The Godfather is the best film ever made. I might not personally ascribe to this belief, but The Godfather is also a film that can easily be called “the best film ever made” without any supporting argument (See also: Citizen Kane, Bicycle Thieves, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West). It’s just that good. Part of its brilliance comes from how the film manages to simultaneously be incredibly singular and hugely expansive in its focus. But while The Godfather covers a vast array of themes — American capitalism, the plight of the immigrant, the value of cannoli over guns — above all else, the film is about family. And no figure in the film remains as memorable as the head of the family, Don Vito Corleone.
The character is so well conceived that any halfway decent actor playing the role would be remembered. But it’s unlikely that anyone could have turned in a performance as indelible as Marlon Brando’s. Both the role and Brando himself have received innumerable amounts of praise, and rightly so. Rewatching The Godfather recently, however, I was struck by just how funny Don Corleone can be.
While there are humorous moments that are certainly scripted (the Don mocking Johnny Fontane comes to mind), a lot of the comedy of Corleone comes from Brando’s decisions as a performer. For his audition, the actor decided to stuff his cheeks with cotton-balls. And of course, the mush-mouth inflection is classic Brando. Both are inherently funny additions he made to the character. But Brando’s comedic instincts go beyond the goofy getup and silly speech; the actor imbues Don Corleone’s very nature with comedy.
This becomes apparent from the very first scene. The opening monologue from Bonasera sets the appropriate tone for The Godfather as a whole, and Brando’s response brings subtle humor to an otherwise deadly serious conversation.
Consider the cat. While Brando listens with the utmost respect to Bonasera, he pays just as much attention to the feline in his lap. Keep in mind, this is no acting cat; the animal was a stray that Brando found on the Paramount lot, and apparently made so much noise that much of Brando’s dialogue had to be rerecorded. Playing with the cat humanizes Don Corleone, but it’s also amusing in its own right. As the Internet has taught us, cats are always hilarious.
Then comes Corleone’s speech about friendship:
“We have known each other many years, but this is the first time you’ve come to me for counsel or for help. I can’t remember the last time you invited me to your house for a cup of coffee, even though my wife is godmother to your only child. But let’s be frank here. You never wanted my friendship. And you feared to be in my debt.”
On the page, it could read simply as the Don dressing down a man for having disrespected him. But through Brando, the man appears visibly hurt. He really does want more friends. Don Corleone cuts a fearsome figure through the mafia underworld, yet Brando also makes him into an emotionally needy butterball. When Bonasera makes the gesture of friendship (an awkward “Be my friend?”), the Don waves off the request. He knows how to play hard to get.
It’s an odd juxtaposition, and a funny one at that. Without Brando’s levity, the dark sadness of the scene might have become unbearable. With it, the audience learns that The Godfather won’t limit itself in scope. Any emotion, any subject, anything is fair game.
Corleone remains an emotional wreck throughout the film, and so the comedic paradox of Brando’s performance (a loving monster, a heartless family man, etc. etc.) lasts as well. Having survived numerous attempts on his life, Corleone ends life on his own terms: amusing his grandson with his patented orange-in-the-mouth routine. It’s fitting that his character should go out entertaining his family, as he has entertained the audience throughout the film.
Ever the method actor, Brando continued his comedy even when it came to the Oscars. Awarded the statue for Best Actor, Brando refused to accept the award. Instead, he sent American Indian Rights Activist Sacheen Littlefeather, who told the audience that Brando was boycotting the ceremony due to his objections regarding the depiction of American Indians by Hollywood. Of course, the German-Irish Brando was perfectly okay with Hollywood’s depiction of Italian- and Sicilian-Americans.
Okay, Marlon Brando probably took himself very seriously when he made that very serious statement because he of course is a very serious actor. But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t make fun of himself. The 1990 Matthew Broderick-starring comedy The Freshman found Brando playing Carmine Sabatini, another fictional mob boss. The character is said to have been inspired by Don Corleone, though nobody in the film would ever say this to the man’s face. It’s clear as day that Brando plays the same role in both films. There’s the same emotion, the same voice, even the same puffed out cheeks. The only difference is this time, the whole film is in on the joke.
Regardless of the film he appears in, this Vito Corleone displays a rich sense of humor. The fact that the ever-temperamental Brando revisited the role shows that even this very serious actor knew what a hoot the Don could be.
Justin Geldzahler would enjoy being a godfather. He’d be especially good at the mumbling and eating oranges part of the job.