Why do men adore The Godfather, the 1972 film by Francis Ford Coppola? Is it because the film depicts a bygone world where men make all important decisions and (like boys in a treehouse) exclude women from knowledge of their “business”? Is it the romanticized depiction of the Sicilian culture of vengeance, honor, and omertà? Is it the abiding male fascination with figures of power and authority, and hierarchies of dominance? Or the appeal of the anti-hero?
It has to be admitted that The Godfather is a riveting piece of storytelling, with plenty of suspense and a touch of horror. But that doesn’t explain why there are so many men who can quote entire scenes from the screenplay. I think its enduring appeal has to do with its complex examination of masculinity. In the late twentieth century, and especially in the 70s, what it meant to be a man came into question. This issue is taken up explicitly when Don Corleone admonishes his godson Johnny Fontane to ACT LIKE A MAN! It is the only time in the film that he ever raises his voice.
In Vito Corleone’s world, real men do not snivel and whine. That is only for the type of man he calls “a Hollywood finocchio.” (How an Italian word for the herb fennel came to be slang for a male homosexual, I have no idea.) Of course, this was back in the days when homosexuality and masculinity were thought of as mutually exclusive. I love the idea of Coppola and Puzo inserting “Hollywood” at this point in the script, and indeed there is a conflict in the film between the wealthy, powerful movie producers and casino owners of the West coast, who have become decadent pleasure-seekers, and the old-school types in New York, men who still prize self-restraint, at least in the mythos of the film.
The patriarchal culture of the Mafia, at least as portrayed in this film, requires a rigid separation of the roles of men and women. Women have no power, but neither do they have to shoulder the heavy responsibilities that the men bear. In this way, the men can justify their subordination of women and even romanticize and ennoble their own sufferings and “sacrifices.” I wonder what the tale of The Godfather would have been like, had it been told by Michael’s mother Carmela?
Don Corleone is, of course, the most fascinating character. In both book and film, he is worlds apart from vicious, crude thugs like Al Capone. At the time, the idea of portraying a mobster from a sympathetic, insider’s view was revolutionary. It’s no coincidence that the first time we see him, Corleone is dressed in an elegant dinner jacket for his daughter’s wedding. After the film appeared, actual mobsters are said to have imitated Corleone– changing their speech to be less foul-mouthed, more soft-spoken and more refined.
Puzo several times mentions in the novel that Don Corleone is straight-laced in matters of sex. He does not approve of lewd wedding songs or his son Santino’s philandering with his sister’s maid of honor. This is another sign of how much he values self-control as the prime virtue of a masculine man. It is even suggested that Corleone’s business interests do not include prostitution, which is normally a staple of organized crime. It’s no wonder that young Michael Corleone believes his family business can become “legitimate” within five years.
All this is part of the film’s idealization of Don Corleone. He is a ruthless man, easily capable of murder, but he is redeemed by the fact that he subscribes to a strict moral code of his own, and by the fact that the “legitimate” structures of power are also corrupt. Corleone’s refusal to get involved in hard drugs drives the plot, because the rest of the mob is less scrupulous than he, but they still need his political contacts.
Brando was given the freedom to shape the character, and by his own account it was his idea to make Don Corleone gentle and soft-spoken. The scene where he caresses a cat in his lap as he talks business is justly famous.
But this mildness is offset by his dominant behavior towards subordinates, especially junior ones such as Johnny Fontane and Santino. He repeatedly touches Fontane on the face, first slapping him and later patting his cheeks. The unquestioned right to touch signals his power. Likewise, the capos in his “family” and others seeking favors physically demonstrate their submission by kissing the Don’s hand.
Of the Corleone boys, Fredo is the eldest but also the weakest. Unable to control his emotions, he collapses in shock after the Don is shot, and he is also too lacking in intelligence to lead the family. In the Don’s view those are clearly the top requirements. That leaves Sonny and Michael, who are perfect foils for each other. Sonny is quick-tempered, impulsive, lustful and physically brutish–very masculine, but in ways that make him a bad head of the family. As the Don says, “Women and children can afford to be careless. Men can’t.” It is Sonny who makes the grievous error of letting “the Turk” know he favors the drug deal instead of keeping his mouth shut–an error which leads directly to the assassination attempt on his father.
Michael’s masculinity–meaning his ability to lead– is at first in question, even though he’s a war hero. In the world of the Corleones, you’re not a real man until you have killed for the family. Michael was supposed to be the one destined for a legitimate and brilliant career as a senator or governor. But as the Fates would have it, he’s the only one who can avenge his father, precisely because no one suspects him. When he realizes this, his choice is clear and his future is determined.
In the novel, Michael is so fearful during the restaurant scene with “the Turk” that when he goes to the toilet to retrieve the planted gun, he has to empty his bowels first. To kill is a classic ordeal of courage, a test of manliness found in cultures and subcultures where modern legal systems are nonexistent or ignored. By killing Sollozzo and the corrupt police captain McCluskey, Michael avenges his father, becomes a “made man” in the family, and proves he “has balls,” which is Don Corleone’s way of describing a man willing to risk it all.
And then there’s Tom Hagen, the German-Irish kid whom Don Corleone took in off the streets and raised as his own. Like Michael, Hagen has the cool and the requisite brains to be head of the family, but he’s not Sicilian, and he’s not blood kin. Despite this, the Don makes him consigliere, his most trusted advisor. On the other hand, Sonny complains that Hagen is “not a wartime consigliere,” suggesting that he doesn’t have a killer instinct. As a strategist and legal advisor, he lacks the masculine authority that comes from the physical experience of killing.
The Godfather is a coming-of-age story, and at the same time a tragedy. It shows how Michael, in spite of all his good intentions, ends up taking his father’s place. This requires his moral corruption, chillingly demonstrated as he renounces Satan during the baptism of his nephew and godchild, while his thugs are committing murders around New York in order to secure his place as the most powerful Mafia boss in the country.
All this time the viewer has been rooting for Michael, but in the final scenes, we are drawn back to the outsider’s perspective as his wife Kay asks him whether the newspapers are right. Did he order the killings?
Michael answers that, just this once, he will permit Kay to ask him about his business. And then he tells her no, he was not responsible. The moment underlines the isolation of masculine power. Michael’s wife will be protected from the burden, from the responsibilities, the moral depravity of his work, and its stringent code of silence. But she will never be as close to him as his male subordinates; she will never know his secrets. And she will never completely trust him, just as he does not trust her. The ultimate message is that this kind of power comes at a very high price.