Monday, August 15, 2011

Your Godfather Glossary

As hard as it may be to believe (and it certainly is for me), 2012 will mark the 40th anniversary of the release of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather.

Before this landmark film, almost no one had ever heard of Pacino, or Caan, and Brando was considered box office poison after his eccentricities had begun to outweigh the profitability of his films.

Just before he transformed himself into author Mario Puzo's fictional Don Vito Corleone, Brando made a movie called The Nightcomers, a prequel to the Henry James classic “Turn of the Screw.”

Ever hear of it? That's what I mean.

Besides resurrecting or sparking the careers of a generation of Italian-American actors (plus Robert Duvall as Irish/German adopted Corleone, Tom Hagen). The movie became more than a movie. It became part of our lives.

It was almost as if Clemenza's adult education course, “Basics of the Whack 101,” (“I left the gun noisy. That way it scares any pain-in-the-ass innocent bystanders away.”) or Vito's last tango among the tomato plants were imbedded into our own memories.

Where women (and some men) have Gone With the Wind; men (and some women) have The Godfather.

And a major effect of a movie that weaves itself into the culture is that it can change that culture forever. That is indisputably the case with The Godfather, as evidenced by how many lines from the film became part of the American English lexicon.

So as a service to the younger readers, who may have only a vague notion of what these expressions mean or where they originated, (and to beat the 40-year anniversary rush) I offer just a few examples of terms that were either invented or changed by the film:

“I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse.”
Vito's answer when family friend singer/actor Johnny Fontane tells him that getting the part in the movie that he wants is impossible, because the head of the studio hates him.

Before the Don tossed off these words (and we saw what he meant a short time later in a little incident with a horse's head), “an offer you can't refuse” was usually a good thing. It meant that something almost too good to be true was offered. Maybe free tickets to a ballgame or a sublet to a rent controlled apartment.

After, and forever since, any benign meaning was completely lost. The most common reaction to hearing this sentence these days is to pack up the loved ones, change your identity and skip town.

“Leave the gun; take the canoli.”
Pete Clemenza to Rocco, after they have killed Paulie for conspiring with Sollozzo in an unsuccessful attempt to have the Don killed.

Loyal Corleone capo Clemenza was always teaching. Here he sets priorities for a whack done in a professional manner. Even four decades later, very few of us can hear the word “canoli” without thinking of this scene. Go ahead, try it next time the word pops up.

Also, when asked by Sonny later how Paulie was, Pete uttered the immortal words, “Oh, Paulie … won't see him no more.”

“Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”
Clemenza explains that Luca's bulletproof vest, delivered with a deceased fish inside, means that Vito's most loyal soldier is dead.

Note how much better this sounds than the more common “sleeps with the fish” would. Maybe that's why it's caught on so extensively. Today you can hear people use the phrase in ways that Clemenza would never have dreamed.

“Remember our Science teacher, Mr. Linden? I just heard he sleeps with the fishes.”

“That promotion I was up for? Looks like it sleeps with the fishes.”

“Who ate that pie I was saving in the fridge??!!”
“Oh, that pie sleeps with the fishes.”

… and even “We went away on vacation and now little Tommy's goldfish sleeps with the fishes.”

“Today I settled all family business.”
Michael to his brother-in-law Carlo, who he knows set up Sonny's execution for the Barzini family.

“Settling all family business” has become a colorful (and slightly ominous) way of saying that you're not taking any more crap about the subject at hand. This might be anything from:

A literal interpretation: “Today I settle all family business. I want a divorce, you take the kids and I'm moving to Marlon Brando's old island near Tahiti.”

To managing the Washington Nationals: “Today I settle all family business, Ankiel is back to pitching, Werth shaves and it's three hours of infield practice every day.”

“I hope that their first child is a masculine child.”
A nervous, tongue-tied Luca Brasi to Vito Corleone at his daughter's wedding.

It might be politically incorrect these days to hope for one gender over the other, but Luca was what you might call old school. You would think that he meant to wish the Godfather a grandson, and just mixed up “masculine” with “male” or “boy.” But even when he was rehearsing he said “masculine” … so it seems like he was wishing the Don a Sonny-like grandson as opposed to a Fredo-like one.

This quote is guaranteed to get you a laugh and a pat on the back when spoken to any fan of the movie who is expecting a child or grandchild.

“Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me.”
Vito Corleone to Bonasera the undertaker, who wants revenge for his daughter's brutal beating.

Did anybody really think that day would never come? But how the undertaker evened the score is one of the most touching scenes in the film. Not by stashing a body. Not by switching corpses, as Bonasera must surely have expected.

Instead, Don Corleone tearfully asks him to use his skills on Sonny's body after he's been shot about a hundred times, so his mother doesn't have to see him like that.

“You've gotta get up close like this and bada-bing, you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit!”
Sonny explaining to Michael that killing Sollozzo and police Captain McCluskey won't be like killing people from far away in a war.

The strip club in The Soprano's wasn't named the “Bada-Bing” by accident. Whether that expression was an Italian thing, or a New York thing or a mob thing … now it's an all-over-the-world thing.

It translates to something like “voila!” or “there you have it”! defines it as “an expression used to suggest that something can be done with no difficulty or delay.”

So today you can hear statements like:

“Sure, my brother gives dance lessons on the side. Just call him up and bada-bing, you're doing Swan Lake by Friday.”

Or …

“Vote for me for U.S. Senate, and I promise that bada-bing, you get a balanced budget ... no questions asked.”

Of course, these are just a very few of the quotes you'll recognize the next time you see the movie. There are quite a few to be found in The Godfather II, as well. But take my advice, and skip the third installment if you love the first two.

I say that for many reasons, but the easiest to explain is that when Coppola could not convince Robert Duvall to reprise his role as Tom Hagen in the third film, he brought in a new character played by … George Hamilton.

I think that's all you need to know.