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A ‘Godfather’ Guide: How Francis Ford Coppola’s Trilogy Has Evolved


Based on the runaway best seller written by Mario Puzo (it was the first paperback to ever sell six million copies), the movie that changed both filmmaking and perceptions of gangster culture was an instant hit. “Francis Ford Coppola has made one of the most brutal and moving chronicles of American life ever designed within the limits of popular entertainment,” Vincent Canby, the New York Times chief film critic, raved when the film was released in 1972. The drama became the highest-grossing film of the year and, at that point, ever. Largely considered among the best movies of all time (the American Film Institute ranked it No. 2 behind “Citizen Kane”), it garnered 11 Academy Award nominations, taking home three: adapted screenplay, picture, and actor for Marlon Brando’s performance as Don Vito Corleone.


No movie ever had “Part II” in the title before, a renegade concept added at the behest of Coppola. And its sprawling story, ranging across the 20th century from Italy to New York, California and elsewhere, transcended the mere gangster film and lives as a uniquely American epic, complete with a re-creation of an immigrant’s journey through Ellis Island. A box-office hit that successfully turned Robert De Niro into a Hollywood star, the sequel collected 11 Academy Award nominations and won six, including supporting actor for De Niro, along with director and picture. It was the first film follow-up to win the top prize, effectively cementing the allure of the movie sequel.


As the first two films reverberated throughout popular culture, their impact was bolstered by the power of television. NBC originally shelled out a reported $10 million in 1974 just for “Part I,” resulting in the biggest TV audience for a theatrical release at the time. Coppola, in need of money to help bankroll what would become his next masterpiece, “Apocalypse Now,” brainstormed an entirely new “Godfather” experience in 1977, recutting the first two films with the editor Barry Malkin. They toned down the violence, added scenes originally left on the cutting-room floor, and presented the story in sequential order in lieu of the epic’s time-shifting narrative. Later released on VHS, licensed by HBO, AMC and Amazon Prime throughout the years and marketed under numerous titles (“The Godfather Epic,” “The Godfather Saga”), this version, too, was acclaimed. “The chronological rejiggering works extremely well,” The Times’s television critic, John J. Connor, wrote in his 1977 review, adding that the reimagining, “in some ways, constitutes a pronounced improvement.”


Coppola has readily admitted that he was strapped for cash when Paramount Pictures coerced him into orchestrating another installment of the Corleone chronicles. While its story is just as grand as the others, including an art-imitating-life subplot about a Vatican in debt, the production was rushed, its over-the-top action scenes were reminiscent of the recent hit “Die Hard,” and when Winona Ryder dropped out at the 11th hour, the infamously inexperienced Sofia Coppola (Francis Ford Coppola’s 18-year-old daughter) stepped in to play the ill-fated Mary. The movie received mixed reviews from critics and posted lackluster box-office results. And while the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, it walked away empty-handed.

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