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How Godfather character Fredo became an insult used by Trump

'Italians have a history in this country that includes a lot of oppression and derision'

Alex Horton
Wednesday 14 August 2019 12:29 BST
CNN anchor Chris Cuomo gets in an altercation for being called Fredo

Mafia boss Vito Corleone gathers oranges at the New York market as his hapless middle son Alfredo sits in the black, chrome-tipped Cadillac Fleetwood.

Assassins trap the kingpin against the car’s hood and fire nearly a dozen shots into his back. Alfredo leaps out but drops his pistol in a panicked frenzy and breaks down crying instead.

It was not the first time Fredo Corleone, sunken-eyed and sorrowful, had a moment of weakness in The Godfather film franchise. But his cowardice in the assassination attempt cemented actor John Cazale’s role as one of the most tragically flawed characters in cinematic history.

And on Tuesday, Donald Trump taunted CNN’s Chris Cuomo after a filmed confrontation with the host and another man using the character’s name as an insult exploded over social media. “I thought Chris was Fredo also,” the president said. “The truth hurts. Totally lost it! Low ratings @CNN.”

Mr Cuomo said the name was an ethnic slur for Italian-Americans, and he prompted his own backlash after he drew comparisons to the n-word.

“In every way, calling someone ‘Fredo’ is the antithesis of what we’d call a strong and powerful person,” Edward Falco, the author of the 2012 series prequel, The Family Corleone, told The Washington Post.

Alfredo Corleone has been synonymous with weakness and failure since Mario Puzo’s 1969 best-selling novel The Godfather led to two Best Picture-winning films (of which there are spoilers below).

The story focuses on the Corleone’s family’s transition of power from the patriarch Don Vito Corleone to his youngest son, Michael, in postwar New York City. The eldest son Sonny, a hothead womaniser, is gunned down by a rival mob after his father is hospitalised. That left the youngest brother Michael, a calm and strategic war veteran reluctant to get his hands dirty in the family business, to step in and take control.

Fredo, the second oldest son, took the ordeal as another barb to his wounded pride.

“He’s not the brother who can protect his father. He’s a sad, ineffectual and weak character,” Mr Falco said Tuesday.

Trump bashes CNN's Chris Cuomo

Manipulated by other characters and hungry for validation, Fredo sides with a crooked casino owner over Michael in the first film. In the sequel, Michael learns Fredo supplied information that led to a failed attempt on his life.

In the film’s bleak climax, Fredo comes clean about his betrayal. He was promised a reward and control – two things he never received in the family. Then, Fredo reveals the root of his destructive angst: that he was overlooked as heir to the family business.

“I can handle things. I’m smart. Not like everybody says,” Fredo says. “I’m smart and I want respect!”

Fredo melts into a chair, and Michael banishes him from the family. Soon after, as Fredo sits on a rocking boat, a family strongman puts a pistol to Fredo’s head and pulls the trigger as Michael watches from a window, bowing his head in shame.

Mr Falco said he agreed with Mr Cuomo that “Fredo” was directed as an ethnic slur, not just meaning someone weak and incompetent but a weak and incompetent Italian. It sounds close to “Guido”, he said, which is a more prominent insult towards Italian-Americans, though he said Mr Cuomo went “overboard” comparing it to the n-word.

“Italians have a history in this country that includes a lot of oppression and derision,” Mr Falco said, including as a class of subjugated immigrants.

In 1891, soon after 11 Italian-American men were killed and mutilated by a mob in New Orleans, the New York Times published an editorial calling them “sneaking and cowardly Sicilians” and “a pest without mitigations”.

That subjugation played a major role in the plot of The Godfather. Young Vito Corleone, played in the second Godfather film by De Niro, kills a New York mob boss coercing Italian-Americans to pay him protection money, knowing they cannot go to the police.

But the story is also centred on themes of loyalty, respect and family above all else. And for Italian families, Falco said, those ideas are taken very seriously. "Fredo" as an insult is even an outcrop for the word "ciuccio", which Mr Falco said can mean ‘donkey’ in Italian but used to describe an incompetent family member in need of constant help.

Cazale was diagnosed with lung cancer and died after completing his role for 1978′s The Deer Hunter.

In a sad twist, the video of Cuomo surfaced Monday – reminding the world of Cazale’s astonishing work on what would have been the actor’s 84th birthday.

The Washington Post

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