This essay will discuss the extent to which Francis Coppola’s film, The Godfather, is a logical conclusion of the changes in Hollywood during the 1960’s and 1970’s. I will focus on these changes, with regards to The Godfather, and also look at how Coppola has ‘drawn’ from the classical Hollywood period. Finally, issues around the social and historical context of American society in this era, will be discussed.
From 1960 to 1964, the Hollywood “Dream Factory” of the fifties was in turmoil. Thanks to television, which brought simultaneous access of programming to everyone, cinema attendance was at an all-time low. However, many studios responded to this by getting involved in television productions and were slowly producing the majority of television programming. At the same time, the Anti-trust Legislation broke the monopoly of cinema ownership, forcing studios to sell their cinemas.
Yet there was light at the end of the tunnel for moviemakers. “In the 1960’s the children of the postwar baby boom began to come of age” (Sklar; 1994; pg 300) This new generation of filmmakers had grown up in the television era and therefore had a good knowledge of visual media. They looked back at the Hollywood studio system to revive the genres on which they were brought up. As studios lost touch with their audience, these new filmmakers began challenging traditional Hollywood conventions, producing films that were innovative (due to European film influences), capturing the imagination of a new youth audience.
The Godfather greatly appealed to the youth audience because of its violence and nudity. Censorship limited television from showing violence and sex, and therefore The Godfather, which contains both ‘evils’, attracted an audience looking for new experiences. One of the features of Hollywood Renaissance films is that they “explore contempory issues such as violence” (Bickford-Smith; 2003) In The Godfather, Coppola deals with gangster violence and domestic violence. People are shot, blown up and strangled. Connie Corleone is beaten-up by her husband. Coppola seems to be criticising the growth of violence in America during the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Whitman killings (1966) and Manson murders (1969) were front-page headlines during this time. Perhaps Coppola was feeding the idea that the world was a violent place by overtly demonstrating it in this film.
The Godfather revised the gangster genre by transforming it into a family melodrama or critical commentary on an immigrant family’s pursuit of justice. Coppola plays with the genre conventions of the crime film, by placing the spectator in a problematic relationship with the “heroes”. This strategy disturbs the classical Hollywood ideology that the audience identifies with the “good guys”. In The Godfather, our sympathy lies with the small family of criminals through the framing and editing patterns. We often identify with characters from the Corleone family through point of view shots. The victims of the criminals are demonised, almost deserving of their fate, and therefore the mob are ‘justified’ and become a force for good. For example, we identify with Michael Corleone in the sequence where he assassinates the corrupt policeman, Mc Cluskey and rival gangster, Solozzo, through shot/reverse shots that are mostly from Michael’s point of view.
Another feature of the Hollywood Renaissance, is the increased influence European cinema with regards to editing, the director as Auteur and special effects. Coppola makes use of a montage sequence in the scenes where Michael stands as Godfather to Connie’s son. The parallel editing is reminiscent of French New Wave cinema. (E.g. Breathless) Auteur directors meant that the distinction of director and scriptwriter was overcome. Coppola not only directed The Godfather, he also co-wrote the screenplay. Hollywood mavericks like Coppola were experimenting with special effects. For example, Marlon Brando’s make-up which transformed him into a much older looking Italian. Special effects extended the idea of ‘realism’ that was important to Hollywood Renaissance.
Greater ‘realism’ was achieved through a different acting style in The Godfather. Marlon Brando believed in ‘becoming the character’ and his portrayal of Vito Corleone is very convincing and ‘real’ when compared to classical Hollywood’s stylised acting (E.g. Gone With The Wind) Also, according to Harlan Lebo, Coppola insisted on authentic props from the 1940’s era. These enhance the ‘realism’ because everything in the shot is authentic.
The 1960’s and 1970’s were the age of blockbusters. Blockbuster films were seen to be Hollywood’s solution to the problem of audiences’ over-familiarity with Classical models and conventions. They targeted an adolescent audience who where in search of new entertainment. Many blockbuster films, in particular The Godfather, were based on “stories and concepts from the 1930’s to the 1950’s” (Bickford-Smith; 2003) The Godfather starts in 1945 and not only deals with gang violence, but also the oppression of women. In context of when the film was released, the treatment of female characters by the male characters would have caused some controversy.
Feminism was on the rise during the Hollywood Renaissance era. The National Organisation for Women began in 1966. The idea of women as passive objects of exchange was drastically being challenged. I think Coppola’s portrayal of the oppressed Italian women in The Godfather, comments on the absurdity and cruelty of this abuse. In a way, Coppola challenges the idea of a patriarchal society, like the one present in the mafia community. Connie Corleone is physically and verbally abused by her husband, but there seems to be little she can do about the situation besides relying on her brothers for help. This is an example of how only males were able to restore a woman’s honour.
Still focusing on the context in which this film was made and released, another important aspect was the “rise of counter culture” (Bickford-Smith; 2003). The youth were trying to live a lifestyle that was different to that of their parents. Michael Corleone is an example of someone who does not want to be part of his family’s ‘business’. Instead of following in his father and brother’s footsteps, he chooses to go study and then later becomes a war hero. The audience would have recognised and identified with this characteristic.
The Godfather does however have certain continuities with the classical period. For instance, the ‘star’ cast in The Godfather was a typical classical Hollywood convention. Having a famous actor like Marlon Brando was guaranteed to poke the interest of fans. Even if people knew nothing about the film beforehand, the fact that Marlon Brando was starring in it would get them to buy a ticket.
Continuity editing was also a classical Hollywood convention. Editing was not supposed to draw any attention to itself. In most cases, Cappola ensures continuity in The Godfather through eyeline cuts and match cuts. For example, in the scene where one of the gangsters stick a knife in a rival gangster’s hand, the eyeline match allows us to see the direction of offender’s gaze: we move from watching the character look at what’s happening to his hand, to watching what he sees stuck in his hand.
In conclusion, The Godfather aroused some controversy for romanticising gangsters and transforming them into social rebels. It was a Hollywood Renaissance film which offered a subversive perspective on American society. Coppola manages to disrupt the classical form, but still uses certain classical conventions.