Recently I watched The Godfather. I had seen it once or twice before and don’t remember having much of an opinion about it one way or the other, but I know there are those who consider it to be a master work so I thought I’d sit down and try to figure out why.
The best I can say for it is that there is some good acting in it. James Caan is fantastic. Robert Duvall is a study in elegant acting. Al Pacino gives a workman-like performance. He’s been much better in other places. Talia Shire brings depth to a woefully underwritten role, and the casting of the supporting players is brilliant. Any authenticity the film has is in the casting of the supporting cast.
And then there’s Marlon Brando, whose influences on American acting in general, and Chicago actors (particularly male actors) is seismic. Like Pacino, Brando has delivered better performances in other places. And not unlike Pacino, Brando’s art is damaged by his believing his own press. In some scenes Brando chews the scenery down to the studs. But in his final scene with a child, he gives a lovely delicate performance that’s worth studying.
The production design is effective, if not entirely historically accurate. The cinematography is good, but not exactly groundbreaking.
The less said about Diane Keaton's performance, the better. Except to say that her failure in this film is not her fault.
And then there's the screenplay. That screenplay. I’ve not read the novel, and shouldn’t have to for the film to make sense. There are gaping holes in the timeline with years explained away in three words. There’s a detour to Sicily that’s required by the plot, but includes a completely undeveloped subplot that could have - should have - brought depth to Michael’s character, but is never mentioned in the remainder of the first installment, nor in The Godfather II. There are four major female figures in Michael Corleone's life. From a dramatic point of view, any one of the four has a more compelling story than Micheal, and yet none of them are written with any nuance. They function merely as plot devises and set dressing. It's just sloppy writing.
So, after watching The Godfather I went out to Facebook and posted my indifference to this supposed American masterpiece. All of the responses were good natured, but it was interesting to note that of those who expressed unqualified admiration for the movie were all straight men. Some women were able to take a more objective view, and appreciate the film on its own terms, while others commented in much more contemporary terms by not incorrectly labeling it a misogynistic paean to toxic masculinity. And a few, mostly gay men, tended to agree with me.
The Godfather is a seminal work, there’s no denying it. It gave us a generation of some of the best actors ever filmed. But there’s no denying that it fails epically when viewed through a twenty-first century lens. The female characters in particular are little more that dolls, and I would argue that any depth is brought out in the character silences, which might be effective movie making, but doesn’t necessarily represent inspired storytelling.
Example: Camera cuts to a close up of Al Pacino’s soulful eyes any number of times. Do we see a man in moral torment, or an actor wondering what craft services is offering for lunch? Could be either one. Is Al Pacino capable of giving a moving performance? Without question. Is Michael Corleone one of them? I’d answer that question with the one-word review I gave the movie on Facebook.