Make no mistake, Francis Ford Coppola’s legendary mafia movie The Godfather is a classic for a reason. Legitimising the genre as an art form after decades of insincerity, it was the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic masterpiece The Godfather in 1972 that would change the fortunes of gangster cinema, with the ripples from its indelible impact still being felt in pop culture today.
Weaving together several plots and intricate relationships, Coppola, and his co-writer Mario Puzo crafted an intricate tapestry of the Corleone crime family that forms a tangible, rich history. The imposing Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) sits at the head of the family like an ageing monarch, becoming a figure of such striking power that he transcends into something more elegant, a God amongst men.
Having to pass his organised crime dynasty in postwar New York City onto his reluctant youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), Coppola’s film follows this slow transition as Vito transfers his knowledge and proficiency to the next generation without disturbing the order of business. Instilling a traditionally campy subgenre with a classical, lyrical narrative and a larger cinematic scope, Coppola’s Godfather became a profound cinematic triumph.
This was largely thanks to the incredible performance of Marlon Brando in the lead role of Don Vito Corleone, a character who has since become known as one of the greatest of all time. Though if it wasn’t for Coppola and the author of The Godfather novel, Mario Puzo, Brando may have never been in the movie at all, with the President of Paramount Pictures reluctant to hire such a tempestuous actor.
Speaking to NPR, Coppola explained the situation, revealing how he’d pleaded with the company to allow him to cast Brando. “When [the Paramount president] said, I forbid you to bring it up again, I, like, feigned that I just fell on the floor on the carpet and like,” the director recalled, desperate for Brando in the role as he pleaded, “‘What am I supposed to do if you tell me I can’t even discuss it? How can I be a director if the part I think should be cast, that you won’t even let me talk about it?’”.
Giving in to the director’s desperate pleas, the Paramount executives said that they would allow Marlon Brandon to come onboard on three conditions, “One, if he will do the movie for free. Two, if he’ll do a screen test. And three, if he’ll put up a million-dollar bond that he will, in no way, have any misbehaviour that causes the overrun of the picture’s budget”.
Coppola agreed to the conditions and Brando was eventually offered just $100,000 for taking on the role, a measly sum in comparison to other deals at the time.
Now thankful for their decision, Coppola led Brando to deliver one of the finest screen performances of all time, leading a story that deconstructed the American dream and questioned how the fantasy operates in contemporary society.
Take a look at the trailer, below, and marvel at Marlon Brando’s incredible work as Don Vito Corleone.