Thursday, March 29, 2012
…I pull you back in
By Edward Copeland
Among film buffs and people coming of mature moviegoing age in the 1970s, the name John Cazale engenders sadness in many of them. Featured in prominent roles in five features between 1972 and 1978, each received a nomination for the best picture Oscar and three of them won. However, by the time The Deer Hunter, the fifth of those films, was nominated along with Cazale's fiancée, Meryl Streep, getting her first supporting actress nomination for that film, Cazale had been dead for almost a year, having lost his battle with cancer on March 12, 1978, at the age of 42, leaving behind one helluva legacy in a short span of time. In addition to The Deer Hunter, Fredo in both parts of The Godfather; Stan, the assistant to eavesdropping expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), in another Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece, The Conversation and, Cazale's greatest performance, in my opinion, as Sal, bank robbing partner of Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) in Sidney Lumet's magnificent Dog Day Afternoon. This piece concerns The Godfather, so let's talk Fredo.
Cazale does fine as Fredo in The Godfather but, truth be told, his time on screen doesn't add up to a lot. His role increases in Part II, but he actually has less to do in the 1972 film than many of the non-Corleones. Fredo though has acquired a legacy almost removed from the film itself. The name has become synonymous with a ne'er do, usually a ne'er do well brother. I imagine people who can't name John Cazale as the actor who portrayed Fredo recognize what someone means if they refer to someone as a Fredo. The Urban Dictionary includes multiple definitions such as the simple "family's black sheep" to having sex with two waitresses simultaneously as Moe Greene claimed he caught Fredo doing and Vince Vaughn's character reference in Swingers. The truth of the matter just happens to be that Fredo Corleone, the middle son, can't stop fucking up. It's sad, because you see in Cazale's portrayal that Fredo wants to be a good son, but he's messed up so many times that even he understands why his family can't rely on him. His big, heartbreaking scene comes when rival gangsters make their assassination attempt on his father and Fredo bobbles his own gun, unable to shoot back. He ends up sitting on the curb, next to his critically wounded dad, the gun dangling from his hand, weeping like a child.
You'd think that Talia Shire had the easiest path to landing her role as Corleone daughter Connie, given that her brother Francis was directing the film, but Coppola says he almost didn't consider her for the part because he thought his kid sister was "too beautiful." Connie isn't much more than a plot point in The Godfather — a Corleone daughter to get wed, beaten and, finally, to lash out at her brother for killing her no-good husband. Shire and Connie don't get to grow into interesting characters until the sequels, for certain Part II and, reportedly, a re-edited Part III on DVD and Blu-ray that drastically improves that misfire, including her character's motivations. Walter Murch is said to have led the restoration and re-cutting of Part III, which was rushed in 1990 in order to qualify for the Oscars. Reported rumors that the new cut of Part III replaces Sofia Coppola with Andy Serkis have not been verified. The other major female role in The Godfather got more to do but, like Connie, developed even further in Part II. This was Diane Keaton's second feature film after Lovers and Other Strangers co-starring Richard Castellano (Clemenza). While Keaton proved often that she's adept at drama, she's always better in comedies as Woody Allen utilized with great success.
The don's oldest son and his adopted one represent fire and ice, and James Caan and Robert Duvall excel at those elemental levels as Sonny Corleone and Tom Hagen. One moment I noticed this time that I'd never observed before occurs when Sonny, after finding Connie beaten and bruised by Carlo, beats the hell out of his brother-in-law in the street. When Carlo grabs hold of a railing, Sonny actually bites into Carlo's hands to make him let go (in front of a Thomas Dewey campaign poster no less). Going back to Coppola's concern about guys sitting around talking, you don't get tired of these two doing that, especially in scenes such as debating what actions to take following the attempt on their father's life. When Michael comes home with a swollen jaw courtesy of the crooked police captain, it sets Sonny off again, ready to go to war against Sollozzo. Tom, functioning as the levelheaded consigliere, tries to explain to his adopted brother that even the man upstairs recovering from his bullet wounds would understand that it wasn't personal.
TOM: Your father wouldn't want to hear this, Sonny. This is business, not personal.
SONNY: They shoot my father and it's business, my ass!
TOM: Even shooting your father was business not personal, Sonny!
