Mario Cuomo Finally Watches The Godfather
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.