In Defense of Kay Corleone
Almost as iconic as their volatile and immortalized husbands, the “mob wife” in fiction is a role characterized by tradition and loyalty in the face of violence and infidelity. They’re the unsung pillars of Cosa Nostra, working behind the scenes to help their husbands save face toward “legitimate” society. From Carmela Soprano to Karen Hill, mob wives are adjacent to power but never truly have any for themselves, in some cases, not knowing what world they’re agreeing to be part of through their marital unions until it’s too late. Perhaps the most well-known and also vilified example of this is Kay Corleone, the second wife of The Godfather’s Michael Corleone. Portrayed in the film trilogy by Diane Keaton, whose talent cannot be overstated, she’s an outsider to the family and traditions, trying desperately to convince herself that Michael can once again become the charming young war hero she initially fell in love with at Dartmouth, rather than the jaded mafia boss she married. Kay is characterized by her relationship to Michael pre- and post- his exile to Sicily, their marriage, and her depictions in The Godfather films and novel. For such a wonderfully complex character, she receives much ire from fans of The Godfather franchise, particularly from other women.
In The Godfather (1972), Kay Adams is introduced to the viewer as prodigal son Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) date to his sister Connie’s (Talia Shire) wedding. Kay is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed New England WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), a stark contrast to the dark hair and olive complexions of the Sicilian-American Corleones. She’s thrilled to be at the wedding and excited to finally meet Michael’s family. When Michael insists that Kay be in the family photo with him, it solidifies how serious their relationship has become. His family seems to like Kay well enough upon first meeting her, and she’s amused by the seemingly outlandish stories Michael tells about them and their associates. When Michael tells Kay “It’s my family…not me,” she has no reason not to believe him.
Not mentioned in the film, Kay and Michael meet in college classes at Dartmouth, with she majoring in education and he in history, quickly becoming sweethearts. Their college romance is shaken by the attack on Pearl Harbor and Michael’s decision to join the Marines, but the two remain in touch, reconnecting after Michael returns to the United States after being injured in action. Michael’s attraction to Kay is genuine, but he’s also enamored by how opposite she is to everything his family is, everything he’s trying not to be. Apart from bringing Kay to Connie’s wedding, Michael tries to keep Kay away from his family, particularly the family business, trekking into Manhattan to go on dates there rather than bring her to the Corleone compound on Long Island. Prior to his exile to Sicily, Michael and Kay’s relationship is filled with genuine happiness, spontaneity and hope for the future.
Of course, the honeymoon period doesn’t last forever, as Michael decides to take revenge for the attempt on his father Vito’s (Marlon Brando) life after a failed business deal with heroin trafficker Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri). Knowing the immense backlash that will result from his killing police Captain Mark McClusky (Sterling Hayden) as well as Sollozzo, Michael tells Kay he doesn’t know when they’ll be able to see each other again. He enacts his revenge, and flees to Sicily for about a year. Not shown in the films, Michael sends a letter to Kay, written before he kills McClusky and Sollozzo, but she only receives it after he is in Sicily. While staying with her family in New England, Kay is questioned by the police if she knows anything about the killings and if she’s heard from Michael or knows where he is. She lies, saying she knows nothing and hasn’t heard from Michael in weeks.
When Michael returns from Sicily, he’s broken after his first wife, Apollonia’s (Simonetta Stefanelli) death. Jaded, bitter and finally at peace with his place in the family business, Michael decides to return to Kay after a year of silence between them. They’re both broken in different ways upon their reuniting, but they both seem to bounce back a bit, though never to their former selves. Michael approaches his marriage to Kay more transactionally than romantically, seeming to know that her prior devotion and love for him will secure her loyalty and support as a wife. In the novel, Michael and Kay get married in New England with only Kay’s family present, the last time Kay and Michael’s relationship is in any way separated from the Corleones.
Again in the novel, Kay blossoms into her mafia wifehood, much to Michael’s surprise. While she doesn’t initially convert to Catholicism, she agrees to raise their children Catholic. They have two children in succession, with Michael commenting that she’s more Sicilian than WASP in that regard. Kay has a close relationship with the other Corleone women, particularly Connie. Kay expresses concern and confusion toward Connie’s relationship with Carlo. Kay knows the other men in the family don’t trust Carlo and that he was previously abusive toward Connie, and doesn’t understand why Connie remains so loyal to and infatuated with him.
Interestingly, in The Godfather novel, Kay has frequent conversations with her mother-in-law, Carmela, portrayed by Morgana King in the films, which reveal much more about the Corleone family’s inner workings and the role the women in the family play. Carmela seems to have a bit of disdain for her husband, Vito, which she doesn’t express in his presence or the presence of their children, but trusts Kay enough to discuss it with her, perhaps because she knows Kay will end up taking up the mantle of the don’s wife. When Kay asks Carmela why she goes to Mass everyday, since it isn’t a requirement for Catholics, Carmela responds she doesn’t go for herself, but for Vito, to pray for his soul and that God doesn’t send him to hell despite the mortal sins he’s committed. This seems to deeply affect Kay, who begins to feel that weight on her own shoulders in regard to Michael. After Vito’s death and Carlo’s murder, Connie acusses Michael of orchestrating it, which Kay refuses to believe. Though not expanded on in the film, when she sees Michael with the Corleone family’s caporegimes, she realizes that Connie was right and flees back to her parents’ house in fear. Coaxed by Tom, she reluctantly returns to the Corleone compound. She converts to Catholicism, taking up the practice of attending daily Mass to pray for her husband’s damned soul.
