Does Godfather Know Best?
June 30, 1975
For quite a while now I have been pinning a wary eye on that new phenom in our midst — ethnocracy. The ethnics (who doesn’t qualify for this group — Hiawatha and test-tube babies?) have been carrying on like a combination of Snow White’s stepmother and her mirror and historical revisionists.
When they came out of the closet, they put into storage oilcloth, doilies, plastic slipcovers, housedresses, babushkas, statues of saints that glow in the dark, boozy fathers, and haranguing mothers.
Scratch an Irish-American these days, and he’ll tell you his “Da” alternated his time between vespers and Lady Gregory in the mother tongue, and his “Ma” had the agility of a member of Spike Jones’s band — plucking the harp with one hand, weaving a shawl from Aran Island wool with the other, squeezing an accordion between her knees, and tooting a penny-whistle between her teeth.
And if the new truth be known, Ukrainians had soufflés for breakfast, and the Polish cognoscenti ate their kielbasa with béarnaise sauce.
Lord, is there anything so sad as people so racked with apologias for their real background that they have to employ an interior decorator of the head to gussy up their past? Maybe the line wasn’t intended that way, but Sophie Portnoy was right when she said, “Other people have children — I have enemies.”
But all this backslapping flapdoodle is normally harmless enough, since it affords a lot of hacks opportunities to write books and magazine articles, thus keeping the welfare roils at their current level of tolerable fiscal exhaustion. But the danger of granting a bum idea a giant step is that some slick operator will come along and goose it up. Such is the case with the film, The Godfather, Part II, which could have been subtitled “The Greening of the Gombah.”
I don’t normally infringe on the turf of my talented colleagues in the film department (the last time was The Exorcist), but like the Pope, I’m moved to my balcony in matters of faith and morals. And from the reviews I’ve read, nobody cited what an insidious piece of propaganda GFII is for the mob.
I believe Molly Haskell dismissed it in these pages; but most of the other reviewers I read swooned, while Hollywood laid more hardware on it than could be found in Isaac Hayes’s wardrobe. And Pauline Kael, who possesses a first-rate intelligence, was downright operatic about it, swinging from aria to aria like Johnny Weissmuller from his Hollywood vines. She even stated that director-screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola (in collaboration with Mario Puzo) was working on a level with Leo — not the mangy beast of MGM, but Tolstoy! Gads! Is this what happens when one spends too much time sitting in the dark?
But before I go into any more criticism of those who championed the film, it is only fair to make my negative case — or in the idiom, make my bones — against the film.
First off, we know the Corleones are into organized crime, but what the family business explicitly is is a little vague, outside gambling. In GFI Brando, as Don Corleone, pristinely wouldn’t touch dope — a demurrer similar to cops on the pad who tell you they only take “clean money,” that is, from everyone except junk dealers.
What GFII skillfully manages to do (as did its predecessor) is to depict a crime dynasty without victims. In both films, no ordinary citizen outside the ring of corruption which includes mob members, cops on the take, pols in the bag, and the murdered whore (in GFII) is ever introduced, never mind injured. The precise implication is that all the bloodletting takes place between members of Sicilian fiefdoms so steeped in ritual and canon they make the Catholic Church seem like an ad-lib affair.
The audience is made to feel tacky in the presence of these “men of respect” with their insistence on family loyalty and marital fidelity. As Puzo and Coppola present them, they are knights errant jousting with a chaotic world not of their making. The mob is Arthurian with their round-table meetings, their censorship of the breaking of chivalric codes, and their regal gestures of silence and bonding kisses. What nine-to-five brown-bagger wouldn’t feel as if his soul was encased in a bowling shirt in the presence of these silk suits?
But would we be so impressed with the Corleones or, for that matter, care a twit about their faith if we saw them in action vis-a-vis society outside their circle? For instance, watching the family muscle a decent union into submission, take over businesses, blind a reporter with acid, run a protection racket, maim or murder those who resist; or a panoramic shot of the mob processing heroin and then cut to a sweeping shot of their prone victims — say, like the dead and wounded in Atlanta in Gone With the Wind? Of course, one could argue, we all know what the mob does, so the viewers should fill in the gaps. But that, like many of the mob’s true victims, won’t float. Moviemaking is a visual medium, and we go to be shown.