Caan dances through the movie, all energy, sometimes comic, sometimes violent, sometimes sexual. When brother Michael (Al Pacino) decides he doesn't want to be the straight-arrow civilian anymore, Sonny laughs at his kid brother, even using Hagen's words. "Hey, whaddya gonna do, nice college boy, eh? Didn't want to get mixed up in the family business, huh? Now you wanna gun down a police captain. Why? Because he slapped ya in the face a little bit? Hah? What do you think this is the Army, where you shoot 'em a mile away? You've gotta get up close like this and — bada-BING! — you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit. You're taking this very personal. Tom, this is business and this man is taking it very, very personal," Sonny teases. Of course, Duvall's path to success had been forming prior to The Godfather, but this did earn him his first Oscar nomination as supporting actor. Caan, Duvall and Pacino all earned supporting nominations, one of the rare times a single film grabbed three slots in an acting category. The Godfather Part II repeated the feat in the same category. It also had been achieved by On the Waterfront. The movie Tom Jones accomplished it in supporting actress and the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty did it in best actor (out of four nominees), but this was prior to the creation of the supporting categories.
Which leaves us with the film's two most important characters who also happen to be its most important actors as well. One of the first practitioners of the Method who had set the world on fire and a brash newcomer with a new generation's take on the same style meeting together. The old master Marlon Brando, showing the world that he still had power, while the rising star Al Pacino makes his presence known loudly (back in the days when Pacino did this without being literally loud). Before watching the movie this time, I read someone commenting how as Michael shifts into Vito's role, Pacino subtly transforms physically. That swollen jaw from McCluskey's punch starts to resemble those cotton-stuffed jowls Brando gave Vito. When I did watch it, especially when you really pay attention to that great contribution from Robert Towne, it's as if Vito and Michael undergo a Persona-like transference. I believe the key moment of Michael's switch happens when he protects his father at the hospital, hiding his bed in the stairwell and clutching his hand, whispering, "I'm with you now, pop." The don, who hasn't regained consciousness since the shooting, does then and gives his son the sweetest smile. It's a touching moment — if you forget the family business. Everyone debates whether Brando has the movie's lead role or if that title really belongs to Pacino. I always swear that I'm gonna add up minutes of screentime, but I can never do it because I get too involved. To me, it feels more or less as if it's an ensemble piece. Brando disappears for awhile after he's shot, but so does Pacino immediately after he flees the country. (It's worth pointing out that even the greatest films ever made have flaws. As I feel the Paris flashbacks in my beloved Casablanca come off as hokey, Michael's Sicily scenes and sudden marriage may be The Godfather's Achilles' heel.) What I know for certain is that both actors deliver great performances. You see very little of the Brando silliness that sometimes pop up with the most obvious example being when singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) seeks his help at the wedding at the don unmercifully mocks him as Fontane practically cries acting what he can do to get that movie part. Corleone shakes him vigorously and shouts, "You can act like a man!" He then slaps him and ridicules him further. "What's the matter with you? Is this what you've become, a Hollywood finocchio who cries like a woman?" Then the funny Brando comes out as he does a little girl voice, "'Oh, what do I do? What do I do?' What is that nonsense? Ridiculous!" You spot Tom Hagen laughing in the background, but part of me suspects that really was Duvall trying not to crack up. Other than that, Brando plays things remarkably straight and truthfully as when he calls in the favor the undertaker Bonasera owes him to clean up Sonny for his funeral. "Look how they massacred my boy," he cries.
Looking at the young Pacino engenders the same kind of sadness that recent appearances by Robert De Niro do — did their love of the craft give way totally to monetary concerns? Pacino actually hasn't been quite as bad as De Niro, but to see his Michael, when Pacino knew the word subtlety…sigh. My God — I didn't see it, but what in the hell was he doing playing himself opposite Adam Sandler in Jack and Jill? To Pacino's credit, at least I can believe he appears in that kind of shit so he can keep returning to the stage. Michael Corleone's arc allows viewers to see a master class in screen acting over the first two movies. You can accomplish this with the first film alone, watching as he slinks further into the darkness. Another thing I've always loved that I'm grateful I found a YouTube clip to use is the strut Michael develops once he's completed his turn and just watched Carlo ride off to his demise. What an evocative, physical symbol of a man's change.
At the beginning of this post (I apologize that happened so long ago) I promised that I would be discussing things new to me about The Godfather. That time has arrived. In case it's slipped your mind, what I began this piece by saying was that sometimes you know a movie so well that when you actually watch it closely and purposefully, you'll notice things or have ideas that haven't occurred to you before.
