During the making of The Godfather, the Italian-American Civil Rights League organized protests, because it felt that the film would only reinforce the “Italian equals mobster” stereotype. And, to some extent, of course, it did. As you cite in the book, the Italic Institute of America released a report based on FBI statistics in 2009, stating that only 0.00782 percent of Italian-Americans possessed any criminal associations. And yet, according to a national Zogby poll, 74 percent of the American public believed that Italian-Americans have ties to the mob. Be honest, are you approaching this interview differently knowing my last name is Gambino?
I knew you weren’t a part of the Gambino crime family, but I have to tell you, I got a big smile. I thought, if I can be interviewed by a Gambino about my book about The Godfather, I am very happy.
You argue that The Godfather movies actually squash some stereotypes. Which ones?
Italian-Americans are very sensitive about their image in movies because it has traditionally been so negative, as either mobsters or rather simple-minded peasants who talk-a like-a this-a. I don’t like these stereotypical images, and yet, I love these films so much.
I think the vast majority of Italians have come to accept and actually embrace the film because I think the genius of the film, besides the fact that it is so beautifully shot and edited, is that these are mobsters doing terrible things, but permeating all of it is the sense of family and the sense of love. Where I feel that is completely encapsulated is in the scene toward the end of the first film when Don Corleone [Marlon Brando] and Michael Corleone [Al Pacino] are in the garden. It is really the transfer of power from father to son. Don Corleone has that speech: “I never wanted this for you.” I wanted you to be Senator Corleone. They are talking about horrible deeds. They are talking about transferring mob power. The father is warning the son about who is going to betray him. But you don’t even really remember that is what the scene is about. What you remember is that it is a father expressing his love for his son, and vice versa. That is what comes across in that crucial scene, and that is why I feel that overrides the stereotypical portrayal that others object to.
I think it squashed the idea that Italians were uneducated and that Italians all spoke with heavy accents. Even though Michael is a gangster, you still see Michael as the one who went to college, pursued an education and that Italians made themselves a part of the New World. These were mobsters, but these were fully developed, real human beings. These were not the organ grinder with his monkey or a completely illiterate gangster. It is an odd thing. I think to this day there are still some people who view the Italian as the “other”—somebody who is not American, who is so foreign. In films like Scarface , the Italians are presented almost like creatures from another planet. They are so exotic and speak so terribly and wear such awful clothes. The Godfather showed that is not the case. In the descendant of The Godfather, which is of course “The Sopranos,” once again the characters are mobsters. But they are the mobsters living next door in suburban New Jersey, so it undercuts a bit that sense of Italian as the “other.”
What made the 1970s a particularly interesting backdrop for the release of The Godfather movies?
On the sociological level, we had been facing the twin discouragements of the Vietnam War and Watergate, so it spoke to this sense of disillusionment that really started to permeate American life at that time. I think also the nostalgia factor with the Godfather cannot be underestimated, because in the early ’70s (the first two films were in ’72 and ’74), it was such a changing world. It was the rise of feminism. It was the era of black power. And what The Godfather presented was this look at the vanishing white male patriarchal society. I think that struck a chord with a lot of people who felt so uncertain in this rapidly changing world. Don Corleone, a man of such certainty that he created his own laws and took them into his own hands, appealed to a lot of people.
In the book, you share some behind-the-scenes stories about the filming of the movies, including interactions between the actors and the real-life mafia. What was the best story you dug up about them intermingling?
That was really fun doing all the research on that. We all love a good Hollywood story. I was surprised that somebody like Brando, who was so famously publicity-shy and elusive, actually took the time to meet with a mafia don and show him the set of The Godfather. And that James Caan made such a point of studying the mannerisms of all the mobsters who were hanging around the set. I love that. You see it. Now when I watch the films again, all the gestures, all the details, the hands, the hitching of the pants, the adjusting of the tie, it is all just so smartly observed.