[You’ll have to forgive all the shuffling around and editing in real time that’s happened to this post. It grew so large to where I needed to divide it in half, and in doing so WordPress had some issues with editing. Basically, I thought I had safely uploaded the first half and was editing the second in private, but little did I realize I was making changes to what I’d already posted in real time. Hopefully it’s all straightened out now.]
So, The Godfather Part II is one of my all-time favorite movies. The way I see it, there’s Vertigo and then there’s this. The former is about what happens when love and protectiveness go too far and destroy people, while the latter does the same for man’s universal longing towards power, glory and legacy. Vertigo is the dark side of romance, Godfather Part II is the dark side of ambition. Together they make for a great double feature of modern day Greek tragedies. This particular essay has been a long time coming because if ever a story deserves a dissertation…
I first saw the two Godfather films when I was 13. That year in school we had to do a report about any subject we wanted as long as it was done well, and for whatever reason I chose to do mine on the mafia. I mentioned the project to my dad offhand, who revealed himself as a huge buff on mafia lore. For reasons still unknown to me, my dad let me read his copy of the novel, The Godfather by Mario Puzo. I loved it, couldn’t put it down, and distinctly remember finishing the book on the very last day of school.
Of the main story, my favorite character was Sonny. I distinctly remember being awed by his protectiveness towards his sister, Connie. The fact that this man’s one redeeming quality is what the rival families used against him was a heartbreaking detail. Sonny’s doomed rescue attempt was a big moment which had a profound effect on me for years after. [Weird detail I remember: I listened to the soundtrack before seeing the film itself, and I was convinced that “The Pickup” would play at Sonny’s death scene, because it’s a foreboding track and as far as I was concerned, that was the darkest part of the story.]
The novel gets a lot of criticism for its extraneous material, but I actually liked the Lucy Mancini subplot as well as that of her doctor boyfriend (whose name I don’t recall.) It was far from the best subplot in the book but it didn’t detract from it either. What’s more, I found Johnny Fontaine and his friend Nino to be especially compelling. I liked seeing Johnny regain both his confidence and voice throughout the story, and seeing Nino battle his drinking problem. There are two grisly scenes between the two which have also stood out to me all these years. One was a Hollywood party they attend which ends in a drunken public mating of Johnny and the female best actress winner. Nino picks Johnny up and carries him away, thinking that Hollywood is a particularly licentious and evil place. (Which is pretty relevant nowadays, and the novel even goes further by showing that Jack Woltz is into little girls.) The second was when Lucy Mancini’s doctor boyfriend tells Johnny not to give Nino anymore drinks, Johnny doesn’t listen and Nino turns blue and starts gasping for breath.
But the hardest hitting detail of all the excised material is that of Johnny’s home life. How he divorced his wife and childhood companion, Virginia for a more glamorous Hollywood starlet. This haunts Johnny for the rest of his life, as the starlet winds up being a temperamental shrew who emasculates him at every turn. Meanwhile his ex-wife, though relieved of her duties to him, remains supportive and loving whenever they cross paths. My thirteen-year-old self never understood why they didn’t just get back together since they obviously still cared. Then I grew up and realized real life’s a bit more complicated than that. Johnny regrets his decision but he’s too proud, and it would insult both of them if he asked his ex to come back after abandoning her for the first pretty young thing who came along. Those kinds of wounds can’t be undone.
It’s this theme of unforgivable betrayal among family which is at the heart of Godfather‘s (in my opinion) far superior sequel.
Soon after finishing the book, my family bought a DVD boxset. At first, the second installment’s plot was too complicated for me to fully understand. All the same, I always appreciated it for the performances, and how unrepentantly bleak its tone was. (Kay willfully getting an abortion to spite Michael was particularly shocking to me.) The oblique plot details weren’t a frustration but a challenge, and over time I’ve come to prefer the fact that this installment leaves so much to the viewer’s own intuition. (More on that particular aspect later.)
