It’s been over a decade since I saw the first Godfather film. This only seems like a big deal because of my age. I look forward to the day when “a decade” isn’t really that long ago. But I remember precisely how it happened. I was looking through the online TV Guide listings and told my mom that The Godfather was going to be on TV that afternoon. My mom had never seen it before and of course, she was curious, it being a famous film and all. I told her I’ve seen clips of it that past Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ apartment–my cousin had brought the box set for casual viewing and flipped to his favorite scenes–and it didn’t interest me to sit in front of the TV for four hours (including commercials) watching an old and potentially boring film. My mom said it didn’t matter if I wanted to watch it or not; she could watch it by herself, anyway. I backed down and eventually watched it with her.
We watched it on that small TV in my bedroom–the only TV we had for a while after our bigger one broke. I was intrigued by the opening scene. And, once the film cuts to the wedding, Al Pacino’s electrifyingly sober performance as Michael Corleone completely held my attention and never let it go. While Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone may leave a legendary impression on anyone who watches The Godfather, Pacino’s Michael has always been the heart and soul of the trilogy.
However, perhaps the most overlooked performance of the trilogy has been Diane Keaton’s performance as Kay Adams. Despite all the famous names people can name from the trilogy (Brando, Pacino, De Niro, Duvall, etc.), Keaton, a star in her own right, often seems to be forgotten from that roster. If Pacino’s performance is the heart and soul, then Keaton’s performance accompanies it, acting as all the veins and arteries that allow Pacino’s heart to beat and break, again and again. I understand I may have pushed it with my high figurative aspirations, but that is, in short, how I feel about Keaton’s Kay, the most fleshed-out, complex female character in a very male-dominated narrative.
And, of course, the stories are male-dominated. The Godfather is about a mafia family–Italian crime families with strong patriarchs and wives who quietly stay at home, cook, and take care of the children. While Michael’s younger sister, Connie Corleone (deliciously played by Talia Shire) may be an uncontrollable torch to be reckoned with, it’s still Kay who, while trapped, breaks traditions in the confines of a very traditional world.
Ever since my love affair with The Godfather began, I was always surprised by the lack of welcomed reception toward the character of Kay. If anyone has ever visited message boards dedicated to the trilogy, there is always some sort of debate on whether or not Michael ever loved Kay, whether or not she was just a wife of convenience, whether or not he wished he could have had his innocent Sicilian first wife, Apollonia instead when he became don. Most people seem to find Kay annoying–the perfect, disgusting example of the nagging cinematic wife, a caricature we all know and hate too well. She’s hated among the usual boys’ club worshipers. She’s certainly not supposed to be eye candy–not to say that Keaton isn’t beautiful in all her quirky glory, but Kay is simply not perceived as such. She’s rarely written about extensively, except for this interesting article on the evolution of Kay’s clothes.
And, that puzzles me. Because, as far as I’m concerned, Kay is the love of Michael’s life. I don’t mean to romanticize things–but the films themselves are romanticized versions of an awful reality, anyway–but that’s how I’ve always seen things. Kay represents what Michael always have wanted, always have tried to hold on to, but can never seem to even get close. That’s just precisely what makes his character a twentieth century Shakespearean tragedy–he’s almost there, but not quite, and never will be.
We first meet Kay at Connie’s wedding within the first few minutes of the first film. She is introduced as Michael is introduced, making her, in the first few minutes, a good reference point as to understanding her wedding date, who will emerge as the most important character in the film. She is undeniably WASPy looking, a rarity in a sea of first- and second- generation Italian-Americans. Michael is shockingly honest with her–he tells her that his father does what he does and he doesn’t intend to be anything like him.
When Michael returns from Sicily and asks Kay to marry him, it is definitely not for the sake of convenience. Michael could have found another nice Italian girl if he wanted to but no, he wants to marry Kay. If he marries Kay, she would remind him of the man he once was and still wants to be. Sure, he may have love Kay for what she represents, but that’s not a good enough reason for him to pull her into his world. He loves Kay and sincerely thinks she’s the woman who can best persuade him back into legitimacy.
