Film Studies: The Sopranos, the Corleones and me
Sunday 19 September 1999
Excuse me," said my editor. "Speak," I said, ready to pour the good red wine.
"I hadn't realised `Thomson' was an Italian name."
"Come to that," I said, "I never heard of people called `Soprano' neither."
"So what is it," she said, "about everyone wanting to pretend they're Italian? Or in the family way - if you know what I mean?"
She said it was all very peculiar, because what she remembered of the legend of Italian-ness when she was growing up was windbag show-offs like Mussolini and the famed discretion of the Italian army. "Now, all the guys wear dark suits and gather in solemn circles, while the women - "
"It was Michael," I said.
Michael Corleone, Al Pacino. The Ivy League kid who began as a reluctant defender of family honour in a time of crisis. Remember the way he went out to that neighbourhood restaurant, took the gun that Clemenza had planted in the john, and came out and shot Sollozzo and McCloskey, gave it to them al dente with their dinner, and got away and went to Sicily till the heat was off? And after that he was head of the family, the guy who dealt with Hyman Roth, finally, and had his own brother, Fredo, little Fredo, shot and dumped in the lake at Tahoe. Michael the cold and terrible, but Michael as the "organised" in organised crime, keeping order and honour and respect in place, and holding the family together, and being supreme and omniscient, and sitting in the dark sipping just a little iced water.
"And always closing the door on his wife, Kay," said my editor.
"That was one of the most devout images in a very religious film," I said. "Look, this was the early 1970s. The world was coming apart. Families were broken on drugs and divorce. Women were shooting off their mouths. Nixon couldn't keep order any more. America had no respect."
"Rather healthy," said my editor. "The break-up of a sick empire."
"Guys like a little order," I said. "That was the appeal of Michael and the Corleones."
"It's so odd," she said. "Weren't there complaints at the time from Italian-Americans, that they weren't all Mafia? And didn't Francis Coppola say he was painting a tragic picture of a dark aspect of a rare kind of Italian family life?"
"Francis doesn't always know what he's doing."
"But then that third Godfather film blew it all?"
"Missed the point."
"What was that?"
"The climax should have been the family story set against 1963."
"How the boys took JFK out. After he'd used them in '60, and then forgotten the respect they were owed. It should have gone all the way."
And maybe one day that story will be told properly, and then the American public will turn away with revulsion from its adulation of these dark Italian families. Oh sure, The Sopranos is meant to be funny, and it's a kind of satire. And these are much less glamorous figures than Michael and Sonny and Vito ever were. And there have been other films along the way that told us they were telling the real, grubby story of the scum who got to be Mafia - films like GoodFellas and Married to the Mob, and even Mickey Blue Eyes, which is about as terrible as the genre can get, and which ought to be put in concrete for the way it turns James Caan into a stooge. Do you remember how glorious and stupid he was as Sonny Corleone?
"Do you like The Sopranos?" asked my editor.
"Wouldn't miss it."
"I like the shrink," she said. "The way you see the family trying to adjust to modern ways."
"I had a dream once," I said, "that they did a Godfather 4 in which Connie - remember her? Talia Shire? - she became Lucretia Borgia running the family."
"A woman in charge? I bet you made her like a man."
"Of course," I agreed. "She was the most ruthless. And she had a grand- daughter who gets to be an intern at the White House."
"Oh, I like that," she said. "So, did The Sopranos win?"
Trust her to ask. "Four," I said. "We got four Emmys. Technical, mostly."
"Not enough respect, huh? So how did your Niners do?"
"That's what I said," she said.
"They lost. 41-3."
So we went and ate the good pasta, with a nice little chianti, and told tales of sinister glory, including Dallas-Washington.
`The Sopranos' continues, Thursday 10pm C4
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