The Offer: Why The Godfather Is a Metaphor for 1970s Filmmaking

Paramount+’s The Offer tells the story of a labor of love, but The Godfather Saga is a work of progress.

Dan Fogler as Francis Ford Coppola and Miles Teller as Albert S. Ruddy of the Paramount+ original series THE OFFER.
Photo: Nicole Wilder | Paramount+

Paramount+ is going to the mattresses on April 28. The streamer will debut the first three episodes of The Offer. Based on the experiences of producer Albert S. Ruddy, played by Miles Teller, the original miniseries is about the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 gangster classic, The Godfather. But it is really a love story to early 1970s filmmaking. Paramount+ will also add remastered versions of the full Godfather trilogy to its streaming library. Promoted as an epic tale of betrayal, power, and murder, the first film is an allegory to the American dream, corporate malfeasance, and family. The film trilogy, as a whole, can be seen as a metaphor for the motion picture industry at the end of the 20th Century.

The Godfather epic is a motion picture saga which tells the story of modern filmmaking. Over the course of three films and a coda, it follows the cinematic wave from its scrappy beginnings, merging an indie director’s vision with a studio maverick’s ideal for a perfect movie, through the consolidation of the industry rebels’ power, to their final absorption into corporate filmmaking. The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone indulges the revisionist history reserved for winners. It cleans things up nicely and gives the final horns, promising fatal closure in the title, but wishing Don Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) “Cent’anni.”

As The Offer makes evident, The Godfather had scrappy beginnings. Paramount production head Robert Evans, played by Matthew Goode in the series, was trying to remake the way films were made, optioning bestsellers and keeping them pure. His introduction in the series finds him fighting this battle for the film Love Story. A studio executive wants the terminally ill woman, played by his wife Ali MacGraw, to live at the end. That film set a new standard for movie tearjerkers because it remains faithful to the book.

Paramount’s production executive Peter Bart (Josh Zuckerman) optioned Mario Puzo’s (Patrick Gallo) best-selling novel The Godfather while it was still being written. Hired as producer, Ruddy picks Coppola (Dan Fogler) to direct. The indie filmmaker with an artistic perfectionism had to fight to get his vision up on screen. Like the film, Coppola headed a gang, which was not unlike the five families. His capos were fellow filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. Coppola only took the Godfather job because Steven Spielberg and George Lucas told him it was the only way to keep his production company, American Zoetrope, going.

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Coppola is Michael Corleone in the overall saga. Michael doesn’t want to be part of the family business at the start of the film series. He is forced into its leadership, and brings his family to the edge of legitimacy by its end. Coppola wanted to make small, personal films. Over the course of the three movies, he will be reluctantly pulled into service for his film family, rise brilliantly to the challenge, usurping the old guard, and scratch his initials on the glass ceiling of power. His caporegimes will all form families of their own, and thrive as American film legends. But they will be assimilated into the motion picture industry.

The Godfather

The 1970s film era was the most experimental period of moviemaking since silent pictures were put in motion. Early 1970s films were grittier to look at as well as what was presented. Movies were allowed to be sloppy, as this new wave of directors pushed film stock to near breaking points. You can see mistakes in the greatest of films from the era. Directors like Scorsese or De Palma would always choose an honest take over a perfect take. Coppola opens The Godfather with a four-minute soliloquy delivered by a non-actor. It is true. It is real, honest, and raw, because there is no acting. That’s ballsy, and if there’s one thing the characters love in The Offer, it is when brains and balls come together to make for unprecedented artistic achievement.

The Godfather is set in the post-World War II 1940s, when Italian neorealism was changing European cinema, and inelegant imagery was captured with eloquent naturalism. Coppola’s film is beautifully shot, the color structures vividly recreate time and mood, but it never feels fake, inauthentic or staged. Sonny’s (James Caan) street fight with Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo) looks like found footage, as masterfully framed as it is. Stolen shots of former wrestler and mob muscle Lenny Montana rehearsing his lines for a rare acting role find their way into the final cut because of their veracity.

