Armchair Oscars – 1972

Best Picture

THE WINNER:
The Godfather (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
The Nominees: Cabaret, Deliverence, The Emigrants, Sounder


MY CHOICE:
The Godfather (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
My Nominees: 
Cabaret (Bob Fosse), Deliverence (John Boorman), Fat City (John Huston), Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock), Sounder (Martin Ritt)

1972-Godfather

To bring Mario Puzo’s overstuffed bestselling book “The Godfather” to the screen, director Francis Ford Coppola went right to the source. Coppola and Puzo collaborated on a screenplay that would bring out the essence of Puzo’s work without the book’s over-extended character developments. The final result is one of the greatest examples of screenwriting ever conceived and the only time in the 70s that I agree with the academy’s choice for Best Picture.

The Godfather changed the rules of one of the oldest genres in movies by changing its perspective. The movie examines the world of the mob from the inside-out so that we understand the workings of the mob from their point of view. In that way, it allows us to shift perspective so we see the story through the eyes of The Corleone family who seem inherently evil, but within this inner sanctum are actually the heroes.

The morality inside this society of gangsters and mafia families is completely alien to our own. The word “family” comes to mean, not just blood lines but genetic lines. It is not just a family of fathers and sons but also of generals and soldiers. We are introduced to various families which are established like different countries. They do business together, they make treaties, they go to war and all fall under a long-established, self-made code of conduct whereby the rules that we are familiar with are distorted. The only sin in their world is disloyalty and the wages of sin is death.

Dispensing with the idea of the playing field of cops and criminals, the only characters in the film of any real relevance are connected with the mob. The heroes of the story are the Corleones, a powerful New York family that has thrived on an olive oil business and money made from prostitution, bootlegging, extortion – all of which Vito, the family patriarch, calls harmless vices. We meet his extended family and several other key players in the now famous wedding sequence which introduces us to at least two dozen characters and their connection with the Corleones. When this scene is over, we have been introduced to almost all of the major players who will be significant later. This way, all the needless introductions are out of the way and the story can flow more smoothly.

Casting is key. Coppola wanted faces, memorable faces to populate his film so that they would also populate our minds. He casts actors who are hefty, with large jowly faces that are lit well and leave an impression in our minds. Did you ever notice in some movies that all the characters sometimes look the same: chiseled, good-looking models that you never meet in real life. The brilliant casting by Louis Di Giaimo allows the deep lines in the face to be accented by the dark lighting.

Key to The Godfather is the character of Vito Corleone, the wise, cool-headed patriarch who manages his family by avoiding unnecessary conflict. He is a businessman who sees a perspective on his business and his family that others tend to miss. He is even-tempered and would rather discuss a problem than drive toward violence. He remains even tempered, his only outburst comes when his weak-kneed Godson gets emotional rather than rational. He has ruled this family with an even hand for the better part of 50 years. We see that destiny hasn’t given him the promise of an heir to the throne. He has three sons, Santino (James Caan) – hot-tempered and violent; Fredo (John Cazale) – weak in heart and mind; and Michael (Al Pacino) – intelligent and patient, the most like his father and most likely to inherit the family business.

Michael remains outside the family. He goes to college, enlists in the Army, fights in World War II and returns a hero. His father wants him to use his intellect for something outside the family business – maybe politics. But the winds of destiny and circumstances draw him closer to running the family. The long-running struggle throughout the film is based around The Godfather’s refusal to get involved in the drug trade. He knows that the rackets like prostitution, gambling, alcohol are viewed by his political friends as harmless vices, however drugs are dirty and messy and unpredictable. Vito correctly guesses that it “is going to destroy us in the years to come”. Others see it differently and despite his warnings, they only see the money to be made. He is always looking ahead, like a chess master. The saddest element of The Godfather is that this nasty business of drugs will become a business that the level-headed Michael will inevitably inherit.

What makes the film work is the story construction. There are characters who are briefly introduced and given a purpose and later brought back into the story at crucial moments. Take for example Enzo, the baker. It is explained that he has came to America and joined the war effort, but now that the war is over, he will be repatriated back to Italy.. So, Enzo’s employer asks the Godfather to arrange it so that he could marry his daughter and stay in the country. Later, when we see Enzo, it is to visit The Godfather in the hospital after a botched assassination attempt and Enzo becomes a key figure in deterring a group of thugs who come to finish the job. There are all kinds of smaller characters like that who come into the film, seem to have little purpose but play key roles later.

The late film critic Gene Siskel observed that “The Godfather is about how justice denied becomes justice subverted”. This is especially true in the case of Bonesera. He had been denied justice when his daughter was assaulted by a teenage boy and now comes to the Godfather for restitution. Vito is slightly insulted that Bonasera would assume that murder is an afterthought for a mob bigshot like Corleone, but he is willing to make an adjustment for this man, reminding him that “Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me”. When that day comes, the service is not beyond his means, it is not violence but a favor to make his murdered son look appropriate for his mother. Moments like this help us to understand what has been lost when The Godfather dies. The future of this world of organized crime is becoming less crafty, more hot tempered, more reactionary and less compelled to weigh their options. Listen carefully, in the film to the score which comes in under the drama, Nino Rota’s music is funerary in it’s tone, a perfect evocation of a dying age.


