When Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather arrived in theaters in March of 1973, the award-winning film depicted for the world a new vision of the American gangster: He laughs, he cries, he loves his family, and if you cross him, he won’t hesitate to put a horse’s bloody head in your bed.
The Godfather quickly became a blockbuster and a cultural phenomenon, offering a fresh model for film and television gangster shows. In the mob stories that followed in its wake—shows like “The Sopranos,” and films like Scarface and Goodfellas—we see its influences in the shorthand language, the unexpected humor, the costumes, the graphic violence and the use of music.
In the late 1960s, the film seemed a solid prospect for success: Mario Puzo’s novel of the same title had held at number one for 67 consecutive weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list. Both Puzo and Coppola wanted Marlon Brando for the title character of Vito Corleone, the family patriarch and the ruthless leader of a crime syndicate.
But Paramount Pictures firmly opposed hiring Brando. With his reputation for being difficult, Brando might delay production, and in the late 1960s, following a run of failures, he seemed more like box-office poison than the cultural icon he would later become. Much to Puzo’s horror, comedian Danny Thomas had been one of those expressing interest in the part. Brando, too, wanted the part. Struggling with debt and public disillusionment, he agreed to submit to a screen test, to work without pay upfront, and to compensate the studio if his own actions slowed production.
During his screen test, the star turned in a stunning performance. In his mid-40s at the time, Brando would be playing a man 20 years older. To prepare, he untied his blond ponytail and used shoe polish to darken his hair and slick it back. He put tissue paper in his mouth to give himself jowls, and he spoke with a weak mumbling voice because the character’s backstory included being shot in the throat.
In the middle of the test, he even took a phone call, remaining in character throughout. Paramount was convinced; Brando was offered the role of mafia don Vito Corleone.
From Coppola’s perspective, Brando brought changes and improvisational insights that bolstered his character and the film as a whole. In a scene Brando shared with singer Al Martino, whose role reportedly was based on Frank Sinatra, the script called for Don Corleone to reprimand Martino’s Johnny Fontaine for his weakness. But Brando did more than verbally castigate Martino. He slapped him—a move that startled Martino because Coppola and Brando had intentionally kept the singer in the dark about plans to alter the scene. The change worked well.
Ultimately, Brando was paid $250,000 and a percentage of profits, reportedly netting about $2 million from the film.
After the film’s triumphant release, Brando, appeared on the covers of Time, Life and Newsweek and was prominently featured in Playboy, Ladies Home Journal, Rolling Stone, Vogue and other publications.
A portrait in pastel and opaque watercolor of Brando that first appeared on the cover of Time in January 1973 following the film’s success is held in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The work’s artist Robert Peak was well-known for movie advertisements and award-winning illustrations that shaped visions of the film industry, beginning in the early 1960s.
Time magazine’s cover story that month was an in-depth article addressing Brando’s next big film, the controversial and explicitly sexual Last Tango in Paris, which debuted in late 1972.
Despite its dark and sometimes grisly aura, The Godfather accomplished the rare feat of capturing widespread critical praise as well as popularity with the public, says Kate Lemay, an historian at the National Portrait Gallery. “It started this long love affair with mobster—gangsters,” she says. The film cost $6 million to make, grossed $100 million in its first five months in theaters, and became the highest-earning movie of all time to that date, pushing 1965’s The Sound of Music—a very different family movie—out of the top slot.
The line, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” ranks second in the American Film Institute’s list of greatest movie quotes ever, exceeded only by Gone with the Wind’s “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” The film’s most memorable line “Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” uttered just moments after a character is slain, is a meme that even today adorns T-shirts and coffee cups.
The film remains absorbing a half-century after its release. “The directing in it, the acting in it, all the components fit together so nicely and very thoughtfully,” says Lemay. Moreover, “the storyline is still relatable to this day.” Lemay sees abuse of power as one of the film’s themes. Even today, “it’s interesting to see how people who have power are using it, bending the rules in order to accomplish what they think is important and just.” The men in the Corleone family “were drunk on their own power,” she says. “They lost sight of what was right or wrong.”
Other themes resonate throughout the film. Musicologist Marcia J. Citron celebrated the movie’s operatic qualities in Music and Culture and described the portrayal “of the immigrant, tribal Mafia’s evolution into a multinational corporation [as] a metaphor for the saga of Americanization.” In selling the role to Brando, Puzo compared the godfather and his brethren to powerful executives in big business.
Before The Godfather’s release, there had been uneasiness in the Italian American community. Don Corleone is an Italian immigrant, and in the film’s first scene, an undertaker named Amerigo declares, “I believe in America,” and adds, “America has made my fortune.” Because of this trepidation, the film does not refer specifically to the Mafia.
Forty years later, author Tom Santopietro wrote The Godfather Effect, arguing that the film helped to Americanize Italian Americans. “I think it helped people see that in this depiction of Italian-Americans was a reflection of their own immigrant experience, whether they were Irish or Jews from Eastern Europe. They found common ground,” he contended in a Smithsonian interview.
The cast reads like a Hollywood Who’s Who with stars like Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, Richard Conte and Diane Keaton turning out top performances. Brando’s contribution to The Godfather, however, remains a signature standout.
“The role is not big enough for Brando to dominate the film by his physical presence, but his performance sets the pitch for the entire production, which is true and flamboyant and, at unexpected moments, immensely moving,” wrote Vincent Canby of the New York Times. “This is not only because the emotions, if surcharged, are genuine and fundamental, but also because we're watching a fine actor exercise his talent for what looks like the great joy of it, because, after all, it's there.”
Most reviewers gave Brando much credit for the film’s success. Don Corleone’s death scene begins with him playing with his grandson. Brando made a point of getting to know the little boy before the scene was filmed, and he improvised during the scene, putting pieces of orange peel in his mouth to pretend to be a monster. He didn’t know how the 4-year-old would respond, and when the child cowered, Brando picked him up reassuringly. One of his biographers, William J. Mann, wrote, “This isn’t acting—at least, it’s not the acting most actors do. It’s living.”
The Godfather was named Best Motion Picture–Drama in the 1973 Golden Globe Awards and Best Picture in the Academy Awards. Defeating competitors like Sir Lawrence Olivier, Brando won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama and the Academy Award for Best Actor. He turned down the Golden Globe belatedly, but on Oscar night, the Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather rejected the award on his behalf and condemned the stereotypical portrayals of her people in Hollywood productions. The Godfather: Part II, released in 1974, became the first sequel to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The Godfather: Part III, which opened in 1990, received less critical acclaim.
Despite the film’s continuing impact, Lemay describes one element that makes the film seem dated. The importance of family is key to the lives of the Corleones; however, this applies solely to the men.
“I just wanted to tell all the women to get a life,” says Lemay. “The focus on the family was so misogynist.” The male characters routinely lie to the female characters and are unwilling to hear the women’s opinions.
After The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, Brando became known for taking small parts, such as the renegade colonel in Apocalypse Now, and his portrayal of the man of steel’s father in 1978’s Superman for which he collected a larger salary than Superman himself—Christopher Reeve.
Brando is broadly recognized as the greatest film actor of his era, and he was a social activist before many actors used their prestige to support causes such as civil rights.
“He was really a pioneer,” says Lemay.