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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Peter Bradshaw

James Caan: the hard-working star who mixed the rough with the smooth

James Caan in Another Man, Another Chance
James Caan in Another Man, Another Chance. Photograph: Films Ariane/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

James Caan had a Hollywood career spanning 60 years, his muscular physique and open, expressive, handsome face making him eminently castable in any and every kind of drama, though not exactly as a romantic lead. It was his destiny to be associated with one great role: Santino “Sonny” Corleone, eldest son and putative heir of mob chieftain Vito Corleone in Coppola’s classic movies The Godfather and The Godfather Part II – Sonny is the raging hothead, the uneducated loudmouth, the undisciplined id of the mobster mind, without his father’s strategic wisdom or his brother’s watchful presence, the Corleone who hysterically demands all-out war against the family’s gangster enemies when they move against Vito but with no real idea how this is to be planned or executed. But Sonny is certainly a good soldier without the duplicitous weakness of his other brother Fredo.

Caan is caught between the two brilliant performances of Brando as his ageing, ailing father and Al Pacino as his younger brother Michael who initially wants nothing to do with the family business. Compared with these two, Caan’s is the less hypnotically seductive character, and yet it is Caan’s brawn, Caan’s sweat, Caan’s directness (which is not the same as unsubtlety) and his grandstanding machismo which sets off these performances and is a vital part of the mob ambience. In his uncredited cameo at the very end of The Godfather Part II, he is unforgettable in his rage at Michael joining the army, almost punching him at the dinner table for his disloyalty to the family and – a brilliant touch – contemptuously grabbing the hand that Fredo had offered him in congratulation and wrenching it away.

James Caan’s Sonny epitomised all the boorishness, all the unthinking male entitlement of the mob family, especially in the legendary wedding scene at the beginning of The Godfather, in which he is sneaking away from his wife and children to have sex with a bridesmaid: he is predatory, uncaring, furtive and somehow also utterly forthright, entirely at ease with the male world which finally is to kill him: ambushed and shot at a highway toll booth: a warrior’s death, perhaps, a macho death of the sort Sonny might have imagined for himself if he were not so unimaginative.

Al Pacino and James Caan in The Godfather
Al Pacino and James Caan in The Godfather. Photograph: Paramount/Sportsphoto/Allstar

James Caan was the very epitome of all this, and in fact did get some more “mob” roles later on. He was the ageing, totemic gang boss in Lars Von Trier’s Dogville in 2003 – and much more interestingly, in James Gray’s The Yards in 1999 as Frank Olchin, the careworn boss of a New York rail car engineering firm that is the beneficiary of city hall graft and corruption. Just as in The Godfather, Caan has some great family dinner scenes, presiding over a big meal and earnestly telling everyone that it’s a “clean plate club”: he is now closer to a Vito character.

Caan gave something sinister to the idea of a sports superstar in the dystopian satire Rollerball in 1975 about a bread-and-circuses violent game brought in to divert humanity’s warlike impulses. That same year, Caan was good-natured and open in his portrayal of Fanny Brice’s impresario husband Billy Rose in the much-panned Funny Lady, the sequel to Funny Girl, playing opposite Barbra Streisand: it was boilerplate 70s casting and Streisand was a performer with whom Caan didn’t have much chemistry.

Yet he was effortlessly authentic as Frank in Michael Mann’s Thief in 1981, the professional jewel thief and ex-convict who is as hard as they come but still yearning to settle down and have something like a normal human existence with the young woman he’s been dating, and to have a baby, which is to lead him into the black market in adoption. James Caan shows us a man who has had to steal everything all his life, and find someone to fence what he’s stolen: now this transaction is going to underpin his dreams of being a father and a regular person. Caan’s face: so tough, so truculent and disillusioned, also shows us the pain.

My favourite Caan performance is probably one in which he had to cede the spotlight to a gigantic female lead performance: Rob Reiner’s black comic nightmare Misery, based on the Stephen King novel, in which he plays the bestselling author of a series of romance novels featuring a recurring character called Misery – but now yearns to stop writing them and branch out into something else. But an obsessive fan, Annie Wilkes, played by Kathy Bates, kidnaps him, tethers him to a bed, breaks his legs and forces him to write another “Misery”. As with so many of Caan’s roles, this was offered to many people before they got around to calling him. But Caan brought exactly the right kind of rugged everyguy persona: not an owlish bookworm, not a tortured intellectual, but a regular guy who looks like a sports writer, or a successful lawyer or a newsreader. James Caan had just enough old-school machismo for his humbling at the hands of a scary woman to really mean something.

Caan was part of the furniture in Hollywood for so long, and he kept working because of his actor’s savvy, his robust screen presence and his smart sense of humour. The Godfather made him a legend, and this excellent, hardworking actor carried on making excellent movies and bolstered the reputation of everything he appeared in.

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