If you asked somebody to name their single favorite character from Francis Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy, it is unlikely they would be able to give a definitive answer without feeling they’ve been forced into a Sophie’s Choice. That said, it is even more unlikely that anybody would even consider – let alone settle on – Kay Adams-Corleone, Michael’s innocuous and long-suffering wife. Serving as the constant off of which we can witness Michael’s decline from all-American war-hero to ruthless Mafia kingpin, Kay is charged with the Great American Crime Saga’s most ostensibly thankless role: that of the moral center and the trilogy’s functional wet blanket. If the first two films have a weak link, many will say it is with Kay and, by association, Diane Keaton’s performance.
But try as many do (both within the Godfather films and among fans) to dismiss Kay as some inconsequential milquetoast, Mario Puzo’s narrative does endow her with a power no other supporting character in the series is capable of wielding: the power to truly hurt Don Corleone. It takes roughly a movie and a half for her to reach that point, but when she finally does, her cut pierces Michael with the kind of agonizing depth not one of his enemies could ever hope to deliver.
I speak of Kay’s shattering revelation in the D.C. hotel room in Part II, which follows Michael’s successful move to get the Senate hearings against the Corleone Family dismissed. As far as the viewer is concerned, it is their final conversation as husband and wife, and is it ever a doozy. Kay, burdened with the years of lies and deceit forced upon her, decidedly has her fill and announces plans to leave Michael. Michael resists this news, naturally, attempting to bargain with Kay by promising to change. Recognizing the hollowness of his pleading, Kay offers up her coup-de-grâce. Take a moment to study that scene (major spoilers, of course).
The acting in this moment conveys, in a manner cruelly lacking in sentiment, what exactly Michael has positioned himself to lose in order to retain power. You see it in the faces of Keaton and Al Pacino, and it is simply dizzying to behold. The Godfather films are frequently defined by their epic scope, their countless unforgettable moments and their surprisingly warm and romantic attitude toward family. But this smaller, harrowing confrontation marks the five coldest minutes the trilogy has to offer. It cements for Michael the irreversible path he has been traversing ever since that fateful night he dined with Virgil Sollozzo and Captain McClusky. It proves that nobody – not even the last person on earth acknowledging his humanity – is willing to remain within his toxic grasp.
What is it about the loss of Kay that markedly dooms Michael? Throughout his tenure as Don Corleone, the tribulations he faces seem endless and insurmountable, yet he surmounts them. He loses both his brothers – one to gang warfare and the other to unforgivable betrayal. He thwarts or survives numerous attempts on his life. He even loses his first wife to an ill-timed car bomb well before his nuptials to his second.
Michael perseveres despite all this, most likely because his expansive power affords him the luxury of recourse in the wake of any setback. Whether through murder, banishment or the ability to buy political muscle, options remain at the Don’s disposal because he knows he’s earned them. Late in Part II, Michael softly tells Tom Hagen, “If history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.” That is more than a broad reassurance to his consigliere. It is a declaration of a ruler’s firm grasp over his empire – a grasp he has no intention of loosening anytime soon.
The irony of this declaration – and the reason it is hard to buy into this subtle flash of machismo – is that it is said in the aftermath of the most crucial defeat of Michael’s life: the loss of his wife, the denial of the second son he had so nakedly desired and the realization that for him there is no out – no recourse at his disposal to undo what has been done. And while it takes a whole third film for him to admit it openly, Michael understands these losses ultimately stem from his own sins. The alienation of his patient wife was only ever a matter of time.
In Kay’s defense, she is a real trooper, and she plays the role of devoted spouse to remarkable lengths. She pined for Michael during his exile (during which, incidentally, he fell in love with another woman). She married him despite breaking his promise never to join the family business. She bore his seed twice, endured invasive Senate hearings, suffered violent assassination attempts and tolerated his transparent lies. More remarkable than her decision to leave Michael is her willingness to have stuck around at all. But as anybody ever in a relationship with somebody they knew was wrong for them will tell you, simply walking away is easier said than done.
Why does Kay tolerate Michael for so long? She is certainly smart enough to see through the feeble barrier he builds between his family life and his Family life. I believe the clues are found in the early scenes the couple share from the first film as well as their venture to the Sicilian countryside in the third film. Between all the lies resonate moments of genuine love and enduring affection. Whether they are bantering about Ingrid Bergman or whether he is begging her to dread him no longer, Michael has a way of making Kay feel needed.
Indeed, Michael truly does need Kay. He selfishly needs her at his side, not only as a reminder of his capacity both to love and to be loved, but as an ever-diminishing beacon of hope that an out from this dark underworld that entangles him still exists. She serves as a steadfast reassurance that the path to a more legitimate and peaceful existence remains within reach. If Kay has any power over Michael in their relationship, it is in her willingness to continue to acknowledge his humanity and his potential for redemption.
This power is what gives that pivotal scene in the D.C. hotel room its impact. In having the power to leave him, the father of Michael’s children emancipates herself from his freefall. In announcing the termination of her pregnancy – and therefore announcing her refusal to perpetuate the Corleone family lineage any further – Kay adds emasculating insult to injury, dashing any hope for reconciliation between the two. The last person in Michael’s life capable of reconciling his sins with his humanity severs herself permanently. That diminishing beacon is extinguished before the scene ends.
This moment informs everything that follows in Part II, from the elimination of Hyman Roth to Michael’s feigned absolution of his brother Fredo. Additionally, it informs that final, lonely shot we are given of Don Corleone, sitting alone on his Lake Tahoe estate. Having reclaimed his grasp over one world entirely at the expense of another, he finds himself at a point where not even his efforts to redeem himself decades later (c.f. Part III) will be enough to garner the peace he desires.
For Michael to sink so beyond humanity, so beyond redemption, all it takes is for one woman – a woman whose marriage was spent standing on the other side of that closed doorway – to finally shut the door on him.