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Jeff Simon: At age 50, 'The Godfather' still looks and feels brand-new

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#47. Godfather (copy)

Marlon Brando in "The Godfather."

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Pretend it's 1972. And you're in one of the marvelous – long gone – massive screens at the Holiday theaters in Cheektowaga watching the critics' and "opinion-maker's" March screening of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" set to open at month's end.

In other words, you're one of the many whom my old elementary schoolmate, the late Marc Lippman, could think of who might somehow be in a position to promote the fortunes of Paramount's long-awaited film: media types, pols, jocks, judges, lawyers, you name it.

It's the point in the film when the audience's attention is turned to the tenderest scene in the film – the scene, in fact, one might call the only truly tender scene in the whole film.

It's Michael's wedding night in Sicily with Apollonia, the sensitive-looking local beauty who has come to symbolize, for Michael, everything that, in exile, he has come to love about "the old country" and the violent family business. We watch as he, ever so lovingly and gently, caresses the straps of her honeymoon nightgown. We're seeing pure love. We don't yet know the cruelty of her fate minutes later.

At that exact second, a minion of the Holiday theater stands on the extreme right corner of the theater and shouts "will the owner of the blue Ford Fairlane, license number 64-BP-92, please go out to the parking lot and turn off your lights. You left your doors locked."

What is key to your understanding is that it never occurred to anyone at the Holiday theater that night that the audience would be watching the local preview of one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of motion pictures. Truth to tell, most of us in the audience didn't suspect it either.

It might have occurred to my old friend Marc – he was certainly open to art's possibilities, if not necessarily devoted to them – but movie exhibitors have their own value system grounded in box office, popcorn, butter, candy and obscenely large cups of sugared water. To them, a Ford Fairlane with a dead battery might screw up all of our cars' egress from the parking lot which would have mattered far more than our experience of a cinematic milestone. (I admit, by the way, to making up the make, and model and license plate of the car. Some facts get lost 50 years later. Everything else happened exactly as reported.)

That moment, has to me, come to symbolize the opposite poles of moviegoing – the movie that we acolytes dream of seeing on our best day vs. the money machines whose traffic in the parking lot has to be brisk and efficient.

"The Godfather" is 50 years old this year. "The Godfather Part II" – which some of us consider an even richer film – is 48.

In honor of the occasion, Paramount's streaming service has given us "The Offer," a 10-part series on the creation of the original "Godfather" shown on Paramount's streaming site.

I made it through the first episode but have no intention of returning. I simply couldn't care less about everything this series is so eager to tell us about the intersection of mobs in its creation – the Hollywood executive mob in the process of taking over Paramount Studios and the New York mob families, who were about to see their fabled criminal milieu transformed into one of the plushest and richest cinematic stories anyone would ever tell.

They didn't see it that way. How could they? No one did.

A dear old friend of mine was a lifelong film editor in Manhattan (now retired). All the time "The Godfather" was filming around town, he fed me gossip from the set to the effect that director Coppola and his cinematographer Gordon Willis were total incompetents. They were practically trying to make a movie epic with near-zero candlepower.

The film, as those bits of gossip would have it, was a spectacular and pretentious turkey in the making.

The biggest part of that congealing onset reputation is that it didn't resemble the way movies are supposed to be made. At the very least, its sumptuous dark cinematography seemed to break every rule in the book from its opening scene where, famously, you couldn't at first see Marlon Brando's eyes as he pets his cat and listens to a man request a murder.

Willis subsequently claimed that he decided how the film should look a mere 20 minutes before he began filming it. Subsequent stories feature bitter onset battles between Coppola and Willis – still more "proof" they were incompetents (rather than cinematic near-geniuses working out problems).

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But then, by that time, the gossip channels about "The Godfather" in progress were backed up with nasty sewage. Much of it is now thought to have been the doing of the late Aram Avakian, the brilliant fellow chosen to edit the film who dearly wanted to knock Coppola off his director's chair and take over himself.

It's important to understand: Francis Ford Coppola wasn't Francis Ford Coppola yet. He was not a monolith. That status had yet to emerge. He and Avakian could be seen by some Manhattanites as rough equivalents. Avakian was known to have directed the wild and woolly version of John Barth's first novel "End of the Road" (which the former UB professor once told me he wrote before his first published book "The Floating Opera").

Avakian wanted to take over. Instead, he was fired. And, despite everything, that seemed conclusive proof to some of the Paramount biggies that the monkeys had taken over the zoo. It didn't occur to them yet that Coppola and Willis were re-creating the look of American movies for the next 25 years.

Let me be blunt at this point.

I have been thinking about the "Godfather" films for 50 years and I have come to regard both the first two as miracles of American film. They both had every reason in the world to turn out to be of less moment than a Ford Fairlane in the parking lot with its lights left on.

Instead they defied everything. The art of motion pictures triumphed and took American movies to places it had never really been before.

The original was uncomfortable at every turn to make. Willis' radical visual scheme depended on so much darkness that the actors' movements were severely restricted. If they went mere inches out of the frames Willis prescribed, they would be invisible.

What ensued wasn't a film of cinematic paralysis. Instead, what resulted was a film of radical and majestic stillness for the actors. When we finally saw what Coppola and Willis were doing in 1972, it turned out they were anything but crazy. Projections of a turkey turned into the acknowledgement of a masterpiece which helped redefine American cinematic narrative.

Cynics might well offer that "The Offer" is being brought to you by some people whose major Inside Hollywood concerns aren't all that much more meaningful than a Ford Fairlane with its lights left on in the parking lot.

In truth, though, I must confess there was a scene in the first episode where producer Al Ruddy and his writing partner improvise, on the spot, the plot of their sitcom "Hogan's Heroes" where things have the Inside Hollywood drollery of writer Michael Tolkin's script for Robert Altman's 1992 film "The Player." (Tolkin is the son of Sid Caesar's old writer Mel Tolkin.)

But the fact is that nothing these guys can do in 10 episodes of "The Offer" can come close to the uncanny miracle of "The Godfather" and "The Godfather, Part Two" – the way everything seemed to work out with hitherto unimaginable stateliness and power.

That majestic stillness that came from Willis' demands of the actors looked onscreen as glorious as Italian Renaissance portrait painting.

The tale, whose author Mario Puzo intended to be salable pulp, took on a masterpiece's size and scope onscreen, as we watched the tragedy of a family undone by corruption and history itself.

I did with "The Offer" – and the "Godfather" 50th anniversary – what so many people did.

I watched the original films again.

For the umpteenth time.

As always, they looked brand-new.

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Semi-Retired Columnist and Critic

Jeff Simon began working at The News as a copyboy 57 years ago. Since that time, he has been closely involved in all aspects of The News' cultural coverage – as critic, columnist and Arts and Books editor for 25 years.

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