Lear in a Chalk-Striped Suit

December 30, 1990|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON — Washington--HOLIDAYS are for families, so it is fitting that this season we revisit the Corleones. ''Godfather III'' is about family values. And because movies mirror American values, it is an occasion for taking stock, and a couple of aspirin.

Director Francis Ford Coppola was reluctant to make ''Godfather III'' and he was right. Driven to do it under financial duress, he produced a dragging spectacle in which a pope gets poisoned and a helicopter gunship strafes an Atlantic City casino. It is an iron law of Hollywood: Preposterous events and special effects proliferate when ideas are depleted.

But the hold the Godfather saga has on America's imagination reflects several ideas.

Once upon a time, the cowboy was the cinematic symbol of American admiration for untrammeled individualism. Then the cowboy came to town, as a private eye, often operating outside the law, but achieving justice. Then came the Corleones, urban cowboys with a difference. Theirs is a story of crime painted on a canvas with heroic proportions, a Shakespearean family, royal in its way.

In Mario Puzo's 1969 novel that began all this, we learn that during World War II Don Corleone (Lear in a chalk-striped suit, destined to have trouble with the kids) was shown a Life magazine story about his son Michael's heroic deeds. The Don responded disdainfully: ''He performs these miracles for strangers.'' That is all there is: family and strangers. So much for society.

From the novel's epigraph by Balzac -- ''Behind every great fortune there is a crime'' -- to the story's signature line -- ''I'll make him an offer he can't refuse'' -- the moral of the story is clear. It is that in a society of really rugged individualism, the line between crime and commerce (it could have been a Corleone, not Coolidge, who said ''the business of America is business'') is of slight moral significance.

Puzo's Mafioso (''men who refused to accept the rule of organized society, men who refused the dominion of other men . . . who guarded their free will with wiles and murder'') meet in a bank for a peace conference beneath a portrait of Alexander Hamilton. The great Treasury secretary ''might have approved of this peace meeting being held in a banking institution. Nothing ,, was more calming, more conducive to pure reason, than the atmosphere of money.'' Hurray for Hollywood.

Movies began to preach a peculiar moralism when the baby boomers appeared at the box office. In an essay titled ''Whatever Happened to Doris Day?'' (in a volume ''Beyond the Boom''), Bruce Bawer notes that boomers are cynical about everything except the wonderfulness of themselves.

Hollywood flattered them, most successfully with ''The Graduate'' (1967), in which Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) was presented as soulful because he did not cotton to a career in plastics. Benjamin had better things in mind (lolling in the pool built by dad's contemptible industriousness; daydreaming about Mrs. Robinson).

''Easy Rider'' (1969), about the romance of drug smuggling, ostensibly celebrated independence but encouraged imitation. Boomers, writes Mr. Bawer, were shallow about important things but deadly serious about frivolous things, and flocked to ''Easy Rider'' not for mere entertainment but for moral tutoring. It became a primer on politically correct attitudes toward life.

Like turn-of-the-century naturalistic novelists, many boomers, writes Mr. Bawer, equated truth with sordidness, brutality, inarticulateness. In 1969, the X-rated ''Midnight Cowboy'' (male prostitution) won the Oscar for best picture. ''One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'' (1975) suggested that the real lunatics were running the asylum (society). Politicians (''The Candidate,'' 1972) were plastic, the government was criminal (''Three Days of the Condor,'' 1975). It was acceptable to make a movie about a great man like Mozart (''Amadeus,'' 1984) if he was portrayed as a ninny.

But gangsters were the preferred expressions of America's busted moral compass, beginning with ''Bonnie and Clyde'' (1967, Benjamin's year). In the first two Godfather epics (1972, 1974), the fascination with organized crime was unmistakably tinged with admiration for its organization.

Gangster novels and movies supposedly serve as correctives for American cheerfulness, a salutary reminder of life's dark side. But skip ''Godfather III'' and see ''Goodfellas,'' this year's winner of the best-picture award from New York and Los Angeles critics.

This true story of small-beer mobsters from the 1950s to the 1980s, from criminal squalor to the witness-protection program, it is a corrective to the corrective. The moral of its story is not that America is criminal or is even the ''root cause'' of crime, but that the cause of organized crime is criminals, who like the life.

What an idea. Perhaps Hollywood, having exhausted the alternatives, had no choice but to try the truth.

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