by Tony Dayoub
In a movie with a powerhouse ensemble cast like Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, it is easy to overlook some of the supporting performances. The film has been covered extensively here, as well as in other publications. My own initial take on it focused on its two stars, Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, and their father-son dynamic. But Talia Shire's underrated performance as the youngest Corleone Constanza, or Connie, is a ferocious performance that instantly grounds the movie in the cultural realities of the Italian family.
Director Coppola, Shire's brother, uses her to give the movie its authenticity. Using his own family quirks as the basis for many of the Corleone's ethnic eccentricities (Connie's walk through her wedding reception, collecting checks for her bridal purse), Coppola directs Shire to flavor her speech with Sicilian colloquialisms, like in the argument with Carlo midway through the film, where she yells, "Va fangul!" And the New Yawk accent she adopts for the movie grounds the film in the urban milieu it so richly examines.
Consider also that it is through the portal of Connie's wedding to Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo) that the viewer first enters the world of the Corleone family and its criminal enterprise. The first half hour uses her wedding to immerse us in the family's colloquial expressions (Paulie's unsubtitled Italian asides), its traditions (Mama Corleone's singing at her daughter's wedding), its inner tensions (the dalliance between James Caan's Sonny and a bridesmaid... under the watchful eye of his wife). It also sets up the conflict between its social obligations and its criminal ones. Don Corleone (Brando) is required to listen to and act on all requests made of him on the day of his daughter's wedding. Sonny reacts explosively at the intrusion of FBI surveillance on his sister's special day. Don Barzini (Richard Conte) destroys a photo negative because he fears the picture will show he was present at his rival's party. All of this sets up the drama to unfold in the film, and Connie is seemingly oblivious to the depth of corruption in her family.
This sets up Connie as one of the barometers by which we measure the growing taint on the Corleones. If she is ignorant of her family's corrupt dealings at the film's start, Shire begins to show us that this is not entirely true. When Carlo beats her in the previously mentioned argument, he accuses her of hiding behind her family's reputation for violence. Indeed she calls her most reactionary brother, Sonny, after the beating, knowing that he'll probably explode in a rage and demolish Carlo. Connie is also aware enough to know that when Carlo disappears, it is probably her Machiavellian brother, Michael (Pacino) that is responsible. This instance makes her confront the depth of corruption that her family is truly involved in and she breaks down, unable to cope. As we'll learn in subsequent films, she slowly comes to terms with the knowledge, first by taking advantage of the family's wealth and power in Part II, and later by becoming even more calculated than her brother in Part III.
The Godfather screens tonight at 8:30 p.m. at the 5th Annual Robert Osborne's Classic Film Festival. Host Fred Willard will discuss the film after the screening with his guest, Talia Shire. All films screen at the Classic Center, 300 N. Thomas Street, Athens, GA 30601, (706) 208-0900 or (800) 918-6393.