Part 1

Life Support

by PopMatters Staff

26 July 2009


Benecio Del Toro and more

John Cazale The Godfather II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

Poor Fredo. The fragile brother. The shy, sad little boy in the shadow of his brasher, bolder brothers Sonny and Michael, stuck in the middle and given less to do than adopted sibling Tom Hagen. As the broken center of the Corleone family, he’s the classic tragic hero without a lick of courage in his cowering frame—and as essayed with grace and grand humility by Cazale, Fredo is also the final nail in the mafia clan’s coffin. You can see the defeat registered across this often unsung ‘70s icon’s angular face, a look that says he never fit in, not even when he tried. In loyalty, he earned ridicule, not respect. In betrayal, he earned the classic kiss off of death. While his time on the planet was far too short, Cazale manufactured his continuing cinematic legacy with this unusual and unforgettable role. Dying of cancer in the late ‘70s after a blazing character actor career, Cazale almost seemed destined to be Fredo in real life as well—a wannabe star that had to settle for an afterlife as movie myth. It seems only fitting. Bill Gibron

Benecio Del Toro 21 Grams (Alejandro Gonzales Inaritu, 2003)

Benecio Del Toro is one of those actors that can wear gravitas as a cloak, manipulating its power for his own secret purposes. As the audience, we aren’t stifled by this but rather mesmerized by it in quite the same way as we were in his Oscar winning performance in Stephen Soderbergh’s layered Traffic. Inarritu’s 21 Grams utilizes a jagged rather than linear story structure, where we are fed the parts of the story gradually. When pieced together, these fragmented shards form the following narrative: Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is a dying mathematician who received a heart from recovering drug addict Christina Peck’s (Naomi Watts) husband, who was inexplicably killed in a hit run.

Where Del Toro fits in to the story, as reborn Christian and former criminal Jack Jordan is in his rather shocking role of responsibility in the crash that killed Christina’s husband. Del Toro’s Jack moves through the film as if underwater, sometimes sluggish, sometimes weary but always searching, trying desperately to do the right thing. His tirelessly devoted wife Marianne (Melissa Leo) is his biggest advocate helping him and convincing him for a short while to forget the accident took place, to hide it, to cover it up, for their family. As the tormented Jack, wrestling with the misdeeds of his past and present amidst a volatile relationship with God, Del Toro’s impressive, inspiring work garnered him an Academy Award nomination and much-deserved critical accolades; a fabulous performance among a growing body of distinguished work that seems to get stronger and stronger with age. Courtney Young

Melvyn Douglas Ninotchka (Ernst Lubistch, 1939)

In the years before World War II, wedged between the Busby Berkeley musicals and the Marx Brothers romps, there were the quick-witted comedies like The Philadelphia Story with James Stewart, Cary Grant and Kate Hepburn, and The Thin Man with Myrna Loy and William Powell. One of the last and most loved of that period was 1939’s Ninotchka starring Greta Garbo as the by-the-book Bolshevik from Russia who arrives in Paris to negotiate possession of an exiled grand duchess’ jewels. Douglas, playing the duchess’ representative, falls for the staid Ninotchka. “Must you flirt?” she asks dryly. “Well, I don’t have to but I find it natural,” he replies. “Suppress it,” she acidly returns. And so it continues, as Garbo sets ‘em up and Melvyn Douglas knocks ‘em down, line by clever line. Douglas never misses a beat with timing no doubt honed during several years of stage work prior to his long, illustrious film career. In addition to a Tony award and an Emmy, Douglas went on to win two Oscars: one for the Paul Newman classic Hud, and the last for his supporting role in Hal Ashby’s Being There. Still, it would be his stalwart wooing of Garbo in a classic film that would delight audiences around the world, on the eve of a tragic war. Tim Basham

Robert Forster Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)

For all of the praise lavished upon Tarantino for his directing, writing and encyclopedic knowledge of all things cinema, perhaps not enough is made of his absolutely note-perfect casting. Aside from Woody Allen, no other modern American filmmaker continually displays such a knack for finding the ideal actor for any given character part, for elevating an underrated or no-longer-fashionable performer out of the ghetto of indistinct appearances in indistinct films to a role that feels tailor made for their neglected talents. Forster, veteran of seemingly countless action flicks and cop shows throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, is not the star of Jackie Brown (that would be Pam Grier, getting a Tarantino-style career revival of her own), but he is very much its quiet emotional center. As the weary bail bondsman Max Cherry, Forster’s genial schoolboy crush on Grier’s titular heroine turns a twisty caper into an unexpectedly sweet meditation on aging and the possibility of romance in the face of diminished expectations. A knowing riff on Forster’s everyman anonymity (he’s one of those actors that you know you’ve seen before, but can never quite identify), Tarantino has Forster naturally inhabit Max in a way that a more widely recognizable “star” could never have been able to, creating one the most emotionally resonant characters in the entire Tarantino canon in the process. Jer Fairall

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