Similarly, the brutality is groundbreakingly extreme in its accuracy. When Stanley Kubrick adapted Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, he refused to tone down the violence, allowing Malcolm McDowell’s Alex DeLarge to emerge as one of the most disturbing characters to come out of the Hollywood mainstream. This opened the door to the unique presentation of bloodshed in The Godfather. Coppola operated under an artistic impression that an audience will feel and empathize more with a closeup of a gunshot wound to a hand than blood and innards spilling out in unrealistic buckets.

The Godfather was criticized for glorifying criminal violence, but it also cemented the bond between art and real-time activism. As The Offer shows, the Italian-American Civil Rights League rallied against production of the film. The cast were pioneers in bringing protests to the masses. The Godfather set a precedent in motion picture history, using film’s biggest night of self-congratulations as a platform to spotlight a worthy cause.

No matter how many “message pictures” studios put out, cinematic arts could never be as immediately progressive as theater or music, which were done live. Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” directly into the eyes of an enthralled audience. Pop artists didn’t give political opinions until the Beatles were asked about the Vietnam War. Marlon Brando was the first actor to politicize an Oscar rejection. He sent indigenous civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather to turn down the statue in protest of Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans, and draw attention to the Wounded Knee Massacre. George C. Scott rejected his Best Actor Oscar for the 1970 film Patton, but not for political reasons.

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The Corleone family’s expansion into Las Vegas, which concludes business in The Godfather, mirrors the new filmmakers’ entry into the Hollywood system. The film crowded out all the competition, challenging standard studio distribution practice by opening in 156 of the top markets by its second week, earning $1.2 million, and then blasting into wide release. They bullied their way there, sure, but it established everyone involved as major players.

For Ruddy, who got his start pitching the “Nazi comedy” Hogan’s Heroes to networks, this meant he could produce his dream picture, The Longest Yard. Set in a prison, it’s the best and the most fun football movie ever made.

For Evans, The Godfather’s success led to Paramount covering his bets on Paper Moon, The Parallax View, and Nashville. As The Offer shows, it also gave him the clout to greenlight a Jack Nicholson vehicle called Chinatown. Directed by Roman Polanski, who made the horror classic Rosemary’s Baby which first cemented Evans’ intuitive reputation, it is a noir so dark and murky it is beyond pitch-friendly loglines. In The Offer, Ruddy sells The Godfather to the executives by calling it “an ice-blue terrifying movie about people you love.” Try summing up Chinatown.

The Godfather, Part II

The success of the first Godfather condemned Coppola to its sequel. He took his revenge by winning six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Best Director for his troubles. The Godfather, Part II moves Michael’s story forward, which represents the consolidation of the power of the Coppola gang of film upstarts. But it also fills in the backstory, which also mirrors the pioneers in seventies filmmaking and how they muscled their way into the motion picture hierarchy.

In The Godfather, Part II, the gang comes together in 1917 in New York City’s Lower East Side when Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) does a favor for Peter Clemenza (Bruno Kirby). Along with Sal Tessio (John Aprea), Genco Abbandando (Frank Sivero), and Hyman Roth, they lay the foundations of a profitable crime syndicate. Coppola’s syndicate included Scorsese, De Palma, Spielberg and Lucas.

In some ways, Lucas is Hyman Roth. After Coppola and Spielberg helped redefine how movie studios created blockbusters, Star Wars perfected the formula to the point where it became a motion picture industry standard. Roth is based on Meyer Lansky, who famously said organized crime was “as big as U.S. Steel,” a line in The Godfather, Part II. Lucas’ Star Wars became an industry in itself.

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In The Godfather, Part II, the older Hyman Roth is played by “The Master of the Method.” Lee Strasberg founded the Actors Studio, teaching actors as divergent as John Garfield, Anne Bancroft, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Jane Fonda. Sidney Lumet, who directed Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, was a member of the inaugural class at New York’s Actors Studio. From the Godfather casts alone, Roth taught Eli Wallach, Pacino, and De Niro, who was so enmeshed in method, he got a cab license and did 12-hour shifts while researching his role in Taxi Driver.

Brando rewrote the actors’ code in the 1950s, scratching himself and mumbling his way into stardom as only a method student could. Hollywood’s new wave was eager to follow. Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, and Harvey Keitel became A-list regular players, holding to the Method’s standards. They took their devotion to emotional realism as seriously as the mob takes its code of omerta.

