Death of the Godfather

When I heard that Marlon Brando died the images flooded over me. You know the ones: a desperate, angry Stanley Kowalski, pleading for his wife Stella to come back to him; a betrayed, devastated Terry Malloy telling his brother Charlie that "I coulda been a contender"; the confident and powerful Don Corleone reassuring Johnny Fontaine that "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse"; the tired, defeated Colonel Kurtz exclaiming "the horror, the horror." Marlon Brando had so many iconic performances that we took him for granted. In fact, we did more than that. We laughed at him when he gained weight or rambled incoherently. We focused on the caricature more than the actor.

True, he made some questionable film choices. True, his behavior both on and off the set left much to be desired. But none of that takes away from the power of his acting and the characters he created. In the past few days many have wrote about the impact he had on a whole generation of actors and his role in popularizing the "Method" school of acting. I won't copy what others have said, but it's all true.

Brando never seemed to be acting, only feeling. When he was at his best, it was if he was baring his soul on camera. There was no artifice, no barrier. Maybe that's what inspired his fans and his fellow actors. He was able to tap into something, often some form of sadness, anger or regret. At the same time, he could be remarkably versatile. In Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando as Kowalski was all id - hunger, rage and lust. Three years later, as Terry Malloy in Kazan's On the Waterfront, Brando often exhibited restraint and more intricate acting choices. Kazan himself noted that Brando could have played the "contender" scene as angry at Charlie's betrayal. Instead, he chose the more interesting route, showing Terry's disappointment and heartbreak. Brando let his character be vulnerable, which is one reason why that scene has become so memorable.

For me Brando will always be Don Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. Brando is actually not on-screen very much but, despite many other outstanding performances, dominates the film. Don Corleone only says what he has to, generally keeping his thoughts to himself. He is somewhat detached, taking everything in before he makes a decision. Brando is able to convey so much through small looks, glances and gestures. He makes you see how the Don wears his power discreetly, but that his responsibility also takes a toll. For the most part Brando's performance is a triumph of nuance.

The one exception is his portrayal comes in my favorite scene. Upon hearing of Sonny's murder, Don Corleone quickly controls his grief to take control of the situation, giving both comfort and instruction to his consigliere, Tom Hagen. Once he arrives at the funeral home he stays in this same mode until he finally looks at his son's body. For a split second the mighty Don lets his guard down. First Brando does more with his face than most actors could do with their whole bodies, as he shows the sorrow overwhelming him. Brando knows that at this fleeting moment the Don was only a grieving father. The Godfather could take any shot at himself, but now it was his family. In the closest the Don would ever come to crying, out come the six words: "Look how they massacred my boy." To this day that moment stands as the ultimate testament to Brando's skills and talents.

The more I thought about Brando's passing and The Godfather my mind turned to Don Corleone's death scene; the gentle playing with his grandson, the orange in his mouth. Roger Ebert wrote that "when the old man falls dead among the tomato plants, we feel that a giant has passed." Well, now a giant has passed. Brando's passion and artistry will always remain; all the other stuff will fade away. Maybe Brando did not use his talents as wisely as we would have liked, but when he was at his best, no one burned brighter.

Adam Spector
July 8, 2004

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