By The Godfather Part II (1974), which takes place ten years after the end of the first film, Kay is exhausted and fed up with Michael’s empty promises and the life she has to raise their children in. The content of the novel ends with the end of the first film, with the only aspect of the novel included in the second film being Vito’s childhood and rise to becoming the head of one of the “Five Families.” Therefore, Michael and Kay’s relationship in Part II can only be characterized by the events of the film (Although sequels to the The Godfather novel have been published which also cover aspects of their relationship, these were not authored by Mario Puzo and were published decades after the novel’s and films’ original releases).
The tension between Michael and Kay rises after the attempt on his life by Johnny Ola (Dominic Chianese), an associate of a businessman/part-time mobster, Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), who Michael’s trying to enter a business partnership with. While Michael flees from the Corleone compound in Nevada for the safety of his family and to find out who took out the hit on him, Kay is left at the compound with her children and dozens of security guards who prowl the grounds in search of potential trouble. Kay’s a trapped animal, unable to leave her home to go out for groceries. She’s left to deal with her motherly responsibilities and her third pregnancy by herself.
As much of the global population has experienced over the past nearly two years, being stuck in one place for an extended amount of time can lead to restlessness and discontentment toward one’s situation. It’s overwhelming and makes one feel powerless, particularly when having to deal with typical responsibilities while not having access to the resources that make those responsibilities easy or even possible to fulfill. Kay’s dealing with this for weeks on end, without the support of her husband and growing resentment toward the Corleone family “business” leads to the caged animal attacking its captor in a desperate bid for freedom.
When Michael returns from Cuba, having discovered his brother Fredo had coordinated the attempt on his life and narrowly escaping an attack on the presidential palace by revolutionaries, Kay greets him with silence. He finds out from Tom that Kay miscarried, but in a scathing fight where much of the general public’s animosity toward Kay stems from, she reveals that she had an abortion, not wanting to have another child with Michael and be further trapped in the Corleone family. In one of the most harrowing lines to be spoken on the silver screen, Kay declares their marriage “an abortion, something disgusting and unholy.” In a rage, Michael hits Kay, and she’s banished from the compound, forbidden to see her children. Connie, who hasn’t had the best relationship with her children or the rest of the Corleones following Carlo’s murder at the end of The Godfather, sympathizes with Kay, and sneaks her in to see Mary and Anthony when Michael isn’t around.
For Kay, a woman with close to no autonomy, her deliberately having an illegal abortion is no doubt a desperate act, but a powerful one, utilizing the thing she feels like Michael values her for to gain a disturbing upperhand in their doomed relationship. She tells Michael that she wanted to do something so unforgivable that he’d no longer make any attempts to placate her with yet another broken promise. She takes away a potential heir to the Corleone family business, without his consent or knowledge, which is ultimately what enrages Michael, who’s used to exercising control over Kay without question. Kay also views the abortion as an act of mercy, saving their future child from having to grow up surrounded by violence and encouraged to go down the same criminal path as the rest of his family.
By the third film, Kay and Michael have been divorced for over a decade, with Kay having remarried but seeming to have divorced her second husband. Some time after the end of the second film, Michael granted Kay custody of their children, a reversal of his decision to take sole custody after their divorce. Kay also reveals that she knows that Michael had Fredo murdered, one of Michael’s biggest regrets. When the two spend time in Sicily together before their son Anthony’s (Franc D’Ambrosio) opera debut, they admit that they still love each other.
Kay’s personal complexities reflect that of the world she lives in, a labyrinth of contradictions, secrets and vendetta. For as much as people may advocate for realistic, imperfect women characters in books and film, when they’re given one, they vilify her for being such. From Tumblr confession blogs to Twitter group chats, Godfather fans, particularly women fans, cannot stand Kay Corleone. There’s no denying Al Pacino is extremely handsome as Michael Corleone, but this seems to cloud the judgement of fans when considering Kay as a character, for she’s been baselessly accused of racism (even though Sicilian-Americans are not a race) because she might have looked at a character oddly in a scene, to being shrill and annoying for her determination to find out if Michael is okay during his exile to Sicily. Oddly, many of these same fans like Michael’s first wife, Apollonia, perhaps because she never challenged or resented Michael as Kay did (then again, she never got the chance to develop into a complex character with flaws and failings).
When comparing on a base level the actions of Michael and Kay throughout the series, it’s obvious Michael’s sins outweigh Kay’s, yet that’s not the point to take away from their relationship. Once Kay realizes the nature of her family’s lifestyle, she’s rightfully horrified and disturbed, yet she can’t just leave when she wants to, the culture of the 1940s certainly wasn’t forgiving to divorced women and single mothers, but this is only amplified as her husband has access to unimaginable money, power and resources. As such, she needs to learn how to play the game to get out of it, which is something her husband can never do as much as he may want to. Michael’s killing Sollozzo and McClusky essentially sentences him to his own hell, and after brutally losing Apollonia, is determined to keep Kay there as well, not expecting her to find a way to claw herself out in such a way that, in his eyes, makes her worse than he.
Strangely, audiences do not seem to sympathize with Kay or acknowledge the complexities of the decisions she had to carefully make to free herself of her husband. Instead, many seem to side with Michael. Of course, he is the main character of the franchise and the films follow perhaps only his father Vito as much as him, so viewers have had more time to understand Michael as a complicated character than Kay. Yet both casual and enthusiastic fans of The Godfather franchise and film in general would do well to take the greater context of the culture and historical era in which she made the decisions that she did, admiring her as a morally gray, well-written character as much as Michael.