Why we’ve got The Godfather wrong

You wouldn’t want many gangster films to have such angelic female characters. We are lucky to have had Lorraine Bracco as Karen Hill in Goodfellas (1990) and Sharon Stone as Ginger McKenna in Casino (1995), for example, as well as a new wave of female-led mob movies. In 2019’s The Kitchen, Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss took over their husbands’ rackets in late-1970s New York. Jennifer Lopez is due to play Griselda Blanco, a Colombian drug dealer, in The Godmother. And Jennifer Lawrence has signed on to star in Mob Girl as Arlyne Brickman, a gangster turned government witness.

These films may be a necessary corrective to The Godfather, but Coppola put more thought than most male writer-directors into what happens when women are excluded from men’s lives. After The Godfather Part II – in which Kay abandons Michael – his next film was his 1979 Vietnam War masterpiece, Apocalypse Now (also featuring Marlon Brando). Again, there are almost no women in it, and, again, the women who are in it are archetypes rather than nuanced characters. But, again, they are clearly on Coppola’s mind, in scenes ranging from the Playboy bunnies’ calamitous show for the troops, to the killing of “Mr Clean” (Laurence Fishburne) while he is listening to a recording of his mother’s voice. 

As in The Godfather, the hollow left by absent women has been filled with blood. In the extended “Redux” edit of Apocalypse Now, which Coppola completed in 2001, Martin Sheen’s Willard spends a night with a widow (Aurore Clémont) on a French plantation, who tells him: “There are two of you, don’t you see? One that kills and one that loves.” Just like Michael Corleone in Sicily, he glimpses how life could be if he was one that loves rather than one that kills. But the next morning he returns to his mission on the Stygian river, on a journey away from humanity and into the heart of darkness.

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