Guy’s Time: A Film He Couldn’t Refuse

written by Carl Danbury, Jr. | illustration by Robin Harrison Guy's Time-Godfather

Why do you watch “The Godfather”?

It’s a question wives and girlfriends have asked for the past 44 years since the film debuted March 15, 1972, yet there is no easy answer to the question. Amid the eerie musical score, extraordinary technical achievements, such as making many scenes seem like they had been shot 30 to 40 years prior, brilliant performances by Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), Abe Vigoda (Tessio), Richard S. Castellano (Clemenza), John Marley (Jack Woltz), Marlon Brando (Don Vito Corleone) and especially Al Pacino (Michael Corleone), the riveting, unsettling and immoral dramatic scenes transfixed all who were unaccustomed to such malevolence. Maybe some men secretly harbor the will to possess the incongruous ability to be both miscreant and altruist when it serves their own purpose, much like the Godfather himself.

As Roger Ebert so wisely noted in his review back in ’72, “the actors supply one example after another of inspired casting. Although ‘The Godfather’ is a long, minutely detailed movie of some three hours, there naturally isn’t time to go into the backgrounds and identities of such characters as Clemenza . . . and the rest. Coppola and Producer Al Ruddy skirt this problem with understated typecasting.”

That’s just it. Even in a violent world so foreign to most of us who watch the film time and time again, “The Godfather” strikes a chord because the characters are so familiar to people we have met before in our lives. We might not have known a professional hit man like Luca Brasi (played by Lenny Montana), but we certainly know those who are blindly loyal like him. We might not know a family lieutenant like Tessio, but we likely know someone who turned against us because “it was only business.” We have known or know the power hungry, the angry and reckless, the peacemaker, the doting old grandfather with an inglorious past, the people pleaser and the insecure man who just didn’t measure up to his brothers. We have known or know the classless, the paradoxical, the sacrificial hero, those who ignore the truth and the perpetual outsider. Perhaps most of all, the reluctant leaders of a family business captivate us. Michael’s traits include calmness, calculating nerve and resolve to succeed, even though being the head of the family isn’t something he planned to do.

Robert Zemeckis, director of “Back to the Future,” “Romancing the Stone,” “Forest Gump” and others, qualified Michael’s character in “The Godfather” during an interview with The Telegraph in early 2015: “The first movie is really Michael’s story, he’s the pivotal character. Pacino’s character is deeply sad and broken. It’s almost Shakespearean, in that he has to do something he never really wanted to. He’s full of regret and dread — it’s a beautiful performance.”

Clearly so, when we still find ourselves discussing it all these years later. However, it wasn’t always as obvious. Then 31 years old, Director Francis Ford Coppola called Pacino and told him that he wanted him to play Michael, yet Paramount Pictures was reluctant to cast a New York-based stage actor for such a monumental role. After auditioning four times, studio executives viewed an eight-minute clip from Pacino’s second-ever screen role, “Panic in Needle Park,” which had not been released at that time. It was that performance that convinced them to take a chance on Pacino as Michael. Later, he was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, but the Academy, at that time, failed to recognize that the son was actually the true leading role, not the Godfather.

As it happens with any great movie, guys reference the movie’s dialogue often, and some of the most memorable lines continue to appear as allusions to this day.

“Because a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man!”
“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”
“I have a sentimental weakness for my children and I spoil them, as you can see. They talk when they should listen.”
“If not, it’s all-out war. We go to the mattresses.”
“Try the veal, it’s the best in the city.”
“Oh, Paulie? You won’t see him no more.”
“My father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

However, the main reference point “The Godfather” instilled is the sense that America is the prototypical, enduring nation of immigrants. In this case, Italians, or Sicilians if you prefer, embarked upon their own journey of trying to foster the American dream. The Corleone family began with a somewhat legitimate olive oil business, which then led them to other less honorable business pursuits. Then, a second-generation son goes to college, joins the Army, becomes a war hero with hopes of becoming a politician or something less extortionist than the family business had become. That is, until the attempted murder of his father leads Michael to become an integral part of the business, and the eventual head of the enterprise.

And even though in this case it’s not a legitimate, above-the-law business, our country is rife with honorable examples of immigrant families who have passed along their business enterprises to sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters throughout our country’s history.

Still, examples of extraordinary family enterprises like the Mangiones (see Turf Valley on page 38) of Maryland can be found today. Nick and Mary Mangione created a lasting legacy in hotel ownership and management, real estate development, interior design, risk management, the legal profession, construction and assisted living facilities where all 10 of their children and a few of their 37 grandchildren are involved and active in the family
business. The Mangiones bear witness to the American dream and their family values transcend birthright by providing employment for hundreds. You may ask why would I reference a movie that was released 44 years ago, instead of focusing upon a recently released film? “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”

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