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A ‘Godfather’ Falls From Grace

A 'Godfather' Falls From Grace

Apparently his offer wasn’t all that difficult to refuse.

One of the biggest surprises in the new installment of Sight & Sound Magazines decennial poll of the Greatest Films of All Time was the precipitous fall of Francis Ford Coppola’s beloved 1972 film “The Godfather.” Or maybe, based on these results, it isn’t quite as beloved as we might have assumed. The last time Sight & Sound polled the world’s film critics in 2002, “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II” ranked collectively as the fourth greatest film(s) of all time. This year, counted separately, Parts “I” and “II” ranked 21st and 31st, respectively. Obviously splitting their votes hurt the films — if Sight & Sound maintained its old system, “The Godfather”s would rank seventh all time, just between “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Searchers.” 

On Twitter, Dipnot TV‘s chief film critic (and member of Roger Ebert’s Far Flung Correspondents) Ali Arikan suggested that there could be more to “The Godfather”‘s precipitous drop than just the change in the way the poll was conducted. At first, I was skeptical — the combined votes for “The Godfather”s would have put it back in the top ten; what more needed to be said? I recall Don Corleone’s reaction to Sonny’s death: “I want no inquiries made. I want no acts of vengeance.”

But the more I thought about Arikan’s comments and looked at the poll results, the more I thought he may be on to something (he was definitely on to something with the phrase ‘fall from grace’ — I straight-up stole it for the title of this article). After all, even a drop from fourth place to seventh place is pretty significant. There’s got to be a reason — or reasons — behind it.

Over email, I asked Arikan for his personal theory for “The Godfather”‘s dip in popularity. Here is what he said:

“Not to play armchair psychologist to a wide group of professionals, but I wonder if a film about the corruption of the American dream might hit too close to home, on a subliminal level at least, in the wake of a decade defined by two major wars waged by the United States in foreign lands. ‘The Godfather’ doesn’t celebrate violence or the Mafia, but it errs on the side of caution in presenting many of its characters as fairly likable people (in the DVD extras, Mario Puzo says something to the effect of: ‘I wanted them to be nice guys. Except that they committed murder once in a while’).  Maybe we are a moral bunch after all.”

I have no idea whether it played a role in this case, but it’s certainly true that our opinions of movies, even so-called “classics,” change with the times. No film is watched in a vacuum; by now any viewing of “The Godfather” is loaded with baggage, from its reputation as one of the (former) greatest movies of all time, to its influence on decades of popular culture about organized crime. Even if it doesn’t feel out of touch with modern life, as Arikan suggests, it might still look stale in the wake of all the movies it inspired.

Looking at the current Sight & Sound top ten — “Vertigo,” “Citizen Kane,” “Tokyo Story,” “The Rules of the Game,” “Sunrise,” “2001,” “The Searchers,” “Man WIth a Movie Camera,” “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” and “8 1/2” — “The Godfather” feels out of place for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality. So many of those movies aren’t just great films; they’re great stories — not just within the frame, but outside of it as well.

Almost every movie in the poll has a production history that has been romanticized over a century of criticism and scholarship. Alfred Hitchcock produces a dark, strange work about his personal obsessions that is largely ignored on its initial release, only to be discovered decades later and lovingly restored. Orson Welles, boy genius, comes to Hollywood with an ironclad final cut contract and uses it to take on one of the most powerful men in America. Jean Renoir creates a satire of French society so biting, the government actually banned it. Stanley Kubrick defies every rule about how to shoot and cut science-fiction. Federico Fellini reveals his frustration with the Italian film industry — and his own creative shortcomings — in a brilliant piece of fantastical autobiography. Even “The Searchers,” the most traditional Hollywood production on the list, is the product of a director, John Ford, taking a long hard look at his own filmography and the stereotypes and attitudes it had propagated. 

Clearly, we like our masterpieces rebellious and provocative; the work of brazen, uncontrollable mavericks. “The Godfather,” produced within the Hollywood studio system and directed by Francis Ford Coppola basically as a hired gun, lacks that sort of grand mythology. 

This feeds directly into another very plausible explanation for “The Godfather”‘s drop: the simultaneous rise of another Coppola film, “Apocalypse Now,” which didn’t even crack the top fifty in 2002 but ranked fourteenth all time just ten years later. We’ve already outlined plenty of possible reasons for the explosion of critical support for “Apocalypse.” Arikan’s theory certainly applies — after a decade in which America fought two lengthy, frustrating wars, “Apocalypse Now” might look more timely and more profound than a story of a family of gangsters. It also has the benefit of a great backstory — Coppola using his creative clout from the two “Godfather”s to fund this wildly ambitious and insanely expensive film about the Vietnam War, going way over budget and schedule, enduring one star’s heart attack and another’s shocking weight gain, and still producing a remarkable movie in the process. 

In a perceptive piece on the Sight & Sound list, Roger Ebert notes that “a director is punished if too many of his films are voted for.” It helps a filmmaker to have an acknowledged masterpiece; if he produces too many great movies it splits his votes, a fact that might account for the poor showing of someone like Charlie Chaplin in the 2012 poll. Jean-Luc Godard has four films in the top fifty, but none in the top ten, probably because no one can agree on his one “best” work.

The same theory applies here. As “Apocalypse Now” gained critical steam and became Coppola’s preferred masterpiece, “The Godfather”‘s fall became inevitable. Whether rightly or wrongly, very few critics are going to give over a fifth of their ballot to a single filmmaker, even if that filmmaker is as brilliant as Francis Ford Coppola. He can make them all the unrefusable offers he wants — it’s still not going to happen.

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