THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘The Godfather Part II’ (1974)

In 1975, the 47th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1974 and December 31, 1974, the awards were held on April 8. This marked the final year of the Academy’s five-year broadcast contract with television network NBC.

In a slightly controversial moment, producer Bert Schneider and winner of Best Documentary Feature for Hearts and Minds, a documentary about the Vietnam War, used his acceptance speech to thank the anti-war movement “for all they have done on behalf of peace.” One of the Academy’s bylaws strictly forbids public expressions concerned with economic, political or labour issues. As such, the show’s producers had host Frank Sinatra read a statement towards the show’s conclusion, stating “we are not responsible for any political references made on the program, and we are sorry they had to take place this evening.”

The night ultimately belonged to two films – Chinatown and The Godfather Part II. Both led the field with 11 nominations each, including the “Big Five” nominations for Chinatown and three nominations for Best Supporting Actor for The Godfather Part II. This marked the final time to date one film has received three acting nominations in the same category. But it was The Godfather Part II which stole the evening, taking home six awards including Best Picture, Best Director for Francis Ford Coppola, Best Supporting Actor for Robert De Niro, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Chinatown could only manage one victory, taking home a consolation prize for Best Original Screenplay.

The nominees:
Chinatown
The Conversation
The Godfather Part II
Lenny
The Towering Inferno

The winner:
The Godfather Part II

Partially based on Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather, The Godfather Part II is the continuing saga of the Corleone family. The film follows two narratives across two different timelines. Set in 1901, the first storyline portrays the early life of Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) in Sicily and New York, and detailing how he fled his homeland and came into power as the Don of a mafia crime family. The other, set in 1958, picks up a decade after the conclusion of the original film, and shows how Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) secured his role as the head of the family, and expanded his family’s empire into Las Vegas, Florida, and pre-revolution Cuba. As the two storylines interweave, we witness the rise of two ruthless and powerful men, desperate to control everyone and everything around them.

Why did it win?
Much like its predecessor, it’s also tempting to say “it won because it’s The freakin’ Godfather Part II,” and walk away slowly. But, unlike the original film, it may shock you to learn this masterpiece of cinema was not exactly warmly received on its initial release. We now consider it one of the greatest films of all time, and certainly one of the greatest sequels there’s ever been. But, at the time, critical reaction was decidedly mixed.

The New York Times savaged the film, calling it “a Frankenstein monster stitched together from leftover parts. It talks. It moves in fits and starts but it has no mind of its own.” The Chicago Sun-Times criticised the multiple timelines, writing “it provides for itself a structural weakness from which the film never recovers.” And Variety labelled it a “convoluted mess.” Hardly the response the film receives today.

Adding to the mixed critical response, The Godfather Part II also failed to achieve the same astonishing box-office success as its predecessor. It could only manage to bring in $47 million at the U.S. box-office, which paled in comparison to the original’s $130 million takings. The film would end the year as only the seventh highest-grossing film of 1974. It was far from a flop, but it was still a rather disappointing result, given the public’s adoration of the original film, which was still holding steady as the most successful film of all time.

So how exactly did a box-office and critical disappointment win Best Picture? Well, it’s more than likely that, despite the tepid response from some critics, the Academy voters simply loved the film. It wouldn’t be the first time they somewhat disagreed with a film’s critical response, and it certainly won’t be the last time. They may not have showered the original in Oscars, but they still gave it Best Picture. Two years later, you’re still looking at the same group of voters, who merely made the same decision again. It was also the chance to make history, given it was the first sequel to win the Academy’s big prize. And perhaps there was even a twinge of guilt over failing to award its predecessor with numerous Academy Awards, and they felt the desire to make amends with its sequel.

Did it deserve to win?
Of course it did. Just like with the original, this is a question no one would dare argue an alternative answer. While the mixed critical response is utterly baffling, and the box-office result is rather bizarre, it cannot take away from this film’s ultimate glory. The Godfather Part II is the rarest example of sequels – a film that not only matches the greatness of its predecessor, but it may even manage to rise above it.

The film ultimately enjoys a grander scope than the original, and with that, comes a far deeper and more complex narrative. It’s a more ambitious film, and perhaps that explains the initial critical response. It didn’t take the easy way out, like most sequels, in that it didn’t simply repeat the same tropes and beats as its predecessor. But that’s what makes it such a masterpiece. It’s a brilliant evolution of the story which delves further into the history of an iconic and beloved character.

Much like we saw with Blade Runner 2049 last year, The Godfather Part II compliments and honours what has come before it, and only seeks to build on the impeccable foundation that’s already been set. Both visually and narratively, the film is more imposing and impressive than the original. It may not quite have the first film’s importance and dazzling impact of originality, but you can’t hold that against it.

Once again, the film soars even higher thanks to its incredible casting, with director Francis Ford Coppola filling his opus with such a glorious cast of actors. Pacino gives his finest ever performance, and it’s an utter disgrace he wasn’t awarded with Best Actor. De Niro is the perfect choice for a young Vito Corleone. He embodies the spirit of Marlon Brando, but makes the performance entirely his own. And, unlike the first film, there’s some great supporting roles for the female cast members, with terrific work from both Diane Keaton and Talia Shire.

It’s an impossible task to say which of the first two The Godfather films is the best. And it’s impossible to say which was more deserving of winning Best Picture. You’ll have to wait for my final ranking to know what I’ve come up with. But for now, one thing is clear – both films deserved to called the Best Picture winner of their respective years. Even with a brilliant film like Chinatown in its way, nothing could stop the force that is The Godfather Part II. Still one of the greatest gifts cinema has ever given us.