One family’s Yuletide saga
This is the story of The Great DeVore Family Christmas Tragedy of 1990.
I have never told it before. It is a sad story that, nonetheless, teaches a valuable life lesson and that lesson is this: Don’t get your hopes up. In this miserably short and often beautiful life, we must all strive to keep our hopes sideways. It is for the best.
This story ends in tears but it begins with laughter, joy, and all of the happy emotions we associate with the holiday season.
First, the main characters. My father. He was a man who loved Christmas, cigars, and walking around the house in his underwear, which embarrassed me deeply. It was his house, however, and he liked to be comfortable. Next, my mother. She, also, loved Christmas. She was an artist and every year would transform the house into a “Winter Wonderland,” or “Santa’s Workshop” or “The Land of 1,000 Baby Jesuses.” She could, with a snap of her fingers, conjure plates of cookies and pies and Mexican hot cocoa, like a Christmas Witch.
Then there was my older sister, Wendy, who was very funny and very scary. I would always laugh at her jokes, even when they weren’t funny. Once, we played a game where she was the boss and I was her assistant and then the game never ended. Finally, there was my younger brother, Chris, who had the misfortune of being born last and, therefore, never got to have an opinion on anything. Luck of the draw, I suppose.
America forgets so much because it’s much more expensive to remember.
We were a family that was mad about Christmas. My parents had grown up with meager Christmases, so they dedicated their adulthoods to really putting on a production. America forgets so much because it’s much more expensive to remember, but the Depression was a near-Apocalypse of poverty and struggle. The immediate post-war decade, though prosperous, was borne of a global slaughter that is still unimaginable. These were my parent’s formative years.
On the second week of every December, my dad would give my mother an impossibly cryptic clue about her gift that year and she would spend the next two weeks trying to figure it out. It transformed her into a Latina Columbo — she would grill each of us and, when her line of questioning failed, she would try to bribe us. We stayed strong, of course. My dad was a born Baptist but he would attend Midnight Mass with us, an hour-long ritual that warps space and time and feels like six.
On Christmas Eve, we’d put out cookies for Santa, and our dad would read “The Night Before Christmas” and Luke 2:1–20 from the Gospels. That last reading was important to him. Then the three children — me, Wendy, and Chris — would drag ourselves to bed and slowly fall asleep to the silent night sounds of dad cursing God as he put together whatever 10,000-piece action figure playset my brother or I had asked for.
Christmas began early in our house. No matter how early I woke there would be a fire raging in the fireplace. The blinking Christmas tree would have given birth to dozens of new presents. My mom’s favorite record of Nat King Cole singing carols would be playing, and I remember every scratch and pop of the vinyl. We would take turns handing each other presents, and the torn paper would be piled high. The final gift was for my mom, from my dad: she never guessed the clues because they were so nonsensical, but it didn’t matter. Christmas morning ended with a kiss.
There would be a quick nap and then breakfast for lunch: pancakes and eggs, sausages and biscuits. My sister would crack jokes. My mother would marvel over her gift. My dad would smoke cigars. My brother and I would play with toys.
And, after another nap, we would watch a movie on the state-of-the-art video home system that sat in the family room like a golden calf. We’d watch, as a family, all the typical Christmas movies in the days leading up to the big day: Miracle on 34th Street , It’s A Wonderful Life , the old black-and-white A Christmas Carol. But December 25th was reserved for one in particular. That move was Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 classic, The Godfather . As a kid, it just didn’t feel like Christmas until Sonny Corleone gets gunned down at that toll booth. I still think the scene is shocking and awful, though I’ve watched it dozens of times.
I grew up with the first two Godfather movies. My parents revered them. They were almost a holy story. The Bible, Patsy Cline, and The Godfather ( and maybe a little Shakespeare ) were the best that Western Civilization had to offer.
At their best, gangster flicks are melancholy and romantic warnings — yes, making money is what this country is all about, but easy money eventually brings destruction.
Clint Eastwood once said the two greatest things America has given world culture are the cowboy and jazz. I’d add the gangster flick to that short list. The genre is all about the American Dream: immigrants, hope, capitalism, and crime. At their best, gangster flicks are melancholy and romantic warnings — yes, making money is what this country is all about, but easy money eventually brings destruction. My folks were raised poor and the story of the Corleones was… relatable? To my mom, a Mexican-American woman, and my dad, born the son of a Baptist preacher, this epic tale of Italian-Americans going for broke but losing their soul taught a lesson about family, ambition, the fragility of the former, and the dangers of the latter. It was meaningful as well as deeply entertaining.
The movie was a pure myth to me. I didn’t grow up around many Italians and, for years, I thought they were legends, like leprechauns. My mom would make spaghetti — a special Mexican version with albondigas-style meatballs and cheddar cheese she invented — and I would twist my fork into the pasta like my heroes, the murderers, and henchmen in The Godfather . I remember once telling my little brother “never tell anyone outside the family what you’re thinking.” This was the Gospel according to Saint Brando. The family was the most important thing, I’d tell him, completely missing how, in The Godfather , the family is the most important thing until the family screws up and then it’s two in the back of the head when you’re fishing.