Best Actor

THE WINNER:
Marlon Brando (
The Godfather)
The Nominees: Cabaret, Deliverence, The Emigrants, Sounder


MY CHOICE:
Marlon Brando (The Godfather)
My Nominees:
Cabaret (Bob Fosse), Deliverence (John Boorman), Fat City (John Huston), Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock), Sounder (Martin Ritt)

1972-TheGodfather

I sometimes wonder if the academy voters would have given Marlon Brando the Oscar for his performance in The Godfather if they knew what he was going to do on Oscar night. In refusing the award, he sent a young woman calling herself Sacheen Littlefeather (actually actress Maria Cruz), who dressed in full Apache apparel, to refuse the award because of the treatment of Native Americans in film and on television and to bring attention to the tragedy at Wounded Knee. As difficult and unpredictable as Brando’s behavior was, you can’t say that it diminishes his film work.  Had the academy not honored him, they would have missed one of his best performances.

The Godfather was considered his comeback after a decade spent in films of little or no significance. It proved that he was still the actor that we remembered because when Marlon Brando put his heart into a role, he could work magic. This performance, along with his work in On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire are best examples of what he could do.

In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, he plays a character who is older than himself – Brando was 45 at the time – playing a character who is in his mid to late 50s when we meet him and near his 70s by the end. There is a physical transformation that, if you are familiar with Brando’s other work, comes as a bit of a surprise. He stuffed cotton in his cheeks, slicked back his hair and toned down his voice to a whisper all in an effort to create a character of great stature, of great wisdom and of great sadness.

Vito Corleone is The Godfather, a man of great experience and wisdom. He is the capo regime, who rules his mafia family with common sense, a cool head and a cautious eye on the future. He has made his reputation as an admirable figure because he resists violence, and works these underworld operations (gambling, prostitution, bootlegging) like a legitimate business. He surrounds himself with the right people, friends, relatives, soldiers and generals. His friends are earned through personal favors and long-standing relationships built up over time. Those who are soldiers in the family would lay down their lives for him. He is a man who commands respect, but never demands it.

He is a reasonable man and often accommodating. Note how he handles Bonesera, the undertaker who comes to see him as the film opens. Their wives are friends, but Corleone and Bonasera are barely acquainted. Bonasera knows very little about the mob world and assumes that when his daughter is beaten and disfigured by her boyfriend, that this mafia chieftain will be more than happy to murder the young boy for the right price (he also knows that according to Sicilian tradition, the don cannot refuse a reasonable request on his daughter’s wedding day). In any other movie, the man would have been dragged out and disposed of, but not here. The Godfather is offended and asks him, “What have I done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?” When the man becomes ingratiating, the Godfather’s heart goes out to him (he has a daughter too), and he tells him “Someday, and that day may never come, I will call on you to do a service for me.” I assumed that since Bonasera was an undertaker that the Godfather would ask him to dispose of a body. Instead, when the favor comes, it is simply to make his murdered son look appropriate for his mother at the funeral.

That scene helps us understand how he maintains his relationships, not through muscle and noise, but through a process by which he tries reason. When reason fails, he “makes them an offer they can’t refuse.” He is not ill-tempered and he requires that those around him use sense rather than emotion. He knows what’s best, he tells Bonasera that “If by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies then they would become my enemies – and then they would fear you.” He keeps his cool except for one moment in which he becomes enraged when his godson Johnny (Al Martino) bursts into tears because he can’t get a film role.

This great patriarch urges those around him to follow his example. He approaches each of his three sons differently. For his son Santino (James Caan), he despises the fact that he doesn’t spend enough time with this family and dresses him down when he makes a mistake during a business meeting and speaks out of turn (a mistake that eventually sparks a mob war). For Michael (Al Pacino), who is the most sensible, he wants something more than the family business. He has sent him off to college and then supported him when he went into the Army (we don’t find that out until the second film). For Fredo (John Cavale), the weakling brother, we never see him really interact, especially after he fails to protect him during a botched assassination attempt. Fredo is seen within the framework of the family business more or less as the women are, they are the recipients of the fruits of the mob’s labor, but they are never personally involved.

The main plot involves the Godfather’s attempts to stem the tide of the oncoming drug trade. Given an offer by the gangster Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) to receive a cut of drug profits in exchange for some of his political influence, the don gives him a firm but polite “no.” “It’s true I have a lot of friends in politics,” he explains, “but they wouldn’t be friendly very long if they knew my business was drugs.” He later tries unsuccessfully to warn his fellow mafia chieftains that “This drug business is going to destroy us in the years to come.” Those around him will not listen and his prophecy turns out to be true.

