If you don't already know how great The Godfather is, I won't even try to convince you; you've got an excuse if you've never seen it, but if you saw it and came away unimpressed, well, perhaps it's time for you to give up movies altogether. There's not much point in waiting for something better to come along after this.
But seeing it, you'd have a hard time believing how perilously close The Godfather came to not being a great movie or how close it came to being a very not-great movie indeed. The mess Francis Ford Coppola got himself into while making Apocalypse Now is legendary (for a truly traumatic experience, see the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, an unblinking chronicle of Coppola's Apocalypse debacle shot by his then-wife), but the director had already done his season in hell years earlier on The Godfather's shoot.
In the first place, Coppola was hardly the studio's first choice to direct Mario Puzo's best-selling novel; they approached such directors as Peter Bogdanovich and Sergio Leone, all of whom turned it down. Finding no brighter prospects, the studio eventually turned to Coppola, a scruffy little oddball who was just coming off of the small, misunderstood and already forgotten 1969 drama The Rain People.
Having scored the prestigious Godfather gig, Coppola promptly scared the crap out of his backers by insisting on hiring Marlon Brando for the role of Vito Corleone. At that point, Brando had already begun to display the staggeringly eccentric behavior that has since become his entire way of being, and his reputation as a Master Thespian was suffering accordingly. His bizarre whims were being blamed for the massive budget overruns on Mutiny on the Bounty a decade before, and the studios wanted nothing to do with him. The studio tried to persuade Coppola to cast such stellar (and usually sane) actors as Edward G. Robinson and Laurence Olivier, but Coppola was adamant, even when producer Robert Evans threatened to bounce him right off the picture.
So, Brando stayed in and was of course just as wacko as can be. He refused to learn his lines, preferring to read them off cue cards. He played pranks like lining his bed with bricks for the scene when he is carried up the stairs. He brought a stray cat to the shoot and insisted it sit in his lap for the filming of the opening scene. Most problematic of all, he had a notion that Corleone should look like a bulldog and stuffed his cheeks full of cotton for the screen test. He looked absurd, and nobody could understand a word he said, but he was obsessed with this bulldog idea, and eventually, the studio accommodated him with a very uncomfortable dental appliance that puffed his jowls up to his satisfaction.
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Of course, in those days, Brando still had his brains together enough that when he took a notion, it often turned out that he was on to something; his bulldoggish performance would earn him an Academy Award for best actor. And the opening scene passed directly into movie legend—stray cat and all.
There were other disasters, including James Caan cracking a couple of Gianni Russo's ribs during a fight scene, but arguably the biggest disaster was Ryan O'Neal's casting as Brando's wayward son, Michael Corleone. Robert Redford was also considered for the part (The Godfather came thisclose to being a very ofay movie), but Coppola thought he had found his Michael in Burt Reynolds until Brando let loose with a fortuitous tantrum (some say he was still peeved at a killer Brando imitation Reynolds had done in a Twilight Zone episode a few years earlier), and Reynolds was cut loose. Finally, some twisted genius had the idea of giving the part to some punk called Al Pacino, who came in and acted the snot out of the role.
In that most of The Godfather's triumphs were born of desperation as actors flubbed lines and carefully planned effects didn't work, one wonder of the film is that its wonders seem so polished and perfect. For a picture that had a production as messy as a mob massacre, The Godfatherhits you with the precision of a sniper's bullet.
The Godfather screens at the Bay Theatre, 340 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 431-9988. Sun., 2:30 p.m.; Mon., 7 p.m. $5-8.