I found myself watching Francis Ford Coppola’s undisputed all-time heavyweight champion of Serious Cinema, The Godfather, on HBO not long ago. Actually, it was the newfangled five-hour monstrosity The Godfather Saga, which combines The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, rearranges them into chronological order, so the De Niro-as-Young Don Corleone scenes are first, then the original movie, then all the Lake Tahoe and Havana material from Part II. This new cut also restored some scenes that were cut from the original movies, because five hours isn’t long enough.
This was not appointment viewing, I just happened upon it while flipping channels, so I came in partway through, toward the end of the De Niro scenes. Soon enough, I was just watching The Godfather with extra scenes, most of them between Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone and Diane Keaton’s Kay. The first thing I noticed was that Coppola’s editor made the right move cutting all these extra Michael-Kay scenes, because the chemistry between Pacino and Keaton is about as hot as a half-hour old piece of toast. Then again, Al Pacino has never really been able to generate convincing chemistry with any of his leading ladies, which is probably why he so seldom has them.
Anyway, I was only half paying attention to the movie until we came to the wedding scene — specifically, the part where Michael, who has been overseas fighting in World War II and has stayed out of the Family Business, explains to Kay, his new girlfriend (not wife — girlfriend) how Don Corleone helped Sinatraesque singer Johnny Fontaine get out of his contract with the Harry Jamesesque bandleader:
Michael: When Johnny was first starting out, he was signed to a personal services contract with this big-band leader. And as his career got better and better, he wanted to get out of it. But the band leader wouldn’t let him. Now, Johnny is my father’s godson. So my father went to see this bandleader and offered him $10,000 to let Johnny go, but the bandleader said no. So the next day, my father went back, only this time with Luca Brasi. Within an hour, he had a signed release for a certified check of $1000.
Kay: How did he do that?
Michael: My father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Kay: What was that?
Michael: Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract. That’s a true story.
This is the most famous scene in one of the most famous movies ever made. Unfortunately, it is incredibly ham-handed writing and worse, it undermines Michael Corleone’s intelligence — the very thing the audience needs to believe in for the movie to work. If Michael is an idiot, nothing else in the story makes sense, but only an idiot would babble to his girlfriend (not wife — girlfriend) that his father commits armed extortion as a matter of course in his business.
What purpose does it serve, from Michael’s point of view, for Kay to have this information? At this point in the movie, Michael is still keeping the family at arm’s length. He has no intention of taking over the business. He doesn’t want Kay to be scared by it, and he doesn’t want her to think that he’s a part of it. Telling her this story has the exact opposite effect. If Michael does not realize that telling this story to that any woman with a brain in her head would send her sprinting for the front gate before he got to “that’s a true story,” then he truly has no business negotiating with the Tataglias or Barzini or a Girl Scout selling cookies.
Besides the fact that it makes no logical sense to tell it, this story as told by Michael to Kay is in violation of the First Law of Screenwriting: SHOW DON’T TELL.
Right after Michael tells Kay his father is a murderous sociopath, Johnny Fontaine goes to see the Godfather in his office with another very Sinatraesque problem: his career is foundering, but he’s found a movie role that will get him right back on top, but the producer won’t give him the part.
After telling Fontaine to quit crying and act like a man, the Godfather promises to straighten out the movie producer. How are you going to do that, Johnny asks. “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” says the Godfather.
Soon Tom Hagen is on the plane out to Hollywood, and after a tour of his stables and a visit to the producer’s prize racehorse, Hagen’s pitch to the producer goes badly, and he’s kicked out — but not before the producer indicates that he too has heard the story of the Godfather, Luca Brasi, and the bandleader. Some time later, in another of the most famous moments in cinema history, the producer wakes up to find the bloody, severed head of the racehorse in his bed, and Johnny Fontaine has his part.
This scene is deservedly one of the most iconic ever shot, in part because unlike the Michael-Kay scene, it shows rather than tells.
Imagine if the “offer he can’t refuse” sequence had gone like this: Michael explains to Kay that his father once helped Johnny Fontaine out of his contract with the bandleader. How did he do that, Kay asks. “My father made the bandleader an offer he couldn’t refuse,” Michael says. END OF SCENE. Michael does not give away the store to his dopey girlfriend (not wife — girlfriend). Instead he implies that his father is simply an excellent negotiator and probably very rich. Nothing wrong with either of those things, so Kay does not run screaming from the table to the nearest police station, and we don’t have to spend the rest of the movie wondering why Michael would be so stupid.
Next scene: Johnny asks for help with the movie producer and the Godfather promises “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” This is the second time we’ve heard this term now — what does it mean? The audience’s interest is piqued.
When Tom Hagen goes out to California and meets the producer, instead of the horse head in the bed, we see the “offer you can’t refuse” actually play out: Luca Brasi puts a gun to the producer’s head and Tom Hagen assures him that either his brains or his signature will be on the contract. It’s much more satisfying this way, because it pays off a mystery while also showing, not telling, what the offer you can’t refuse is.
I think Coppola’s Oscars should be confiscated and handed over to me is what I’m saying.