4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Francis Ford Coppola Edition


4 (or more) Shots From 4 (or more) Films is just what it says it is, 4 (or more) shots from 4 (or more) of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 (or more) Shots From 4 (or more) Films lets the visuals do the talking.

Today is Francis Ford Coppola’s birthday! Coppola is a bit of a controversial figure among some film scholars. While everyone agrees that, with the first two Godfathers, he directed two of the greatest films of all time (and some people would include Apocalypse Now on that list as well) and that he was one of the most important directors of the 70s, his post-Apocalypse Now career is often held up as a cautionary tale. Some say that Coppola’s career suffered because of his own excessive behavior and spending. Others argue that he was treated unfairly by a film industry that resented his refusal to compromise his vision and ambitions. Personally, my natural instinct is to always side with the artist over the executives and that’s certainly the case with Coppola. Coppola has only completed three films since the start of this current century and none of them were widely released. Say what you will about the films themselves, that still doesn’t seem right.

Regardless of how one views his latter career, Coppola is responsible for some of the best and most important films ever made. And today, on his birthday, it’s time for….

4 Shots From 4 Francis Ford Coppola Films

The Godfather (1972, dir by Francis Ford Coppola, DP: Gordon Willis)
The Conversation (1974, dir by Francis Ford Coppola, DP: Bill Butler)
The Godfather, Part II (1974, dir by Francis Ford Coppola, DP: Gordon Willis)
Apocalypse Now (1979, dir by Francis Ford Coppola, DP: Vittorio Storaro)

4 Shots From 4 Films: The 4 best Best Picture Winners


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking.

Today is Oscar Sunday!  Tonight, a new film will join the exclusive list of the 90 previous best picture winners!

Sometimes, we spend so much time focusing on the winners that shouldn’t have won that we forget that some truly great films have managed to take the top prize.  So, with this edition of 4 Shots From 4 Films, I’m highlighting for the four best Best Picture winners!

4 Shots From 4 Films

All About Eve (1950, dir by Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

The Godfather Saga (1972 and 1974, dir by Francis Ford Coppola)

It Happened One Night (1934, dir by Frank Capra)

West Side Story (1961, dir by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins)

Shattered Politics #36: The Godfather, Part II (dir by Francis Ford Coppola)


Godfather_part_ii

Believe it or not, The Trial of Billy Jack was not the only lengthy sequel to be released in 1974.  Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II was released as well and it went on to become the first sequel to win an Oscar for best picture.  (It was also the first, and so far, only sequel to a best picture winner to also win best picture.)  Among the films that The Godfather, Part II beat: Chinatown, Coppola’s The Conversation, and The Towering Inferno.  1974 was a good year.

Whenever I think about The Godfather, Part II, I find myself wondering what the film would have been like if Richard Castellano hadn’t demanded too much money and had actually returned in the role of Clemenza, as was originally intended.  In the first Godfather, Clemenza and Tessio (Abe Vigoda) were Don Corleone’s two lieutenants.  Tessio was the one who betrayed Michael and was killed as a result.  Meanwhile, Clemenza was the one who taught Michael how to fire a gun and who got to say, “Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli.”

Though Castellano did not return to the role, Clemenza is present in The Godfather, Part II.  The Godfather, Part II tells two separate stories: during one half of the film, young Vito Corleone comes to America, grows up to be Robert De Niro and then eventually becomes the Godfather.  In the other half of the film, Vito’s successor, Michael (Al Pacino), tries to keep the family strong in the 1950s and ultimately either loses, alienates, or kills everyone that he loves.

During Vito’s half of the film, we learn how Vito first met Clemenza (played by Bruno Kirby) and Tessio (John Aprea).  However, during Michael’s half of the story, Clemenza is nowhere to be seen.  Instead, we’re told that Clemenza died off-screen and his successor is Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo).  All of the characters talk about Frankie as if he’s an old friend but, as a matter of fact, Frankie was nowhere to be seen during the first film.  Nor is he present in Vito’s flashbacks.  This is because originally, Frankie was going to be Clemenza.  But Richard Castellano demanded too much money and, as a result, he was written out of the script.

