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The ‘Godfather effect’—on us all

Created date

June 19th, 2012

In 1972, Marlon Brando made moviegoers an offer they couldn t refuse, and after 40 years and $1 billion in box office sales, it s an offer they still can t refuse. Today, the mere mention of The Godfather rings synonymous with classic cinema. From the start, this saga of an organized crime family proved strangely, yet irresistibly, attractive to audiences, who, for the first time, sympathized with, even rooted for, characters typically portrayed as villains. Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo managed to defy our traditional sense of story, blurring the line between good and evil, heroes and bad guys. The Godfather trilogy didn t just entertain audiences, it changed them a phenomenon that author and film historian Thomas Santopietro explores in his book The Godfather Effect: Changing Hollywood, America, and Me (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012).

No longer cardboard characters

To fully understand why we re still obsessed with these movies after 40 years, you have to consider the state of cinema and American culture beforeThe Godfathercame along, he says. Prior to 1972, gangsters were the villains in Hollywood productions, and screenwriters told these stories from the perspective of law enforcement. The Godfatherintroduced us to the mob from the inside and portrayed their activities as a response to social and political corruption in some ways, not entirely unlike Robin Hood. But most importantly, according to Santopietro, Coppola and Puzo sought to redefine how Americans perceived their Italian counterparts, which, historically, was less than flattering. Vito Corleone, by contrast, is powerful and self-made, having carved for himself a position of respect at a time when discrimination pinioned most immigrants to the lowest level of American society. BeforeThe Godfather,Italians usually showed up in films talking with a hokey accent lika thisso, and the women were all overweight and did nothing but cook tomato sauce all day, says Santopietro. Though the Corleones were criminals, they were also fully rounded human beings family members who loved and protected each other and gathered around the table for dinner. In the span of two years and two Godfather films, Coppola and Puzo had largely succeeded in erasing the taint of more than half a century of ethnic stereotypes. This new, on-screen image had taken Italian-Americans from foreign to fashionable in the public consciousness. The films also helped transform the views of Italian-Americans, among them Santopietro, who was 20 when he sawThe Godfather: Part IIin 1974. Everything clicked for me during the scene where 10-year-old Vito Corleone is on a ship coming to America, and the boat sails past the Statue of Liberty, he recalls. It was a life changing moment because I realized, That s my grandfather on the screen. That is Orazio Santopietro coming to America at age 13. He had 20 lire in his pocket, not a word of English to his vocabulary, and it s because of him that I ve enjoyed a life of opportunity. I was truly proud of my Italian heritage, more so than I d ever been.

The American dream

Still, Santopietro notes that the real brilliance of the films is in their universal appeal. As he illustrates in his book, the story of coming to America with hopes of a better life is not distinctly Italian but, rather, fundamentally American. This trilogy still resonates with us after 40 years in large part because we are a nation of immigrants, he says. Naturally, there s the thrill and entertainment value that comes with the Corleones as a family of mobsters, but the deeper appreciation, especially for me personally, comes from the Corleones as a family of mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. It s a genuinely human story, he adds, in which we see bits of our own lives. That s the Godfather Effect. michael.williams@erickson.com

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