As time went on, Part II completely overshadowed the original for me; anytime I’m in a “Godfather mood” I always watch the second. Something about the first installment (as great as it is) just makes it less appealing to me on a personal level. There’s a sort of paradoxical cheeriness to it: maybe it’s the brighter cinematography, the constant emphasis on camaraderie between the Corleone family members, or Vito’s reassuring presence as the “good Don.” There’s certain little moments that pull me out of the story for reasons I can’t explain. (The weird music cue when Tom goes to Hollywood is one, the mattresses montage with piano music is another.) Even Michael’s fall to the criminal lifestyle didn’t seem as gritty or tragic to me as I feel it should have. It was more like he simply grew to accept what he had always been from the start. I don’t bring these up as objective criticisms of the film, because it is fantastic on its own terms. It’s just that I strongly prefer Part II‘s unrelenting feeling of dread and dark presentation. The first film somewhat romanticized the mafioso lifestyle as that of a noble rogue, an endearing anti-hero with a loving family. Part II delves into the depressing realism of what that world really means and how it will effect everyone else.
With Part II, after all his enemies are soundly defeated and absolute power has been ensured, we see what kind of man Michael really is on his own terms. No longer can his ruthlessness be excused by the need to protect his father or keep the family afloat. Once security is attained, Michael ironically becomes the most toxic presence to everyone he tried to keep safe. He abuses his wife, brother, kids and underlings (best represented by Pantangeli) because deep down that’s the kind of man Michael really is. If he had chosen a law abiding life as a corporate executive or politician it would have been no different. Contrast this to the warm, loving system Vito established and it’s clear to me the real test of Michael’s character comes in this second outing once power has been achieved. The first film is wonderful and combined, the two relay the greatest story in all of cinema. That said, for me, the real character drama comes in Part II.
The Tragedy of Michael Corleone
The Godfather Part II is, at its heart, a story of how absolute power corrupts absolutely in the case of Michael Corleone. By featuring the counter-story of Vito, it also encourages us to compare the leadership styles of the two in order to understand why the father succeeded where his son failed.
We see that in the case of Vito, he was able to make everyone around him feel contentment and allow his powers to benefit them. There was a service expected in repayment, but from the examples we see in the films, it was nothing beyond reason. (For example, despite his fears of getting mixed up in illegal activity, at the end of the day all the Don asked of Amerigo Bonnisera was to do what he usually does as an undertaker.) Every single person who sees Vito Corleone at the beginning of Godfather 1 leaves happier than when they arrived, with their requests granted. He does not sully his family’s celebration by conducting illicit business (“we don’t discuss business at the family table“), instead he goes out of his way to aid everyday people at no benefit to himself. (Although, later in the film we see the genius of this action, as the ordinary baker is so moved by the Don’s actions he willingly lends himself to Vito’s protection.) By contrast, Godfather 2 has Michael denying the personal requests of Connie, belittling Tom Hagen and Frankie Pentangeli and conducting criminal business with Senator Geary and Hymen Roth (through Johnny Ola.) The only person who leaves happier than when they saw him is the one promising immediate profit to Michael personally (Johnny Ola.)
Even within Godfather Part II itself, there are clear differences between the “management styles” of father and son. There’s an overlooked motif in the film of vulnerable women coming to their Don for help. The widow Andolini (Vito’s mother) begs for her son’s life to Don Ciccio and is cruelly rebuffed before getting shot dead. The widow Colombo goes to Don Corleone about a relatively minor issue (having to change residences) and not only does he go out of his way to help, he actually gets her rent lowered as well. (Fanucci doesn’t have an exact parallel but he does hold a knife to a young woman’s throat to threaten her father.) In the modern day, Michael’s only saving grace is that he does not murder a son before her mother’s eyes–he goes behind her back once she’s dead. When his own sister Connie comes to beg forgiveness for Fredo, he makes a show or honoring her wishes only to kill him behind her back in a later scene. In summation, Vito rose above the petty cruelty of other Dons, where Michael receded back to that moral low.
