As a pre-pubescent ten-year-old in 1972, I was at the theater watching SNOOPY, COME HOME with my Mom, while most of America was lining up to see THE GODFATHER. I heard songs by the Sherman Brothers, they heard one of the most influential film scores in the history of film music. No offense to the talented Sherman Brothers, but guess who got the better end of that deal?
For those who weren’t alive in 1972, it may be difficult to understand the popularity of THE GODFATHER. Based on Mario Puzo’s 1969 bestseller (the fastest-selling book up to that time), the film became the number one box office winner of all time, unseating previous champs GONE WITH THE WIND and THE SOUND OF MUSIC.
Critics cried foul over the excessive violence and that the film glorified mobsters, but that only fueled audiences’ interest. But director Francis Ford Coppola took a piece of pulp fiction and turned it into a work of cinematic art. And if Marlon Brando’s ruthless killer had a soul, it was thanks to Nino Rota’s evocative music.
From the lonely trumpet solo sobbing the haunting “Godfather Waltz” to the beautiful love theme took on a life of its own as the popular song, “Speak Softly Love” (lyrics by Larry Kusik). Parallel thirds in the oboe and clarinet and source cues arranged by the director’s father, Carmine Coppola, all lend an air of authentic Sicilian musical flavor to the film.
On the original Oscar ballot, THE GODFATHER became the instant frontrunner (and probable winner) for Best Original Score. When it came to light, however, that portions of the score, including the famous love theme, were previously used in the 1958 Italian film, FORTUNELLA, the Academy rescinded its original nomination.
The ballot was resubmitted to members of the Music Branch, with THE GODFATHER as a rare sixth nominee. When the new ballots were tallied, John Addison’s SLEUTH became the fifth nominee. (Other nominees included Buddy Baker’s score for Disney’s live-action NAPOLEON AND SAMANTHA and John Williams’ first double nomination for IMAGES and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE.)
With THE GODFATHER out of the running, voters were able to award Charlie Chaplin his only competitive Oscar for LIMELIGHT, a 1952 film that wasn’t shown in Los Angeles during its original release because of the political opinion of Chaplin at the time. (Films must show in Los Angeles for at least a week to be eligible for Oscar consideration.) While LIMELIGHT has its attractive moments and certainly fits Chaplin’s sentimental tale, Academy voters seemed to be saying mea culpa for their past transgressions. Rota’s GODFATHER score would have easily won the Oscar.
The Music Branch tends to be a fickle lot, bending their own rules to suit a particular situation. After all that drama, two years later, Rota (along with Carmine Coppola) won the Oscar for THE GODFATHER, PART II, even though that film used themes that originated in the first film.
Today, THE GODFATHER is listed in the number two slot on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Films, right behind CITIZEN KANE. And last week, The Hollywood Reporter named Rota’s score the number one film score of all time.
Brando had to stuff his cheeks with cotton and refuse his Best Actor Academy Award to fuel his legendary status. It only took Nino Rota seven notes to launch himself, at age 61, as a pop-culture musical icon.