In the entry that David Thomson dedicated to James Caan (1940-2022) in his much cited and quotable The new biographical dictionary of film (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2009), the English critic and historian rightly points out that Sonny Corleone, the mercurial, reckless and violent eldest son of the Corleone family, dies too soon in The Godfather (Coppola, 1972). The truth, however, is that, dramatically speaking, James Caan’s Sonny had to go before Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone could emerge. There was no other way: impossible to imagine Sonny obeying orders from his younger brother when not even his father Vito Corleone could control him; harder to think that Michael could take over the “Family” with the impulsive Sonny aside.
The funny thing is that something similar happened in real life. While it is true that James Caan would play several memorable characters in the years to come and participate in some other worthwhile films, the shadow of his Sonny Corleone would be with him for the rest of his life. His early demise in The Godfather to make way for his film brother Michael, he would repeat himself in the professional sphere, as if it were a cosmic cruel joke, since Al Pacino’s career would grow and consolidate, while Caan’s would progress in fits and starts, stagnating for a whole decade, and it would suffer more downs than ups, with a few notable exceptions.
Was it all that bad for James Caan after The Godfather? Not exactly: Caan’s life, on and off the sets, progressed between discoveries, stumbles and inconsistencies. For every serious, risky and meritorious bet – say, the literature professor and compulsive gambler in The Gambler (Reisz, 1974), the athletic dystopian wrestler in Rollerball: the gladiators of the future (Jewison, 1975), the thug who wants to make his final emblematic hit in My profession: thief (Mann, 1981) – there could be another half dozen films that demanded very little of him: at best, his intimidating physical presence and his gallant aura at the service of his female co-star, as happened in Funny Lady (Ross, 1975) with Barbra Streisand, or a rider arrives (Pakula, 1978), with Jane Fonda.
Prior to The GodfatherCaan seemed to have found a very different niche from the one with which he would later be identified. He was the vulnerable big boy looking for care in the supreme female melodrama two souls in conflict (Coppola, 1969) and the generous and expansive Brian Piccolo, the young American football player who knows he is going to die, in the tearful telefilm Brian’s Song (Kulik, 1971), a role that would give him his first professional recognition, as he would be nominated for an Emmy in 1972.
Caan had tried all kinds of characters before. He was the criminal who terrorizes Olivia de Havilland in the thriller ten hours of terror(Grauman, 1964), alternated with two authentic film monsters like John Wayne and Robert Mitchum without being intimidated for a moment in The Golden (Hawks, 1966), portrayed a concerned scientist about to be sent into space in The conquest of the moon (Altman, 1967) and the most charismatic of the seven leading cowboys of inglorious heroes (Hale, 1968), a modest but entertaining Western set in the Civil War.
Born in the New York Bronx, in a middle-class Jewish family, Caan distinguished himself from a very young age for his sports skills. In high school he played both basketball and football, was a karate black belt and a regular at rodeo shows with the nickname “the Jewish cowboy.” Already in college, while studying economics, a discipline that did not interest him much, he had different jobs related to his mere physical presence, from drunken puncher in a nightclub to lifeguard or sports trainer. In 1960 he debuted in his first off-Broadway plays and, a couple of years later, he would start appearing on television in a few episodes of The Untouchables, Combat! Y The Alfred Hitchcock Houruntil making his debut on the big screen, without any credit, opposite Shirley MacLaine in Irma the sweet (Wilder, 1963). What follows is history.
The question remains open: what happened to James Caan after Sonny? Why, unlike his colleagues in the saga of The Godfather –Pacino, Robert de Niro, Robert Duvall– failed to consolidate that award-winning career that seemed to herald the magical decade from the mid-60s to the mid-70s? Lack of discipline, lack of interest, a lousy agent, just plain bad luck? The ground is fertile for speculation.
The truth is that during the 1970s and part of the 1980s, Caan had a fairly public private life – at this time he was married and divorced twice, his love of racehorses was well known, his interviews could end with gleeful complaints to the journalist on duty–, which coincides with a creative stagnation from which his old friend Francis Ford Coppola rescued him when he offered him the role of the sergeant with a crisis of conscience in the solid war melodrama stone gardens(1987). This praised comeback would lead him to star in Misery (Rainer, 1990), a claustrophobic thriller in which Caan would return, for the only time, to a vulnerable and even passive role, as the famous writer tortured by an insane fan of his work. Later, when some filmmaker wanted to provide a certain degree of you gravitate to a character, he would go to Caan, as happened with the corrupt and hypocritical uncle of Treachery (Gray, 2000) or that unforgettable cameo as the all-powerful father of “Family” in Dogville(von Trier, 2003).
But the same thing that had happened before happened again in the following years: inconsistency prevailed over a career that, one suspects, could have been much better and more recognized. Although, speaking in silver, what actor would not give up security, sanity and even boring consistency, in order to live forever and die forever as Sonny Corleone?
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James Caan: To Live and Die as Sonny Corlene | Free lyrics