The Godfather set the characters in motion, The Godfather Part II fleshed them out, and together, the two films serve as a mosaic of American cinema. And although The Godfather Part II is the superior movie, it needed the foundations set by the first chapter to exhibit the characters at their most perilous, most razor-sharp and most glorious.
The two films centre around the love felt between a father for his children, as one father sets up an empire, only for his son to bring it crumbling down. In its own way, the family serve as a thinly veiled metaphor for America, as one Italian immigrant arrives into the land and an Italian American loses his identity in the land that should offer him closure.
The project was one director Francis Ford Coppola took very personally, and he enlisted several family members to work on the two films. His father worked on the soundtrack, his sister was featured as one of the cast members, and he even used some of his own children as extras in the film.
The Godfather Part II stands as Coppola’s greatest work, showing his country’s history in a series of incendiary set pieces. And the film boasts three career-best performances from Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and John Cazale, all of whom showed themselves for the craftsmen they were.
Ranking ‘The Godfather’ characters in order of greatness:
10. Connie Corleone
Talk about family values, Connie is played by none other than Coppola’s sister, Talia Shire. Indeed, she is the focus of the audience’s attention at the beginning, considering that is her wedding that reunites the Corleone clan together under one roof. True, she has little to do for the rest of the film, except being yelled at, but Connie really comes into her own in The Godfather Part II, where she intercedes on Fredo’s behalf by becoming the mother of the family in the wake of Carmela Corleone’s funeral.
It doesn’t hurt that Shire is naturally beautiful, making her the type of woman men all over America hunger for. By the time we come to the close of the second film, Connie has abandoned the virtues of men to become her own person, taking back the character traits that were denied to her in an abusive marriage. Shire was deservedly nominated for ‘Best Supporting Actress’ at the 1975 Academy Awards.
9. Sonny Corleone
The eldest of the Corleone children, Sonny is also the least suitable to replace Vito in the role of Don, lacking Michael’s smarts, Tom Hagen’s diplomacy or Fredo’s natural abilities to befriend people. His desire to fight people is also the reason for his downfall, and he’s murdered by the family gang he swore to take down.
Sonny was played by James Caan, although Robert De Niro was also in the running for the part. As it happened, Caan proved the worthier choice, but De Niro impressed Coppola enough to bag the role of young Vito in The Godfather Part II. More of that as we go along.
8. Peter Clemenza
If you’re a Suits fan, you might recall the moment where Mike Ross tries to trick Harvey Specter with a reference to The Godfather, only for the lawyer to catch onto the trick. That a side character in The Godfather should make such an impact on the world of pop culture just shows what an assured movie The Godfather is.
Clemenza appears in the flashbacks in The Godfather Part II, but he was also supposed to play the role that was re-written for Frankie Pentangelli. According to Coppola, Richard S. Castellano made the unreasonable demand to have someone else write his dialogue, so the character was written out during the later sequences. But Bruno Kirby does quite nicely as the young Clemenza, showing that he and Corleone started off as partners, before becoming mafia lords.
7. Hyman Roth
Lee Strasberg was one of three actors nominated for Best Supporting Actor for The Godfather Part II. Nominally an acting coach of high repute, Strasberg had few film credits to his name, but he’s feisty as Roth, the Jewish mobster who sees Michael Corleone as equal parts threat and successor.
In one blinding moment, Roth tears into the Corleone family, feeling that their tactics cost him the life of his closest friend, Moe Greene. The scene is written with turbocharged energy, and Roth is excellent, lighting up the frame with a genuine sense of anger. For once, even Al Pacino is silent.
6. Tom Hagen
The black sheep of the family, Tom Hagen is Sicilian only by circumstance, and can never truly claim to be part of the family. Instead, he acts as a close adviser, aiding both Dons with their exploits, whether it’s taking down a film producer, or bringing a senator to his senses. As can be seen in The Godfather Part II, Hagen can be ruthless, and likely ordered the killing of an escort in order to have dirt on a politician.
