Which Is The Better Best Picture: The Godfather or Terms of Endearment?

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“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” The horse’s head under the bedsheets. “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” The toll-booth slaughter of Sonny. And the immortal “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” From the opening wedding to the climactic baptism of gunfire, The Godfather provides three hours of greatest hits, while certifying the killer machismo of the Mafia and, by extension, of American business. Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel had been a sensational best-seller, but making a movie about organized crime was no sure thing in 1971. Wunderkind Francis Coppola cast Marlon Brando, box-office poison at the time, as Vito Corleone (Laurence Olivier was too ill to take the part) and launched dozens of movie careers (starting with Al Pacino as the Godfather II). The director made sure that this grand opera of family values was also a photo album of the Coppola family: Francis’ sister played Connie, his daughter Sofia was the baptized baby, his father Carmine is briefly seen playing piano and his mother Italia doubled for Mama Corleone in the casket. Nominated for 11 Oscars, The Godfather won for Picture, Screenplay and Brando. It was also one of two ’70s movies that defined a generation of boys-t0-men, who were either Godfather kids or Star Wars kids.



Another 11-Oscar nominee, Terms won five: for Jack Nicholson as Supporting Actor, for Shirley MacLaine as Actress (over her slightly more deserving costar Debra Winger, but both were great) and a trifecta for writer-director-producer James L. Brooks. Like The Godfather, this is a family drama that spans decades and was based on an popular novel (by Larry McMurtry, whose works had also inspired Hud and The Last Picture Show). In Terms, the epic emotions are played on an intimate scale, and the gunfire is metaphoric: killer stares exchanged by the smothering mother Aurora (MacLaine) and her sweet, stifled daughter Emma (Winger) as they get in each other’s way and hearts. Opposing forces of nature, they naturally dominate their men: Nicholson as Aurora’s astronaut beau (“I was just inches from a clean getaway”) and Jeff Daniels as Emma’s unworthy husband (“I mean, who am I if I’m not the man who’s failing Emma?”). The movie’s ad line — “Come to laugh. Come to cry. Come to care. Come to Terms.” —suggests a focus as gynocentric as The Godfather’s was guy-centric, though both movies can seduce viewers of both sexes. But the ad copy is on the mark about the drugged-cocktail mix of comedy and tragedy, in what is surely the smartest, most endearing weepie ever to win the top Oscar.