Directed By: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall
Trivia: Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro are the only two actors to ever win separate Oscars for playing the same character. Brando won Best Actor for The Godfather and De Niro won Best Supporting Actor for this movie, both in the role of Vito Corleone
In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola directed The Godfather, a masterpiece that I consider the greatest movie ever made. How did he follow up this success? By directing The Godfather Part II, easily the greatest sequel ever made.
In fact, The Godfather Part II serves as both prequel and sequel to the original work. In picking up where The Godfather left off, we once again join Michael (Al Pacino), now the head of the Corleone crime family. It’s the 1950s, and Michael has moved the family’s base of operations from New York to Nevada, to focus on the Corleone’s casino holdings. One night, after hosting a lavish party for his son Anthony’s (James Gounaris) first communion, two unknown assailants open fire on Michael and his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), as they relax in their bedroom. Though uninjured, Michael is left angry and confused, and must now try to determine who wanted him dead; was it Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), his father’s old business partner who’s attempting to convince Michael to invest heavily in Cuba, or Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), the new head of the Corleone’s interests on the East Coast, who is himself locked in a bitter blood feud with a rival family? Which of the two would benefit most from getting Michael out of the way?
Along with the above, The Godfather Part II also doubles back on itself, relating the origins of Michael’s father, Vito Corleone, who, as a young boy, was forced to flee his hometown in Sicily when the local crime lord, Don Ciccio (Guiseppe Sillato), murdered his family. Growing to manhood in America, the future Don Corleone (Robert DeNiro) slowly works his way up to the top of the criminal underworld, first by ridding his neighborhood of an arrogant mafia strong arm named Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin), then by setting himself up as the area’s new protector.
For years, I found myself going back and forth as to which of The Godfather Part II’s segments was its best: the prequel, in which a young Don Vito rises to power in the early days of the 20th Century, or the sequel, where we follow his son, Michael, as the dynasty he inherited from his father is threatened from all sides. To be sure, both sequences have their flashes of brilliance. In the prequel, there’s the extraordinary performance of Robert DeNiro as well as an incredibly realized turn-of-the-century New York, so realistically reproduced that it breathes with an energy all its own. The portions of The Godfather Part II that are set in the ‘50s have Al Pacino back playing the role that made him a star, though in this installment, his Michael is a colder, more dangerous man, much darker than he ever was in The Godfather. These sequences also contain a fascinating plotline that ties in with the Cuban uprising of 1959, with Michael and a good many other Americans fleeing the country when the rebel army invades Havana. Having now seen the film an unknown number of times (I’m guessing it’s at least a dozen), I find it both impossible to choose between these two, and foolhardy to even try. Both segments have elements similar to those that made the first Godfather a great motion picture, only this time around we’re treated to a pair of wonderful stories, each working to further what has become an ambitious tale of crime and glory.
Prior to making it, director Francis Ford Coppola said, “The only way The Godfather Part II can be an excellent film is if, when it is done and seen, the audience, including myself, looks at it and says that it was essential that it was made, and that it wasn’t (merely) an appendix that came after the first”. I believe he got his wish. As a follow-up, The Godfather Part II is the rarest of creations; a film which recaptures the magic of the original while at the same time standing on its own as a truly unique work of fiction. In laying out two distinct stories, then intertwining them to form a single, epic masterpiece, The Godfather Part II is more than just a terrific sequel; like its predecessor, it was, and is, one of the greatest movies of all time.