When the news came that after 16 years a new chapter to The Godfather saga — The Godfather Part III — would be released on December 25th, 1990, well, it was an offer my family could not refuse. The news of a new Godfather movie was like the Pope announcing he was coming over for some eggnog. A Christmas miracle.
This was unheard of back then. Not many movies opened on Christmas Day. And it was rare that such iconic movies would see sequels produced over a decade after their release. This kind of cash grab is more normal today, but not back, way back, when President Bush, Sr. was in office. What did we have to fear? I, mean, The Godfather Part II is the only sequel to ever win the Best Picture Oscar! What could go wrong with that pedigree?
The true cruelty of tragedy is how one can look back afterward while standing in the wreckage and clearly see the choices that led to ruin.
Thus begins The Great DeVore Family Christmas Tragedy of 1990. After many years, we decided to change our perfect traditions. We were going to do something new and forsake our cozy den of pecan pie and stockings turned inside out on Christmas afternoon and see — Twentieth Century Fox fanfare please — the third and concluding chapter in the greatest human epic ever told. The anticipation was palpable; a second Christmas on Christmas Day itself!
The true cruelty of tragedy is how one can look back afterward while standing in the wreckage and clearly see the choices that led to ruin. A few weeks before the movie’s release, I read an article in a newspaper about how Robert Duvall, who played adopted son and consigliere Tom Hagen in the first two Godfathers, would not be in the movie and was, in fact, replaced by George Hamilton, the handsome tanned star of the 80s-vampire comedy Love at First Bite . I pointed this out to my dad, who dismissed it. I, mean, how could the director of The Godfather screw up The Godfather ? Well, I also pointed out, the daughter of that same director was also starring in the new movie. My dad was self-made, and like most self-made people, held a dim view of nepotism. But, even then, maybe this woman, Sofia, was as brilliant an actress as her father was a director. (Turns out she would grow up to become one of the great filmmakers of her generation.)
My family was resolute about going to see The Godfather Part III . Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the Lord appeared in the clouds and announced a third testament was coming. Who would argue about reading it? My dad’s faith in Coppola was unshakable. My mom wondered, aloud, how Al Pacino could ever be in a bad movie. Wendy questioned my loyalty to the Corleone family. I don’t know if my little brother had an opinion because none of us asked.
Our hopes were high. I never let my hopes fly too close to the sun anymore. Not after what happened next.
Christmas morning, 1990, was joyous, as usual. Gifts, naps, pancakes. Our traditions carried the day until we all bundled up and excitedly piled into our Mercury and drove to the local movie theater. Popcorn was procured. Good seats were found. When last we saw Michael Corleone he was powerful… and alone. Darkness was falling over him. Had this darkness consumed him? Was he beyond redemption?
I can’t completely remember the plot of The Godfather Part III . I have never watched it again and I never will. Michael Corleone is older. He wants to go legit. There are rivalries with other families. I’m pretty sure there were betrayals aplenty. There’s a plot with the Vatican and an evil Cardinal. George Hamilton looks like nice expensive luggage. Andy Garcia is a young hotshot with the hots for Sofia Coppola, who plays Michael’s daughter. There’s a scene between the two where they make erotic gnocchi together. I feel bad for disliking Sofia Coppola so much — she was just a kid at the time and didn’t deserve the hatred she received. But, on the other hand, she ruined Christmas.
The Godfather Part III was a dark preview of the coming industrial-nostalgia complex that revives, reboots, and reinvents beloved movies.
There was one cool scene of graphic violence when a meeting of mob bosses is shot up by hitmen in a helicopter. But that was followed by countless scenes of Sophia Coppola confusing sneering with smiling and Al Pacino serving up thick, juicy slabs of ham.
The Godfather Part III is boring and lazy. An artless B-movie wearing a used Academy Awards tux. It was also a dark preview of the coming industrial-nostalgia complex that revives, reboots, and reinvents beloved movies from the past for the current box office. I just saw a new Star Wars movie because my inner-child demanded I do so. It’s a brilliant bit of emotional exploitation. This strategy reminds me of when my first hamster died and my parents bought me a new hamster that looked just like the old one (but just wasn’t — the old one was a gentle genius and the new one simply lived to nibble lettuce).
The movie’s uninspired, if beautiful, slog towards a climax involves the murder of Michael’s daughter — she takes a bullet meant for him — and Pacino unleashes a howl of sorrow like a theater school Lear. But it was nearly two and a half hours too late. My little brother was asleep. My dad had angrily gotten up and stormed out of the theater twice to smoke his cigars. My mom and sister were struck dumb with boredom and heartbreak. My eyes were wet. The Godfather Part III was shit. Actually, it was worse. The Godfather Part III was Christmas shit.
The drive home was quiet. The rest of the evening was somber. The following year we watched The Godfather and The Godfather Part II on Christmas Day and pretended The Godfather Part III never existed. Some offers, it turns out, should be refused.