And really, it doesn’t matter.  Gazzo does fine as Frankie and it’s a great film.  But, once you know that Frankie was originally meant to be Clemenza, it’s impossible to watch The Godfather Part II without thinking about how perfectly it would have worked out.

If Clemenza had been around for Michael’s scenes, he would have provided a direct link between Vito’s story and Michael’s story.  When Clemenza (as opposed to Frankie) betrayed Michael and went into protective custody, it would have reminded us of how much things had changed for the Corleones (and, by extension, America itself).  When Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) talked Clemenza (as opposed to Frankie) into committing suicide, it truly would have shown that the old, “honorable” Mafia no longer existed.  It’s also interesting to note that, before Tessio was taken away and killed, the last person he talked to was Tom Hagen.  If Castellano had returned, it once again would have fallen to Tom to let another one of his adopted father’s friends know that it was time to go.

Famously, the Godfather, Part II ends with a flashback to the day after Pearl Harbor.   We watch as a young and idealistic Michael tells his family that he’s joined the army.  With the exception of Michael and Tom Hagen, every character seen in the flashback has been killed over the course of the previous two films.  We see Sonny (James Caan), Carlo (Gianni Russo), Fredo (John Cazale), and even Tessio (Abe Vigoda).  Not present: Clemenza.  (Vito doesn’t appear in the flashback either but everyone’s talking about him so he might as well be there.  Poor Clemenza doesn’t even get mentioned.)

If only Richard Castellano had been willing to return.

Clemenza_and_Vito

Clemenza and Vito

 

But he didn’t and you know what?  You really only miss him if you know that he was originally meant to be in the film.  With or without Richard Castellano, The Godfather, Part II is a great film, probably one of the greatest of all time.  When it comes to reviewing The Godfather, Part II, the only real question is whether it’s better than the first Godfather.

Which Godfather you prefer really depends on what you’re looking for from a movie.  Even with that door getting closed in Kay’s face, the first Godfather was and is a crowd pleaser.  In the first Godfather, the Corleones may have been bad but everyone else was worse.  You couldn’t help but cheer them on.

The Godfather Part II is far different.  In the “modern” scenes, we discover that the playful and idealistic Michael of part one is gone.  Micheal is now cold and ruthless, a man who willingly orders a hit on his older brother and who has no trouble threatening Tom Hagen.  If Michael spent the first film surrounded by family, he spends the second film talking to professional killers, like Al Neri (Richard Bright) and Rocco Lampone (Tom Rosqui).  Whereas the first film ended with someone else closing the door on Kay, the second film features Michael doing it himself.  By the end of the film, Michael Corleone is alone in his compound, a tyrant isolated in his castle.

Michael’s story provides a sharp contrast to Vito’s story.  Vito’s half of the film is vibrant and colorful and fun in a way that Michael’s half is not and could never be.  But every time that you’re tempted to cheer a bit too easily for Vito, the film moves forward in time and it reminds you of what the future holds for the Corleones.

So, which of the first two Godfathers do I prefer?  I love them both.  If I need to be entertained, I’ll watch The Godfather.  If I want to watch a movie that will truly make me think and make me question all of my beliefs about morality, I’ll watch Part Two.

Finally, I can’t end this review without talking about G.D. Spradlin, the actor who plays the role of U.S. Sen. Pat Geary.  The Godfather Part II is full of great acting.  De Niro won an Oscar.  Pacino, Gazzo, Lee Strasberg, and Talia Shire were all nominated.  Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, and John Cazale all deserved nominations.  Even Joe Spinell shows up and brilliantly delivers the line, “Yeah, we had lots of buffers.”  But, with each viewing of Godfather, Part II, I find myself more and more impressed with G.D. Spradlin.

