Nice College Boy: Reflections on Michael Corleone

Hey, whaddya gonna do, nice college boy, eh? Didn’t want to get mixed up in the Family business, huh? Now you wanna gun down a police captain. Why? Because he slapped ya in the face a little bit? Hah? What do you think this is the Army, where you shoot ‘em a mile away? You’ve gotta get up close like this and – bada-BING! – you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.

Michael Corleone was masterfully played by Al Pacino.  Everyone talks about Marlon Brando’s performance in The Godfather, but in my opinion, the movie belongs to Michael.  Actors often talk about the arc or journey of a character, which is simply actorspeak for how a character changes throughout a play or scene, where he starts, where he ends, and how he gets from point A to point B (and C and D and E.)  For Michael Corleone, his arc (or journey) is immense.  He starts out as a civilian, as the mob members call him.  He has no part in the family business, although he accepts it for what it is.  At the end of the movie, he has succeeded his father as Don, head of the family, a cold and ruthless man.  (I recently thought to myself that The Godfather is essentially King Lear, although at the end of the story, Cordelia becomes evil.)

I could talk about that journey (or arc) for a long time.  But I’m not going to.  I want to mention something else.  Sometimes the absence of something is just as important as its presence.  One thing absent in Michael’s life is a mistress.  We see Sonny having sex with his mistress at his sister’s wedding, and later leaving her apartment.  We also hear about Fredo “banging cocktail waitresses two at a time,” which almost seems out of character with his shy nature.  (We hear nothing of a mistress for Tom, but in the second film Michael refers to Tom’s wife and his mistress.  Tom also finds it amusing that Sonny is having sex with his mistress at their sister’s wedding.)

Michael, at no point in the Godfather, is shown with a mistress, or is mentioned as having a mistress.  He begins the movie with his girlfriend Kay, a complete outsider to his world.  She isn’t even Italian!  Their relationship is very conventional, until Michael kills two people in retaliation for his father’s attempted assassination, and is forced to hide in Sicily.  While he’s there, he meets Apollonia, and marries her.  Once again, his marriage seems rather conventional, until she is killed.  He returns home and seeks out Kay, marrying her.

Other than that, there are no other women in Michael’s life.  He does not seek out mistresses, and when Fredo offers him prostitutes at the casino in Nevada, Michael barely even looks at them, and tells Fredo to get rid of them.  His behavior is completely out of step with the rest of his family, so the question is, why?  Why does he not have mistress?

I can think of two reasons.

First of all, it may be because Michael is loyal.  Michael is drawn into the family business not out of greed or a desire for power, but because he fears for his father’s life.  He volunteers to kill Solazo and the police officer not because of the business deal, but because in Michael’s words, “He’s gonna kill pop.”  It is this loyalty to his father that brings about his entry into the Mafia life.  Perhaps his lack of a mistress is an expression of his loyalty.

Second of all, Michael is cold.  He contrasts quite nicely with his eldest brother, Santino, a passionate man.  When Santino discovers that his sister’s husband (Carlo) is abusive, Santino chases Carlo  down the street and beats him up, threatening to kill Carlo if he does it again.  Michael’s reaction to their problematic in law is markedly different.  Michael bides his time.  He waits until his father is dead and until he can settle all family business before he orders his death.  As he confronts Carlo about his role in Santino’s death, Carlo begins to break down, and Michael comforts him, and gently prods him to confess his guilt.  “Don’t tell me your innocent.  Because it insults my intelligence.”  He says it so calmly, without any emotion in his voice, fully aware of what he is doing, and what he is going to do.  It is chilling.

So why doesn’t Michael have a mistress?  It’s probably some combination of these two facets of his personality, but not only those two.  Michael Corleone is one of the great characters of cinema, a sympathetic, heroic villain.  It is one of the main reasons why I, and many other people, return to The Godfather year after year.

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