I’m sure there were things I planned to do this weekend, like go to the grocery or buy gas or just go outside and look at the sun or something. Instead, I watched three epic (and epically long) classic movies between Friday afternoon and Sunday evening: Gone With the Wind and The Godfather (Parts I & II).
One so loud, the other relatively quiet. One with a protagonist so all over the place, so outward and emotional; the other so restrained, hiding everything behind his eyes because revealing too much of yourself is a death sentence. Both movies about inheritance, really. In Gone With the Wind it’s about land, in the Godfather it’s about family. Both are about kids trying to live up to their dad’s legacy.
We don’t see as much of Gerald O’Hara as we do of Vito Corleone–and most of what we see is past his prime, the decline of his life. In Part 1 of The Godfather, Vito is on the far side of his life, but still at the peak of his power. We know that Gerald is an immigrant from Ireland. This isn’t in the movie, I don’t think, but I asked my parents (who’ve read the book) and they said that he won the land that became Tara gambling. He built up this whole estate. He takes risks, loves horses, is kinda carefree. Gerald has basically won the American Dream. He has a big estate. He enslaves people. He’s respected by his neighbors (well, other than the ones he enslaved) and has beautiful daughters all ready for marrying off. He’s been accepted by other men of his age and station. But he loses it all because the core of the American Dream is rotten. It relies on the exploitation and abuse of people. And he doesn’t prepare Scarlett to live in a world that’s different than the one he created for them.
Vito Corleone is more reserved and calculating than Gerald O’Hara. He builds his empire slowly, step by step–not all at once in a fantastic, and fantastically risky, game of cards. In Part II, his story exudes warmth, with lots of camera shots of sunsets and growing babies. It takes place in a tenement neighborhood in 1920s New York City, but there’s nothing filthy or smelly about his story. Vito has also won the American Dream, sort of, but it’s hollow. Not because the American Dream (in the world of The Godfather) is hollow, but because Vito’s methods, the power behind his business, is bloody. The violence at the core of his life means he can never make the transition to being a straight businessman. That, and the fact that America isn’t ready to accept Italian Americans as “Americans” in the same way that Gerald’s neighbors were apparently ready to accept him. After a time, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the Corleones run into anti-Italian racism, sure, but there’s also plenty of people who know exactly what their business entails and are repelled. If Vito’s timeline is about winning the American dream, about creating and protecting his family, Michael’s timeline–with Tahoe in the winter, with 3-piece suits, with Cuban revolutions and gunshots and proper offices and hard edges and hotels– is about losing all of that.
Neither Michael nor Scarlett can truly live up to their parents’ legacy, can carry their parents’ dreams into the future, even though they are their parents’ best heirs. (Interestingly, both of these movies were made at a time when middle class parents could reasonably expect that their children would live better lives than they did. Perhaps part of the reason why I relate to both Scarlett and Michael is because I’m one of the first generation of Americans in 100 years that can expect to live more insecure, less prosperous lives than our parents did, and so I relate to the futility of their situation.) Scarlett’s first downfall is external, because her whole world catches on fire around her, and her own individual power can’t withstand that. Later on, she’s the manufacturer of her own doom and misery in a much more direct (and inevitable, and sad) way. The seeds of Michael’s failure can be found inside him, in his core where there’s something rotten. If his father hadn’t been shot, if he’d gone on to marry Kate and graduate Dartmouth and go into politics or become a college professor, maybe that core would have remained hidden for longer. But his family was threatened, and once Michael decided to keep it safe, he could never come off the battlements.
Both movies are about the transitions of those characters, the derailing of their lives into something else, and how they both surrender it (to a certain extent) and own it (in another sense). The transition moment in The Godfather is fast. I used to think it was when Michael was eating dinner with Sollazzo and McCluskey–that moment before he shoots them, when the camera does a slow push in on his face, and he’s not blinking and you can see everything coming forward for him, out of his eyes. And Sonny thinks it’s because McCluskey broke Mike’s jaw. But re-watching this weekend, I realized it was earlier than that. After the Don was shot, Michael spends one evening back at the family house, watching Sonny declare war and rage against the other four Families, watching Tom Hagen try to talk him down, watching nobody know what to do. Then he goes to the hospital to visit the Don and realizes that his dad’s about to be killed. Assassinated in the hospital. And he bends over his father and whispers (I think, I should have written it down), “It’s me, it’s Michael. I’m with you now.” He doesn’t say. “I’m here.” He says I’m with you. That’s the moment when Michael changes his entire life, steps in to save his family. The Don’s in danger. Fredo’s not up to it. Sonny’s not up to it. It’s up to him.
Scarlett’s journey is longer, which is something I really respected about the character’s portrayal in Gone With the Wind. She changes over the course of the movie, but also keeps the core of who she is. She doesn’t change enough to save herself by the end. At the beginning, she’s manipulative, doing things for approval, or because it’ll attract a man, and not out of loyalty or duty or friendship. She’s sort of kind of always…empty? When she gets back to Tara, after Atlanta burns, she becomes determined to save it, because it’s her home, it’s Tara. I don’t know if she truly felt bound to Tara before the war, maybe because (as a woman), she would have been expecting to leave her childhood home and join her husband’s plantation–not inherit her father’s. Tara is where she finds her core, and she realizes that it’s the most important thing in her world. She discovers that she’ll kill for it. That she’ll make other people hate and resent her and that’s fine as long as she gets to keep it. Where she starts telling people to do things because they need to be done, not because having power pleases her. Where she starts working herself as hard as she works everyone else. She and Michael both find out what they’re capable of, when their family legacies are threatened.
We think of Scarlett’s transition as the moment when she pulls the carrot or turnip or whatever out of the ground. “I will never be hungry again!” And that’s the turning point, the moment, maybe. But after that–when she sticks to it, when she starts working, when she finds the steel in her spine–that’s a whole process. And she owns it. The war changes her involuntarily, but this is the moment when she chooses to change herself. She could have stayed the same, and in the process, lost everything. Instead she chose to change, in that moment, and while it didn’t fix everything for her–far from it–it gave her enough to get through that particular time.
These movies are obviously about a lot of other things. I haven’t talked about Michael’s abuse of his wife, or the racism and historical revisionism in Gone With the Wind. We haven’t talked about iconic movie lines or Rhett Butler. I haven’t really talked about the books at all, or how both of these movies are better than they have any right to be. Gone With the Wind was made by a director who had never been to the South (and didn’t go to the South until after the movie was completed and he attended the premiere in Atlanta). The Godfather is a story of an immigrant family made by a guy from Michigan. And yet both movies manage to capture something both universally human, and something particular to the times and people whose stories they tell. They’re both movies about bad people that the audience ends up loving and rooting for. But now I’m sitting here thinking about Scarlett O’Hara and Michael Corleone crossing space and time and fictional realities to sit down and have dinner together, and wondering what they would say to each other–if they would know how alike they are.