Lest we forget, the door closes on her at the end of the first film. Whatever Michael promises her, it has to be put on hold. And of course, we, as the audience, must live in doubt with her. We see Keaton’s unsettled visage as the film ends. We, like her, were merely intruders.
But persuade, she does, indeed. Near of the beginning of the start of Part II, Michael promises a pregnant Kay that he’s trying to legitimize the business. Of course, the violent forces that may be have halted all plans for legitimacy. The Corleones have expanded from New York to Tahoe, right at the rise of the lucrative casino industry. However, as bullets fly through the windows of Michael and Kay’s bedroom, legitimizing the business seem to be even farther from reach.
Halfway through the film, Kay confesses to Michael she had an abortion. Because it was a son. Because she couldn’t bear to allow everything, as it is, to continue on. Michael is enraged. And here lies Kay Adams’ and the film’s tremendous complexity–because we’re shocked by her actions, yet impressed by her courage, but saddened at what happened, or what could have been, or what will be. It’s a horrifying, triumphant, heartbreaking scene.
Kay’s actions don’t merely break the rules of Michael’s world, but it breaks the rules of 1950s society in general. It’s not really about whether or not she’s a feminist, but it’s really about how she still possesses agency that she had before she married him, and always will have. Perhaps she’s exactly the wife Michael wanted her to be when he married her, but instead, turned into the wife he only wishes he wanted her to be.
This is what makes Part II the richer film. Apart from the beautifully composed parallel story lines between the young Vito (a performance so expertly concocted by a young Robert De Niro) and Michael, Michael’s relationships with the people in his life have become increasingly complex and messy. Everything Michael does seem so chillingly rational, yet so morally disgusting. The other characters are the same, but they are surprisingly more sympathetic when compared to the monster Michael has so tragically become.
Despite the crap reception Part III has unfairly endured over the years, it still offers closure to Michael’s story. And it’s the film where Michael’s and Kay’s stories are so intertwined, yet so disparate. The films are a tragedy of contradictions and there is no greater contradiction than Michael’s and Kay’s relationship and all that it insufferably emulates. After all these years, Kay, still the mother to his children, tells him that she can’t stand him, yet she still absolutely cares for him, and he for her. There are scenes where Michael and Kay are in Sicily together and Pacino and Keaton’s chemistry is so engaging. The tug of war that they’ve started over 20 years ago still seem to go on and on, with no end, but it’s apparent that they still love each other–but so what? You can’t change the past, and all the pain and regret that go along with it. Director Francis Ford Coppola even notes in the DVD commentary that Michael and Kay’s relationship parallels the real-life relationship between Pacino and Keaton (the two dated on and off for more than a decade), which makes their scenes together all the more bittersweet.
Kay Adams is a significant force in the trilogy, in a way Apollonia is not, no matter what angle you look at it. Part of that is the writing of her character. Without Kay Adams, perhaps we would have never known Karen Hill or Carmela Soprano or even Jennifer Melfi. Sure, they would have existed, but they would not have been so fully realized. The existence of Kay Adams motioned forth these female characters in the midst of testosterone to be written as more human than wife. And that’s the way it should be.
And, another essential part of it is Keaton’s measured, intelligent performance. Keaton is all too well-known as the quirky, neurotic Woody Allen muse in Annie Hall and Manhattan, or in more recent years, the aging, but still quirky, neurotic Nancy Meyer romantic lead in Something’s Gotta Give. Keaton is undoubtedly just a fantastic comedic actress with impeccable timing, but her penchant for dramatic gravitas has been forgotten in recent years, mainly because she hasn’t starred in a major dramatic vehicle for years. And her performance as Kay proves that that’s a damn shame. What makes Keaton’s performance so special is that it’s oftentimes an understated, introspective performance, intricately compatible to Pacino’s calculated, somber performance. Not to say that Keaton’s performance only exists to exalt Pacino’s. Instead, their mutual presence helps crafts the other’s performance in a way that’s nearly symbiotic and irreplaceable.
What a complex character Kay is, and how great it is that Keaton consistently gives such a mature performance that the character deserves.