Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The Godfather (1924-2004)

“What’re you rebelling against, Johnny?” “Whaddya got?”

“You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender.”


“Make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

The fact that each of those lines is familiar and immediately recognizable is, of course, a testament to the talented writers who penned them. But since they all came from movies, it is also a certainty that we wouldn’t remember these lines at all if not for the actor who actually spoke them.

I actually took the trouble to check all of those quotes, but I couldn’t immediately verify that Marlon Brando actually spoke the last one. All I could ascertain in my usual, slipshod, last-minute, ham-fisted way of putting these things together is that Al Pacino used the “offer he can’t refuse” line twice in The Godfather, once in reference to his titular father and once in reference to a an offer he himself had made. But my (totally non-controversial) point that Brando is a major screen icon of the 20th century is supported completely by the fact that it doesn’t actually matter whether he said the “offer he can’t refuse” line himself or not. We all remember him saying it, whether he did or not—just as we “remember” Humphrey Bogart saying “Play it again, Sam” in Casablanca and Jimmy Cagney saying “You dirty rat!” in some gangster movie that we can’t quite recall the title of. These actors and the lines they spoke (or didn’t speak) have passed into some sort of moviedom legend world that is bigger than the mere human beings they were.

Some actors,like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, become icons because their lives and careers are cut short. Those who live into old age have to become icons the hard way. They have to earn it, over and over. Movie titans do this by regularly reinventing themselves. Like the way Katharine Hepburn went from spirited young woman roles to professional women roles to feisty spinster roles. Or the way Jimmy Stewart went from American everyman roles to cowboy hero roles to twinkly old man roles. Aptly for an actor as idiosyncratic as Brando, his evolution was interesting indeed. He went from being the hunky angry young, working class man in the tee-shirt or black leather jacket in movies like A Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild One and On the Waterfront, to a mature romantic lead in films like The Fugitive Kind, Bedtime Story, A Countess from Hong Kong, and the provocative Last Tango in Paris. Brando’s third act can best be described as his “weird phase.” While still in his 40s, he played the most memorable role of his career, which was the elderly patriarch of a mafia family. Otherwise, he was known for playing very strange roles, like the mad Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, his parody of his Godfather character in The Freshman and the extremely bizarre title role in The Island of Dr. Moreau, or remarkably brief but very highly compensated roles like Jor-El in 1978’s Superman, George Lincoln Rockwell in the TV miniseries Roots: The Next Generations and Torquemada in Christopher Columbus: The Discovery.

Like many actors, he tried his hand at directing, but he made only one film, 1961’s One-Eyed Jacks. Described by Pauline Kael as a “peculiarly masochistic revenge fantasy,” the movie pitted Brando as a bandit against his former partner, played by Karl Malden. (Perhaps to work out issues left over from Streetcar?) Otherwise, Brando entertained us on the screen, with invariably unpredictable role choices and performances and occasionally great ones, and sometimes off the screen with his refusal to accept his Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather and a very interesting personal life that provided much fodder for the tabloids. He was also a lightning rod in the debate over the relative merits of “method” acting versus traditional acting.

Fortunately, Brando made one film toward the end of his half-century career that made a comfortable, if not literal, finale to his work on the silver screen. In 1995’s Don Juan DeMarco, he played a charming, likeable man who finds romance with his wife. Even in his hunkier days, I am not sure we ever saw Brando more appealing than this. The fact that his co-star was Johnny Depp, playing the ultimate romantic character, made the movie a sort of official passing of the hunky movie actor baton from one generation to the next. Seeing this movie is a good way to bid adieu to Brando as he slips away from our movie screens.

-S.L., 8 July 2004

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