The Godfather trilogy presents Vito as the paradigmatic Mafia don. When placed beside him, Barzini lacks class, Don Ciccio looks cruel and petty, and Don Fanucci is smalltime and brutish. Even Michael, despite his tremendous successes, loses in such a comparison, as he appears lacking in warmth and joie de vivre. It is unclear whether we are to believe Sollozzo’s words about Vito, that “the old man [is] slipping,” but even if he is, even if Vito walks right into an assassin’s bullets and survives only though sheer luck, he is still the Godfather par excellence. He is wise and intelligent, an excellent reader of others’ intentions, and a smooth, subtle talker, able to convince with words, not only bullets. The most exceptional thing about Vito, and the way in which he most outshines his son, is the manner in which he conducts his personal life. Though a ruthless, violent criminal, Vito is also a warm, loving father and husband, and the paradox of his character is that it is precisely the warmth of his humanity that makes him appear superhuman. In his later years, Vito comes across as relaxed and playful, even mellow. He has lived a rich, full life and earned a quiet retirement. As a younger man, when he is played by Robert De Niro, he is caring and devoted but also silent and intense. Unlike Michael, he does not let this intensity eat away at him. There is never any tension for Vito between the two meanings of “family” (i.e. blood relations and crime family), and he doesn’t feel conflicted about what he’s doing. Only when he learns that Michael has killed Sollozzo is he noticeably pained. His intensity is that of a hard-working man, though one who still manages to come home at the end of the workday to spend time with his family. In short, Vito comes across as both the perfect father and the perfect Godfather, making him a difficult model for all of his children, especially Michael, to imitate.
Michael is cold-blooded, ruthless, smart, and determined. His ability to think clearly under fire, to be decisive, and to command respect makes him an excellent Godfather. Of Vito’s children, he is certainly the best candidate to take over the family. But Michael was never supposed to get involved in the Mafia. He was supposed to become a senator, perhaps even president. Even when he does begin working for his father, he doesn’t seem fully reconciled to the decision. He promises Kay before they marry that the family will become “legitimate” soon. Over twenty years later, in The Godfather Part III, he still seeks this legitimacy. Unlike Vito, who appears at ease in the role of Godfather, Michael is burdened by the responsibility. One senses that he views himself as a sacrificial hero, slaving away for the rest of the family, sacrificing his soul for the well-being of those around him. In many ways, Michael’s story is a familiar one in American mythology: that of the immigrant’s child. He achieves great heights of success, just as his hard-working immigrant parents hoped for him, but at considerable personal cost. In Michael’s case, this cost is to his family life, as he loses his wife and children.
Michael can also be seen as a classical tragic figure. Immensely talented and powerful, he is undone by tragic flaws: his insatiable desire for vengeance, which creates a web of violence and recrimination that he cannot escape; his illusions of omnipotence, which blind him to the fact that achieving legitimacy is impossible; and his sense of being perpetually at war, which never allows him a moment of rest. At the end of Part III, Michael dies alone in the yard of his Sicilian villa. The death of his daughter, Mary, has sealed his fate, severing his ties forever with the rest of the family, the family that he tried to save and bring to legitimacy. Instead, he brought them only pain and death. If Vito is an ideal, almost romantic figure who might make the naïve viewer want to live the gangster life, Michael’s tale has a corrective effect. His life is tragic and his pain immense.
Of the many Corleone women, Kay is the only one who never accepts the Mafia way of life. Others may fight it for a time, but all eventually give in. Kay moves in the opposite direction. In The Godfather, she does not consent to it, but neither does she strenuously object. Instead, she ignores the truth, using her love for Michael as an excuse to avoid seeing the truth that stares her in the face. But at the very end of the film, as the door to Michael’s office closes on her, we can sense the awakening of realization. By The Godfather Part II, Kay has decided that Michael is a cold, distant, inattentive husband and father, but only after an attempt is made on his life in the family home does she resolve to rebel against him. At first, Kay’s rebellion is silent and private: she aborts the child she is carrying. But later, when she tells Michael that she is leaving him and reveals the truth that her “miscarriage” was really an abortion, she challenges him in a way no one ever has before. Kay becomes the first and only battle that Michael loses (until the very end of the trilogy). Michael may appear to get the better of the argument in Part II—he kicks her out of the house and keeps the children—but eventually Kay remarries and becomes the children’s principal parent. Still, she admits in Part III that, even though she has moved on, she continues to love Michael and always will.
In the Godfather trilogy, men separate themselves and their violence from the innocent world of women, but Tom occupies a middle ground. He is a central figure in family business dealings, but he is kept in the dark about many other matters. Told repeatedly that he is not a “wartime consigliere,” Tom is never asked to get his hands dirty. Although it appears that he is responsible for the horse’s head in Woltz’s bed in Godfather 1 , deleted scenes indicate that the thug Luca Brazi did the severing. At times, Tom’s lack of involvement may appear strategic, enabling him to remind people that he is “just a lawyer” and allowing Michael to name him interim Godfather in The Godfather Part II. But Tom is naturally meek and cautious, qualities associated with women throughout the trilogy—though Connie’s aggressive behavior in Part III challenges this notion. Tom’s ambiguous position in the Corleone crime family mirrors his ambiguous position in the actual Corleone family. Though a valued son, he is not a blood relative and not an Italian. He is aware of his tenuous position and is constantly looking for acceptance from his brothers, particularly Michael. Like Michael, Tom is a perpetual outsider, but he is an outsider of a different sort.
If Tom is too cautious to be a good Godfather, Sonny would fail for the opposite reason. He lacks the restraint and sangfroid (self-possession) that make his father and brother so successful. All heart, no brains, he is rash, impulsive, and sometimes just plain stupid. Too often, he acts before thinking. This recklessness gets him killed, as he walks right into a death trap by hurrying out of the house without bodyguards. A man of strong appetites and passions, he cheats on his wife and is barely able to restrain himself from beating his brother-in-law to death when he learns that his sister has been abused. We see a lot of Sonny in Vincent, and we cannot help but wonder how Vincent will lead the Corleones as Godfather—whether he will learn from his uncle or repeat his father’s mistakes.