The problem with Michael’s leadership is that he never really absorbed Vito’s most important lesson (from the novel, not in the films): how to make a “no” sound like a “yes.” This comes up just after Michael tells Tom he’s out as consiglieri. The essence of that lesson is that you need to make people feel appreciated and important even if they’re not profitable to you in that moment. Don’t needlessly offend anyone because they all might be important in the future. You need to respect others and blunt any unnecessary emotional harm they may incur as a result of your actions. The reason is because you need to make others feel as though they’re benefiting from your system in order for them to enthusiastically defend its continuation. Michael does not heed this lesson when dealing with his family, he treats them as underlings if not objects, forgetting their emotional needs in the process.
Let’s examine this further:
- Anthony Corleone is an understated character in the narrative, but he is also the most complete victim of Michael. He’s a morose child; notice the way he slouches into the wall while his parents are fighting in the next room, the weight of the world on his shoulders. He barely speaks even while Fredo is trying his hardest to bond with the kid. He won’t hug his own mother (probably out of fear for retribution from his dad.) He’s too afraid to give his dad a drawing, instead opting to leave it on the bed and even sheepishly asking his dad if he likes it with a checkbox. Anthony is a boy who has no friends (something Kay desperately tries to bring to Michael’s attention) and once Michael takes away his mother and pseudo-father figure in Fredo, he’s also without loving familial connection. (Michael doesn’t even buy Anthony’s Christmas presents himself!) One of the great mysteries of the story is Anthony’s ultimate fate, as surely there’s no way such an upbringing can lead to a well-adjusted man. (Until the abysmal Part III revealed that he just becomes some regular opera singer.)
- Connie Corleone is an understated character in this outing, but what little we do see implies that she’s not particularly well-adjusted either. Her appearance at Anthony’s communion party shows that she’s negligent to her children and loose with men. It’s not spelled out, but when you combine this with the fact that Part I ended in the death of her husband (for which she blames Michael) we can put two and two together. She’s traumatized by the sudden death of Carlo, coupled with Michael’s gaslighting, and is acting out as a result. Rather than recognize the consequences of his actions and try to mend them, Michael condescends to her and threatens his sister to bend to his own will. In their last big scene together, Connie admits she abused herself to get Michael’s attention presumably because he was distant to her as well as Fredo. She begs for her brother’s life and surely once she discovers that Michael did not honor his promise, that she’s once again lost a beloved man in her life to his ruthlessness, their relationship will never recover. (Until the abysmal Part III revealed that she happily joins Michael in planning mob activities and never questions the narrative that Fredo died in a boating accident.)
- Tom Hagen is also a subtly developed character and the only one who doesn’t outright hate Michael in the end. (Though we don’t know if he was aware of Fredo’s assassination attempt and how he may react to that.) I always saw Tom’s dejected “sure Mike” as an expression of how hurt he’s been over getting sidelined. As stated in a later scene, Tom wants to be thought of as a real brother to Mike, and I’m sure after getting a taste of the consiglieri position under Sonny and Vito that he longs for importance again. The initial reasoning for his demotion in Part I was that Tom wasn’t a wartime adviser and he’d be kept on the up and up so as to serve as the family’s lawyer. But that excuse doesn’t hold water when Mike has him visiting the brothels to coerce a Senator, or deliver the bad news to Frank that he needs to commit suicide. Tom’s only been sidelined from the important deals, not the criminal ones. One gets the sense that Tom shopping around for other offers and remarking that the Corleone family “was once” like Rome is because he wants to be briefing his Don on big deals again like in the old days. Similar to Fredo, Michael hasn’t made Tom feel necessary to the family or respected–just watch the scene where Michael returns from Cuba and it’s revealed that Tom fetches Christmas presents.
