"If I'd known so many people were going to read it, I'd have written it better."
An emasculated lounge singer, a vengeful father and an unscrupulous murderer--what do these three men have in common? They each know that a Sicilian man cannot refuse any request made of him on the day of his daughter's wedding. And when that man is also a Mafia Don of long standing, a person's request can be a bit unorthodox, if not unreasonable on its face.
Mob tales were nothing new when The Godfather hit bookshelves. Little Caesar and Scarface (1932) on the big screen, The Untouchables on the small one. Puzo's genius was the decision to portray these brutal men away from the crime scenes, attending weddings and christenings and tucking their children into bed at night.
Of course, the bad stuff had no small appeal.
Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather for the reason most writers write anything: he needed the money. Dude was 45 years old and in debt deep enough to tickle the hairs of his calves. He'd already published a few unspectacular novels that sold as well as they deserved.
With no intimate knowledge of Mafia life, he used old-fashioned research and creative license to churn out a surprise bestseller about the sordid underworld of mid-20th century NYC: the crime families who controlled a myriad of vices as they struggled to maintain detente, and the heads of those families, the "Don"s, the Godfathers. None more respected than lionhearted immigrant Vito Corleone, who measures a real man by the amount of time he spends with his actual family. His immutable ideas of the right and way to operate put him on the brink of death when a rival crew cracks their guns at him on the street. Oldest son, hotheaded Sonny, temporarily assumes the Don role, while tepid middle boy Fredo is sent to Las Vegas. The youngest son, cool and collected Michael, was a war hero who up until his father's shooting wanted nothing to do with the family business. (Perhaps because of this, he's Vito's favorite male child. Or does that honor belong to Sonny? Even Puzo was confused.) When Michael volunteers to blow the brains out of not just the boss that set up his Pops but also a sleazoid police Captain, no one takes him seriously. At first.
With the war truly well and truly on, Michael is sent to Italy to pick fruits and flowers. The intractable Sonny winds up with more holes than a cheese grater, and Michael returns home to assume the "family head" vacancy. Which means biding time until his father dies, orchestrating the slaughter of the Corleone's rivals, then selling the family businesses in New York to facilitate a move out west.
For the most part, The Godfather is a hugely entertaining read, sordid and engrossing, even if Puzo is not working at the height of his powers as an actual writer of words. One paragraph gifts us with "redly obscene with winey lust" and "insides felt as mushy as macaroni boiled for an hour."
The Godfather clued many in on the machinations of the Mafia, but the more valuable lessons concern creative writing.
--Do not write sex scenes while hungry.
--Mouth shape descriptions are not that crucial.
--Do not use the word "gobble" during a scene you intend to be romantic.
Puzo's words just grunt and thump all over the place. Basically, The Godfather is Michael's story, told in the style of Sonny. Expect to be enthralled and revolted. Do not expect a masterpiece.
(I've tried to make my way through other Puzo works, and the only success story was Fools Die, a 500-plus page monster that brought its author $2.5 million for paperback rights, an unheard amount at the time. Puzo didn't know the mob, but he knew gambling, as well as the publishing and film industries, and oh yeah, family, and the depressingly readable Fools Die is a man fully in his element. There's even a female character that has a second dimension! Would have been a twitching flusterbuck of a movie, and I'm so grateful no one ever tried. They would have had to excise the scene of "Puzo stand-in" and "Norman Mailer stand-in" shit-talking famous writers, and, well, the heart of the thing would have ceased beating.)
Director-Francis Ford Coppola
Writer-Francis Ford Coppola & Mario Puzo (Robert Towne, uncredited)
"I believe in America."
A three-hour film about the Mafia, based on a trashy bestseller, hailed as one of the crowning achievements in all of cinema? How'd they manage that? No mystery. Least when you consider, when you remember, that The Godfather is not really about the Mafia.
Coppola's movie opens at the wedding of Carlo Rizzi and Connie Corleone, just as Puzo's novel did, because The Godfather is about family and the traditions that bring the members of a family together: weddings, baptisms, birthdays, meals. (The Italian emphasis on formal family dinners makes me glad I was brought up with a buncha hillbilly-ass DNA-sharers where if you wanted to eat by yourself, that was just fine, 'cause Dad didn't really want to hear anybody blabbering while he was scarfing down cornbread any goddamn way.)
Coppola's movie features wheels and deals, obliterated eyeballs and blood mist, because The Godfather is about power, and what men will do to attain it and maintain it.
Puzo was not a master of style. He did not craft worlds where elegance lived within dancing distance of brutality. Poetry in his prose was purely accidental. Whereas Coppola and cinematographer Gordon Willis took the heavy sauce and poured in just the right amount of wine.
There is also the small matter of the acting which is, to a man, phenomenal. That Marlon Brando was the only of the cast to earn an Oscar is nearly as criminal as Coppola losing the Best Director statuette to Bob Fosse. That Marlon Brando was cast at all is down to the director's persistence. Paramount Studios hated both of Coppola's choices to play the Don, and insisted that Ernest Borgnine would really win the audience over in the role.
