Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Flashback, March 1972: Brilliant Brando Briefly Revived in ‘The Godfather’

The Godfather, released 50 years ago this month in the U.S., did more than just update the gangster film genre of the Great Depression, introduce a host of memorable movie catchphrases, and lift the profiles of rising actors such as Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and James Caan.

No, the top-grossing film of 1972 and winner of the Best Picture Oscar for that year also marked a return to brilliance, however brief, of the most influential actor of the postwar period: Marlon Brando.

The recent death of William Hurt, with a decade of glory in the 1980s, reminded me more than a little of Brando: another performer with a string of Oscar nominations and one statuette in a concentrated period; another character actor whose unexpected success as a leading man made him uncomfortable; and another conflicted personality whose youthful idiosyncrasies and self-indulgence reduced the quality of the projects he was given in middle age.

Hurt’s late-career Best Supporting Actor nomination as a crime boss in A History of Violence called to mind, albeit fleetingly, his great string of performances in The Big Chill, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Children of a Lesser God, and Broadcast News. But it came in a film that he did not anchor and that never became a landmark in cultural history.

In contrast, Brando’s turn as Mafia chieftain Vito Corleone did all of that.

Moreover, the character couldn’t be more different from the roles that made him a legend in the 1950s: brutal, animalistic Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire; rebellious gang leader Johnny Strabler in The Wild One; and the anguished washed-up boxer turned informant Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront.  

As marvelous as he was in those films, his time onscreen in The Godfather represented a master class in cinematic character creation—as well as one of the most remarkable comebacks a leading man has ever made back to relevance.

What Brando himself called 10 “dank, dismal” films made over the prior decade had given him more than a reputation for high maintenance: they had also rendered him box-office poison. 

His defiance of convention (e.g., reading cue cards placed discreetly off camera rather than memorizing lines), once tolerated if not celebrated, was now simply abominated.

Virtually none of the executives at Paramount Pictures wanted Brando as Mafia patriarch Vito Corleone, including the late producer Robert Evans. 

(I almost burst out laughing when, at Sunday night’s Oscars, director Francis Ford Coppola thanked Evans. You would never have known how much they clashed about virtually everything during the movie’s production.)

After butting heads with studio bosses over his lone directing gig, the 1961 western One-Eyed Jacks, and being blamed for the costly bomb Mutiny on the Bounty, Brando had largely lost interest in movies. Some of his projects (e.g., The Ugly American) stemmed from his well-intentioned idealism; others (e.g., Reflections in a Golden Eye), from a belief that directors like John Huston and Arthur Penn could create compelling films. None had really worked out.

In considering an adaptation of Mario Puzo’s bestselling potboiler in 1970, Hollywood execs wanted someone, anyone, else besides Brando to play Vito: Laurence Olivier, Ernest Borgnine, Richard Conte, Anthony Quinn, Carlo Ponti, even comedian-TV producer Danny Thomas. 

Maybe only two people with responsibility for how the character would be created saw Brando as ideal for the part: Puzo and Coppola, then looking to make the leap from highly regarded screenwriter (Patton) to director in his own right.

The very thought of Thomas—who, through his own long-running comedy series (Make Room for Daddy) and others he had produced for others (e.g., The Andy Griffith Show), had enough capital to buy a controlling interest in Paramount and enjoy a clear path to the role—was enough to rouse Puzo to action.

Writing from a fat farm where he had gone to shed weight, Puzo wrote a letter urging Brando to take on the role: “I think you’re the only actor who can play the Godfather with that quiet force and irony (the book is an ironical comment on American society) the part requires.”

At first, Brando dismissed the idea. But a deep look at the script roused him from his torpor by convincing him that it was not strictly about the Mafia so much as “the corporate mind.”

Or, as he elaborated to journalist Shana Alexander for a Life Magazine cover story: “The Mafia is so American! To me, a key phrase in the story is that whenever they wanted to kill somebody it was always a matter of policy. Before pulling the trigger, they told him, ‘Just business, nothing personal.’ When I read that, [Vietnam War architects Robert] McNamara, [Lyndon] Johnson, and [Dean] Rusk flashed before my eyes.”

Although this realization informed his general consciousness of the story’s larger meaning, the genius of his characterization lay in the thousands of details he used to bring it to life, in these ways:

*Physical transformation: The appearance of Vito Corleone evolved during what Coppola told the actor was a “makeup test” but which was, instead, a de factor audition for the benefit of doubting Paramount heads. Coppola had a cameraman on hand to record how Brando, a blonde in his late 40s from the Midwest, turned himself into an Italian two decades older: pulling his hair back, applying shoe polish, and then, to effect the look of what he called a “bulldog,” stuffing his cheeks with Kleenex. (During the actual filming, he used a mouthpiece made by a dentist--and, to solidify this impression of an older man, he would walk around with weights around his stomach and in his shoes.)

