A little movie from 1972 — Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” perhaps you’ve heard of it — opens with a man’s dark request for a favor from the cat-petting, tuxedo-clad kingpin of the title. After a few minutes of Mob-style mumbling, some measure of the request is granted, but only on condition of more respect being shown to the godfather — starting with a humble kiss on his hand.
Some years later, when it came time for St. Paul-based writer Jenny M. Jones to meet the man who made the Don, to enter his own inner sanctum and ask for assistance with “The Annotated Godfather: The Complete Screenplay,” Coppola — now as old (and loaded) as Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone — was warmly accommodating.
“He was candid, very open with his emotions,” says Jones over lunch at Walker Art Center, where she works as program associate for the Regis Dialogues program of the museum’s film/video department.
Her new 262-page book (Black Dog & Leventhal, $29.95) deftly combines Coppola’s interview quotations with the printed screenplay, hundreds of production photos and countless bits of trivia.
At one point in their two-hour conversation in Coppola’s office in Napa Valley, he showed Jones the diary he kept during the tension-filled “Godfather” shoot as well as the detailed notebook he used more frequently on the set than the actual script.
That notebook — portions of which are reprinted in Jones’s handsome coffee-table tome — contains pages of Mario Puzo’s “Godfather” novel cut and pasted on oversized paper to allow for Coppola’s aptly violent jottings: “MIST OF BLOOD,” “HIT HARD AND BLOODY!!” and “Hitchcock” detail his plans for the classic scene of Vito’s son assassinating rival Sollozzo in an Italian restaurant.
“When he was looking at the notebook in all its obsessive detail,” Jones recalls, “he said to me, ‘I wouldn’t have the energy to do something like this now!’ “
Signs of aging in ‘Youth’
Indeed not. Coppola’s new “Youth without Youth,” even as it concerns the miraculous reinvigoration of an old professor by lightning bolt, is a disappointingly subdued and at times even exhausted affair. Tellingly, “Coda: Thirty Years Later,” a behind-the-scenes documentary that Coppola brought to a sold-out Walker audience last May, finds the 68-year-old addressing his wife Eleanor’s camera while lying flat on his back. (“Coda” is now available as a supplement on the “Hearts of Darkness” DVD.)
Speaking with playful diplomacy, the 30-something Jones allows that “Youth,” which starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre, is “not my favorite Coppola film from a dramatic standpoint.” Still, she applauds the director for taking on the difficult topic of an artist’s aging, and appreciates the film as the kind of personal and idiosyncratic work that a certain hit gangster movie might have prevented him from making for decades.
“He has this very tortured feeling about ‘The Godfather,’ ” reports Jones. “He didn’t really want to do it in 1972, but he sort of had to do it, for financial reasons. The studio heads kept threatening to fire him. And he feels like its success pushed him in a more commercial direction as a filmmaker than he would have taken otherwise.”
She recalls something “very interesting” Coppola said at the Walker. “He was talking about his daughter Sofia’s film — ‘Lost in Translation‘— “and he said, ‘If she can make a personal movie on a modest budget, why can’t I?’ I think his daughter’s success sort of spurred his competitive spirit.”
What gender gap?
Of course, gender, jealousy and the generation gap factor heavily in “The Godfather” itself. The favor in the first scene is a father’s plea to have his daughter’s violent beating avenged. Throughout the film, the elaborate attempts of male characters to manage or control women — culminating in the indelible shot of Diane Keaton’s Kay Corleone being physically and figuratively relegated to the periphery — may or may not be related to the fact that “The Godfather” remains the ultimate guy movie. Or is it just another age-old “Godfather” stereotype that all the movie’s big fans are sons?
“I did get a little attitude from men at times — like, ‘What’s a chick doing writing a ‘Godfather’ book?'” says Jones with a laugh.
So, uh, what is a chick doing writing a guide to “The Godfather?”
Don Vito might call it an offer she couldn’t refuse. Her acquaintance with Black Dog editors hungry for a 35th anniversary tie-in led her to take on the massive project with only a year to complete it. Jones, who watched “The Godfather” roughly a zillion times during that year, says no one mentioned the “guys love ‘Godfather'” issue until some recent radio interviews.
“I didn’t know quite what to say — because no one I had interviewed and none of the people I worked with on research ever had that attitude,” she says. “Certainly the relationship between fathers and sons is central to the movie, and I know that explains, at least in part, why it appeals to men. Still, I was really surprised to hear that the woman who selects all the film books for Barnes & Noble nationwide had never seen the movie. In fact, a lot of women I’ve encountered over the past year have told me they haven’t seen the film. And I can’t imagine that! For one thing, it’s on TV all the time!” (Calling all Kay Corleones: The Bravo network will be airing “The Godfather” on Christmas Eve.)
And how did Jones, who worked on staff at Oak Street Cinema when “The Godfather” screened there in the late 1990s, first encounter the film? She laughs again. “I saw it with my boyfriend in college,” she says, “and he became my husband. It’s his favorite movie. And it’s his dad’s favorite movie, too.”
It’s a familiar story, but her family sounds nothing like a Corleone-style patriarchy. Though her husband is an editor and published author as well, Jones says he supported the “Godfather” project mainly by doing “a lot of baby-sitting.” Their 4-year-old daughter is a budding “Godfather” fan. “She’ll go up to people and say, ‘Tell me about “The Godfather!’ ” At a bookstore the other day, Jones says, “she went up to the clerk and said, ‘Where is the ‘Godfather’ book? My mommy wrote that book!’ “
Word of caution to booksellers: Stock “The Annotated Godfather” or else!
Rob Nelson, a member of the National Society of Film Critics, writes about film for MinnPost. He can be reached at rnelson [at] minnpost [dot] com.