What is The Godfather Effect?

An obsessed film buff (and Italian-American) reflects on the impact of Francis Ford Coppola’s blockbuster trilogy

The Godfather Effect looks at how the film saga portrays Italian-Americans and what that has meant to author Tom Santopietro, the film industry and the country. (Everett Collection)

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Both Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, and Francis Ford Coppola, who directed the films, used some terms and phrases that were only then later adopted by actual mobsters. Can you give an example?

Absolutely. The term “the godfather.” Puzo made that up. Nobody used that before. He brought that into parlance. Here we are 40 years later and all the news reports of the mob now refer to so and so as the godfather of the Gambino crime family. Real-life mobsters now actually say, “I am going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” That was totally invented by Puzo. I think these are phrases and terms that are not just used by the general public, but are also used by the FBI. So that is a powerful piece of art. The Godfather reaches its tentacles into so many levels of American life. I love the fact that it is Obama’s favorite movie of all time. I just love that.

Do you think anything has changed in the way audiences today react to the movie?

I think the biggest thing when you screen it today is that you realize it enfolds at a pace that allows you to get to know the characters so well. Today, because of the influence that started in the ’80s with music videos, it is all quick cuts, and they would never allow a film to unroll at this pace, which is our loss. We have lost the richness of character that The Godfather represents.

What do you think of television shows like “Mob Wives” and “Jersey Shore?” And, what effect do they have on Italian-American stereotypes?

I think “Mob Wives” and “Jersey Shore” are, in a word, terrible. The drama is usually artificial, heightened by both the participants and the editors for the dramatic purposes of television and hence are not real at all. They play to the worst stereotypes of Italian-American culture. Both shows center on larger-than-life figures to whom the viewing audience can feel superior. The audience condescends to these characters and receives their pleasure in that manner. It's not just “Jersey Shore” of course, because part of the pleasure for viewers of any reality show is feeling superior to contestants who sing badly, flop in their attempts to lose weight and the like. But the display of gavonne-like behavior on the two shows you mention results in both shows playing like 21st century versions of the organ grinder with his monkey—the Uncle Tom figure of Italian-Americans. It has been 100 years since the height of the immigrant and we're back where we started.

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