Sir Laurence Olivier refused the part, his agent citing the decline of both the actor's health and of his interest in the craft. He would live another eighteen years and appear in another fifteen movies, including a turn in The Jazz Singer that made co-star Neil Diamond come off like John Barrymore.
Brando was box office poison, widely regarded in the industry as an out-of-shape-and-options diva. Paramount agreed to let Coppola cast him so long as he took a pay cut and submitted to a screen test.Taking his raspy-voiced cue from audio recordings of crime boss Frank Costello, Brando played Vito as the opposite of blustering, belligerent gangsters like Al Capone. (He is still far more expressive than the book Vito, a man barely moved by the assassination of his eldest.)
James Caan, Al Pacino and Robert Duvall battled it out in the Supporting Actor category, the Academy's equivalent to Hill Street Blues taking up all five slots in the Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series competition at the 1983 Emmys. Never mind the fact that he should have been in the Lead category, Pacino was robbed. Imagine Michael's journey from sloe-eyed military ace to lumpy-cheeked crime lord being taken by Jack Nicholson or Warren Beatty, you don't believe me.
How the hell did John Cazale not get an Oscar nomination? Like ever? He makes Fredo more than just the Don's pathetic son, he imbues him with a heartbreaking fragility. Fredo's so desperate to please; it's a shame he was born a Corleone.
I've always had a soft spot for corpulent capo regime Peter Clemenza (a vital cog in the Corleone machine). He's a killer, a professor of pasta, and quite agile for a fat bastard.
The women in both the book and movie are...um. Well, it's a can of campfire beans when Sonny's wife snaps at him. Heh. Kay in the movie is not as diffident, insisting Michael make her an equal partner, not understanding that their union is fated to be an inequitable one. While Michael's first marriage was one of proximity and passion, his second, one of proximity and practicality. Michael's first wife was exotic and naive; his second, the all-American girl with certain expectations.
Mrs. Corleone is on the shortlist for the most fascinating unexplored female in literature. She and Kay bond a bit, attending church together to pray for the souls of the men they married. I wanted more.
For a movie that is, again, not really about the Mob, real-life mobsters loved it, borrowing the terminology and mannerisms. It instilled within some unsavory men an unshakeable pride and legitimacy. (While instilling within me a wariness of pissing off anyone whose last name ends in a vowel.)
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Who can pick a favorite shot from The Godfather? I can't. It's almost as painful as trying to pick my favorite shot from Vertigo.
The book mentions pink mist appearing behind the Captain's head after a bullet crashes into it; the film shows that mist. Maybe that's the one.
Or maybe it's Clemenza trying to teach "Mike" how to properly make spaghetti sauce? (I know this is TMI, but IDC: few meals have me DTF quicker than a well-made plate of spaghetti and meatballs.)
Usually, a novel chock full of back story can depend on any visual recreation suffering for lack of it. No question it's pretty cool to learn more about Johnny Fontane and Captain McCluskey, but the movie does just fine without understanding their motivations. The Vito Corleone history that comprises "Book III" would have been a point for the paper…if it hadn't been subsequently used for The Godfather Part II.
This I do know--Jaws is the only movie I can think of that improves upon its source material more dramatically. Coppola removed the crust not due to limitations like "running time" or "plot coherence" but rather because it was brittle and tasteless and unworthy of being so near such luscious filling.
And what does it, really does it, is a love story. Specifically, the stirring love story of Sonny Corleone's gargantuan dong and Lucy Mancini's floppy twat.
MIND THE GAP
Puzo certainly does mind the gap. That's part of his problem.
After Sonny's murder, his moon-eyed mistress Lucy Mancini tries to off herself. Unnerved, the family sends her to Vegas, where she'll do "work" for them (such as making sure Fredo doesn't foul everything up). She hooks up with a surgeon named Jules Segal, who helps her correct a rather unique and humiliating physical defect: a big ol' vagina. As if women don't have enough to fret over, a small percentage of them go through life with floppy fannies! The sausage is flyin' from one end of the alley to the other! Pages upon pages are devoted to what Jules calls "a weakening of the pelvic floor.....Some women even commit suicide because of it."
Because no man will love them and their oversized box! No man is big enough to satisfactorily stuff their oversized box! It's like no one knows the clitoris exists! Lesbians were not a thing in the Sixties! Yes people were having tons of sex, but it was either men and women together or men and men! Women with women, the hell you say! You can't have any type of party without ol' dick!
Lucy is wary, but Jules makes her a promise: "Baby, I'm going to build you a whole new thing down there."
Unfortunately, Jules lacks the means to perform the procedure himself, but luckily, he knows another surgeon out in L.A. who "tightens up all the movie stars."
Houston, we have a subplot failure. What men think about when they think about women, I tell you, it's a wonder any of us vagina-possessors (of any elasticity) crack our doors.
Twenty million people had to read that shit. Unless they had the sense to skip ahead. (Francis Ford Coppola was so repulsed that he stopped reading the book altogether. He slammed it, shut and down. I was there, I seen it!)
You know, for all the times I've seen "box" used as slang for "vagina," I have never once come across anyone calling a penis a "boxcutter." And I've never seen anyone defend this absolutely mind-boggling digression. I would rather read a separate novel about the Mob in Amity, NY than even another summation of this subplot.