Marlon Brando (The Godfather)
The Nominees: Michael Caine (Sleuth), Peter O'Toole (The Ruling Class), Laurence Olivier (Sleuth), Paul Winfield (Sounder)
Marlon Brando (The Godfather)
Other Worthy Nominees: Robert Redford (The Candidate), Burt Reynolds (Deliverance), John Wayne (The Cowboys), Paul Winfield (Sounder)
|I sometimes wonder if the academy voters would have given Marlon Brando the Oscar for his performance in The Godfather if they knew what he was going to do on Oscar night. In refusing the award, he sent a young woman calling herself Sacheen Littlefeather (actually actress Maria Cruz), who dressed in full Apache apparel, to refuse the award because of the treatment of Native Americans in film and on television and to bring attention to the tragedy at Wounded Knee. As difficult and unpredictable as Brando's behavior was, you can't say that it diminishes his film work. Had the academy not honored him, they would have missed one of his best performances.
The Godfather was considered his comeback after a decade spent in films of little or no significance. It proved that he was still the actor that we remembered because when Marlon Brando put his heart into a role, he could work magic. This performance, along with his work in On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire are best examples of what he could do.
In Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, he plays a character who is older than himself - Brando was 45 at the time - playing a character who is in his mid to late 50s when we meet him and near his 70s by the end. There is a physical transformation that, if you are familiar with Brando's other work, comes as a bit of a surprise. He stuffed cotton in his cheeks, slicked back his hair and toned down his voice to a whisper all in an effort to create a character of great stature, of great wisdom and of great sadness.
Vito Corleone is The Godfather, a man of great experience and wisdom. He is the capo regime, who rules his mafia family with common sense, a cool head and a cautious eye on the future. He has made his reputation as an admirable figure because he resists violence, and works these underworld operations (gambling, prostitution, bootlegging) like a legitimate business. He surrounds himself with the right people, friends, relatives, soldiers and generals. His friends are earned through personal favors and long-standing relationships built up over time. Those who are soldiers in the family would lay down their lives for him. He is a man who commands respect, but never demands it.
He is a reasonable man and often accommodating. Note how he handles Bonesera, the undertaker who comes to see him as the film opens. Their wives are friends, but Corleone and Bonasera are barely acquainted. Bonasera knows very little about the mob world and assumes that when his daughter is beaten and disfigured by her boyfriend, that this mafia chieftain will be more than happy to murder the young boy for the right price (he also knows that according to Sicilian tradition, the don cannot refuse a reasonable request on his daughter's wedding day). In any other movie, the man would have been dragged out and disposed of, but not here. The Godfather is offended and asks him, "What have I done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?" When the man becomes ingratiating, the Godfather's heart goes out to him (he has a daughter too), and he tells him "Someday, and that day may never come, I will call on you to do a service for me." I assumed that since Bonasera was an undertaker that the Godfather would ask him to dispose of a body. Instead, when the favor comes, it is simply to make his murdered son look appropriate for his mother at the funeral.
That scene helps us understand how he maintains his relationships, not through muscle and noise, but through a process by which he tries reason. When reason fails, he "makes them an offer they can't refuse." He is not ill-tempered and he requires that those around him use sense rather than emotion. He knows what's best, he tells Bonasera that "If by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies then they would become my enemies - and then they would fear you." He keeps his cool except for one moment in which he becomes enraged when his godson Johnny (Al Martino) bursts into tears because he can't get a film role.
This great patriarch urges those around him to follow his example. He approaches each of his three sons differently. For his son Santino (James Caan), he despises the fact that he doesn't spend enough time with this family and dresses him down when he makes a mistake during a business meeting and speaks out of turn (a mistake that eventually sparks a mob war). For Michael (Al Pacino), who is the most sensible, he wants something more than the family business. He has sent him off to college and then supported him when he went into the Army (we don't find that out until the second film). For Fredo (John Cavale), the weakling brother, we never see him really interact, especially after he fails to protect him during a botched assassination attempt. Fredo is seen within the framework of the family business more or less as the women are, they are the recipients of the fruits of the mob's labor, but they are never personally involved.
The main plot involves the Godfather's attempts to stem the tide of the oncoming drug trade. Given an offer by the gangster Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) to receive a cut of drug profits in exchange for some of his political influence, the don gives him a firm but polite "no." "It's true I have a lot of friends in politics," he explains, "but they wouldn't be friendly very long if they knew my business was drugs." He later tries unsuccessfully to warn his fellow mafia chieftains that "This drug business is going to destroy us in the years to come." Those around him will not listen and his prophecy turns out to be true.
That's the problem with those around him - they don't listen and are happy to run to whatever pleasurable or profitable venture looks good. There is a long passage in the center of the film after Sollozzo's failed assassination attempt in which the Godfather lies offscreen in a hospital. A revenge plan is set in motion that ultimately ends with Michael having to go into exile in Italy. As I listen to the plan being laid out, I can't help but think that the old man wouldn't approve and I wonder how he would have handled it, and how much bloodshed could have been spared.