Don't get me wrong. The reason I've spent so much space talking about the acting, writing and directing after the setup before I got to the crux of this assessment was meant to reassure those out there that The Godfather remains one of my favorite films of all time before I described a shift in my outlook on it. Back in the previous posts, as I detailed all the chaos endured to get the film made, I mentioned briefly how Paramount pursued some of the top directors at that time but all turned the project down, citing a fear of glamorizing or glorifying the Mafia. That's a criticism that gets hurled at most mob-related entertainments. Some said that about Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. Even larger numbers lodged that complaint against The Sopranos. Reflexively, I've always responded that those accusations were nothing but a load of crap — and they are when it comes to Goodfellas and The Sopranos, which don't try to hide the fact that these people steal, kill and basically don't contribute to a civil society. Watching The Godfather this time, a light suddenly illuminated its depiction of the Corleones as whitewashed, to say the least. It starts from the very first scene when the undertaker Bonasera asks the don to kill the men who attacked his daughter, but Vito refuses. When Bonasera leaves, Vito even says to Tom Hagen, "We're not murderers, no matter what he thinks." Except mobsters are murderers. That line only marks the first example of the film turning the criminal family into reputable heroes. These photos are just for contrast. At left, we have Corleone family soldier Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) being strangled in an ambush set up by the "bad gangsters" Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) and Bruno Tattaglia (Tony Giorgio). In the photo on the right, the star of The Sopranos, James Gandolfini as Tony, personally throttles Fabian Petrulio (Tony Ray Rossi), who used to be a gangster but became a "rat" when he testified for the feds and went into the Witness Protection Program. This took place in "College," the heralded fifth episode of the series. They wasted no time showing that Tony would commit a hands-on murder. Examine Goodfellas in comparison to The Godfather. Goodfellas came from Nicholas Pileggi's well-researched nonfiction book Wiseguys. While Mario Puzo's novel played the guessing game of "Who could this character be based on?", Puzo never asserted it to be anything but a fictionalized portrait and the film version watered down the Corleones even further. Coppola openly admits he wanted to use the story to be less about organized crime but a comment on American capitalism as well as being about a family in the generic sense. While corporate businessmen may not call their mistresses goomahs, they have them. You'd have to watch very closely to notice that a wife exists that Sonny cheats on (You never see a ring on his finger). They show him having a vigorous sex life, but certainly downplay that it's an adulterous one. We get a few brief shots of his spouse and one comment from his dad when Sonny comes into his father's office following a sexual encounter and his dad talks with Fontane. When Vito sees Sonny enter, he asks the singer but looks pointedly at his son, "Are you good to your family?" In Goodfellas, the girlfriends existed as part of the gangster lifestyle with, separate nights set aside for them at the Copacabana. By the era of The Sopranos, the wives know they exist and accept them somewhat as long as they keep the benefits of their lifestyle.
I don't know how this could come as such a shock to me now, having seen The Godfather so many times over so many years other than my love for Goodfellas superseding it and subliminally planting seeds in my mind which The Sopranos watered, allowing the realization to blossom. The recent Blu-ray release The Godfather Coppola Restoration includes a special feature in which Sopranos creator David Chase says he intended his series to be about the first generation of gangsters actually influenced by Coppola's film. I'm sure that's true (the characters made lots of references to the trilogy), but their lives more closely resemble those of the real gangsters in Henry Hill's universe in Goodfellas than they do the Corleones, with their huge family compound. Even Paulie (Paul Sorvino), the boss in Goodfellas, lived a more middle-class-looking lifestyle, at least in terms of appearance. The fictional Tony got to move into upper middle-class suburbs, but those who worked for him lived much more meagerly. Hell, when you compare them, the brief shot in The Godfather of the home where Clemenza lives looks much nicer than the Belleville, N.J. residence of Corrado Soprano (Dominic Chianese). While not a gangster, even Walter White (Bryan Cranston) lived in a much nicer house when his salary came solely from teaching chemistry than Uncle Junior's or most of Tony's crew's places did, but the cost-of-living in Albuquerque probably is a lot less expensive than New Jersey. What's more relevant than the living arrangements of the various fictional and nonfictional criminals comes from my recognition of the unwillingness to show the true nature of the Corleone family unlike Scorsese did with the criminals in Goodfellas, Chase showed with his characters on The Sopranos and Vince Gilligan does on Breaking Bad charting, as he's said often, "Mr. Chips turning into Scarface." In Goodfellas and the TV shows, you see the innocent who pay the price for their crimes. In The Godfather, we don't see a single instance of how the Corleones conduct their criminal enterprises. The Godfather board game that I mentioned having in the first post, "America's first family," explicitly references bookmaking, extortion, bootlegging, loan sharking and hijacking though those activities never cross the lips of the Corleones or anyone who works for them (though it's doubtful that by 1945, bootlegging draws much revenue for the New York-based family). Are we to presume the Corleones actually built the mansion with profits from selling Genco Olive Oil?
you got whacked. Everybody knew the rules. But sometimes, even if people didn't get out of line, they got whacked.
