James Caan played hotheads and roughnecks and exposed their humanity

It in no way detracts from the brilliance of James Caan, who died on Wednesday aged 82, to point out that he had a particular talent for playing insensitive men. He was a gruff, tough, angry, muscular Actor, with a ramshackle physicality and imposing looks: the wiry curls of brown-blonde hair, the handsome, flattened face that seemed carved out of granite, the mouth set in a scowl that posed a challenge and often a threat. (It felt like even his brain could bench press.) Caan played Santino “Sonny” Corleone in The Godfather, the film that not only established him as a great actor but also marked him as a mythological presence. the lonely hothead in a family of very cool criminals. Don Vito was a soft-spoken courtly manipulator, Michael a moody intellectual, Fredo a black sheep nebbish, and Tom Hagen the adoptive sibling as a passive bureaucrat.

But Sonny? He stared and screamed and burst eggs. He blurted out what he thought, slept with whoever he wanted, and when a rival tried to make an example of him, it wasn’t hard to light Sonny’s fuse. Sonny had already beaten his own brother-in-law to death – by crushing him with a garbage can in one of the most electrifyingly realistic fight scenes in film history. He taught the guy a lesson for becoming Sonny’s sister’s violent domestic abuser. And when it happened again, angry, stubborn Sonny didn’t dream that he was being tricked.

It’s a true fact of Hollywood lore that Caan was originally cast to play Michael Corleone in The Godfather. (Paramount executives liked him for the role; they felt Al Pacino was too small.) Still, part of the film’s timeless power is that of all the Hollywood casting yarns you’ve heard, this one may be the most impossible one you’ve imagined able to imagine. James Caan as Michael? It would be like asking a German shepherd to impersonate a Labrador. Cana became Sonny, who endowed him with an attractive and at times tormented elusiveness that seemed to boil up through the character’s sides. It’s a performance so indelible that you might look at it and think the actor is just pouring his own self into the role.

But that wasn’t the case. If you want to know what a powerful act of imagination Caan was in The Godfather, just look at him in the drama he shot the year before that established him as a presence for the 30 million viewers, who have seen it. That would be Brian’s Song, the 1971 ABC Movie of the Week, in which he played Brian Piccolo, the Chicago Bears running back who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Billy Dee Williams played his friend and teammate Gale Sayers. This was a tale of black and white bonding that was as moving – and I would argue culturally significant – as “In the Heat of the Night.” And Caan made Brian Piccolo the soul of a kind of shaggy, heartbreaking American frankness, a man driven almost instinctively to transcend the prejudices around him.

What James Caan possessed, born of his own temperament, was a cheerful and irrepressible machismo. He could and did turn almost any scene into a power play. You see that in The Gambler, the Karel Reisz/James Toback New Hollywood-meets-Dostoyevsky drama he made two years after The Godfather, where he played the title character — a college teacher-turned-compulsive gambler – played as a man, driven to live on the frontier, as if competing with himself and courting danger as a test of his bravery. It is one of Caan’s most captivating performances.

Still, he spent the ’70s looking for ways to cement his identity as an actor. He trod the dark romantic path in Cinderella Liberty (1973), as a melancholy sailor opposite Marsha Mason’s single mother and sex worker, and opposite Barbra Streisand in the failed sequel Funny Girl. But he’s always been drawn back into the tough guy roles: as the stubborn sidekick in Freebie and the Bean, the betrayed assassin in Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite, the dystopian gladiator in Rollerball, and the divorced father turned into “Hide in Plain Sight” to vigilante detective.

Most of them were basically overpriced B movies. But they culminated in Caan’s performance as a magical safecracker trying to walk straight in Thief (1981), Michael Mann’s searing feature debut. It’s an exquisitely stylish and tightly executed modern noir, and what gives the film its soul is Caan’s portrayal as a criminal desperate for some kind of redemption, despite prison having taught him to live in a place “where nothing happens ‘means nothing’.” In Thief, Caan projects not just an expression of macho values, but in some ways the ultimate critique of them. Aside from “The Godfather,” this is perhaps his best effort.

Caan enjoyed a rare blockbuster moment in Misery, the goth comedy adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, playing a romance novelist who is captured by Kathy Bates’ troubled fan. It was a riff on celebrity culture, in which Bates starred with her polite, murderous hostility, but it’s Caan, with his sly and calm reactions, that roots the scenario and makes it drama. After that, he played many aging criminals in films from Bottle Rocket to The Yards to Dogville. Even in a goofy lark like Elf, the movie for which a whole generation probably knows him best, he was a hard case — the badass father of Will Ferrell’s North Pole misfit, though by now he was the senior statesman of hard cases and carried his wild credibility with him almost as if he were a real underworld character.

Because that’s how legendary his portrayal in “The Godfather” had become. It helped shape our picture of who a gangster is – and indeed, of all the leads in The Godfather, the closest thing to a real gangster is Caans Sonny. But what we appreciate about the character isn’t just how tough he was. That’s how tall he was. Francis Ford Coppola has said the reason the scene in which Sonny is massacred at a tollbooth lasts so long is because it felt like it was the level of ballistic overkill required to portray the character to wipe out. And even then he lingered. You couldn’t imagine someone leaving with so much fire and power.

https://variety.com/2022/film/columns/james-caan-tribute-the-godfather-thief-elf-1235311369/ James Caan played hotheads and roughnecks and exposed their humanity

Charles Jones

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