So instead of honesty and realism, we get technical virtuosity, a foreplay device that most reviewers mistake for climax. The costumes are so right, the vintage cars are mint, and Lord! the locations, don’t forget the authentic locations! It is here GFII is unsurpassed. The film has more locales than Nathan Detroit’s crap game.
I must admit that, as an avid moviegoer since my childhood, I love all this. But I am afraid when one inspects the core of the film, it is only Asbury Park. To wit: We watch Vito (Robert De Niro) rise to power by knocking off an old Mustache Pete, who had control of the neighborhood. The old Don was so theatrically absurd that every time he opened a grocery store door to collect his rake-off we waited for a gust of snow flurries to sweep in behind him. No victim here.
Vito becomes the new Don, but his activities are as opaque and mysterious as a puff of smoke rising from the Vatican. He does “favors” for people, and they “owe” him in return. We do see him in action once, but a multimillion dollar budget wasn’t needed for this tableau — just turn on the tube to any sitcom.
A widow is being evicted because she has a noisy dog (a little piano music from the pit, please), and she approaches the strong man’s wife. At first, he shrugs it off (he’s an important man), but his wife willfully and wilily implores (Jane Wyatt and Robert Young), and he finally concedes to take time out from his busy schedule, whatever the hell that is, to save the abode of the widow and the pooch. He manages a reduction in rent to boot! So was born the first sperm of the Human Resources Administration.
It’s been my personal experience (and police blotters will bear me out) that the mob is more proficient at making widows than saving them. And this scene, shot in deathbed solemnity, didn’t even prompt a titter in the theatre! Anybody who knows the difference between vigorish and gibberish would have laughed it off the screen.
But I must capsulize, since this three-hour plus epic (which would have had Harry Cohn’s ass doing a Highland Fling) cannot be dissected frame by frame. So we will switch to the character of Vito’s son Michael, played by Al Pacino (normally a fine actor but here so taken up with the liturgical ambience of the film he seems to be wavering between Holy Orders and Extreme Unction).
With Vito dead, Michael becomes the Don — beset with an antipasto of angst. His sister, now widowed, is running around with a playboy who is outside the mob and thus despicable. The wastrel is played by Troy Donahue (a cinematic contract if you ever saw one). But in time, she will mend her ways, proving Godfather knows best.
Michael wants to expand his operation, but needs the blessing of a Meyer Lansky (Lee Strasberg) character in Florida (the international Jewish bankers are still with us). His older brother is a sniveling weakling, somebody is trying to kill him and his non-Sicilian New England wife, Kay, doesn’t like the whole mess.
An assassination attempt is made on him in his home, in his own bedroom, where he cries like an English lord discovering a bounder cheating at cricket, “My children come to play with their toys!”
We learn the hit was was set up by the Jew from Miami (we all know they’re declasse and pushy anyway, don’t we?). But questions must be asked. Does the mob grant familial sanctuary to its victims? Numerous incidents prove not. Is there then honor among thieves? Joey Gallo was shot dead in a restaurant in front of his wife and her nine-year-old daughter. So much for that crock of shit.
Throughout the film, there are numerous references to the sexual fidelity of the mobsters. Vito, looking at a woman onstage, says to his companion, who loves the actress, that he understands why he can see beauty in her, but that for himself, he is blind to it, since he loves only his wife.
Michael tells his consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) that Hagen can desert him for another job in Vegas and take his wife, family, and mistress with him. Hagen, being Irish and outside the Sicilian code, looks as if he were gunshot by a dum-dum bullet and mutters, “You don’t have to embarrass me.”
This time I waited for howls of laughter in the theatre, but none were forthcoming. Personally, it was my favorite scene, since I saw it as a sociological breakthrough. It was the first time I have ever heard an Italian admit that the Irish get laid for purposes other than propagating the faith.
But what of the claim of connubial bliss? Perhaps before GFIII arrives, the movie critics should attend a Jerry Vale or Sinatra opening at a nightclub and clock those Carvel-coiffed bimbos sitting with the boys. Believe me, it’s not Mama-Mia in her black dress and cameo brooch. The only explanation I can come up with for the insertion of this balderdash in the film is that perhaps Puzo and Coppola are tomcatting all over Hollywood and are trying to cover their tracks.
But before this piece enters Harry Cohn’s rectal range, I shall attempt to conclude. Since we cannot find any innocent victims of the mob in the film, let us examine their celluloid critics.