I mean, hits just became a habit for some of the guys. Guys would get into arguments over nothing and before you knew it,
one of them was dead. And they were shooting each other all the time. Shooting people was a normal thing. It was no big deal."
— Ray Liotta as Henry Hill in Goodfellas
Where The Godfather goes to the greatest length to make the Corleones "good gangsters" can be viewed by the people they do kill. Every single one of them has wronged them first and/or been shown as someone worthy of elimination. You never see any incident such as in Goodfellas where psycho Tommy (Joe Pesci) kills the waiter Spider (Michael Imperioli) because he told him to "go fuck himself" (since Spider justifiably nurses a grudge after Tommy shot him in the foot before for not serving him a drink fast enough). You don't see anything like on The Sopranos where a waiter follows Paulie (Tony Sirico) and Christopher (Imperioli again) out to the parking lot to ask why he didn't get a tip and they smash him in the head, causing convulsions and then shoot him to finish him off. Don Vito plays the peacemaker, despite being nearly killed and losing a son. The movie perpetuates the myth that the American Mafia likes to perpetuate that they stayed hands off narcotics trafficking (even Paulie Cicero in Goodfellas, based on the real-life Paulie Vario, peddles that line though, like the fictional Corleone, it isn't so much a moral objection as a fear of losing friends in high positions). It sounds particularly ridiculous since Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky already had started dealing heroin in the 1920s, something being depicted in the TV series Boardwalk Empire which may be set prior to the time period of The Godfather but by far pays the most obvious homages to the movie. This sudden realization raises questions in my mind: Does it matter? Should it matter? If The Godfather glamorizes gangsters, does that mean I should consider it a lesser movie? My answer has to be no to all of the above. It doesn't change its artistry and I already loved Goodfellas more anyway (and it only glamorizes their food). How can I really penalize a fictional film for not being more truthful? In the wake of The Godfather, did organized crime grow and get a bunch of new recruits eager to join mob ranks? Hardly. It's just interesting that it took me this long to notice this, but the film hasn't changed, I have.
Besides, it's a damn great movie that gets referenced constantly. Chase should make something for the Blu-ray given the amount of times The Sopranos references Coppola's films. They did it so many times, I couldn't even begin to recall them all. I remember my personal favorite: Paulie Walnut's car horn which plays The Godfather theme instead of beeping. As I mentioned, Boardwalk Empire might take place in the 1920s, but it seems to me to pay the most homages even if they can't be specific. Look at the character of Nucky Thompson's brother Eli (Shea Whigham) and tell me he doesn't have Fredo written all over him. In the final episode of the second season, they did an explicit reference with their version of the baptism scene with prosecutor Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicholson) preparing her opening statement as Nucky (Steve Buscemi) and Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) get married and Jimmy and Richard (Michael Pitt, Jack Huston) take care of one of Nucky's enemies.
Most of The Sopranos' references tended to be verbal, but they did do a visual one that I loved in the second episode of the third season "Proshai, Livushka" dealing with the death of the incomparable character of Tony's mom Livia Soprano (the late, great Nancy Marchand). The image below on the left comes from The Godfather when Don Vito and Tom visit Bonasera about fixing up Sonny for his funeral. Below on the right, Tony and his sisters Barbara and Janice (Danielle Di Vecchio, Aida Turturro) go to Coscarelli's to discuss arrangement for Livia, who didn't even want a service.
The fact remains, no matter the dubious way they tried to steer audience sympathy to the Corleones without acknowledging the truth of their dark dealings, The Godfather always will be a damn well-made piece of motion picture art. My philosophy always has been to judge movies on their artistic and entertainment grounds and to try to forego extraneous concerns. I've managed to do that for this long with The Godfather. I'm not changing my mind now, especially since, when it comes to film criticism, I'm about as far from a moralist as you'll find. Besides, we started these posts with that brilliant opening. "I believe in America." You think I wouldn't close with one of the all-time best endings in cinema?