How do you offer moviegoers new insight into one of the most iconic movies of all time? That was the task Academy Museum Assistant Curator Sophia Serrano was given when she was assigned to put together The Art of Moviemaking: The Godfather, an exhibition all about director Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 classic crime drama. "I was first assigned the project in 2019, so I spent roughly two and a half years on it," Serrano says. "The first year of work was really just spent figuring out and tracking down where everything was that we wanted to include. I then spent the last year and a half or so really working in earnest to plan out and build the exhibition in detail."
For Serrano and the rest of the Academy Museum's curatorial team, an exhibition about The Godfather not only presented them with the chance to explore the making of one of the most respected and beloved films ever made, but also opened the door for them to explore the key period of Hollywood history in which the film was produced. "In our opening lineup, we don't go into the 1970s as deeply as we do other periods, which is a decision we made partly because we knew The Godfather would allow us to really look at that period," Serrano tells A.frame. "New Hollywood and the shift that came with that era was something we really wanted to address in our early years of being open, so The Godfather exhibition was just the result of all these ideas that came together."
According to Serrano, creating a gallery specifically for The Godfather also meant that the Academy Museum had the chance to "surpass a more superficial celebration of the movie and really help people understand how technical processes used can produce real art." In order for the exhibition to do that, though, Serrano and her collaborators had to embark on a lengthy research process that involved reaching out to parties like Paramount Pictures, the Marlon Brando Estate, and even Francis Ford Coppola himself and his archive at American Zoetrope.
Serrano’s research led her all over California, including up north near Napa Valley where Coppola's personal archives are stored. Once there, Serrano was given access to countless paper materials, only a few of which ended up in the Academy Museum's current exhibition. "Obviously, Coppola's a brilliant filmmaker, but he's also a brilliant archivist," Serrano notes. It was during this period of research that the Academy curator says she found herself surprised by the extent of materials that were still available 50 years after the film was made.
"The thing that I found the most surprising during my research was the paper trail that Coppola still has in his archives. You could really reconstruct the making of The Godfather with them," Serrano remembers. "He still has every receipt and every memo. There were so many paper materials that didn’t make the exhibition." Later, when the Academy Museum began assembling materials for its The Godfather exhibition, Coppola's personal records remained a vital resource.
"It's mind-blowing that he's kept as much as he has because most people wouldn't think to keep the specific receipt of a camera they rented. The fact that he had those receipts meant that we could look at the cameras that we had that we believed were used on the film and check to see if the gear matched with Coppola's records."
Ultimately, Serrano and the Academy Museum were able to assemble a wide array of materials for the exhibition. Everything from a version of the horse head (the one used during rehearsals) to the makeup kit that Dick Smith used to create Marlon Brando's unforgettable look as Don Vito Corleone can now be seen in the museum’s gallery. The exhibition also features pages of Coppola's personal prep notes, including several ideas he scribbled into the pages of Mario Puzo's original novel, as well as references to real-life news stories that helped shape Coppola’s vision for, among other scenes, the infamous assassination of Sonny Corleone (James Caan).
"Every piece has its own fun story," Serrano reflects. "The horse head is part of our collection, so I knew we had that ahead of time, but one of the things that I was really excited we got was the dental appliance that Marlon Brando wears in the film." The exhibition’s curator also fondly remembers the hours she spent watching the original audition tapes for the film, noting, "I watched hours upon hours of actors auditioning for roles in The Godfather. It was so much fun. And then, we got a lot of that footage digitized specifically for the exhibition."
Aside from the gallery's biggest pieces, which include Don Vito Corleone's iconic desk, there are also several small details and behind-the-scenes pieces of trivia that can be found throughout the exhibition. One of Coppola's personal notes even humorously observes how many of the real-life gangsters he was researching at the time had double chins. "I laughed so hard when I saw that in the archive for the first time," Serrano admits. The assistant curator also notes that the gallery highlights one little-known behind-the-scenes detail about The Godfather that actually connects it to one of Hollywood’s other iconic gangster films.
"In the executive producer section of the exhibition, we have an article that's written by Nicholas Pileggi. He reported about the presence of mobsters on the film's set and was one of few reporters who had special access to the production of The Godfather," Serrano explains. "Pileggi, of course, went on to write Wiseguy and co-wrote its film adaptation, Goodfellas. So, even though we don't outright explore that connection in the gallery, that's a little detail that I hope attendees pick up on."
More than anything, though, Serrano hopes that the museum’s Godfather experience can help build a greater appreciation among the film's fans for all of the artists who worked on the film. "The biggest thing I hope the gallery shines a light on is just how many amazing people worked on The Godfather," Serrano says. "Francis Ford Coppola is, obviously, an amazing director, but one of the things that we try to emphasize in the exhibition is that part of his brilliance lies in how he openly collaborated with all these other artists on the film."
"The whole point of the gallery is that moviemaking is a collaborative art," Serrano adds. "I hope people will be pleasantly surprised to learn just how much coordination it took for everyone involved in The Godfather to not only come together under one vision, but actually follow through and execute it."
The Art of Moviemaking: The Godfather exhibition is currently open to the public.
By Alex Welch