The Godfather Part II: More Than a Sequel

I’ve always wondered about the nature of sequels. This mostly centers around how to make a good one. And, how does a writer or a director even conceive of a great sequel? Think about it: a writer/director pours so much effort, passion, and creative energy into each feature film in order to make it perfect, or at the very least, believable. What helps those creatives settle into the same creative groove the second, or even third time around?

Sequels are a tricky thing, for sure, but it doesn’t take much observation at both Hollywood’s present and past to know that the movie industry has an affinity for such things. For about as long as we’ve had moving pictures, we’ve had sequels. It’s not a new phenomenon caused by superhero movies, we’ve always had them.

When it comes to the sequels that make it through the slog that actually comes with making a movie (the pre-production, shooting, post-production, and marketing), they’re often just rehashing old ideas or failing to go further in-depth with a favorite character. A good sequel is fairly rare, but a great one, one that stands up to the original, is even more so. But, a great sequel that wins an Academy Award for Best Picture? That’s a three-eyed unicorn.

Only two out of the 89 current winners (and this year’s crop contains no sequel nominations, either) have ever won the award and just a handful have even been nominated. The Godfather Part II, Francis Ford Coppola’s epic 1974 Best Picture winner, was the first to claim the honor of winning. The other one is Peter Jackson’sThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King from 2003. Interestingly enough, both of these film franchises are the only ones to have all their installments receive nominations.

The Godfather Part II is not like other sequels. It’s both a sequel and a prequel. This film, while not better than the original The Godfatherfrom two years earlier, should certainly stand on its own for generations. This is a beautifully told sequel of the now morally bankrupt Corleone family, and how they come to grips with a rapidly changing world they find themselves in. But it’s also the story of Vito Corleone (played by Robert De Niro) and his formative early years that brought him to the status of The Godfather.

This is an immensely personal tale about two patriarchs of the same family working together over different generations. It leaves you with a funny taste in your mouth as you watch the decline of a once cohesive family. It’s one that, despite some its shortcomings (more on those below), I thoroughly enjoyed. This film is nothing short of a masterpiece, just like the first one.

Now, for the rest of the movie:

Plot

The thing that stands out the most about The Godfather Part II is the movie’s narrative structure. It’s also the most controversial among critics. It begins in 1901 with the Sicilian funeral of Vito’s father, and the killings of his brother and mother when he’s just nine years old. He subsequently escapes Sicily and becomes one of thousands of Italian immigrants.

Meanwhile, in 1958, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), attempts to tighten his grip on his current empire and struggles with making his family legitimate. This is a tall task as nothing goes right for him along the way: he’s betrayed, his family resorts to in-fighting and is breaking up, he’s almost killed, and his marriage to Kay (Diane Keaton) has been reduced to crumbs from a plate of cookies.

Vito, on the other hand, rises to power in his own way on the streets of New York. With the help of some well-timed friendships, his “godfather” status is achieved.

Naturally, the story jumps from one Corleone to the other. This is a narrative decision that was good intentioned, and I loved it for that reason. This is because it breaks from the narrative structure of The Godfather, which told its story in a very linear fashion. At times, though, it’s a very sloppy story and the narrative can be difficult to follow. The jumps from Vito to Michael, especially, force you to fill in huge gaps of details on your own and I’m not entirely sure that I filled in all the right details. And, with a 202-minute runtime, The Godfather Part II is a little difficult to get through. The story is a good one, don’t get me wrong, but even a good one can be ruined by a bad teller. 0.

Writing/Dialogue

Just like the original, this film was written by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, the author of the original novel. Additionally, the pair won the Oscar for Best Screenplay Adapted from Other Material.

It still features all the brilliant writing of the first film. Many of the discussions are in large, circular patterns that go off on beautifully written tangents only to come back to the original point.

The Godfather saga follows an Italian-American crime family and as such, there are some scenes that are in English, a mix of English and Italian, and exclusively in Italian.

The Godfather Part II, though, has A LOT more Italian than the original. In fact, almost all of De Niro’s lines are in Italian. Thank goodness for subtitles. However, each exchange had the same level of brilliance. 1.

Sound

Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola (Francis’s father) both won Best Original Dramatic Score for The Godfather Part II. Interestingly enough, Carmine and Francis are the only father/son pair to win Oscars at the same ceremony.

The score has all the elements of the original, only it’s grander and meant for an epic tale. There are wide, sweeping melodies paired with exceptionally dark movements. The music in The Godfather Part II frames the drama better than in The Godfather, rather than just in transition. 1.

Set Design

The Godfather took place in basically two locations: New York and Sicily. In the sequel, the characters hit more spots. The Corleone family has relocated to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, but New York and Sicily play prominent roles, too. But the story takes us to Washington, DC, Havana, Cuba, and Miami, Florida. Most of these shoots were on-location. The settings added depth and authenticity to the film. 1.