- Frank Pentangeli is made to suffer the indignity of laying down to his own rivals, the Rosato brothers, while Michael plays possum with their benefactor, Hyman Roth. This forced surrender allows Mike to benefit from the Cuba investment with Hymen Roth, a deal which Pentangeli will not see any return on. Consider how significant it is that Pentangeli could even believe that Michael would turn on him (after the botched Rosato hit) and realize that this is the logical conclusion after years of being set up to fail. That Pentangeli (who was originally written as Clemenza were it not for outside circumstances*) could ever consider such a possibility is proof that Michael hasn’t been treating him like an equal to where resentment hit a breaking point. Look at how scared Pentangeli gets when he finds out Mike is in his house waiting–Michael managed his underlings through fear, not love or mutual respect.
*The replacement of Clemenza by Frankie “Five Angels” is an interesting example of art through adversity in action. On the one hand, having Clemenza as the traitor in the Michael story would have made for a tighter narrative, comparing his befriending of Vito to betraying Michael. I imagine the Don’s right hand man and Michael’s own mentor turning against the family would have been a shocking twist. It also further accentuates how badly Clemenza must have been treated by Mike all that time to believe his own Don’s son would set him up for the Rosatos. That said, Frank Pentangeli makes a great impression with less time for build-up. In my personal opinion, Pentangeli’s actor, Michael Gazzo, has more screen presence and gravitas than Richard Castellano (who played Clemenza.) Essentially, when I watch the film, I always pretend Gazzo is just playing Clemenza.
The Two Betrayals Which Broke Michael
Fredo Corleone may have been weak and stupid. He is also morally in the wrong for having any part in the plot to harm Michael (whether he really knew it was a hit or not, which is left intentionally unclear). The point is, Michael should have treated him better from the beginning. If Fredo truly was used as a glorified errand boy all those years, that was Mike failing to take into account Fredo’s emotional needs and how to make him feel more important than he was. The line “[Johnny Ola] said there was something for me, on my own!” is the key to understanding his motivations. Fredo didn’t feel like he could advance or make a name for himself under Michael. When confronted by the revelation of his brother’s mounting resentment, it’s telling that Mike’s first reaction is to ignore it completely rather than take even a few minutes to even try to smooth out the waters.
Michael should have seen the signs that Fredo was unhappy with his station in the family and address them before things got so heated in the first place. There were subtle cues to his brother’s unhappiness during their scene together in Cuba for example, but Mike is so wrapped up in his game of cat and mouse with Roth that he can’t or won’t see them. Notice how eager Fredo was to help, to feel included, and how hurt he looks when Michael tells him to entertain some guests instead. Fredo openly bemoans “why didn’t we spend time like this before?!” implying that not only has Michael been sidelining him professionally but also fraternally as well, which certainly helped nurture Fredo’s inadequacy. The other scene that best describes their relationship is when Michael offers his brother a ride out of Havana in the midst of the revolution, and Fredo chooses to try his luck with the chaotic rebels instead.
Fredo is a tragic character in his own right, the “good son” who did what he thought his father wanted all his life only to get stepped over once the prodigal son Michael returned to steal his rightful place as heir. Even the side project Vito set up for Fredo–to go west and learn the casino business–got usurped by Michael muscling in and strong arming the people Fredo was mentored under. It comes down to the fact that Fredo was never cut out for this lifestyle in the first place, and seeking validation in this lifestyle he’s not suited for is his own character flaw. The mafia world didn’t just break him in the obvious way, but even down to the kind of woman he chose to tie himself down to. I get the feeling Deana was Fredo trying to prove himself to his family, showing the kind of woman he could nab, but it ended up being a miserable marriage. His scenes with Anthony show that in another life, Fredo would have been a great father to someone. He may have been less successful than Mike, but where it counts, Fredo was the better man. He was just born in the wrong family. (Incidentally, there’s a great deal of sadness in Fredo’s fishing lesson as well, as it probably relates the only time in his life he was better than his dad and brothers at something.)
