now (1979), P.T. Anderson chose a selection from The Conversation (1974), my personal favorite of Coppola’s films, and an odder choice, Youth Without Youth (2007), and O’Russell chose to honor Coppola’s UCLA student thesis film, the Richard Lester-esque You’re a Big Boy Now (1966) before favoring the obvious: The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974).
The filmmakers’ conversation, pun intended, was similar to the Lucas/Nolan Q&A in which classic stories were re-told by the aging but lively and deliciously self-effacing Coppola. He reminisced about cutting his name into “nudie” films while at UCLA and getting caught by the Dean, which prompted the school to post a sign reading “No Unauthorized Projects!” in the production wing of Melnitz Hall. He spoke about getting hired to helm the first Godfather (because he was Italian-American and because he was young) and nearly fired (executives hated the music, composed by Coppola’s father Carmine and Fellini collaborator Nino Rota, and the performers in the film), the chaos of making Apocalypse Now (chronicled in the great behind-the-scenes doc Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which I prefer to the film itself), and how the fiscal failure of the highly stylized One from the Heart (1982) put him on the path of filmmaking prostitution for nearly a decade as he paid off his debts. He even requested that the DGA screen a clip from the Robin Williams debacle Jack (1996), joking that we had to sit through the good and bad if we were to properly chronicle his career. Finally, he offered up his two biggest regrets as a filmmaker. The first was shooting One from the Heart as a film rather than utilizing the sets and technology he had orchestrated to give it the feel of a live television production. The second? Leaving the film industry in a worse position than when he found it. As he quipped, “We had the money and the power…Now, like most third-acts in a director’s life, we are doomed to the D.W. Griffith ending. Getting free drinks and telling young people that we used to be in pictures” (I may be slightly misquoting that).
Watching David O’Russell’s selections from the first two Godfather films, I began to realize what I really admired about Coppola’s work. While I love The Conversation, the power of the first two Godfather films comes from the structure they produce. The first film resonates more because of the second film and the second film only works because it builds off of and modifies what has come before. The Godfather Part II works as a sequel because it walks the line of the familiar and re-invention. The two clips O’Russell selected illustrates this perfectly. In The Godfather, Michael (Al Pacino) is an honorable Marine who is kept at arm’s length from his family’s illegal business practices by both himself and his father, Vito (Marlon Brando). He slowly sinks into the quick sand of organized crime when his brother, Sonny (James Caan), proves to be a hot headed leader. Michael solidifies his place in the mafia by killing Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) and the corrupt police Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden). In the scene, he reaches the bathroom of an Italian restaurant, grasps desperately for a gun that has been hidden by his associates, and returns to the dinner table that his two targets are eating at. Coppola focuses on Michael’s face, registering the fear, anger, and contemplation (it’s a prime piece of acting) and, as the clanking of the elevated train rises on the soundtrack, Michael performs the assassination. He does it for his father, as revenge for Sollozzo’s attempted assassination on Vito, and as a way to pave an easier road for his family.
Coppola rhymes this scene with young Vito’s (Robert De Niro) transformation in The Godfather Part II. An Italian immigrant in the early 1900s, Vito has begun his turn to organized crime in order to better the lives of his family. Scaling a rooftop during an Italian celebration, he stalks his prey, Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin), rendered in a tense series of tracking shots. Again, the murder is far from graceful: Coppola makes us linger on the discomfort, the victim grasping at a gaping wound, a towel wrapped around the gun barrel starts on fire from the bullet’s ignition. Like Michael, Vito performs the assassination in the name of his family, holding the infant Michael in his arms after the deed and telling him “Your father loves you very much.”
Yet, the similarities between young Vito and Michael presented in The Godfather Part II are almost superficial. Admittedly, the film chronicles how both men rose to the throne of the same mafia family. However, the devil is in the details. By the end of The Godfather, Michael has gone from murdering in the name of his family to murder as a means of scaling the ladder of capitalism. The Godfather films depict a critical view of the American Dream in which capitalism is equated with murder and betrayal. In The Godfather Part II, Michael is shown as still going down this path and, by its conclusion, his ruthlessness has brought death to the very entity he initially sought to protect: his family. Vito’s actions are noble (his refusal to allow for narcotic trade on his turf in the first film is essentially the inciting incident), Michael’s only started off that way. The Godfather Part II, told via the timeless tradition of D.W. Griffith’s cross-cutting, is more of a study in contrast than it is in similarity and that is the film’s greatest strength.
The structure of The Godfather Part II also rhymes with that of the first film in other ways. The first film begins with a family wedding, a joyous celebration in which the elder Vito acknowledges the requests of his guests. The sequel, on the other hand, begins with a family celebration (Anthony Corleone’s First Communion) that slowly unravels before our eyes. The weak Fredo (wonderfully played by the late John Cazale) is incapable of “controlling” his drunkard wife while Vito’s favors have given way to Michael being extorted by the corrupt Senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin). Like the first film, the narrative is essentially put into first gear by an assassination attempt on the head of the family. While the suspect and motives of the assassin in the first film are far from a mystery, we are left with several red herrings in The Godfather Part II. Could it have been Corleone capo Frank Pentangeli (Michael Gazzo)? Or Johnny Ola (Dominic Chianese, Junior Soprano from “The Sopranos”), right hand man to aging gangster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg)? Part II is much more of a mystery, as Michael attempts to piece together the conspiracy against his family.
The irony of The Godfather Part II is that Michael is pulled deeper and deeper into illegal activity while attempting to fly the flag of legitimation. He kills so he no longer has to kill; he uses profits to buy businesses that are unblemished by criminal dealings. The three-act structure of The Godfather saga, told across the three films, is the rise, fall, and attempted redemption of Michael Corleone. He commits his greatest sins in Godfather Part II, even greater than the murder and resulting alienation of his wife (Diane Keaton) and sister (Talia Shire) in the first film. The third film, weak for the obvious casting of Coppola’s daughter Sophia and an odd, incestuous subplot with Andy Garcia, tries to chronicle his redemption. Yet, Coppola and the aging Michael have one thing in common: giving too little, too late in The Godfather Part III (1990). The rhyming structure was there, but not the restraint of the first two. With Apocalypse Now and One from the Heart, Coppola slowly lost his ability to toe the line between form and content. While I have yet to see Youth without Youth or his most recent film, Tetro (2009), I still think he’ll get there, someday. The Coppola who appeared at the DGA on Saturday seemed to realize his limits, his strengths and his faults, and, most importantly, showed a unquenchable thirst for the cinema. I hope his struggle to rise again does not mirror that of Michael Corleone’s; the American cinema needs Coppola back.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.