James Caan

I was sorry to read of the death yesterday of actor James Caan. Caan, who had a long career in Hollywood, died at age 82.

Of course, most people will remember James Caan most for The Godfather and his depiction of Sonny Corleone, the explosive hothead son who temporarily took over leadership of the Corleone crime family after his father, Don Vito Corleone, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting. That’s not surprising because Caan absolutely nailed that role and was riveting as a man who loved his family–memorably explaining to his little brother Michael about how Mafia killings are messy, up-close and personal affairs and then kissing him on the head–but eventually was done in by his temper and impulsiveness.

My favorite James Caan role, however, was his pre-Godfather turn as Brian Piccolo in the 1971 ABC Movie of the Week Brian’s Song. That film tells the story of Piccolo, a running back trying to make the team for the Chicago Bears and competing with the legendary Gale Sayers. After Piccolo does make the team, he and Sayers develop a great respect for each other that deepens into a loving friendship that helps Piccolo deal with a devastating disease that tragically cuts his life short at a young age. Caan was perfect as a guy who was cocky, funny, mischievous, decent, and a good football player, too, and his memorable performance and obvious chemistry with Billy Dee Williams, who also was excellent as Gale Sayers, helped to make Brian’s Song one of the best movies about sports ever made.

James Caan was good in other roles, too: as the writer at the mercy of lunatic Kathy Bates fan character in Misery, as Buddy’s Dad in Elf, and as the star player in Rollerball (which is also a pretty good sports movie). He even co-starred in a western with John Wayne. But the best testament to his acting skill, in my view, was his ability to portray Brian Piccolo and then, one year later, convincingly present himself as the volcanic Sonny Corleone. James Caan clearly could act. He will be missed, but his legacy lives on on screen.

The Godfather Turns 50

The Godfather turns 50 this week. The iconic mob movie, uniformly regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made, was released on March 24, 1972.

The Hollywood Reporter has an interesting article featuring recollections of the some of the actors who starred in the original movie, which you can read here. And if you’re a fan of the films, you can watch a mini-series on the making of the original movie, called The Offer, that will be airing on the Paramount+ network later this spring.

The Godfather for a time was the highest grossing picture of all time, and it set the tone for an entire genre of mobster movies in which the gangsters were portrayed as believable human beings–criminal, violent, corrupting human beings, to be sure, but human beings nevertheless. While earlier Hollywood movies were often morality plays where the bad guy inevitably had to get gunned down in the end to send the right message to the audience about being a law-abiding citizen, The Godfather allowed Don Corleone to die of a heart attack while playing with his grandson in the tomato garden and showed Michael Corleone wreaking bloody vengeance on his enemies while at the same time swearing to a priest that he did renounce Satan and his evil deeds. (And was there anyone in the audience who, at that moment, wasn’t rooting for Michael to pull it off?) The conflict between the horrible and cold-blooded violence inflicted by the Corleones and the human elements of the characters made The Godfather much more compelling than the standard gangster movie. And for that reason virtually every mob-themed movie or TV series made since then–from Goodfellas to The Sopranos to just about any other one you can think of–owes a debt of gratitude to The Godfather.

Some people argue that, as a film, The Godfather, Part II is superior to the original. I am not sure about that, but I do know this: the original was groundbreaking in a way that the sequel could never be. So I say happy 50th to The Godfather. You made us all an offer we couldn’t refuse.

The Horse Head Rorschach Test

Every day, the pleasant burghers of Bensalem, Pennsylvania who drive past the Parx Casino and Racing complex are confronted by this gigantic sculpture of a horse’s head precariously balanced on the tip of its nose, which is placed out in front of the casino right next to the road.  

It’s a fine rendering of a horse’s head, as horse head sculptures go — but what do you think of when you see an enormous horse head on your drive to pick up Krispy Kreme donuts? Do you focus on the fact that the head is severed, and think of The Godfather?  Or do you, like the animal-loving Marquette Warrior, conclude that the horse is happily taking a drink of water?  Do you wonder how, from an engineering standpoint, they got the massive structure to balance like that?  Or, do you focus on the totally discordant, out-of-place element of a huge green horse head on an otherwise undistinguished, soulless suburban commercial strip, and idly wonder if it was left by aliens?

In such ways does public art challenge us.