Best of DVDs...with M.V. Moorhead
Marlon Brando’s death two weeks ago was accompanied, it seemed to me, by a bit less hoopla than has become customary for a show-business legend.
And a legend Brando definitely was, even though he also succeeded in making himself something of a joke through his lifelong eccentricity, and especially by the obesity which plagued his last 30 years or so.
It’s possible that in the show-business world, no fall into drugs, alcohol or even criminality will leave a celebrity quite as open to smirky ridicule or as bereft of sympathizers and defenders as the sin of becoming overweight, particularly, as in the case of Brando, if said celebrity was once a sex symbol.
Brando didn’t die young, like the other “method” icons of the ‘50s, James Dean and Montgomery Clift, and he didn’t age gracefully, like Paul Newman has.
He made the mistake of showing us what Terry Malloy and Stanley Kowalski and Vito Corleone and Mark Antony and Sky Masterson and The Wild One would look like if they had the chance to get old and fat and weird.
But, holy crow, the man could act, and his physical dissipation didn’t change that.
So for commemorative viewing, worthy as the classic portrayals mentioned above would be, or Apocalypse Now or One Eyed Jacks or Last Tango in Paris or any number of other remarkable films, I’d suggest you check out Brando’s last truly great performance: as Carmine Sabatini, or Jimmy the Toucan,” in The Freshman, Andrew Bergman’s sweetly unhinged comedy of 1990.
Bergman’s script is a movie buff’s adoring joke on his own infatuation with Brando’s performance in The Godfather. The title character in The Freshman is Clark Kellogg, played by Matthew Broderick. As the title implies, Clark is a first-year student, a small-town kid who’s entering the film program at NYU. Minutes Bergman’s script is a movie buff’s adoring joke on his own infatuation with Brando’s performance in The Godfather. The title character in The Freshman is Clark Kellogg, played by Matthew Broderick. As the title implies, Clark is a first-year student, a small-town kid who’s entering the film program at NYU. Minutes after Clark arrives in the Big Apple, his innocence gets him robbed, and this leads, somehow, to his acquaintance with Mr. Sabatini, a lordly yet genial “businessman” who holds court in an Italian-American club, and who bears an uncanny resemblance to the title character of a certain ‘70s era gangster movie starring Marlon Brando.
Mr. Sabatini takes to Clark on the spot, and offers him a peculiar job—transporting a komodo dragon, a big Indonesian lizard, from JFK to a mysterious facility in rural New Jersey where other endangered animals are kept, presided over by an enigmatic German chef who calls himself Larry London (the wonderful Maximilian Schell).
If this sounds crazy to you, you’re not wrong, and it gets crazier. The outrageous scheme at the heart of Sabatini’s operation is gradually revealed, but not before we actually get to hear Bert Parks sing “Maggie’s Farm.”
Romance, of a sort, enters the film as well—Sabatini’s confident, friendly daughter Tina (Penelope Anne Miller, in her finest hour, too) suddenly and unshakably shows up in Clark’s life, discussing their impending marriage as if it’s a given.
Clark balks quite hilariously at all of this, but is nonetheless carried along through the bizarre series of events by Mr. Sabatini’s warmth and irresistible persuasiveness.
Despite Broderick’s wide-eyed discomfiture—this is, possibly, his best screen performance —there’s a wistful sense of wish-fulfillment to the story.
Bergman takes the term “godfather” in its literal sense: Clark, whose father is dead and whose stepfather is a creep, becomes the favored adoptive son of Mr. Sabatini, a commanding yet kind and respectful new father figure.
Brando tunes into this comedic wavelength perfectly, and with a comparatively small amount of screen time he creates, in Carmine Sabatini, an Angel of Light to serve as the opposite—and equal—of the Angel of Darkness Vito Corleone.
It’s a glittering, beautiful, subtle, touching, deeply funny performance, and it elevates self-parody to the level of high art. It’s how I’ll prefer to remember Brando.
The DVD: The only edition of this film that I’ve been able to find on DVD is pretty bare-bones: The only special feature is the trailer. But a performance like this requires no bells and whistles. As for family suitability, kids who aren’t yet familiar with The Godfather won’t recognize the overriding in-joke of the material, but they’re likely to get a kick out of Clark’s predicament, and also the visual comedy provided by the big lizard.
In most families I know, the film would be considered suitable.