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Mario Cuomo Finally Watches The Godfather

Godfather Ring Kiss

For four decades former New York Governor Mario Cuomo refused to watch The Godfather, or indeed any other mob-related movie or television show because he objected to the stereotypes such productions created about Italian-Americans. Recently, though, he sat down and watched Francis Ford Coppola’s classic and seems to have changed his mind just a bit:

Mario M. Cuomo’s hate-hate relationship with “The Godfather” has been well documented. For four decades, he refused even to see any of the movies or, presumably, to read Mario Puzo’s book. He all but denied that the Mafia existed. And who could forget that unfortunate slip of the tongue during the 1992 presidential campaign, when Bill Clinton suggested that Mr. Cuomo, then the governor of New York, acted like a Mafioso?

But over the weekend, Mr. Cuomo, 81, did the unthinkable: he finally watched “The Godfather.”

And, somewhat grudgingly, he offered that “maybe this thing was a masterpiece.”

Mr. Cuomo’s change of heart was spurred by the 2013 Forum Film Festival at the Forum on Law, Culture and Society at Fordham Law School, when he finally accepted an offer long refused.

Indeed, he had turned down an invitation from Mayor John V. Lindsay when the film was released in 1972, maintaining his boycott until the night before Sunday’s forum. Nor, unlike another Italian-American politician, Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor and United States attorney, did he typically play up the Mafia’s role in America.

In fact, when Paul Castellano, the mob boss, was executed in 1985 in front of Sparks Steak House in Manhattan, Mr. Cuomo urged reporters to refrain from invoking the word Mafia in reference to the hit. “Every time you say it, you suggest to people that organized crime is Italian,” he said. “It’s an ugly stereotype.”

“You’re telling me that Mafia is an organization,” he was quoted as saying, “and I’m telling you that’s a lot of baloney.”

On Sunday, though, he said yes, there was a Mafia, born of vicious invasions of Sicily. “They created an organization to fight those people who were intruders but they got out of hand and they moved here,” he said.

(…)

As for the film, Mr. Cuomo pronounced it “great, if you’re referring to artistry.” Still, he expressed dismay that films like “The Godfather” and television programs like “The Sopranos” delivered a “horrible” message by stereotyping Italian-Americans for taking the law into their own hands to seek revenge and sanctioning murder.

Prodded by the moderator, Prof. Thane Rosenbaum, and his fellow panelist, Larry King, Mr. Cuomo refused to draw a distinction between entertainment and what he considered the insidious immoral message conveyed by Mafia movies.

“You demean our system of law and order by saying if you want to get justice you mow down the bums,” Mr. Cuomo said.

Frankly, I don’t think that’s the message that The Godfather is sending, or the story that its trying to tell, especially if you watch both Part I & II (I’ll leave Part III out of the discussion given some people’s opinion of the movie). Instead, it seems clear that the message that Coppola and Mario Puzo, both Italian Americans themselves, are sending in both films is about the corruption that the violence of organized crime creates, and the manner in which it can cause when someone (i.e., Michael Corleone) who wanted nothing to do with the “family business” becomes immersed in it for the supposed purpose of protecting his family. In the end, as we see by the end of Part II, it resulted in him losing his family and ordering the death of his own brother. It’s more a morality play set against the backdrop of the Italian-American culture that both Coppola and Puzo grew up in than it is the glorification of violence that Cuomo describes. Indeed, it’s worth noting that, for the most part, everyone who dies under the orders of either of the men who held the title Don Coreleone were people who, in the end, kind of deserved it. This wasn’t the slaughter of innocents that you see in some modern day movies.

On some level, I suppose, one can understand Cuomo’s objections to mob movies as a genre. He’s part of a generation of Italian-Americans that grew up in an environment where ethnic prejudices were still a common thing and spent much of his political career dodging allegations of his own ties to organized crime. Additionally, prior to The Godfather, mob movies were often little more than violence without any real moral context and the Italian-American caricatures were really quite over the top. Nonetheless, it strikes me that the former Governor is being a bit unfair to Coppola/Puzo, as well as to The Sopranos, in painting with such a broad brush.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Blue Galangal says:

    Did not care for The Godfather. – Peter Griffin

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  2. Hal 10000 says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head, Doug. The Godfather is tragedy, with deep connections to tragedy down through the centuries from Sophocles to Shakespeare.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  3. Rafer Janders says:

    Frankly, I don’t think that’s the message that The Godfather is sending, or the story that its trying to tell, especially if you watch both Part I & II (I’ll leave Part III out of the discussion given some people’s opinion of the movie).

    There’s a Godfather Part III? Um, no. No there isn’t.

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  4. DC Loser says:
  5. Ernieyeball says:

    @DC Loser: I think Reefer was being facetious.

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  6. Brett says:

    Now he should watch Scarface. No Italian-Americans, but it’s a fascinating foil to The Godfather.

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  7. al-Ameda says:

    The Godfather glamorized, even lionized, The Mob as near royalty. Whereas Goodfellas and The Sopranos did no such thing – they showed The Mob to be working class guys in a career of of crime and crime management, and showed those people to be anything but royalty.

    I found Goodfellas and The Sopranos to be, in so many ways, much better drama and entertainment.

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  8. rudderpedals says:

    Good on Mario. For waiting long enough I think to view the terrific films, but more so for being a consistent and vocal enemy of stereotyping bigots.

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  9. Franklin says:

    Doug, c’mon dude, you forget to add “Spoiler Alert” when you started talking about what happens with Michael.

    I’m semi-serious here. I’ve never seen the movie(s), but I did just finish the original book. I don’t know anything about Parts II or III here, that is until Doug spilled the beans.

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  10. Jim Henley says:

    The prostitute in Godfather II didn’t “kind of deserve it.” She was tortured and murdered by her employers as a move in their game with a corrupt politician.

    But actually, that “all their [other] victims kind of deserved it” is itself a plot trick to make the Corleone’s look more sympathetic by contrast. You don’t see the actual crime part of their crimes. And Coppola/Puzo really lay the pseudo-nobility of Don Vito on thick. Sure, Michael’s a prick, but his dad is given a tragic nobility.

    I really enjoy Lee Strasberg in the second movie, though. Great performance.

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  11. JKB says:

    Interestingly, the organized part of organized crime was to cut down on the killing of innocents and self-destructive warring between the not so innocent.

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  12. Joel says:

    I would say that The Godfather both constructs a mythology of the mob as an honorable, opulent, and basically benevolent organization and also tears its own mythology down (especially in part II). Michael’s attempt to escape from the family only to become the next don is tragic and not what most first-time viewers hope for his character.

    The flashback scene at the end of II is striking – more than half the characters in that scene are dead, and those still alive are either drifting apart or have had their character unrecognizably mangled. Vito Corleone is whitewashed somewhat, but the empire he built did destroy his family – it just took another generation for the time bomb to go off.

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