We have established Michael’s rebellious sister has already repented, replete with a musical score that would make Mantovani sound like Tiny Tim. The major political figure in the film is a buffoon of a senator who, though he hates the Italians (he finds them greasy), is so corrupt he’d make Beelzebub blush. I suppose it was this character who moved Kael above bel canto, like Joan Sutherland on a pogo stick.
Kael: “The completed work is an epic about the seeds of destruction that the immigrants brought to the new land, with Sicilians, Wasps, and Jews separate socially but joined together in crime and political bribery. This is a Bicentennial picture that doesn’t insult the intelligence. It’s an epic vision of the corruption of America.”
Notice the marvelous masochism of “Bicentennial,” “America,” and “corruption.” The true story of the immigrants is too boring, lacking dramatic flair. They did dog work for the unselfish and slavish reason that their children wouldn’t have to suffer their lot.
To find the true odyssey of the Italians in America, one would have to check the construction sites, the docks, the civil service rolls, and the sunup to sundown grocery stores, bakeries, barbershops, and shoe repair shops they operated.
What The Godfather is trying to peddle us is that turning to crime was not a choice but a necessary absorption in order to get along in a hostile country. Thus it is an ode to impotence and a grave insult to the Italians.
The impotence theme is carried further by suggesting that sons cannot escape fathers — a little Viennese cream on top of the demitasse, Hollywood-style. The real truth about the sons of immigrants would be better found on the registrar’s lists at such colleges as Brooklyn, Queens, Fordham, and St. John’s than on the Silver Screen.
Only Americans, with their materialistic minds, think they can corner the market on misery and corruption. Nixon has made us provincial: we have to be Number One in something. So now, instead of telling strangers at bars the glory of our bourbon, we tell them of our lock on the apocalypse — which makes us even more boring. Apocalyptic longing has always been one of man’s sugary dreams. Unfortunately, life is not a two-reeler but an endless coming attraction. We hear of an impending Ice Age (at last!) only to be told next of the erosion of the earth’s ozone layer which, to this unscientific mind, should cause the ice to melt — a twist Didi and Estragon surely would have foreseen.
And if one has to deal with the tragedy of the immigrant, there are sadder sounds to plumb than the Godfather waltz. The trouble with the immigrant is that if you scratch him, you find an unquestioning patriot. This, I suppose, is out of gratitude for what they left behind (their apocalypse?). It has been carried over into their children (the hardhat class, if you will), leaving them politically rote and uncritical. That is the true tragedy.
With this dandy dissertation out of the way, we turn to that mean little film once more and the critical characters who fall outside the majesty of the mob. The Senate committee that investigates Michael not only has as a member the corrupt senator but is headed by counsel in the employ of the Lansky character, a fact the audience I sat in adored. And when Michael outfoxed the committee, a sigh of satisfaction usually associated with successful birth was audible.
The most dangerous interlude for the mob myth is when we find out that Michael is going to have his older brother killed. But how dangerous is it? After all, his brother conspired against him, inadvertently setting him up for a hit. Add to this that the brother’s character is punk-ridden, and the actor (John Cazale) is not very attractive physically by movie definition (you damn well wouldn’t kill James Caan and get away with it!). Also, in the course of the movie, he says his mother always used to tell him that she must have brought home the wrong baby. So what the hell! Snuff out the aberration and keep the strain pure. It’s done in all pedigrees.
That leaves us with Michael’s wife, Kay, as a voice of conscience. Even though she is blonde from New England, a heathen in the inner sanctum, she promises to be a worthy adversary. Her antimob tirades to Michael fall refreshingly on the audience’s ears, until in a fit of rage she confesses she aborted his son. Not an unhealthy fetus, mind you, or a child who would be economically deprived, but a bouncing baby boy who would grow up to frolic on the shores of Lake Tahoe. Now I ask you, what kind of a crazy cunt would do a thing like that? You see what I mean — no outside innocent victims, no viable critics — an offer the gullible couldn’t refuse.
A gossip columnists wrote that after GFI, Puzo was in Las Vegas and his tabs, gambling et al., were being picked up by “mysterious” admirers. If this be true, after Part II, his admirers ought to buy him Caesar’s Palace as an outhouse.
It is also said that Puzo goes to fat farms to reduce. The suggestion here is that on his next trip he should take Coppola along to melt the suet. And concentrate their efforts on il stomaco.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 30, 1975