Hollywood's Influence, Analyzed

The Godfather trilogy and Liz Taylor get the academic treatment in two books that impart deeper meaning to their subjects.

The Godfather Effect: Changing Hollywood, America, and Me
by Tom Santopietro (Thomas Dunne, 326 pages, $25.99)

On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Godfather's release, Santopietro, the author of books on Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand, ambitiously takes up the movie's influence. On the first two counts, changing Hollywood and changing America, he is just OK, but on the third count, how the movie changed him, he produces a beautiful narrative of the way pop culture shapes our self-image.

The sections about the making of the trilogy will be familiar to anyone versed in Godfather lore. Those new to the story will enjoy tales that range from Francis Ford Coppola brilliantly maneuvering a hesitant studio into accepting a prickly Marlon Brando as Don Corleone to the director's misguided decision to cast daughter Sofia in the key role of Mary Corleone. He's less sure when describing how the movie changed America. Stories about real mobsters mimicking the movie or making Sinatra's life a parable for the Corleones, as well as the continuing popularity of mob stories like The Sopranos, stretch the idea of the "Italianization of American culture." Actor Joe Mantegna's observation that the movie is the "Italian Star Wars" is more apt. Becoming a pop-culture touchstone is different from changing American culture. 

Beyond those over-the-top claims, there's a wonderful story here about his own family's journey. Santopietro's grandparents faced anti-immigrant prejudice when they settled in Connecticut in 1917, but his father married a patrician WASP. The author's memories of growing up with an Italian name in a privileged world of private schools and country clubs echo Michael Corleone's story. Before he saw the film, his Italian half embarrassed Santopietro. After, he was determined to explore his roots. The movie "turned my world upside down," he writes. It's the personal story about pop culture changing the way we think about ourselves that makes this book shine.

The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice
by M.G. Lord (Walker & Co., 192 pages, $22)

In many ways, Taylor is a female version of Elvis: a teenage icon of the baby-boom generation, a challenger of sexual norms, an astonishingly accomplished performer descended into parody. At once familiar and unknown.

It's the middle part -- about her provocative genius -- that often gets forgotten about Taylor. Lord, a contributor to The Hollywood Reporter, reminds us that there was more to the star than just vamp and camp by reinterpreting her career through a feminist lens. Lord focuses on 10 roles -- from performances in 1944's National Velvet to 1981 play The Little Foxes -- but on that slender foundation she builds a sturdy argument.

Lord has a knack for framing movies in a way that casts staid studio films of the Hays Code era (rules barring nudity and various taboo subjects in place from 1930 to 1968) as political agitprop. Giant is "feminist propaganda"; National Velvet is a "sly critique of gender discrimination in sports"; Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is about how "patriarchy crushes." The funny thing is that Lord's provocative descriptions work because she has a great eye for picking out the key scene or dialogue that nails her point. In National Velvet, the scene in which Taylor's character's mother shares the mementos of her record-breaking English Channel swim becomes a testament to female bonding. Or consider these lines Taylor utters in 1965's The Sandpiper: "The man is a husband and a father and something else, say a doctor. The woman is a wife and mother and … nothing. And it's the nothing that kills her."

How aware Taylor herself was of the underlying politics of her movies is tougher to evaluate. The episodic bits we get from her personal life move from a domineering stage mother to a series of chaotic and doomed love affairs to her fund-raising for AIDS research. The older Taylor -- the politically engaged activist -- does seem self-aware, but Lord's efforts to connect the views of the mature woman to the young girl feel a little more speculative.

Still, like Elvis, Taylor the person matters less than Taylor the screen icon. On that front, Lord has produced a fabulously fun, persuasive rethinking of her films, one that reminds us of the sly messages that can be found lurking just below the surface.