The Mafia and the disappearing father

From Michael Corleone to Tony Soprano, mob dads have been increasingly embattled -- and our national obsession with their fall reflects our culture's crisis of fatherhood.

By Alessandro Camon
Published March 8, 2005 9:29PM (EST)

I am a Mafia junkie. I've watched it all, read it all, and while I wait for the final act of "The Sopranos," I'm not above keeping an eye on "Growing Up Gotti." It's hardly a compelling show. Yet at some point in this new season, I began to suspect that this perfectly banal, oddly flat, wit-free slice of "reality TV" might be a zeitgeist-defining artifact.

The Mafia genre has been a pop-culture staple for the past several decades. Its relevance can hardly be overestimated. Ask people about their favorite movies, and you will get all kinds of answers -- from "Top Gun" to "8 1/2," from Adam Sandler to Lars Van Trier. One of the very few titles that will recur across age, race, gender, income or education lines is "The Godfather." The reasons for the genre's success are readily identified. The Mafia movie offers all the exhilaration and wish-fulfillment of the classic gangster genre, without necessarily dampening it with the violent death of the protagonist (more or less obligatory before the dissolution of the Hays code in the '60s). It also presents a powerful mythology of immigration, and a provocative commentary on "the business of America."

Most important, though, it was an emotional laboratory where we could find, try on, pine over, old-fashioned notions of family and masculinity. The critical one is, of course, the notion of "father." It's not excessive to say that the history of the Mafia -- both in society and in pop culture -- is a history of fathers (or father figures), which starts with biblically powerful models and ends in crisis and extinction.

"The Godfather" -- Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 masterwork -- is the foundational myth of the genre. Establishing the template that would last for decades, it was, on the surface, a sweeping tale of illegal empire building, but at its heart it was a story of fathers and sons. Fatherhood was all-important: It was the source of authority, the reason for loyalty, the call of responsibility. It was the crucible where hard choices are made, and character tested. The word itself -- "godfather" - evoked not so much "the man who sponsors a child" as "the father who is godlike." It described a patriarchal archetype filtered through romantic idealization and made even more irresistible by the casting of such iconic actors as Brando, Pacino and (in "The Godfather: Part II") De Niro.

Michael Corleone remains one of the most powerful role models that popular culture has produced in the last 50 years. The measure of his appeal is that we all look at him as a hero, despite the fact that he deals in blackmail and violence, has his own brother assassinated, and boldly lies to his wife. All this we justify because we buy into his rationale: We believe he does it for the greater good of the family. Family, in Mafia parlance, is both the group related by marriage and blood ties, and the larger group related by ethnicity and partnership in crime. What's good for the first is, ideologically, the ultimate goal; but what's good for the second is, pragmatically, the immediate priority. Context clarifies which of the two types of family one may be talking about in any conversation; yet a certain amount of overlap and ambiguity is there by design, as a constant reminder of their mutual necessity.

The climax of "The Godfather" is the montage going back and forth between the baptism of Michael's nephew and the extermination of his enemies. This is not just a striking juxtaposition. It conveys the deeper point that Michael's power to kill is rooted in his commitment to family (the immediate kind). He has the authority to shed other people's blood because he's ensuring the future of his own bloodline. In other words, family values justify violence against those who threaten us. The subversive reading of this embedded statement is that family values, sooner or later, will require that we commit such violence. As long as you believe that family justifies it, you are bound to kill your enemy (conversely, as long as you kill your enemy, you're bound to justify it in the name of family). For Michael, the enemy is rival gangsters; for most of us it's the criminal, the stranger, the infidel, the suspicious "other."

To be sure, this radical social critique was not necessarily the filmmaker's intention, and one can only read it against the grain of the film, with its seemingly incessant parade of dinners, weddings, masses, funerals, pregnancies, bedside visits and family reunions. The prevailing mood of the film is nostalgia, a sense that the past contains lessons worth remembering and traditions worth honoring.

