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The one and only Godfather

U.S. film experts have ranked Marlon Brando's Don Corleone in "The Godfather" as the greatest movie character of all time. V. GANGADHAR analyses...

Marlon Brando as the Sicilian Mafia don Corleone in "The Godfather"

ACTOR ANUPAM Kher has a large portrait of Marlon Brando as Don Corleone in his office. ``It is the greatest movie role played by the greatest actor of our times,'' he says. The role resurrected Brando's career, after 10 years of mediocre parts and box office failures, and fetched him the 1972 Best Actor Oscar.

Now top U.S. film experts consider Brando's Don Corleone as the greatest movie character of all time. Others in the list include Humphrey Bogart as Fred Dobbs in the 1948 film, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (ranked 2), Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind" (ranked 3), Sean Connery as James Bond in "Dr. No" (ranked 5) and Bogart as Rick Blaine in "Casablanca" (ranked 19).

Brando is listed by Time magazine as the outstanding actor of the 20th century. He had amazing natural talent which, nurtured by brilliant directors like Stanley Kramer and Elia Kazan, resulted in a series of outstanding films in the 1950s like "A Streetcar named Desire," "Viva Zapata," "Julius Caesar," "The Wild One" and "On the Waterfront" which fetched him his first Oscar.

Yet unhappy with Hollywood's star system and ruthlessness of studio bosses, Brando was forced to act in terrible films and acquired a reputation of notoriety and slackness which resulted in delays and over-budgeting.

Without a hit for nearly a decade, Brando was still able to prove he was the greatest thanks to "The Godfather" and the controversial, "Last Tango in Paris."

In retrospect, Brando's portrayal of Terry Malloy, the slow-witted, heroic prizefighter in "On the Waterfront" was as good as any other role he had essayed.

With his Best Actor Oscar for "On The Waterfront."

Director Elia Kazan spotted the awesome raw talent. Brando was full of innovations, which enhanced the film's impact.

Heroine Eva Marie Saint, for whom `Waterfront' was the debut film gushed, "Other actors started acting in their films. But not Marlon. He was Terry Malloy.''

How, then was the role of Don Corleone superior? For one, Brando had aged, there could be no youthful exuberance of `Waterfront' and his career had taken a disappointing plunge.

Producers were unwilling to risk him in their films. He needed an extraordinary role and script. "The Godfather" provided both.

Earlier films on the Mafia like the Kirk Douglas starrer, "The Brotherhood" had not clicked. But novelist Mario Puzo was certain he had authored an outstanding book in "The Godfather."

When proposals to film the book began to arrive he had this to say, ``there is only one actor who can play the Godfather. That is Marlon Brando.''

Director Francis Ford Coppola concurred but the bosses at Paramount studios were adamant. No Brando, please! Coppola would not give up.

Brando, having read the book, was interested. In the presence of the director, he began to assume the character of Don Corleone.

A thin moustache, blond hair blackened, dark make up under the eyes, stuffed tissues under the cheeks for a jowly look. Brando put on a frayed jacket and shirt, a well-worn tie and adjusted the shirt collar so that it extended outside the shirt. He lit a thin cigarette. No words were spoken. The Brando shoulders began to sag, the belly became extended and the face took on a waxed appearance. Brando was now Don Corleone.

When the phone rang, he picked up the receiver and placed it slowly to his ear. He listened, nodded slowly and then replaced the receiver without saying a word. The party at the other end heard nothing but the breathing of an old man.

An amazed Coppola filmed the sequence and used it to win over the doubting Thomases at Paramount.

Brando charmed them with assurances, ``I want to play this role. I'll work for it, work hard. It's going to be something special for me.''

During a working holiday in England with Coppola, Brando discussed the nuances of the part and also backed his choice for supporting roles, particularly that of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone.

When shooting began, the other actors never missed a shot of the Brando rehearsals. He spoke more clearly on being told that sometimes he mumbled.

The great actor had understood the philosophy behind the book and the film.

In a magazine interview, Brando explained, ``I don't think the film is about the Mafia at all. It is about the corporate mind. Don Corleone is just another American business magnate who is trying to do the best he can for the group he represents. Corleone's tactics were no different from those used by General Motors against Ralph Nader, the consumer activist.'' This was a brilliant analysis.

There was not much difference between American big business and the Mafia. ``The former kills us all the time, with cars, pollution and cigarettes,'' argued Brando.

Brando identified himself so much with the role of Don Corleone, that he introduced several little touches, which increased the film's impact.

In one scene he uttered two phrases, ``After all, we are not murderers ... in spite of what the undertaker says.'' In between the two phrases, Don Corleone, paused to inhale the fragrance of a rose. It was a brilliant touch. Finding a supporting actor not up to the mark in a crucial scene, Brando, who was supposed to slap him, hit him really hard. The shocked actor reacted with astonishment and rose to the occasion!

At his death scene caused by a heart attack, in the presence of a young grandson, the actor found the boy not registering the proper emotions of horror. Brando fixed orange peels under his lips to make himself look like a movie monster and the boy responded with the right amount of horror!

Brando enjoyed playing Corleone, against the Mafia background, because he could associate the situation with the political one in the U.S. A true liberal, Brando was impressed with a key phrase in the story. When someone wanted to kill someone else, it was always a `matter of policy and nothing personal.' According to the great actor, this was the approach of the U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and his key Cabinet members like Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk. No wonder, Don Corleone turned out to be the greatest-ever movie role!

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