Sen. Pat Geary doesn’t have a lot of time on-screen.  He attends a birthday party at the Corleone Family compound, where he praises Michael in public and then condescendingly insults him in private.  Later, he shows up in Cuba, where he watches a sex show with obvious interest.  And, when Michael is called before a Senate committee, Geary gives a speech defending the honor of all Italian-Americans.

G.D. Spradlin as Sen. Pat Geary

G.D. Spradlin as Sen. Pat Geary

But the scene that we all remember is the one where Tom Hagen meets Sen. Geary in a brothel.  As Geary talks about how he passed out earlier, the camera briefly catches the sight of a dead prostitute lying on the bed behind him.  What’s especially disturbing about this scene is that neither Hagen nor Geary seem to acknowledge her presence.  She’s been reduced to a prop in the Corleone Family’s scheme to blackmail Sen. Geary.  His voice shaken, Geary says that he doesn’t know what happened and we see the weakness and the cowardice behind his almost all-American facade.

It’s a disturbing scene that’s well-acted by both Duvall and Spradlin.  Of course, what is obvious (even if it’s never explicitly stated) is that Sen. Geary has been set up and that nameless prostitute was killed by the Corleones.  It’s a scene that makes us reconsider everything that we previously believed about the heroes of the Godfather.

For forcing us to reconsider and shaking us out of our complacency, The Godfather, Part II is a great film.

(Yes, it’s even better than The Trial of Billy Jack.)

 

G.D. Spradlin, R.I.P.


Earlier today, I was looking through the list of recent death on Wikipedia (I do this several times a day.  It’s one of my morbid habits.) and I came across the name of G.D. Spradlin. 

G.D. Spradlin died on June 24th, at the age of 90.  While G.D. Spradlin is a great name, it’s hardly a household name.  However, if you’re in any way interested film, you’ve probably seen G.D. Spradlin at least once.  G. D. Spradlin was a character actor who played small but key roles in some of the best films of the 1970s.

Spradlin’s most famous role was probably as the corrupt Senator Pat Geary in The Godfather, Part II.  We see Sen. Geary a handful of times over the course of the film.  At first, he’s just another folksy politician who, behind close doors, proves himself to be coldly corrupt.  A bit later, we meet Geary again.  This time, Geary is sitting naked in a brothel, shaking as he tries not to look at the dead prostitute lying on the bed behind him.  Though it’s never explicitly stated, the suggestion is that the Corleone — the film’s “heroes” — murdered the prostitute and framed Geary for the crime.  To me, this is the pivotal scene in the film because it’s the scene that reveals just how much Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone has changed in between the two Godfathers.  The Michael from the first film might have ordered Geary killed but he never would have deliberately ordered the murder of an otherwise innocent bystander, regardless of her profession.  It’s lucky for Geary that Michael changed his ways because it gives Geary a chance to later accompany him and Hyman Roth to Cuba.  Finally, Geary shows up towards the end of the film, passionately defending Michael Corleone before a Senate committee on organized crime.

If you don’t remember Spradlin from The Godfather, Part II then maybe you remember him as the friendly yet sinister Gen. Corman from Apocalypse Now.  When Martin Sheen is briefed on the man he’s been assigned to kill, it’s Spradlin who does the briefing. 

Before going into acting, Spradlin was active in Oklahoma politics and he had the bearing of a man who was used to being in charge.  If he had gone into acting a little bit earlier, he probably would have played countless ranchers and bank presidents in various Westerns.  However, since he came to prominence as a character actor in the cynical cinema of the 1970s, it was his fate to play roles in which he epitomized the corruption of the American establishment.    Though his roles were rarely big, he brought an unexpected depth to all of them and, as a result, played a key role in some of the greatest movies ever made.

Not too bad for a man who was never a household name.

