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APAR's WORKING WEEKEND: Looking Forward to ‘Godfather’s Day’

15 Jun, 2001 By: Bruce Apar

The Godfather saga is less a movie than a cottage industry.

More than any of his other films, several of which are superior by any measure, these are the ones that have made Francis Ford Coppola an icon of our popular culture for the last 30 years. He now, among the oenology cognoscenti, is also justly renowned for his Coppola-Niebaum winery, producer of pricey bottles that uncork undeniable cachet when ordered in a restaurant or served to guests at home.

Given the larger-than-life shadow he casts, it was not at all surprising to see the crush of media jostling for a closeup video and sound byte at Paramount Home Entertainment’s press conference this past week to announce The Godfather DVD Collection, hitting shelves Oct. 9, 2001.

The milieu was both authentic and movie-set picturesque, a pleasant street of row houses and commercial buildings in the heart of America’s adopted birthplace, Brooklyn, N.Y. This is where Coppola was throwing a street party in tribute to his dad Carmine’s birthday and to commemorate the pasta factory he owns. There was even a clarinetist on hand whose music is in the first film’s famous wedding scene, and actor Dominic Chianese, now nationally recognized as Uncle Junior in "The Sopranos" but who, for me, will always be indelibly Johnny Ola, the soft-spoken henchman of Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) in The Godfather Part II.

As a dyed-in-the-Borsalino Godfather groupie, I attended the event not just as a working reporter, but as a charter groupie of this 20th century masterwork. As aptly put by Paramount Home Entertainment Worldwide president Eric Doctorow, "All great art moves the viewer and the greatest art moves cultures." These films have influenced our culture arguably more than any other major motion picture in the history of Hollywood. Doctorow further allowed how many of Paramount’s own staff "recite every line from these movies." There’s a lot of that going around.

Even my 13-year-old son Harrison has suddenly acquired a pointed interest in The Godfather. He’s reading the book, watching the movies and, for a summer theater camp audition, went online to download dialogue from Part 2 to recite for his required monologue. Like father, like son: it is one of my favorite scenes, when Hyman Roth is lecturing Michael Corleone in Cuba on why it’s not polite mob etiquette to ask "who pulled the trigger."

Being a devoted father, I patiently waited in the pasta factory to corner Coppola to autograph Harrison’s original theatrical card from the second film. As he signed, somewhat exasperated from the nonstop media interviews, the bearish five-time Oscar winner remarked, "This was supposed to be about pasta. I’m tired of talking about The Godfather." An observer whispered to me, "If it wasn’t for The Godfather, there’d be no pasta factory."

In the late 1970s, I was editor of the first consumer magazine for the VCR generation, titled, logically enough, Video. In the December 1978 issue, our cover story, "The Videodisc Is Here!" carried a tagline, "The Godfather for $10 – An Offer You Can’t Refuse?" Of course, it was only in liquidation sales that any laserdisc movies sold for that low a price.

Fast forward: I was like a giddy kid watching Kim Aubry of Coppola’s production company Zoetrope sample some of the behind-the-scenes bonus features on the five-disc set, expected to carry a suggested retail of about $95, with a minimum advertised price of $75. Worth every cent.

Coppola’s commentary runs the full length of each of the three movies, a feature worth the price of the discs alone. He likened recording the commentary to "looking through old photos or home movies of your family."

He told of how closely he followed the letter of the book by Mario Puzo and lobbied, succesfully, for Paramount to place the author’s name above the movie’s title, a concession and marketing element virtually unheard of until that time. The result was Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.

The filmmaker regaled the assembled press and assorted guests with juicy anecdotes, such as how he worked into the script a recipe for "browning Italian sausage," only to be advised by co-screenwriter Puzo that "gangsters don’t brown, gangsters fry."

One of the actors with a smaller role, Joe Spinnel, was driving a cab Coppola happened to hail and told the director he was an actor. Coppola cast him, and was so pleased with his performance that he planned a big role for him in the third film. Unfortunately, the actor died before the movie was shot.

Then there was oafish wrestler Lenny Montana, who played a bumbling hit man in the first film. He had trouble reciting his couple of lines to Marlon Brando, so the legendary actor had some fun while filming his scene with Montana by taping a note to his own forehead with a four-letter curse word followed by "you."

One of the most famous scenes from the movies, and my personal favorite, takes place in the original movie. College graduate and war veteran Al Pacino (Michael Corleone) is about to commit his first murder – a double homicide of a rival gangster and a crooked police captain inside a restaurant. Pacino’s performance in that critical scene, noted Coppola, was critical to developing his character.

What’s easily forgotten now is that Pacino was an unknown at the time, and Coppola recounted how he had taken grief from Paramount for putting him in the movie as a major character. After viewing the rushes of that scene, said Coppola, "Paramount executives caught the first glimmer that I was not crazy for casting him."

In responding to a convoluted question from a journalist from Italy about whether Coppola today has any regrets, as an Italian himself, about glorifying gangsters, the director replied in the negative. "Over the years, The Godfather has been criticized for stereotyping Italians. I don’t think it has the stigma it had 30 years ago for portraying Italians as gangsters. People who are Italian are good at anything they do… including being gangsters."

Coppola was adamant that there will not be a fourth Godfather. He also said he is not particularly fond of the NBC version shown years ago that re-edited the three movies into chronological order – with the flashbacks from Part 2 being moved to the beginning of the story. He called that version "an interesting exercise but as the filmmaker, I don’t think it’s the best way to see the movie. I did it because [then-Paramount chief] Charlie Bluhdorn asked me to, and I was afraid of him."

Coppola called himself "a tremendous fan of DVD; it really has upped my consumption of movies." He added that, "in the early days of DVD, they really didn’t have it down" in terms of reproduction quality.

Now, apparently, even The Godfather’s godfather approves. This Sunday, June 17, is Father’s Day, but for millions of fathers and other movie fans, the date that can’t come soon enough is October 9, 2001 – Godfather’s Day.

Comments? Contact Bruce directly at:bapar@advanstar.com

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