First you must understand that I never had a chance. As a girl, I was given an old jewelry box of my grandmother’s, which wound up in the back with a brass handle and played “Speak Softly, Love”—a song composed in 1972, known then simply as, “Love Theme from The Godfather.” Standing before a jewelry box, transfixed by a nameless melody, I began already to mix up a story about men and power with tenderness for the women in my family.
By my estimates, I watch The Godfather or The Godfather Part II at least once a month. My mother watches them any time one is playing on cable television that she is around to catch. Our eyes are trained to spot these movies from the kitchen as my father clicks through channels, by a single note of score or by the quality of light in a brief, dark shot before they cut to a commercial—“OH MY GOD, WAS THAT—? IT WAS! STOP RIGHT THERE!”
“Again?” he asks helplessly, already setting down the remote in resignation.
Yes, again! Listen, these are not feminist movies, and I won’t try to convince you or myself otherwise. They are not even movies about women; they are movies in which things that happen to women are inevitably made to happen to men somehow instead—a familiar and unoriginal narrative sleight of hand. But these really aren’t your typical gangster movies, either. They are, of course, movies about gangsters, but not fundamentally.
Fundamentally, they’re gargantuan dramas about family. Lush, sprawling, and romantic, these are character-driven tragedies about power, yes—but also duty! Love! Betrayal! Growing old! Francis Ford Coppola’s sister, Talia Shire, who played Connie Corleone in the films, described them as “perfumed” by the real memories of their family. And I know that my mother and I think about family when we watch them. So I am somehow surprised these films enjoy a reputation for being so loved by men who love violence, for enduring through gangster truisms like, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” for being immortalized in a style more two-bit than is true of the narrative. (I’m sure Boris Johnson thinks The Godfather is his favorite movie but I know that it probably isn’t.) Because Michael Corleone does not see himself as a gangster at all—he is just trying to be a good son.
I asked my mother what it is about the movies that really get her. Naturally she said, “I can’t put my finger on it.” There are certainly horrific moments; there are also beautiful moments. There is, of course, a family. And for me, there is the intangible matter of the music box, because the music no longer plays, the grandmother no longer lives, and the child before both has grown.
But there are a few things I can put my finger on. (I’m assuming you’re ambivalent about this but, um, spoilers ahead.)
There is, for starters, only one word for the young Al Pacino: Terrific! Arguably, Michael Corleone is the role he is best known for, but it’s also perhaps the least emblematic of his other performances, particularly in the young Pacino era (which includes The Panic in Needle Park, The Godfather, parts I and II but not III, Serpico, Scarecrow, Dog Day Afternoon, Bobby Deerfield, ...And Justice for All, and Author! Author! but not, I would argue, Scarface). The character is quiet, calculating, cerebral—a far cry from his earlier role in, say, The Panic in Needle Park, which I defer to Durga Chew-Bose in her collection Too Much and Not the Mood to describe: “He bounces like he just landed a backflip, like he might be attempting another one, like he doesn’t know how to backflip at all but gets you thinking he can.” But there are a few moments in The Godfather where Pacino disarms Michael’s cool machinations and breaks into a more characteristic warmth. One is during his sister’s wedding, the film’s opening setting, when he asks his girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton!), grinning and goofy for just one instant over the red-checkered picnic table: “You like your lasagna?”
The Godfather sorts its men into two categories: men who are smart, and men who are not smart enough. This dichotomy sounds like it would play out insufferably; however, it absolutely breaks my heart. (We’ll discuss Fredo at length in my letter on the sequel. YES, THERE WILL BE A SECOND LETTER!) Clemenza (no first name in the first film), is one of the men who, along with Tessio (also just Tessio, like Cher) and Vito Corleone, began operating THE FAMILY BUSINESS behind the front of Genco Pura Olive Oil Company. We’ll watch this unfold in the flashbacks woven throughout The Godfather Part II. In the first film, however, Clemenza operates primarily as the established mob hen: smoothing arguments, delivering bad news, taking the heat, and cooking meatballs. “Mikey, why don’t you tell that nice girl you love her,” he coos over a vat of tomatoes—after Michael answers “I know” to Kay’s I-love-you over the phone—then bursts into song: “I love you with all a-my heart! If I don’t see you again a-soon, I’m a-gonna die!” It is an otherwise tense moment; Vito is in the hospital after an attempted assassination, and Michael is torn between duty to his father and his own future. So Clemenza tries to lighten the mood by teaching him (us) a recipe (Coppola’s) for good pasta sauce: “You start out with a little oil, you fry some garlic, then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it, you make sure it doesn’t stick, you get it up to a boil and you shove in all your sausages and meatballs, eh? And a little bit of wine, and a little bit of sugar—and that’s my trick!” Eldest son Sonny Corleone cuts him off here—“Alright, cut the crap, eh? I’ve got more important things for you.”—perhaps already beginning to doubt his loyalty at this point. But in the end, when we know it was Tessio who betrayed Vito, it is Michael who simply says, “Tessio was always smarter.”
