Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, based upon the novel by Mario Puzo
Starring Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, John Cazale, Bruno Kirby, Lee Strassburg, Robert Duval, G. D. Spradlin and Harry Dean Stanton
It strikes me now that as I’ve come to the homestretch on the Best Picture Project, and looking to start my final kick, I’m facing down what might be the toughest stretch of movies, having inadvertently saved some of the longest, and some of those I’d been dreading most, for last. The streak started a few movies back with Crash (dreading), continued to The Departed (long), then on to My Fair Lady (long), leading right up to this one (long). To come, Schindler’s List (dreading for emotional reasons and my discomfort at feeling feelings), Return of the King (massive length), Cimarron (saved for basically being unavailable), and Million Dollar Baby (dread because when I saw it in the theater, the bait-and-switch made me downright hostile with it).
If I could go back and do it again, I would probably have gotten some of these films out of the way first, just to be over, and also so the final entries here could feel like a victory lap instead of a cold, hard slog. But, this is the bed I’ve made and so now I lay in it and try to sleep.
What’s It About?
The Godfather Part II is about three and a half hours.
Ba. Duh. Dum.
Seriously, though, The Godfather Part II is both a prequel and sequel to the first film, exploring the origins of the Corleone family, intercut with the decay that will ultimately destroy it. In the end, that’s what it’s about: birth and decay.
Is It As Good As The First?
Inevitably the question posed for any sequel is this: is it as good as the first. Usually, the answer is no – most sequels offer nothing but diminishing returns to the point they become pale shadows of their origins. In terms of VHS tapes, they are copies of copies that gradually lose definition. Only does a sequel hold serve, or actually seem to improve: Toy Story 2, Aliens, The Empire Strikes Back.
Curiously, The Godfather Part II does bother, being both better and worse.
For the better—
- The film shows real philosophical depth, many of its characters are richer, and the notions of corruption and violence are plumbed for everything they have to give. It also explores the notion that the sins of the father are visited on the children; it makes much of the corrupting power of money; and shows the never-ending-circle of violence.
- It’s rife with virtuosic cinematic moments – the stalking and killing of Don Fannucci; most every scene dealing with Fredo, including his death; and the final revenge of the young Vito Corleone.
- It proves the real menace comes from the quite moments; that you don’t have to be loud to make an impact. And by withholding, it makes what’s withheld all-the-more impactful when it’s finally given.
- The standout performances really standout—
- DeNiro is electric without barely raising his voice and with nothing but the smallest gesture. Even at that point in his career he exuded power and confidence.
- John Cazale, despite the critical and awards love that were showered on others, effortlessly gives the film it’s heart and depth. Did he get an Oscar for his troubles? Nope, just the paycheck.
- Even less-heralded than Cazale is Richard Bright as Al Neri, who has the single most-devastating moment in the film. For most of the story, Bright’s job is to be is little more than a hulking presence in the backs of scenes, barely saying a word. Given how little his part required marks it as the most difficult – having to make something from nothing. But make something of it he does and when he finally has a chance to do something, he crushes it. If nothing else, skip to the moment at Mama’s funeral, when Michael embraces Fredo in what seems an act of forgiveness but, in a glance to Bright’s Neri, makes clear Fredo’s death has been sealed. Though Bright says nothing it’s the look he gives, that little twitch of knowing Fredo’s going to die and it’s he who’ll pull the trigger, gets me every time. All from a look.
For the worse—
The Godfather Part II suffers the same problems afflicting most sequels – it tries to do what the first did, only giving you more of it. As if more necessarily means better. Sometimes, though, more is just more. A lot more.
Worse than all this, though, is the film makes Michael Corleone largely irrelevant to the story. Yes, he’s ostensibly the focus, but in reality, he’s a distraction from the far-better parts of the film — Fredo and Vito. Honestly, if Fredo’s narrative didn’t need Michael, he could be cut without a problem. In an alt-dimension there exists a Part II that is entirely Fredo’s story, the sad. Pathetic story of a man who aspires to be boss, but doesn’t have the brains or wile to pull it off.
But we’re not in an alt-dimension, we’re in this one, which means we’re getting to watch both Fredo’s story and the outtakes that were left in.
Most damning me, though, is that while Part II is a cinematic achievement, and is objectively deeper than its predecessor, if I were actually going to sit down and watch one just for fun, I’m watching the first.
Should It Have Won?
This one is not really a trick question as all: No, it shouldn’t. It might be the better of the early Godfather films, but there are still two better films nominated for Best Picture in 1974: Chinatown and The Conversation.
Better films from down-list?
Day for Night.
The Towering Inferno. (Just Kidding.)
The truth is, while The Godfather Part II is great, these films are all greater.
The Year of Coppola
It was a good year for Francis Ford Coppola – 1974. In addition to The Godfather Part II winning Best Picture, his other film, The Conversation, was nominated against it. As you can see above, I obviously prefer The Conversation. Yes, it’s shorter, but it also resonates more with me, never moreso than in today’s political climate.
But just as 1974 was the year of Coppola, the 1970s were the decade of Coppola. He started it by co-writing the Best Picture winner, Patton, and ended it by directing what might be the greatest Vietnam War movie ever, the Best Picture nominee, Apocalypse Now.
All told, he directed four films, all nominated for Best Picture. Was the writer on another Best Picture winner (Patton), was a producer on another (American Graffiti), and won the Palme d’Or twice (The Conversation and Apocalypse Now).
Sadly, hubris would destroy him in the 80s and aside from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, he’s never flown as high again.
First Sequel to Win
The Godfather Part II was the first sequel to win Best Picture, a feat twice accomplished since then – more or less.
The first was The Silence of the Lambs which, depending on the way you look at it, is either a basically-unrelated film playing in the same cinematic universe as Manhunter – a la Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane – or is a basically a sequel. Given the carryover of Hannibal Lecter from one to the other, I’m inclined to say sequel, though I can see the argument for it being not.
The next was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which hardly seems like an award for that film in particular as much as it was a valedictory award for the three Lord of the Rings films, and so hardly counts.
It’s too bad Rocky didn’t follow up its Best Picture win with the same honor for any of its sequels. Think of how wonderful the world would be if you were forever forced to say, “Best Picture Winner Rocky IV.” But don’t cry for Rocky IV – it didn’t win Best Picture, but it beat communism. So it’s got that going for it.
See the rest of The Best Picture Project here.
See the companion series, the Also Rans Project, here.
 That’s a running reference, for those who didn’t know.
 This is an argument I take with my kids about swearing: when every other word is a swear, it the swear loses it’s power.