That’s the problem with those around him – they don’t listen and are happy to run to whatever pleasurable or profitable venture looks good. There is a long passage in the center of the film after Sollozzo’s failed assassination attempt in which the Godfather lies offscreen in a hospital. A revenge plan is set in motion that ultimately ends with Michael having to go into exile in Italy. As I listen to the plan being laid out, I can’t help but think that the old man wouldn’t approve and I wonder how he would have handled it, and how much bloodshed could have been spared.


Best Actress

THE WINNER:
Liza Minnelli (Cabaret)
The Nominees: Diana Ross (Lady Sings the Blues), Maggie Smith (Travels With My Aunt), Cicely Tyson (Sounder), Liv Ullman (The Emigrants)


MY CHOICE:
Liza Minnelli (Cabaret)
M
y Nominees: Vanessa Redgrave (Mary Queen of Scots), Joanne Woodward (The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds)

1972-LizaMinelli

When Liza Minnelli won the Oscar for Best Actress for Cabaret, she concluded her speech by saying “Thank you for giving me this award. You’ve made me very happy.” She emphasized “me” because she felt that the academy was rewarding her work and not just choosing her because she was Judy Garland’s daughter. She felt that she was being seen for her own efforts and it wasn’t nepotism. She deserved the award. In Cabaret, she gave a dynamic performance in a role that allows her to shine both on stage and off.

In Bob Fosse’s adaptation of the hit broadway musical (adapted in a screenplay by Jay Allen Presson), she plays Sally Bowles, a singer and dancer working in a kinky cabaret in Berlin in 1931 at a time when the Nazis are turning from a laughing stock into a seriously menacing power. She takes little notice of the world’s affairs. She wants to be a movie star and isn’t afraid to sleep with whoever can further her career.

She becomes friends with Brian (Michael York), a gay English tutor whom she invites to share her boardinghouse. She knows he is gay, but she seduces him anyway due to his admitted lack of success in the bedroom. He’s had exactly three women and they were disasters – Sally turns out to be the first good heterosexual encounter he’s had. They seem to have a good thing going when into the picture comes handsome Maximilian (Helmut Griem). Sally likes him and flirts with him and eventually takes him to bed and, eventually, so does Michael. This nearly busts up their relationship, especially when Sally becomes pregnant but doesn’t know if it belongs to Brian or Max. Brian offers to raise the child if she will move with him to Cambridge, but instead Sally opts for an abortion because she wants her career and not the life of a housewife. As the Nazi menace roars over Berlin, Brian goes back to England and Sally stays.

Sally was changed from the original stage hit where she was British and Brian was an American. There’s a sly in-joke to that fact that the roles have been reversed when Brian says “You’re American,” and Sally responds “You’re meant to think I’m an international woman of mystery. I’m working on it like mad.” Despite the nationality, Liza succeeds at making Sally an original. She is bright with large eyes, a round face, heavy red lipstick and oversized false eyelashes, Yet she doesn’t hide anything. She wears her personality and her sexuality on her sleeve. She doesn’t take many things seriously except the furthering of her own career. She isn’t afraid to say what she is thinking and often does.

She has a sexuality that is more fun than seductive. The first time she tries to seduce Brian, she lies back on her bed and smiles as she asks, “Doesn’t my body drive you wild with desire?” It says something about her that she is able to bed this man despite his sexual orientation. I think Brian loves her desire and passion more than any physical attraction. She is also easily hurt, naive and ambitious to a fault, yet she’s not about to let anyone step on her. Minnelli keeps the performance just a hair short of pitiful. She’s easy but not cheap, she talks too much but she doesn’t irritate us, she’s sensitive but not wounded, she’s curious and asks too many questions, a trait that makes her endearing. One of my favorite moments occurs when she suspects that Brian is gay – she asks and then waits for an answer. There’s a look on her face during the pause when she licks her lip that suggests that she’s curious about his lifestyle, as if she’s getting some privileged information.

Liza’s achievement in the film is her ability to create a complete character who is as dynamic behind the scenes as she is on stage. I think that’s what got her the Oscar. Occasionally, the film returns to the stage where Liza has several musical numbers, most famously the rendition of “Mein Herr” in which she dresses in black garters and a bowler (like a dominatrix Charlie Chaplin). She curves and twists her body around a chair in a way that must have taken a year to rehearse. I can see a lot of her mother in her performing style, but Liza has an energy all her own. The voice is nearly identical but she does a lot more with her body, moving in a way that is both erotic and slightly contortionist. Nearly all the musical numbers in the film are bathed in kinky eroticism and gleeful decadence. If it is true that academy voters have short memories, I would like to think that what sparked their attention with Liza’s performance was the final title-number, which she performs with great fire and energy. She makes the moment her own, especially when she hits the final note and for that I believe the academy was giving her the award.

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