Thursday, August 4, 2011

Mob movie cool on a warm summer night

One sure way to beat the heat here in the land of cotton is to spend a cool evening inside watching a mobster movie. That’s exactly what I did earlier this week, managing once again to sit through Godfather: Part II.

I first saw the film back when I still had hair, Richard Nixon was in the White House and Elvis was starting to wear spandex. I’ve seen bits and pieces now and again, but haven’t watched the entire film in decades.

It remains one of the top movies ever produced, featuring a killer cast – Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, John Cazale and Talia Shire. It also has a pitch-perfect screenplay, beautiful cinematography, and a wistful, melancholy soundtrack that won the Oscar for Best Original Score in 1974.

There is a minor hiccup that bothered me the first time I saw the film and continues to irritate decades later. Lee Strasberg, the legendary actor, director and acting teacher, plays Hyman Roth in the film. It’s worth noting that he was nominated for a best-supporting Oscar for his performance – he lost to Robert De Niro, playing the young Vito Corleone.

Take a moment and recall the scene when Michael meets with Roth at his home in Miami. Michael is ushered into a smallish den where Roth is relaxing before lunch, sitting in some sort of lounge chair, watching TV. Roth initially seems oblivious of Michael coming into the room. His right leg is awkwardly resting on the arm of the chair and he seems to be lost in his head.

The first thought I had as Strasberg turns toward Michael and the camera is that he’s acting. That, I’d argue, is a thought you never want to have when watching a flick. The entire scene – at least the Strasberg half of it – feels phony, unnatural and awkward. The leg thing comes across like some sort of artistic affectation.

None of this is particularly surprising. Strasberg, after all, is considered the father of method acting. It’s a concept that Dustin Hoffman captured hilariously in the film Tootsie when his character is trying to figure out how best to portray a tomato by understanding what motivates the veggie. Sometimes the best thing to do is just act!

The Godfather franchise is filled with memorable characters and solid actors who bring them to life. Strasberg eventually finds the heart of Hyman Roth and quietly builds the character throughout the film. In their last scene together, Strasberg and Pacino face off; Roth ranting about the nature of the mob and the work they have chosen, Michael seething in quiet rage.

All four hours were grandly entertaining and very, ah, chilling. That would be a good thing on these oh-so hot and humid nights. Up next? The Untouchables and Sean Connery’s over-the-top Irish brogue!

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