Al Pacino as Michael Corelone in The Godfather Part II.
The original Godfather was so perfect that there was simply no way it could be equaled. Any sequel would be doomed from the start. The Godfather was nominated for 9 Academy Awards and won 3 of them. It was a financial and critical success. It's almost always included in any conversation about the greatest movies of all time. There was just no way a sequel was ever going to be as good and would inevitably just tarnish the memory of its predecessor. And then Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo and cast did the impossible, they made the equally fantastic Godfather Part II, which went on, like the original, to win the Best Picture Oscar, becoming the only two movies to accomplish such a feat. It also won an Oscar for Robert De Niro as Brando had won one for the original, both for playing of Vito Corleone, becoming the only two actors to win an Oscar for playing the same character. Instead of sitting in the shadow of the original Godfather, the Godfather Part II added to to the epic and made it even greater.
If there's one way that Part II is perhaps weaker than Part I, it is the episodic nature of its plot. HBO could make an entire series out of all that happens in this movie. It's held together by a common theme rather than a driving central plot. By contrasting the creation of the family by Vito to the destruction of the family by Michael, it shows the cost of power, especially when wielded so coldly and ruthlessly.
The story begins some 7 years after the first film ended. The Corleone family is now living and operating in Nevada. Michael is in full control of his illegal empire and he's looking to expand, both into further casinos in Vegas, as well as into pre-communist Cuba. An attempt is made on Michael's life and he suspects someone close to him is behind the attempt. He blackmails a corrupt Senator into helping him with his deals. He is brought before a Senate hearing that is investigating the Mafia. His marriage is crumbling, although he can barely be bothered to notice. As the story progresses, Michael's empire and powers grow, but he is increasingly isolated and lonely.
Interspersed with that story, is the story of Michael's father, Vito Corleone. It tells of his journey from Sicily as a boy and his early years in America as he grows both his family and the Family. The biggest difference between Michael and Vito is the loyalty Vito brings out in people. He gets people to want to help him by helping them in return. One of his first acts is to eliminate a mobster who is preying on his Italian neighborhood. Once Vito is in power, he protects that same Italian neighborhood. Where Michael uses money to keep his people around him, Vito uses friendship.
De Niro won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and he did it with a minimum of lines and the lines he does have are mostly spoken in Sicilian. Although he isn't a physical clone of a young Marlon Brando, what other actor could carry the mantle of that part without being overshadowed?
It is Pacino though who carries this movie. For most of it he plays the part very subdued, with his eyes very heavy, almost as if sleepy. In the scene where the senator threatens him, Michael is completely emotionless. He almost seems bored. All human warmth is drained from him. But then there are those scenes where his emotion bubbles to the surface and it seems twice as powerful because we so rarely see it. The scene between Michael and Kay following the Senate hearing is one of the most powerful in the movie because of the emotion he displays, as the scene between he and Kay when he finds her at the kitchen door is powerful because of the lack of emotion he displays.
Every mob movie or television show made since the first two Godfather films came out, owes a huge debt to these films. They created the modern idea of the Mafia. They are cultural touchstones.
The final scene of the film shows Michael sitting alone in a chair. Like his father always wanted for him, he is the one in control. He holds the puppet strings and his power appears omnipotent, but at what cost? Who is left that he can trust?
The Corleone family in happy times.
So great are the first two Godfather films that I see something new in them every time I watch them, There are a lot of details and nuances here. Coppola does not spoon feed the plot. You have to pay attention.
The speech Hyman Roth gives to Michael about Moe Green is as much a message about the attempt on Michael's life as it is a story about Las Vegas. Tom's talk with Frank Pentangeli is on the surface a history lesson, but they are really making a deal. Michael kissing Fredo and saying, "I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!" Is a statement no one would want to hear from Michael.
At the party for Anthony's first communion, Senator Geary makes a speech in which he thanks Michael and Kay for a donation. He awkwardly mispronounces "Vito Corleone" during the speech, making him seem like a rube. Shortly there-after, he has a private meeting with Michael, where he exaggerates "Corleone" as if to reveal that he is fully aware that Michael is a Italian crime boss. It is one of my favorite scenes.
Kay had very little to do in the first film, but here she comes into her own. Also at Anthony's party she says to Michael, "It made me think of what you once told me: "In five years the Corleone family will be completely legitimate." That was seven years ago." She is still a bit ignorant, but she understands more than she lets Michael realize. Her last scene in The Godfather was with the door closing, separating her from Michael. This happens again in the scene Scott mentioned. The difference is that fate closed the door in the first film, while her decision causes it to be closed this time.
The other scene Scott mentioned between Kay and Michael is one of the most powerful in the entire series. Kay yells, "It was an abortion, Michael! It was a son Michael! A son! And I had it killed because this must all end!" The entire theme of The Godfather saga is family. We know how this will affect Michael. There is nothing that anyone could have done that would have hurt him as much as what Kay's betrayal and murdering of their unborn son did. It is also a huge hypocrisy. Kay wants to end the killing by killing her baby?
The characters all grow and change. Tom admires Michael yet gets offended by him. Fredo expresses his jealousy and frustration that he has been bottling up for years. Connie acts irresponsible, but then grows into the matriarch. She has a great scene where she pleads with Michael over Fredo. The Godfather: Part II is the greatest sequel ever made!
Robert De Niro as the young Vito Corleone.
Like Eric I get something new out of these movies with each viewing. This time around I was struck most by the epilogue/flashback scene. I never realized before that it takes place on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked and that it was Vito’s 50th birthday. As Sonny remarks, “How dare the Jap’s attack us on Pop’s birthday!” It is also the day Michael announces his enlistment in the Service and the day Connie is introduced to her future husband Carlo, by Sonny.
Coppola ends the movie brilliantly with this scene. All of Vito’s children (looking years younger than they did even in the first movie) have gathered at the house around the table waiting for their father to get home to “surprise” him with a party. The audience doesn’t know whether De Niro will walk in made up as the older Vito or if Brando himself will make a cameo. It is a moment of great anticipation that Coppola wisely decides to end before the Godfather makes his entrance.
Scott, you mentioned the difference between Vito and Michael in that Vito inspired loyalty out of friendship and Michael paid for his. This is absolutely true. Vito was such a great man that none of his sons could live up to him. He gave each of them a part of his personality but none of them got the complete package.
Sonny got Vito’s fearless courage and confidence but lacked his father’s self control and brains. Fredo inherited his father’s likeability and people skills but not his sense of responsibility. Michael is the most like his father in that he has courage, ambition, an ability to make cold-blooded decisions, and plenty of discipline. But he is a loner at heart and lacks his father’s and his brothers' gregariousness. And so he winds up alone.
I enjoyed the scenes of the young Vito more this time than in the past. I always compared De Niro to Brando and always found him less interesting in the part. This time I got his more subtle interpretation of the character and he definitely deserved the Oscar.
The only other sequel that is even close to this one in terms of equaling its predecessor is The Empire Strikes Back. While The Godfather and Star Wars stand alone as greater movies, in some ways Godfather II and Empire are better. I think they both pack more of an emotional punch anyway.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1974)