(Film critic Kevin Bowen is visiting his hometown of El Paso, Texas and attended the third annual Plaza Classic Film Festival.)
The Godfather (1972, d. Francis Ford Coppola)
My Godfather observation on my recent viewing: Fredo is gay. And Moe Greene is his lover. And this is the rarest, deepest and most vital secret of The Godfather saga.
No, this isn’t a gaydar thing: I’m not picking on Fredo because he is the effeminate son of Mafia Don Vito Corleone. And when I say gay, I don’t mean nebulous literary homoeroticism that otherwise arises in parts of the series. I mean they are literally homosexual lovers, and if true, it is a critical piece of the story.
Now there are hints of each man’s possible homosexuality (or bisexuality) throughout the saga. For instance, Greene takes a bullet while receiving a massage from a male masseuse. True, real-life straight guys do that everyday. But real-life straight guys do not have a writer/director trying to convey significant detail to an audience.
The question of sexual orientation counts most strongly in the scene with Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) arrives in Las Vegas, where Fredo has been sent for protection under Greene’s watch. The newly minted head of the Corleone crime family plans to move the family westward. He is there to forcibly buy out Greene’s interest in the casino/hotel.
How do they do business in Vegas? Not like the traditional Sicilian way back east. Michael meets Fredo with Johnny Fontaine, the ladies man pop singer, and a room full of bimbos assembled for the men’s pleasure. At first, the bawdy party plans seem to establish Fredo’s playboy status. But consider an alternative. Is it possible that the excessive public promotion of his heterosexuality, particularly to family, is suggestive of a closeted gay man?
When Greene arrives, Michael makes an offer that Greene can’t refuse. The discussion turns into a shouting match. Michael threateningly chides Greene about an unseen past incident in which he slapped around Fredo in public. Greene responds that Fredo has been picking up too many chicks at the gambling tables, preventing the real gamblers from playing and losing.
More evidence of heterosexuality, right? He might as well say he slapped Fredo for watching too much Man Vs. Wild. Hold on. Look at what Greene said. It’s a weird thing to say. Can one womanizing drunk really cost that much money to a big casino? Or does Greene sound more like a jealous lover rationalizing his violence?
If there is a relationship, then it forms an unusual, unspoken dynamic. It creates a scene in which what is being said is less than what is actually going on. Michael may well know about his brother’s orientation, or at least suspect, but he cannot say it. Fredo must suspect that Michael knows, but he must put on a show, just in case. And Michael may well understand that the his brother is putting on a show. Everyone plays along, because putting on a show and playing along is a universal practice in The Godfather. It may be the point of The Godfather.
If my theory is correct, watch what it does: it creates a parallel story between Fredo and the Corleone sister Connie (Talia Shire), who receives regular beatings from her womanizing husband Carlo. Each one is abused by his or her lover. Each one defends their abusive lovers to the head of the family (Connie to Sonny, Fredo to Michael). And each conflict leads to an assassination attempt on the head of the family.
Fredo is leading a double-life. But he isn’t the only one leading a double life. Almost every Godfather character leads one life internally and one life for public and family consumption. This is most effectively and importantly seen with Michael.
When meet Michael, we learn that he is the family’s baby brother and golden boy.
He is characterized repeatedly as Mr. Clean, a college kid and war hero, destined for things outside of Mafia life. Don Vito expects him to lead the family into acceptance, legitimacy, and respectability in America. The young Michael we meet is still at least residually invested in this vision of him. He has gone to college, fought in the war, dates the pretty WASP girl, etc.
Deep down, I don’t think this was ever the real Michael. Maybe as a teenager he might have been the type to stop the car and help a stranded sea turtle cross the highway. However, he is cold from the minute we meet him, in uniform, at the opening wedding. When he protects his father from assassination at the hospital, a point is made that his hand never shakes as the assassins drive by. At a minimum, the war made Michael Corleone a cold killer outside of family view. More likely, he was always this way. He chose to play the role of the good son in order to please his father.
The Godfather is usually interpreted as Michael’s transformation from the goody-two-shoes son to a cold muderous mafia don. However, I do not think this is a transformation. I think it is a revelation.
For all the mob warfare onscreen, The Godfather is really the story of a marriage. It begins with the wedding of Carlo and Connie. It ends with Michael ordering Carlo’s death, Connie storming into Michael’s office to scream about killing her lowlife husband, and Michael falsely denying responsibility to his wife Kay (Diane Keaton).
Ultimately, this is the double life of the story itself. The wedding introduces the Corleones as a family based on love and loyalty. Over three hours, The Godfather erodes this facade and exposes the Corleone family as a fraud. Family members play their roles and pretend not to notice the big picture. The family is not held together by love and loyalty. It is held together by power and deception.