It’s rare to see movie sequels that actually improve upon their first installments, let alone be better. Yet films like “The Dark Knight”, “The Empire Strikes Back” and even “Toy Story 2 and 3” are among the select few to have the distinction.
Of course what is perhaps the king of all sequels is “The Godfather Part II”. This week we’ve been celebrating the 45th anniversary of the theatrical release of the original film, yet its sequel/prequel released just two years later is just as important and influential as the first film.
When “The Godfather” was released in 1972, it shook the cinematic world. Its critical and financial success was unprecedented, and so the question arose could it be done again? Unlike today’s cinema where sequels for major series seem to be planned even before the first film is released, the production of “The Godfather Part II” wasn’t a done deal. Though acclaimed for his directorial work on the first film, Francis Ford Coppola was not the original choice to helm the 1972 movie. He faced considerable difficulty from the studio the first time around (questioning his casting decisions and production delays etc.) and he initially announced he was not interested in directing the sequel; Paramount eventually softened its stance towards him and gave him full creative control of the project.
The ever important Mario Puzo also returned joining Coppola to write the screenplay based on his bestselling novel. The story of the young Vito Corleone is in the novel but was excluded in the first film, fitting perfectly into the new movie. They won the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay for the original and would repeat the win with this film.
Like the original, “The Godfather Part II” continued on the established themes of romanticism, family, and the immigrant tale. It could be said that “Part II” is even more ‘romantic’, especially in the story of Vito Corleone from a young boy to up and coming mob boss. On the other hand the rise of Michael and his slow but inevitable fall is purely tragic. The film masterfully continues where it left off in the original, showing the full transformation of the once admirable Michael. Al Pacino was further acclaimed, with many decrying the Academy not awarding him Best Actor.
While Pacino was not awarded, another rising star did get his first major award victory for the film. Just as the first film had given Pacino the opportunity to earn widespread attention, so did “Part II” for Robert De Niro. As the young Vito, a recent immigrant from Sicily, De Niro spoke most of the movie’s dialogue in Sicilian dialect. His transition from an honest olive oil businessman to the next generation of Mafioso is a fascinating experience thanks to both his performance and the brilliant screenplay. De Niro won Best Supporting Actor making Don Vito Corleone a truly historical character. To date he is the only character to have been played by two actors and be awarded an Oscar for each performance.
The cast in this film is also expanded including the widely respected actor/director Lee Strasberg and Michael V. Gazzo. In the Supporting Acting category at the Oscars, Strasberg, Gazzo and De Niro were all nominated.
Though criticized by some for having two interweaving storylines (Michael’s struggle at the top and the rise of Vito), “The Godfather Part II’ is like the first film a master example of storytelling and filmmaking. It expanded on characters, added further layers of depth, and created like the original both a sense of romanticism and tragedy. While it may not be better than “The Godfather” per se, there are no questions that it is on par with it. It could be said that they are both actually one film. “Part II” is certainly as essential for viewing and to further grasp the world created by Puzo and Coppola.
From an Academy Awards perspective, it outdid its predecessor, winning six compared to the original’s three. Coppola won Best Director this time around, along with Best Picture as a producer. (He did not produce the first film.) With its Best Picture, it became the first sequel to win the Oscar until Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Unlike LOTR however, The Godfather series is the only one to have both the original and sequel win. Another win went to composer Nino Rota who was disqualified from the Best Score category the first time for using recycled music but was redeemed for the sequel. Like “The Godfather”, “Part II” was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress and has consistently ranked as one of the greatest of all time.
The scope, tragedy, and romance of “The Godfather” could have been a one-hit wonder, but the mastery of its filmmakers, writers, and actors ensured that the story could continue. “The Godfather Part II” shines as an example of a sequel that enhances the original and that stands solidly as its own film. While the later “The Godfather Part III” did not reach the level of its predecessors both critically and financially, it showed that these stories and characters are indeed some of the very best in cinema. As we celebrate 45 years of “The Godfather”, we celebrate a story that changed the movies, pop culture and the way we look at the Mob.