Kay Adams as Michael’s wife should be the closest person to him in the world. Yet, symbolically, they spend the vast majority of the film apart from each other. When they are finally in the same country again, she doesn’t greet him at the door nor does he feel compelled to go to her side while she’s sewing. Their sole “big” scene together only occurs when the marriage is already over. In what has to be the most emotional moment of the film, Kay admits that she’s been fostering so much resentment for her husband that she would deliberately abort his son out of spite. That she would rather the baby die than bring it into this world as a son of Michael Corleone. This has to be the most hurtful thing anyone can say to their partner, and it should be a cause for self-reflection especially if one didn’t see it coming. “What did I do to make you hate me so much?” Unfortunately, Mike does not use this revelation as an excuse for introspection, instead he hits Kay and separates her from the remaining children.
Like Fredo, Kay’s rebellious act against Michael is a morally ambiguous one. I’ve seen her character harshly criticized on the old IMDb forums and elsewhere in regards to this scene and I always thought they were missing the point. I’m not gonna touch the ethics of abortion with a ten-foot pole beyond what I’ve said in a previous essay, but I do think it’s a bit hypocritical of some viewers to look down their noses at Kay while accepting Michael and Vito’s murders as a given. From her perspective, it was shielding an innocent child from being in constant mortal danger (which became a reality for her in the botched hit) and moral decay (since a male child would inevitably be corrupted into a mafioso himself.) Kay knew, and Michael reminds her and the audience, that he would never let her go and take his children from him. She was restricted to the status of a virtual prisoner in her own home, unable to run. Under those circumstances, she did what she thought was saving her child (and getting Michael’s attention) in the last way she could–by asserting autonomy over her own body. Call it right or wrong, but this particular plot point is the most profound character arc in any story I’ve ever seen. It shocked me to my core at 13 when I first saw the film, and it’s one of several scenes that still gives me chills every time I watch.
The problem with their marriage was that Michael never loved Kay in the first place. Maybe he thought he did, before Apollonia came along and showed him what true infatuation was like. But when he returned to America, Michael did not come to Kay out of a burning passion, he came to secure a wife for appearances and children. Michael drew her into a lifestyle she never understood and expected her to go along for the ride without any explanation. All he gave her was the reassurance that in five years, the Corleone family would be completely legitimate, and based on his actions I don’t think Michael ever intended on keeping that promise. Kay may have accepted her fate for years until she saw how it was affecting the development of her children. She witnessed how morose Anthony was becoming, how he had no friends or ties to normalcy, and in her final moments as Michael’s wife she tried desperately to make him see how the business was effecting his son. (Tangentially, I always saw the descriptor Kay chose to throw at Michael, that he’s blind, as a subtle reference to Oedipus Rex, blind to the moral failings in his own family.)
Where some might say Kay knew what she was getting into and should have fled sooner, I’d counter that those people have never been in a bad relationship. As someone who’s been in one before, I can attest that it’s a lot harder to leave one than it seems, especially so if you do love the person and feel like it’s only a temporary blight in an otherwise good relationship. Add a marriage certificate and children into the mix and suddenly leaving the other person becomes a daunting prospect. Once you take into account the hitmen, legion of loyal politicians and judges as well as the literal prison compound, any sane person can appreciate Kay’s dilemma. From where I stand, Kay was Michael’s victim as much as anyone.
Cassandra it was a pivalate to Watch Godfather II with you this Christmas Eve. Then today I was happy to read this inciteful post about the characters in the movie. You are an excellent writer with deep understanding of characters and character development. It is a joy to have you a part of my life! I am very proud of you!
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Thanks Ron, it means a lot to hear you say so 🙂
I agree the second is the best of the lot. Although a movie about two-bit thugs and killers, it somehow shows them as humans in complex situations. Fredo is the saddest casualty of the family. Sonny, you know from the beginning that this guy is going down in a grizzley mannor. Good take on the movie.
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Thank you very much, I appreciate the comment.