The independent film community of the late 1960s and early 1970s were as audacious and brazen as any gang in The Godfather epic. Hollywood may have been under the “Black Hand” of a greedy debt collector like Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin), but the street fight in the motion picture revolution started with indie realists like John Cassavetes and Terrence Malick, who broke convention with a no prisoners attitude. 

Melvin Van Peebles advanced the independent film arts with sexually charged guerilla warfare. His 1971 no-budget, self-produced and empowering Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, released months before Shaft, inadvertently created Blaxploitation cinema. Coinciding with the erosion of the production code, even pornographic films enjoyed mainstream popularity, with films like Deep Throat and Debbie Does Dallas projected on the same screens where Dirty Harry and Deliverance were shown.

The forward motion in The Godfather, Part II, catches Michael’s activities between 1958 and 1959. The Corleone family are finalizing their move west, and partnering with more powerful bedfellows, like Nevada Senator Pat Geary (G. D. Spradlin). Roth publicly supports Michael’s move into gambling, but is ultimately killed by Rocco Lampone (Tom Rosqui), for betrayal. The Corleone family solidifies its power and thrives. Coppola, who made the sparse and suspenseful The Conversation between the two Godfather films, achieved in Hollywood what the Corleones found in America. He was in a position to make the movies he wanted to make, whether they were hits or not, moving from strength to strength and closing out the decade with the masterful Apocalypse Now!. It was time to meet the Pope.

The Godfather, Part II

Just when he thought he was out, Coppola got pulled back in for The Godfather, Part III. The first of the films which had no assistance from the source material, Puzo’s novel. Michael may lose his soul in the epilogue of the saga, his family may be splintered in ways he will never internalize, but he is still its guide and protector. In this chapter, Michael is in the last phase of his criminal career, about to make the final leap into legitimacy, with what appears to be the most legitimate of all institutions in the world, the Holy Roman Church. But the Vatican ain’t no bandleader. The Corleone patriarch doesn’t only have to give until it hurts, he’s got to confess his sins while doing it.

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Coppola committed very few sins between the two films. His love letter to the gangster golden age, The Cotton Club, may have failed at the box-office, but certainly was no crime. The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, which brought S. E. Hinton’s novels to life, and Peggy Sue Got Married are among the best high school movies ever made.

In the interim between the second and third installment of the Godfather saga, Hollywood was following Coppola’s lead. The Godfather was the first film to make a million bucks a day. Audiences responded, and the studios took note. The Exorcist set individual house records when it opened en masse, Universal Pictures perfected the formula when it flooded 500 screens simultaneously with the opening of Jaws. The Star Wars property became a phenomenon, growing into an institution with The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.

The 1980s was a decade of blockbusters like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and franchise starters such as Batman, Back to The Future, and Ghostbusters ruled at the box office, but the street thugs, outcasts, underdogs and space invaders all had their place in “The New Hollywood.” Even indie film poster-boy, John Waters, flirted with commercial success with releases like Hairspray and Cry-Baby.

The Coppola gang enjoyed their new stature at the top of the artistic and commercial food chain. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars vied with Mean Streets and Carrie in stylistic acceptance. Scorsese closed the decade with Raging Bull, his Goodfellas came out months before The Godfather, Part III. Like Michael in the film, Coppola keeps the family running, but not intact. Many of the major players, like Robert Duvall’s consigliere Tom Hagen, defected, and the film was blasted in comparison to the first two films, with particular unwarranted bile reserved for Coppola’s daughter Sophia Coppola. She would later triumph as a filmmaker, just as Coppola would regain his reputation with Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone mirrors the contemporary interest in historical clarity. Coppola trimmed and reshaped the film, putting the worst offenses up front, and leaving the powerful man at the center alive to reflect on the horrors he committed. Even the remastering of the three films, which are presented on Paramount+ with vivid clarity, can be seen as a mirror to the modern era’s obsession with perfection. It is an unspoken reason mob movie directors stand together in their condemnation of Marvel films. The heroes killed the antiheroes, and dulled the ragged edges of the gritty film stock which immortalized them.

The Offer and The Godfather Trilogy premiere on Paramount+ on April 28.

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