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How 'The Godfather' Signaled Hollywood Change 50 Years Ago

March 15, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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The 1970s saw the birth of the film movement known as “New Hollywood” or the“American New Wave”. This movement emulated what had been going on in Europe for quite some time. The director (and sometimes writer) of the film was seen as the key authorial voice of a film, rather than the producing studio. For decades, moguls like David O. Selznick and Jack Warner loomed large over theindustry, deciding what made it to the screen. They often held the roles of judge, jury, and executioner, killing a career before it started.

With these titans dying off near the beginning of the 1970s, new studio heads now had to rely on filmmakers to create products audiences craved. The world no longer begged for big musical productions or sappy romances. They wanted authentic stories that still offered gripping storytelling. A generation of filmmakers was up to this task. One of the most popular among this group was Francis Ford Coppola, a bright new talent fresh out of UCLA Film School. Like a rocket, his career took off with hits such as The Godfather, its sequel The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now.

Looking through the lens of “New Hollywood” and the argument of Old vs. New Sentimentality, we can see why and how Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather was a monumental work for film history.

Adapted from the Mario Puzo novel of the same name, The Godfather tells the story of the Corleone crime family in 1945. Don Vito Corleone is getting up in years and must look to transfer control of his clan to one of his sons. His eldest son, Sonny, is the prime candidate to take over, but he is hot-headed and lacks the necessary nuance. The youngest son, Michael, is reluctant to work in the family business but is thrust into it after several deadly altercations.

The Godfather does share many similar qualities with the films of Old Sentimentality. It’s a nearly three-hour epic adapted from a beloved novel that is filled with movie stars. Marlon Brando was one of the hottest actors on the planet, both in terms of looks and talent. Like many of the films in the studio era, the inclusion of Brando in the cast did a lot to sell the movie. But while the production values on the surface may connect The Godfather to the past, it’s what’s underneath that breaks it away from the usual crowd. The Production Code of the 40s and 50s restricted what could and could not be displayed on the screen. The good guys must win and the bad guys must lose was one of the prevailing rules. Fortunately, the code was stopped in 1968, allowing Coppola and Puzo to dig deeper into the criminal world.

Coppola steeps his film into the rich Italian immigrant culture, one filled with hardships and that stresses the importance of family. Vito Corleone is a character that is given immense psychological development. Many of his actions are done to protect his family and strengthen his relationships with the other crime families. He still can be considered a villain, as he orders men to be killed and works in illegal enterprises.

With Brando’s method acting, Vito Corleone was an unprecedented authentic depiction of Italian-Americans, distancing the image away from the Tommy Gun swinging depictions in earlier films such as The Public Enemy and Scarface. There could also be an argument made that Coppola’s new image became a harmful stereotype, as The Godfather became immensely influential in how Italian-Americans were portrayed in future films.

What also makes The Godfather a part of the New Hollywood movement is itsunflinching violence. Around this time, auteurs were experimenting with the relationship both Hollywood and audiences had with violence, which, because of the Production Code, had been severely limited for decades. Bonnie and Clyde, The French Connection, and Straw Dogs broke into the mainstream, with their heavy use of screen violence being one of the central elements of their success.

The violence within The Godfather does not sensationalize the crime lifestyle. Each death is stripped of stylization, often being shown in gruesome fashion. For example, the garrote scene has Luca Brasi’s eyes popping out of his head, and Sonny’s ambush leaves him in a bloody mess. The ending follows the massacre of several high-ranking mob bosses, including on being shot in the eye and another being gunned down in bed. None of this violence is played to be heroic or produce good consequences, similar to the films mentioned before.

From the outside, The Godfather may seem to be a product of Old Sentimentality with its rich production values and starry leads. But underneath the surface, the film is a beacon of New Sentimentality with its radical new depiction of Italian-American life and its treatment of on-screen violence.

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