One thing you must understand about The Godfather is that Michael, although the youngest son, is squarely within the category of smart men. But he’s also special, and Vito’s clear favorite. With Vito still in vulnerable health, the family takes precedence over all, even for its golden, college-educated hope—the one who’s supposed to fly straight and be something else. After Cooking with Clemenza, Michael heads off to the hospital to visit his father. Via a truly miserable pitstop to have three bites of dinner with Kay (again, DIANE KEATON!)—during which he cannot answer when she’ll see him again and instead tells her to go back to her parents’ house in New Hampshire and wait for his call, presumably when (or if) things die down—he arrives at the hospital where he expected, as he said moments before, to find detectives and the press at the scene. Instead, he finds only blinking Christmas lights in the silent night. Inside, the hospital appears empty; no one at reception, and at a desk down the hall, he finds only an unwrapped, uneaten sandwich, a still-steaming mug of coffee, a record player skipping over and over an ominous crescendo, “Tonight—, Tonight—, Tonight—,” and in this moment, everything changes. Michael runs to find his father, who seems to be the only patient in the hospital, and only then a nurse appears to shoo him out. We learn the police cleaned house ten minutes ago. Michael insists on moving his father to a different room—“Do you know my father? Men are coming here to kill him. Do you understand? Now help me, please.”—and once accomplished, peers out from behind the dingy door frame, keeping a nervous watch. Footsteps approach; a man in a hat, one arm tucked in front of his coat, out of sight. Little pink flowers, wrapped in white tissue—oh, it’s but Enzo, the baker! Michael tells him there’s sure to be trouble, and Enzo offers to help. Michael sends him outside before turning to his father: “I’ll take care of you now. I’m with you now.” And a big, fat tear spreads down Marlon Brando’s face because his favorite son is here! Vito doesn’t seem to understand the implications of what Michael is saying just yet (probably because he’s barely lucid), but Michael does—he’s with Vito now, entangled in all of this now, too.
And it is Michael who avenges his father, by shooting Sollozzo, the man who wants Vito dead, and the crooked cop in his pocket. When Vito has regained enough health to be brought home and briefed—Sonny reporting that he’s sending Fredo out to Las Vegas to rest, Fredo sheepishly telling his father, “I’m going to learn the casino business,” like an overgrown child—he barely acknowledges any of this and instead asks, “Where’s Michael?” After it is revealed what has happened, that it was Michael who killed Sollozzo, Vito closes his eyes, shakes his head, and dismisses them all with a wave of his hand. Later, we see Fredo shuffle into his father’s room like a sad puppy, presumably for one of the last times before heading off to Las Vegas. (Despite his rank as the second-born, Fredo, as you have probably guessed, is not considered smart enough by those around him.) But Vito is still inconsolable, frowning off into the distance. (Oh, Fredo.) The Sicilian countryside pans across his face as the scene changes.
PICTURE IT! Sicily: the late 1940s. Michael is hiding out while the others take the heat back home. “Love Theme from The Godfather” blares as goats bleat and jangle down the hillside, and Michael and his two hired men, Carlo and Fabrizio, amble up past the herd in flat caps and shirtsleeves. They take him up the mountain to the village of his namesake, Corleone, whose young men have, it turns out, all been killed off in blood feuds. The new men in town come upon a field where women and children are singing, as if in Sapphic verse interrupted, while collecting flowers in baskets. And then, we see Apollonia. Rather, Michael sees Apollonia and goes slack in the face. Apollonia’s like, Whoa, a man (who happens to be the young Al Pacino), and stares back. And we’re off to the races! Soon enough, Michael has introduced himself and his intentions to her father, and is brought around in a crisp black suit to meet the entire family, with gifts, for a respectable courtship. Across a dinner table, Michael—hair slightly overgrown to show that an appropriate amount of time has passed—and Apollonia exchange a smile over the table, and we get another trademark Al Pacino grin, one of the last we’ll see in this entire franchise. And soon enough, Michael and Apollonia are making their matrimonial procession (the last goofy Pacino grin goes to the flower girl as they do). And then—then what? Bring Apollonia back to America? Start over? Before we find out, Apollonia is killed by a car bomb meant for Michael. This part of the movie is an absolute gut-punch, and it’s engineered to be in nearly every way—and Apollonia is merely the plot device to show Michael there’s no getting out now. While he’s briefly living the fantasy at her eventual expense, his sister Connie is beat up by her husband, a traitor to the family, merely to lure their brother Sonny to his death (a scene only written into the movie because the studio executives told Coppola his first cut did not contain enough violence), and Kay (DIANE! KEATON!) is ignored, sent away, and finally called upon again a year after Michael returns, needing a wife to be respectable, needing sons to carry on what he’s begun.
The B plot of The Godfather is a powerful man turning into a harmless grandpa. You could almost miss it—Vito peering into a fish tank and tapping the glass while Clemenza and Michael talk business in his office. He also very abruptly begins wearing checkered shirts and cardigans. And before he dies (a true grandpa’s death, playing with his grandson in a garden), he and Michael have one last father-son moment for closure. They’re sitting outside, Vito going over and over the business ahead, forgetting things (to show that he is near his end), and he stops to ask the kinds of questions my mother asks me when she visits, each getting at the central question of, “Are ya happy?” Then, a moment of reflection: “I spent my whole life trying not to be careless. Women and children can be careless, but not men.” And at this, my mother and I cackle. A deep, throaty, oh-you-silly-fool cackle. Like so many movies, these illustrate the many ways in which men in fact can be careless, how women and children are usually the collateral of that carelessness. But they do at least somewhat attempt to show that carelessness catching up with the man, eventually—even if he gets to grow old and grapple with morality over a glass of wine. “I like to drink wine more than I used to,” Vito tells Michael.
Don’t we all, Vito. Don’t we all.