This isn’t really much of a review as I think that it’s pretty common knowledge that these films are great. Actually, the fact that they are user-rated #1 and #8 respectively at the Internet Movie Database is probably proof enough of that theory. So, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 28 years, you probably don’t need some guy who was a few weeks away from birth when The Godfather was released telling you how good these movies are. What I am going to do instead is make a small suggestion about your plans for this weekend and then drop some anecdotal tidbits about these films that might heighten your viewing experience.
First, the suggestion; go to the theater, check them out on the big screen and if you’re really out for blood, watch them back-to-back. I know that’s about 7 hours of film, but I can tell you from experience that it’s the best way to truly appreciate these American classics. Want examples? Well, for one thing, Robert DeNiro’s performance as the young Vito Corleone in the sequel is made all the more brilliant by his ability to freshly compare his mannerisms and bearing to Brando’s Vito in the original. DeNiro submerges himself so completely in the character and uses Brando as such an effective guide that the differences become transparent. No small accomplishment, considering the iconic stature of these two American film giants.
Another, probably more important plus is the ability to truly watch and track the growth (if you can call it growth) of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone. His transformation stands out in greater detail and becomes more tragic when taken as a whole. The heart-wrenching disintegration of his relationship with Kay (Diane Keaton) becomes much more poignant when the image of the two of them at Connie’s (Talia Shire) wedding is fresh in the mind. The brightness of war-hero Michael and his beautiful date at that wedding, coupled with the their final, emotionally crushing scene together perfectly captures their lives together. Kay’s final revelation, her final stab at Michael, a man she has grown to hate, lands with an even more sickening thud when it’s seen as the end of the full journey.
The films are full of moments like this; Michael kissing Fredo (John Cazale) on the dance floor is another one that comes to mind. There are literally hours of development leading up to that moment and because of that the weight of the gesture is staggering.
I think that’s enough evangelism. Like I said, the legacy of these films speaks for itself. I’m just a tiny voice in an enormous chorus singing their praises.
Let me pop out a couple of notes and then I’ll get out of the way.
Did you look at the cast list? I know you’re probably familiar with most of the players in these films. They are, after all, some of the greatest actors ever to work in American cinema and, taken collectively, practically define American film acting in the 70s. Two of them may not be household names, however, and I’d like to toss out for a little perspective the names John Casale and Lee Strasberg.
We’ll start with Casale (Fredo). Casale’s short career, if measured by the percentage of great films he appeared in, is probably the greatest ever. From 1972, when he appeared in The Godfather, until his untimely death in 1978 from bone cancer (almost six years to the day after The Godfather’s release), Casale appeared in five films and all five easily qualify as classics. The films are, in order of release: The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, Coppola’s neglected The Conversation, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and Michael Cimino’s masterful The Deer Hunter. Chew on that list for a minute. Casale is someone who knew how to read a screenplay…
Strasberg, on the other hand, is a horse of a different color. His film career was short and, with the notable exception of The Godfather II, pretty uneventful. His career as an acting teacher, however, is unparalleled. Want a quick rundown? He was artistic director of The Actors Studio during it’s heyday, was one of the leading proponents of the Method style of acting (which is probably the only style of acting most folks have ever heard of) and the personal acting teacher to countless stars including such luminaries as Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman. That resume, coupled with his sparse film work, combine to make his performance as the aging gangster Hyman Roth a real treasure. Assured and natural, his role in this film reveals a glimpse of the master behind some of the stage and screen’s greatest talents. A real treat.
This article was originally published in Boston's Weekly Dig (now digBoston) in March 2000.