Hagen is played by Robert Duvall, who worked with Coppola on The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. Arguably the most accomplished of the leading men, Duvall has turned up in a number of diverse features but claims he never regretted turning down The Godfather Part III. “There are two or three other actors in that film being paid more than I was offered,” Duvall said in 1990. “That just isn’t right.”
5. Frankie Pentangelli
For those of you unversed in Latin or Greek, Frankie’s surname translates as “Five Angels”, which is ironic, considering that luck is definitely not on his side. He survives not one, but two, assassination attempts, and when he agrees to out Michael Corleone as the gangster he is, Pentangelli is foiled by someone much closer to home; his brother.
The part was originally pencilled for Richard S.Castellano, who was going to reprise the role of Clemenza, but Michael V. Gazzo proves a more than worthy replacement. Consider the courtroom scene as he recognises the errors of his ways- that moment alone guaranteed Gazzo the academy award nomination.
4. Kay Adams-Corleone
Diane Keaton stars as Kay, the emotional linchpin and sole voice of reason in a world of madness and violence. In her own way, Kay shows her agency by aborting the son who could very well have replaced Michael Corleone in the family business. She represents the women in the audience, now growing bored of the men who they were supposed to serve incontrovertibly.
Keaton went on to star in Annie Hall, but she recalled the first two Godfather films with tremendous fondness. “It was very moving but it was also very sad because a lot of people aren’t with us anymore,” Keaton said. “You know John Cazale? He was one of Al Pacino’s closest friends and he was kind of a mentor to everyone on set. Richard Castellano as well – he was a genius.” At least they were immortalised on film.
3. Vito Corleone
Until 2019, this was the ultimate pub quiz question: Who is the only character to win two Oscars in two completely different categories? These days, you would have to include Batman’s nemesis The Joker (which bagged a supporting award for Heath Ledger and a leading man win for Joaquin Phoenix), but for the best part of 50 years, the gong belonged to Vito Corleone alone.
Marlon Brando plays the older mobster, while Robert De Niro shows the mobster finding his way. Of the two performances, De Niro is probably the more noteworthy, considering that he shows the character growing from Italian hustler to mafia titan over the space of 50 minutes, but Brando is also stellar, particularly when he looks over the corpse of a child he once held.
2. Fredo Corleone
Three men were nominated for ‘Best Supporting Actor’ in 1975, yet John Cazale was inexplicably looked over. He plays the ineffably charming, yet decidedly weak-willed, Fredo who can barely conceal his resentment towards his younger brother who pays his wages. Cazale is excellent, especially during the “I’m your older brother” exchange that seals Fredo’s fate.
As you may discern from this article, The Godfather Part II is this writer’s favourite American film, and it’s hard to pick apart any faults within the film’s herculean 200 minute run time. But Fredo’s death during the final transcends the film from masterful cinema into Shakespearian cinema, aided by a performance that makes our number one spot.
1. Michael Corleone
It sounds inconceivable now, but the executives did not want Al Pacino to play Michael Corleone. He was too new, he was too inexperienced, he wasn’t what audiences expected from a leading man. Well, he silenced them in The Godfather and made their mouths drop with The Godfather Part II. No one has ever looked so vulnerable or wounded in a closing shot, but Pacino felt comfortable enough in his abilities to close the second entry with a startling shot of him by a lake, his sins multiplying before his weary eyes.
I could go on about Pacino’s performance, but that would take the word count of the entire article, so I’ll simply point to three other points in the film. First is the moment where he shouts out that he was attacked in his home, where his children play with their toys. Second is his reaction to Kay’s admission that she has killed the child that he was set to hold in his hands. And in between these passages comes the “I know it was you, Fredo”, as a brother sees his sibling for the traitor he has always been.
For Pacino, the part of Michael Corleone became something of an albatross, but it shouldn’t have been. What other actor has shown such commitment, restraint, rage and vulnerability in a mainstream film?