That nostalgia was made more poignant by the Mafia's real state of affairs at the time. As "The Godfather" was being made, the mythic "code" of the Mafia and its extreme version of family values were beginning to fall apart on the street in an orgy of betrayal. "The Godfather" itself had a significant effect on the Mafia -- and although it was castigated by many critics at the time as a whitewash, it hurt the Mafia more than it helped it. While restoring its veneer of "nobility," the movie also made it into a fashionable, highly commercial product. Mobsters became more and more obsessed with image; inspired by their on-screen counterparts, they pursued flash and celebrity. The Gambino family (sort of the Ivy League of the mob), started by the low-profile, dressed-down, laconic Carlo Gambino, was taken over by the flamboyant, nattily attired, boisterous John Gotti. With the help of the media, Gotti fashioned himself into a Hollywood star at large; not surprisingly, his stardom spurred his enemies and exposed his vulnerability. At the end, he was too big not to go down. Ratted out by his trusted lieutenant Sammy Gravano, Gotti finished his life in prison, fighting a losing battle with cancer. Ever since the "dapper don" put on the orange jumpsuit, the mob hasn't been able to recover its luster.

Gotti had been behind bars for nearly a decade when "The Sopranos" stripped the mob myth of any residual romanticism. Coppola's undeclared critique of patriarchy was suddenly in-your-face. The family was now fractious, dysfunctional, constantly threatening to disintegrate. Tony Soprano's father was a painful memory; his mother was a fearsome harpy, laying massive guilt on him with methodical madness. Tony's own marriage sustained itself on denial (before becoming a slow-motion train wreck and finally the most cynical of deals); his children seemed left with no apparent choice but acting out, or getting out. Tony was an anti-romantic: a creature of unrestrained appetites, eating, drinking, snorting, fucking ad nauseam to try to fill a massive hole, driven to panic and badly in need of a shrink. In sharp contrast to the godfather ethos, he lied for himself, not for his family; perhaps even more damning, he lied to himself.

Ultimately, Tony's character was compelling precisely because it took the godfather archetype and filled it with doubt, anxiety and moral inadequacy to the point of explosion. Tony's choices were harder than Michael Corleone's, and more ironic: Going to war or killing his own, spending time in a crumbling marriage or with an array of psycho mistresses, giving it all up or being stuck in endless therapy. We felt for him in ways we didn't feel for Michael: We didn't admire his solutions as much as we understood his problems. The role of all-knowing, all-powerful father, guarding his secrets with manly stoicism or sharing them with other men in solemn rituals, speaking in few words with great meaning, as if he could create meaning itself -- that role was never an available option. While lionizing family, and particularly fathers, had been the original effect of the Mafia genre, deconstructing the patriarchal model and exposing its every crack was now the genre's new mission.

In A&E's "Growing Up Gotti," Victoria, John's daughter, struggles with the hardship of single motherhood, the burden of her legacy, and the paucity of adequate suitors. Her ex-husband, Carmine Agnello (currently serving time), is only occasionally mentioned; the deceased patriarch, John, is mentioned or evoked constantly, but rather than making him an emotional presence in the show, the references only underscore his absence, the vacuum he left both in his own family and in the Mafia myth. "Growing Up Gotti" means growing up with the cumbersome name of a man who isn't there, cannot be replaced, and cannot be lived up (or down) to. Despite the show's complete lack of intellectual ambition -- and, in a sense, because of it -- "Growing Up Gotti" completes the arc that starts with "The Godfather." The paradigm so effectively set up by Coppola's movie, and so devastatingly dismantled by "The Sopranos," becomes officially a thing of the past: The powerful father became the self-doubting father and, eventually, the vanished father.

Of course, "The Sopranos" is coming back one last time, and more Mafia movies, books or TV shows will certainly appear in the future. The success of "The Godfather Returns," the official literary sequel to Mario Puzo's novel, is a good indication of the enduring appetite for the genre. Still, "The Sopranos" was a crepuscular tale from the start, and "The Godfather Returns" is double nostalgia (not only for the '50s, when most of the story takes place, but also for the '70s, when we were first told it). The genre may continue, but an awareness of the end will color its future.

"Growing Up Gotti" is a particularly shrill death knell. The end of the Mafia is a given, a backstory. We start already on the other side, a grotesque place of showy bad taste and bratty behavior, material ambitions and raging hormones, a place most immediately defined by the complete removal of the father. Even nostalgia is beside the point; if anything, the point of the show is to take us on a tragicomic tour through the rubble of patriarchal collapse (and the soft female-empowerment fantasy that springs from it). The patriarch is a figurehead whose very history of crime and punishment is glossed over with calculated indifference; Victoria is more interested in remembering him as the first metrosexual, an apt grandfather to the self-appointed "hottie Gotti." The patriarch is a legend; the patriarch is a punch line.