Cinematography

Gordon Willis was the Director of Photography again and he knocks it out of the park, despite the lack of any love from the Academy for his cinematography. The Prince of Darkness brings his lighting craft back to the big screen and most characters are not fully lit. They might also be completely in shadow with a bright backlight.

But The Godfather Part II’s cinematography is more than dark shadows and symbolism for lost souls. A huge chunk of this movie takes place outside, more than the original. The outside scenes are beautiful and could all be framed as paintings. The saturated colors are an amazing contrast to the darkness when the camera is inside. But, when it comes right down to it, I loved the cinematography because it’s just so damned beautiful. 1.

Acting

Part of the original film’s greatness was the brilliant casting of relatively unknown actors that launched their respective careers. Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, and Robert Duvall all return and they’re brilliant. But Part II features another actor, Robert De Niro,  whose career was launched because of the success of this movie. I’ll focus on Pacino and De Niro here.

Al Pacino reprises his role as Michael Corleone, Vito’s youngest son, who was thrust at the end of The Godfather into his father’s shoes. This film is a profile, and even a critique, of Michael and his leadership style.

Pacino’s Michael is a calm, resourceful and chillingly sinister leader of the Corleone family. From the opening scene, Michael is constantly tested as his family comes apart at the seams and his business is under attack.

The Godfather Part II is when Michael becomes a real monster and the mafia leader in America. And, Pacino plays this role to perfection and it’s one of his best parts. He’s brooding, quietly intellinet, and hyper-aware of the bigger picture.

De Niro, on the other hand, plays Michael’s father, Vito, as a young man. Having come to America from Sicily as a nine-year old orphan, Vito lives a hard-knock life in a strange country. He falls off the deep end while exacting revenge and his legacy is cemented. When he finally rises to power, he prefers to use his reputation to intimidate and keep his power. He’s articulate, wickedly intelligent, devious, and supremely charismatic.

De Niro’s role is a big one. He provides the backstory to a very mysterious Vito played by Marlon Brando in the original. De Niro won Best Supporting Actor for this role.

Pacino was nominated for Best Actor, but he lost, which is a real shame. 1.

Directing

During the shooting of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola was constantly at war with Paramount over creative control. In The Godfather Part II, this was not the case. He had almost complete control, and that was an excellent decision on Paramount’s part.

Coppola managed, somehow to crack the secret to the sequel. He not only made a “great” sequel, but this one cemented his legacy and the lasting impact of The Godfather series.

More than that, though, many critics I’ve read might rank this movie ahead of the original. That hardly ever happens. But I can see why they’d say that, and if I wasn’t so cranky about the narrative (I might appreciate it someday), then I might make that assertion, too.

There are so many items that I could laude The Godfather movies for but I won’t as it would take too much time. Even after watching these films, I find it very odd that I’ve never seen these movies. But, I’m glad I did see them. I’m a better movie citic  for having seen them. Thank you, Francis Ford Coppola. 1.

Bonus Points

I have to give out three points here: acting, writing, and cinematography.

Final Score: 9/10

Oscar Facts

The Godfather Part IIwon the 47th Academy Award for Best Picture on April 8, 1975 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. The ceremony was hosted by Bob Hope, Shirley MacLaine, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra. It beat out Chinatown, The Conversation (which Coppola also directed), The Towering Inferno, and Lenny.Warren Beatty presented the award. The Godfather Part II earned 11 nominations and won 6 awards, the most of the night. It was nominated for Best Picture (won), Best Director (won), Best Actor (Al Pacino), three Supporting Actors (Robert De Niro who won, Michael V. Gazzo, and Lee Strasberg), Best Supporting Actress (Talia Shire), Best Writing, Screenplay Adapted From Other Material (won), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (won), and Best Original Dramatic Score (won).  

Other notable winners that night were Art Carney winning Best Actor for Harry and Tonto, Ellen Burstyn winning Best Actress for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Ingrid Bergman winning Best Supporting Actress for Murder on the Orient Express.

Final Notes

Only one more post until the 90th Academy Awards on March 4! Here are three more Best Picture nominees. Here’s an explanation of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a discussion about Call Me By Your Name, and Christopher Nolan’s road to Dunkirk. As a bonus, check out this video about Hans Zimmer’s excellent score for Dunkirk. Next week I’ll finish up with The Post, The Shape of Water and Darkest Hour. As always, there are spoilers. 

Coming up next week is Kevin Costner’s directorial epic, Dances With Wolves. Following that, it’s Casablanca, My Fair Lady, The Greatest Show on Earth, The Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, and Gone with the Wind.

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