*Voice: Two decades after Brando made an indelible impression on American culture with the primal yell “STELLA!!!” in A Streetcar Named Desire, he did the same by lowering his voice to barely above a whisper in The Godfather. He did so because of his conviction that this is how Vito, previously shot in the throat, would sound now. Moreover, he had been struck by the raspy voice of mob boss Frank Costello in the 1951 Kefauver hearings. “Powerful people don’t need to shout,” Brando realized. This mumbling forced those who interacted with The Don—as well as the audience—to lean forward to pay closer attention.

*Improvisation: Sometimes Brando would work with a prop supplied by Coppola, such as a stray cat that the director found on the set (and which the actor then held throughout a scene). Once, it was a spontaneous decision, an outgrowth of the needs of the scene and Brando’s frustration with another actor: a slap across the face of Al Martino, playing the Sinatra-like singer Johnny Fontaine. “Martino didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” remembered Caan. The most ingenious improvisation, though, occurred during Vito’s death scene, a sequence that studio executives initially scorned as unnecessary. Coppola was struggling with how to believably depict the sickly, elderly mob boss playing with his grandson.  As the director later told Playboy: "[Brando] said, 'Here's how I play with kids,' and took an orange peel, cut it into pieces that looked like fangs and slipped them into his mouth." “Of course!” Coppola continued. “The godfather dies as a monster!" But that wasn’t the only reason the scene suddenly became effective. Stylistically, it formed part of a leitmotif with the earlier scene when oranges roll on the street after Vito is shot. (The bright colors formed an ironic contrast with the doom represented by the action). Furthermore, this death scene, surreptitiously and hastily filmed to avoid the prying eyes of visiting studio personnel, had become so memorable that they couldn’t dream of cutting it.

*Interacting with cast members: In an interview with Parade Magazine to commemorate the movie’s 50th anniversary, Talia Shire, who played daughter Connie Corleone, praised Brando’s “tremendous elegance”: “Look at the way he dances with me in that wedding scene. But what I found was that he was also incredibly charismatic, generous and disciplined. He really wanted you to be great in a scene.” The rest of the cast, already awestruck just to be in the same movie as this seminal influence on postwar screen acting, bonded with him from the start of the production during dinner at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan.

*Trusting his director: Many of Brando’s problems with the movies of the prior decade had been caused by disillusion and even disgust with individual directors. But from the beginning, he had placed his faith in Coppola, a novice behind the camera, and he had not been disappointed. Coppola’s extensive pre-production rehearsals with actors, for instance, reminded him of a similar method used by Elia Kazan, who had guided him to Oscar-nominated performances in Streetcar, Viva Zapata!, and On the Waterfront, according to William J. Mann’s biography of Brando, The Contender. In the end, Brando’s confidence in Coppola saved the film and arguably altered the course of the director’s career after studio execs, disgruntled with the movie’s early rushes, contemplated replacing Coppola with Kazan. Hearing the news, Brando threatened to quit—a major risk for someone whose troublesome reputation had rendered him persona non grata in the Hollywood. It is impossible to imagine another director, lacking Coppola’s feel for the Italian-American milieu of the story, conjuring up similar cinematic magic.

The dominant actor of his era, Brando also dominated The Godfather; though present in less than 40% of its screen time, he consistently remained the focus of its attention. At least partly in recognition of that fact, he won an Oscar for the role. 

Yet Brando couldn’t help but display his contempt for the industry once again, as he asked actress Sacheen Littlefeather to appear at the ceremony to reject the award on his behalf as a protest against Hollywood’s stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans.

Brando had one more performance that drew on all his emotional resources, as a haunted widower in the sexually explicit Last Tango in Paris. But director Bernardo Bertolucci's demands were too much for his psyche, and he would never invest so much of his energy in roles thereafter.

Even after the shock and tumult created by his films has faded, Brando remains a complicated, even controversial, figure for his off-screen life. (Actress Rita Moreno, who attempted suicide in frustration with his cheating during their eight-year relationship, told fellow Oscar winner Jessica Chastain that he was “a bad guy when it came to women.”)

But the mysterious power of his best work onscreen endures as well. In particular, The Godfather has inspired two generations of actors, and even evoked tributes of another kind: parody. 

Disguising himself as The Godfather in The Revenge of the Pink Panther, Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau accidentally swallows a cotton ball he’s stuffed in his mouth, and Brando himself sent up his character in the 1990 comedy The Freshman.

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