"Growing Up Gotti" is consistent with a larger attitude toward fathers and father figures in films and television. From "Gilmore Girls" to "Desperate Housewives," from "Arrested Development" to "Six Feet Under," from "The Simpsons" to "The Osbournes," from "The Family Guy" to "The Bernie Mac Show," fathers stand out for their absence, ineptitude or reluctance amid a growing crowd of single mothers, widows, all-girl clans, unconventional or dysfunctional families. Father knows best? Not in a long time. Dad-glorifying shows like "The Cosby Show," "Happy Days," "The Waltons," "The Brady Bunch," "Ozzie and Harriet," "Leave It to Beaver" seem lost in ancient memory.

This media landscape points toward what might be a sort of national "father complex": the combination of a growing mass anxiety about lost, absent, failed fathers, and fathers' own struggle with the redefinition of their role after women's liberation, artificial insemination and the custody wars. Statistics about fatherlessness in America are questionable, generally coming from highly partisan sources. It is a reasonable assumption, however, that the United States is at the high end of the world spectrum in the number of single-parent households, and the single parent is overwhelmingly female. A high number of American children grow up without a father at home; a vast majority of incarcerated men come from such backgrounds. While this is not an entirely new phenomenon (and neither is the relevance of fatherless characters in American culture, from "Huck Finn" to "On the Road"), what might be new is how deep it cuts today. Rap music, the dominant language of American teenagers, portrays a world of casual fathers and baby mamas; everybody is out for themselves, and life's lessons are only learned the hard way. In movies, it's interesting to note that several of this year's Oscar contenders ("The Incredibles," "Million Dollar Baby," "Finding Neverland") deal with father re-empowerment fantasies, or father figures filling a painful void. The flip side of the father complex is a stronger longing: Signals include the reelection of a dynastic president, "strict father" political metaphors, and a draconian reaffirmation of traditional family values against the perceived threat of gay marriage.

Because fatherhood is arguably in a crisis, it is nostalgically eulogized, combatively propped up, or turned into comic/lurid fodder. What seems no longer tenable is the romantic, idealized idea of fatherhood once associated with "The Godfather," where the passionate mutual devotion of fathers and sons seemed completely of a piece with the relentless pursuit of power and destruction of the enemy. It was a notion of fatherhood and masculinity that allowed -- indeed, that relied on -- the fundamental hypocrisy of invoking family values to justify cold-blooded killing, being a caring and conservative family man who abhors vice while selling it to the next guy. The ability to mask the contradiction, to hold together domestic virtue and business ruthlessness in a seemingly coherent identity, was a father's job. Ultimately, Coppola was criticizing this notion of fatherhood while ostensibly glorifying it, and that double movement was an important part of the film's greatness.

Looking back at the "Godfather" trilogy in light of "The Sopranos," the reasons for the don's downfall come into clear, harsh focus. The general crisis of fatherhood might be the sign of times, but it was written all along in Michael Corleone's DNA. In this, he wasn't a figure of nostalgia but a harbinger of things to come.

The tragic irony of "The Godfather" is that his path not only led to scorched earth around the family but also destroyed the family itself. By demanding total clan loyalty -- "my family right or wrong" -- and meting out deadly punishment against transgression, he ended up damning the family in order to save it. His destiny reveals the weakness at the heart of a family ideal built on a code more than on love. While this ideal may remind us of Iraqi or Afghan tribes, with their honor killings and cycles of retribution -- a still more extreme version of the southern Mediterranean family ethos depicted in Mafia films -- it should also remind us of our down-home, "civilized" version. There is more in common than we care to admit: the ultimate authority of fathers, the religiously sanctioned concept of what a family is, the forceful exclusion of the "other," the double standard of responsibility.

The final season of "The Sopranos" will undoubtedly reserve its share of surprises, but the reality of the mob's near extinction, and the post-extinction quality of "Growing Up Gotti," leave little doubt as to the general direction in which HBO's greatest show must be headed. We already know there is no future for a fatherless mob: Its replenishing of ranks and transmission of power along generational lines were always the key to its strength.

The fatherless, doomed mob could be a gloomy metaphor for an increasingly fatherless America. But it could it be something more specific, and more hopeful -- a metaphor for the death of a certain kind of father, a sign that the stern, law-giving patriarch is passing from the scene (though the 2004 election suggests that we may not be there yet, and that it won't happen without a backlash). In any case, I look forward to Tony Soprano's final act for a classy epitaph to the genre, and for further clues to dad's state of mind in the face of impending doom.

Alessandro Camon

Alessandro Camon is a screenwriter and film producer based in Los Angeles.

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