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Michael Corleone, Role Model

by Mikael Harris
Michael Corleone, Role Model

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This article originally appeared in the October 1995 issue of Esquire. You can find every Esquire story ever published at Esquire Classic.

Every year, in the doldrums between Christmas and the new year, I need to look at The Godfather again. It is not just that it is one of my favorite films or that I rate it among the best ever made in America. The appeal is more primitive. For at that time of year when momentum and deadlines falter, I turn to The Godfather for reassurance and the unalloyed bliss of having fantasies restocked. As a matter of fact, I would rather watch it alone—after the family has gone to sleep—so that I may more expansively dig in and take on the listless but lethal authority with which the central character rises to his destined place in the family and the world. I want to be like Michael.

I love every foot and frame of the film; I cherish the repetition in seeing it again. I value the lesson Clemenza gives in Italian cooking as much as Jack Woltz’s tirade against Johnny Fontane, who ruined one of the most valuable properties he ever owned (a girl who was also, Woltz admits, the greatest piece of ass he ever had). Knowing the film by heart doesn’t take away from the pinnacled marvel of Apollonia’s breasts; the hangdog gloom in Tessio’s falling face when he knows he’s a dead man; the way Sonny kicks the damp shit out of Carlo in hydrant spray on a hot day in the city; the yelping glee of Connie when Johnny Fontane comes to the wedding; the quiet of Louis’s restaurant in the Bronx (try the veal); the brilliance of Diane Keaton in all her broken moments; Brando’s intellectual but digestive sigh when he learns how Woltz was handled; the blood that leaks out of Moe Greene’s shattered eye; and the polite, apologetic way Al Neri closes the inner door on Kay at the end. So guys can talk in private.


Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather II (1974).

CBS Photo ArchiveGetty Images

Were so many things ever so well-timed and well-judged? Is there a movie that celebrates efficiency with more hushed, righteous gravity? Did Francis Ford Coppola make this picture? Of course he did, and he was something even superior at time to such “trashy” material. On March 11, 1997, this monstrous show will be twenty-five years old. In all likelihood, a lot of its family will gather again for celebrations and feasts, chuckling together, taking a little of the wine Francis makes now, and remembering how all their lives were changed. That film made so many of them, it hardly matters how far some have fallen in the years since. After all, in business you move ahead or you go to the wall; there is no resting. But nothing will take away from the magnificent team spirit, the family solidarity with which crime, murder, and betrayal all paid off in the name of order. Forget the routine talk about how The Godfather is the classic gangster film and an epic portrait of the immigrant’s America. It is a movie about happiness and feeling good. And guys get it. Always have. Especially the guys whose dark task it is to make motion pictures.

There are Hollywood people who hold The Godfather as their Gideon. They recite and abide by the film’s axioms: “We’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse”; “This isn’t personal, this is business”; “The one who brings you the message will be the betrayer”; and, from the second part of the story, “If history has taught us anything, it says you can kill anybody.” These are executives who would not think of destroying a project or going to a poisoned lunch without putting on the insolent affectlessness of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. Sleepless, sexless, tidy, deft, economical, heartless—he is their model. They dress as he would learn to, in Part II: smart, silken, but impersonal. They revere his disdain for any distraction or weakness, the way in which in the name of family he never spends time with wife and children. Michael never notices women, never spends money. He is fixed on work, order, and the making of decisions. He insists on the fascism of family even if, in the cause of stability and politics, he must assume the burden of having wayward family members offed. Thus Fredo, sweet, fragile Fredo, is shot and tipped into the cold waters of Tahoe, a lake famous for a very Corleone facility—its corpses never float to the surface.

Michael is about being immaculate in your own mind—and no armor is more crucial to the ruling class of Hollywood. For this is a rhapsody to power itself as an alternative to every creeping threat of untidiness in America. And here it is proper to say something about the politics of The Godfather that undermines every hope for authorial personality in the movies. Francis Coppola was in the early seventies, and is still, a good example of the northern-California liberal. He is generous, humane, outgoing, a man of his people, Clintonesque in his muddled but authentic urge to do well by people and to be liked by them. At the same time, The Godfather was and is a loving endorsement of conservative repression, power, order; the preservation of these values; and the understanding that opposition must be exterminated.

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