 

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (dir. by Richard Shepard)


Despite only appearing in 5 films and dying 8 years before I was born, John Cazale is one of my favorite actors.  You might not recognize his name but, if you love the films of the 70s, you know who John Cazale is because he appeared in some of the most iconic films of the decade.  Though he’s probably best known for playing poor Fredo in first two Godfather films, Cazale also appeared in The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter.  All five of his films were Oscar-nominated for best picture and three of them won.  All five are, in their own individual ways, classics of modern cinema and, though he was never more than a supporting player, Cazale gave performances of such unexpected emotional depth that he elevated each of these films just by his very presence.  Tragically, Cazale died at the age of 42 of lung cancer.  At the time, he had just finished filming The Deer Hunter and he was engaged to marry an up-and-coming actress named Meryl Streep.

I Knew It Was You is a documentary that both attempts to tell the story of Cazale’s life as well as pay tribute to him an actor.  While it fails somewhat to do the former, it succeeds flawlessly as a tribute.  The film is filled with footage of Cazale’s legendary performances and watching these clips, you’re struck by not only Cazale’s talent but his courage as well.  As more than one person comments during the documentary, it takes a lot of guts to so completely inhabit a role like The Godfather’s Fredo Corleone.  While other actors might be tempted to overplay a character like Fredo (essentially winking at the audience as if to say, “I’m not a weakling like this guy,”) Cazale was willing to completely inhabit his characters, brining to life both the good and the bad of their personalities.  Watching the clips, you realize that Cazale, as an actor, really was becoming stronger and stronger with each performance.  On a sadder note, this documentary make it  painfully obvious just how sick Cazale was in The Deer Hunter.  The contrast between the nervous, lumbering Cazale of Dog Day Hunter and his gaunt, unbearably sad appearance in The Deer Hunter is simply heart breaking.

The documentary is full of interviews with actors and directors who either worked with or were inspired by John Cazale and you’re immediately struck by the affection that they all still obviously feel for him even 30 years after his death.  Among those interviewed are Steve Buscemi, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, Sam Rockwell, and Richard Dreyfuss.  (I thought I knew every bit of Godfather trivia but I learned something new from this film when I found out that Richard Dreyfuss came close to being Fredo before Coppola saw Cazale in a play.)   Perhaps most interesting are the interviews where actors like Pacino, De Niro, and Gene Hackman talk about how acting opposite John Cazale caused them to give better performances than they might have otherwise.  If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that a classic film is, more often than not, a collaborative effort.

Where this documentary drops the ball is in detailing who Cazale was as a person.  Though everyone’s affection for him is obvious, we learn little about what drove the man who was so sad and tragic as Fredo Corleone.  Cazale’s upbringing is covered in about 2 minutes of flashy graphics and his untimely death (and his struggle to complete his Deer Hunter role) is also covered a bit too quickly.  There’s a fascinating and inspiring story there but this documentary only hints at it.  For reasons I still can’t figure out, this thing only lasts 40 minutes.  Even just an extra 15 minutes would have been helpful.

Hollywood director Brett Ratner is also interviewed and I imagine this probably has something to do with the fact that Ratner co-produced this documentary.  So, I guess Ratner is a Cazale fan and good for him but it’s still kinda jarring to see him there with directors like Lumet and actors like Pacino and De Niro.  Ratner, to be honest, is the only one of the people interviewed who actually comes across as having nothing of value to say.  Which isn’t all that surprising when you consider that Ratner is pretty much the golden child of bland, mainstream filmmaking right now.

Still, even if it never reaches the heights of Werner’s Herzog’s My Best Fiend, I still have to recommend I Knew It Was You as a touching tribute to a truly great actor.  As a bonus, the DVD contains two short films featuring a very young and intense John Cazale.  Watching him, you can’t help but mourn that he wasn’t in more movies but you’re so thankful for the legendary performances that he was able to give us.

Auditions I Love: Robert De Niro for The Godfather


With Thanksgiving approaching, that can only mean that it’s time for AMC to do their annual showing of The Godfather movies.

This gives me an excuse to put up one of my favorite clips, Robert De Niro auditioning for the role of Sonny Corleone in the original 1972 Godfather.

(The role, of course, went to James Caan and De Niro went on to play the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part II.  Caan was nominated for an Oscar while De Niro actually won.)

This audition, by the way, can be found in the extras of The Godfather DVD set.