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’73: Ali in decline, Brando in renown

OPINION by Bob Wisener | March 31, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

It's been 50 years since two personal page markers -- one involving sports; the other, entertainment -- subjects that then gripped a high-school senior from Glenwood and still matter to someone in his 60s.

Muhammad Ali, then an ex-champion, lost his second professional fight when Ken Norton broke his jaw in their first of three ring matchups. Who could have imagined that, with Joe Frazier recently losing the heavyweight title under a fistic fusillade from George Foreman, Ali would take the crown from Foreman and defend it against Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila? And that after having his title stripped for not entering the military, he would light the U.S. Olympic torch one day as an American hero?

Not another one like him in the ring -- so said my dad, who lived until his 80s and told stories of Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis -- or in American culture. In his greatest victory outside the ring, the U.S. Supreme Court, by an 8-0 vote in 1971, affirmed Ali's April 1967 decision not to accept induction on religious grounds. With William Rehnquist recusing himself, Chief Justice Warren Burger eventually accepted an outcome in a case the court long refused to consider.

Much of that seemed improbable on March 31, 1973. While the former Cassius Clay lost to Norton in San Diego -- they would meet again in September, and a third time in 1976 in the war zone that was the new Yankee Stadium, Ali winning close decisions -- I was carded at Malco Theatre in Hot Springs before allowed to enter and meet the Corleone Family.

"The Godfather," released a year earlier, won the Oscar as Best Picture in 1972. Although "Cabaret" took more awards that night, Marlon Brando was named Best Actor for playing family head Vito Corleone and Francis Ford Coppola, though passed over by Bob Fosse ("Cabaret") for Best Director, shared the screenplay adaptation award with Mario Puzo, movie rights of whose unpublished novel went to Paramount Pictures before it became a national bestseller.

Coppola made two sequels, the 1974 remake also named Best Picture and for which he won directing, producing and screenplay Oscars. Coppola's real-life daughter, Sofia, was an unfortunate casting choice for a third Corleone saga in 1990, that movie winning no Oscars and with Coppola's reputation rocked.

Critic Roger Ebert, though finding the Oscar-winning score by Carmine Coppola ethereal, took what he later called the harshest reviews of his career when gave the 1974 film a thumbs-down rating. Vincent Canby of The New York Times also rapped Part II, the newspaper not naming it one of the year's top 10 pictures after voting the original No. 1 in 1972.

The vote was in early, and overwhelmingly favorable, for the first one. Director Coppola, in the words of the movie's most iconic character, simply made moviegoers an offer they couldn't refuse.

Over front-office objections, resulting in Coppola being fired more than once, the director's decision to cast Brando in the lead role was absolutely spot-on. Under garish makeup and speaking with cheeks loaded with cotton, the previously unemployable Brando blew away audiences and helped make stars of James Caan and Al Pacino as screen sons Santino and Michael. Robert Duvall, who like Pacino would win an Oscar years later, played Tom Hagen, an adopted Corleone who becomes the family lawyer until cruelly fired by Michael ("You're out, Tom") late in the movie.

Gordon Willis' low-lit camera work -- they called him the "prince of darkness" -- is justifiably famous although it went unrewarded. Al Martino played a family-favored singer based on Frank Sinatra, who reportedly sought the role as Vito Corleone when Coppola said he would only accept only Brando or Laurence Oliver for the part. Sonny is gunned down in a tollbooth on Long Island, for which brother-in-law Carlo Rizzi "must answer" late in an Michael-arranged execution of family enemies.

The infamous Luca Brasi still prays that the firstborn of Michael and Kay Corleone (Diane Keaton) "be a masculine child." Brasi later "sleeps with the fishes," for which Michael atones by gunning down a New York police captain and a drug lord in a Brooklyn restaurant.

And, as you might know by reading the book or hearing street talk, movie producer Jack Woltz discovers one morning his day at the race won't be happening. Something about a horse named Khartoum.

Looking back, it's no wonder my age was verified. Did we mention it's about organized crime?

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