For some reason, I’m a complete sucker for the gloss-on-dross lessons of sexy Sicilian gangland flicks.
About four years ago, I finally forced myself to read Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel, which was adapted to the big screen in 1972. I’d been putting off reading it since I picked it up — mostly for the respectable black hardcover — for 25 cents at a library book sale some years before.
It took about six pages to become totally engrossed, and I literally didn’t put the book down for two days straight. I read it while cooking. I read it in the bathroom. I read it at work. I tried to read it while driving, but that didn’t work out too well.
If you’ve never seen the movie (sinner), then we can’t be friends. But here’s a brief summary: New York Mafia boss Vito Corleone is gunned down by a rival Sicilian family because he refused to fund a venture into the narcotics trade. His eldest son, Santino, wants to take revenge. His middle son, Fredo, is too deep in shock to do anything. His youngest son, Michael, wants nothing to do with Vito’s criminal lifestyle.
But Michael is the one who ultimately takes vengeance against his father’s attacker, and he is forced to flee to Italy to seek refuge from the law. When he returns years later, Michael feels he has no choice but to assume his father’s role at the head of the family. His naivety is stripped away and he becomes his father’s more ruthless, vigilant incarnation.
It’s an amazing story, and I tried to sidestep a whole mess of spoilers about who lives, who dies, who betrays The Family, and how Michael comes to grips with his destiny. In some ways, The Godfather is almost a western, showing how some men utterly scoff at the idea of rule by any law other than power.
I only have one problem: I’ve read this book three times now, mostly using the huge stars of the Francis Ford Coppola movie as the characters in my imagination. This last time I read through, though, I’ve found myself supplanting Al Pacino, James Caan, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, and the rest of the Coppola cast for more recent actors.
I feel dirty. But flow with me here and I’ll try to explain who I would envision in a modern recasting of the film:
- Vito Corleone
1972: Marlon Brando
2008: Alfred Molina
Nobody will ever have Brando’s nasal Italian drone, understated power, or screen presence. But Molina has the capacity to be evil and sympathetic, which when reduced to its core components is what The Godfather is all about. He’s about the right age and physique to play the wizened head of the family, and he has a commanding demeanor about him, even when playing ridiculous roles like Doctor Octopus.
- Michael Corleone
1972: Al Pacino
2008: Mark Ruffalo
He’s done some dreadful romantic comedies (13 Going on 30, anyone?), but with a beard and some crow’s feet, Ruffalo could pull off Michael’s reluctant gravitas. He’s proven he’s more than a handsome face with his roles in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Zodiac, and I think he has the capacity for someone cold and brutal as Michael must become.
- Santino Corleone
1972: James Caan
2008: Brad Garrett
Roll with me here. Garrett’s sitcom acting is genuinely bad. But the man is towering, and I think he could be apishly scary as hell with a .45 strapped under his arm and a deathly oath of vengeance against a rival family. Imagine him bearing down on you with a scowl. Give the man a chance to show he’s something other than a hack comedian and I guarantee he’ll scare the crap out of you as a true-blood Sicilian.
- Fredo Corleone
1972: John Cazale
2008: Giovanni Ribisi
Ribisi is always good, even when he’s in bad films (The Mod Squad). He’s edgy enough to be a mobster but boyish enough to be shocked into incompetence when Sollozo has Vito shot. Fredo is taken out of the picture pretty early in The Godfather, but comes back in The Godfather II as a cretinous boot-licker to a Las Vegas hotelier. Craven is something I think Ribisi could pull off well.
- Tom Hagen
1972: Robert Duvall
2008: Gabriel Byrne
The adopted Irish son of Vito Corleone, Hagen is the Don’s consiglieri, his chief adviser. He’s also The Family’s chief legal muscle. Byrne (whom I remember best for The Usual Suspects) might be a little too old to play a contemporary to Vito’s blood sons, like he is in the original, but he has the right intelligence in his eyes and slick bravado for the roll, I think.
- Luca Brasi
1972: Lenny Montana
2008: Stanley Tucci
He’s nowhere old or muscularly bloated as his 1972 counterpart, but I think Tucci has the capacity to be one scary mofo. Brasi is Vito’s loyal assassin, a one-man army working in the shadows and striking enough fear into rival families to keep them in line. Tucci, when he’s not playing a gay guy (The Devil Wears Prada), can be hard. Think his bad-guy-cop in Lucky Number Slevin but silent and apathetic about death.
- Virgil Sollozzo
1972: Al Lettieri
2008: Armand Assante
He’s already been in Gotti and Hoffa, so if you can forget Judge Dredd, then we have a ringer. Assante can come off as indifferently dangerous, cool on the outside but ready to erupt and spew violence at any moment. He also has a somewhat exotic look that could work given Sollozzo’s nickname of “The Turk.”
Rounding out the supporting cast, I would probably give the role of Michael’s all-American wife, Kay Adams, to Jennifer Connelly. She’s just pin-up-girl-pretty enough and has a bit of 1940s glamor without being outright gorgeous.
The part of Hollywood producer Jack Woltz — the one who wakes up with a horse’s head in his bed in the famous scene — would go to J.K. Simmons. That’s right, good ol’ J. Jonah Jamison. He’s just brusque jerk enough.
Carlo Rizzi, the angry wife-beater who marries Michael’s sister, would go to Vincent D’Onofrio. He has just the right mix of crazy and wrathful to really make you hate him. And we could give the role of Corleone mercenary boss Clemenza to Dennis Farina and toadie Paulie Gatto to Joe Pantaliano.
Well, there. I hope that list pissed off a great many film and book buffs. Feel free to post your own ideas.