Why you should care
Because something this freaking fantastic should never be forgotten. Like, never.
You know it’s cinema. You know that standing a few feet outside of the frame is a stagehand with a cup of coffee, slightly bored and thinking about break time. You know the actors didn’t make up the words they’re spouting, and yet in the hands of some of the super-talented few, the effect is nothing short of gripping. And in the hands of the absolutely incandescent, like long-departed actor John Cazale, it can be life altering.
Cazale, who succumbed to cancer after appearing in only five movies, managed to crush it in every one, helping to make each of them award worthy and award winning. For his last, The Deer Hunter, all of his scenes were filmed first in the knowledge that he’d likely die before filming had wrapped. But it was his first, 1972’s Godfather, that cemented him in our minds as Fredo, the weak brother to Pacino’s Michael, in one of the most delicately rendered takes on the complexity of brotherhood this side of On the Waterfront. Or, if you will, a pas de deux not unlike the biblical Cain and Abel.
Fredo reveals himself in bravura moments … but none stands out in greater relief than his final chat with Michael.
To set the scene sans spoilers, Fredo, the pneumonia-stricken middle scion of a grand mafia family, is overshadowed by both his older brother Sonny’s brawny brio and his younger brother Michael’s clear head for business. Fredo seems ill-suited for much beyond nursing a wounded hunger, dreaming of future glories, courting showgirls (despite later suggestions of bisexuality) and getting slapped in public by Jewish mobster Moe Green.
At the time of his death in 1978 at age 42, Cazale was dating a then-unknown actress named Meryl Streep.
In Cazale’s hands, the feckless Fredo reveals himself in a series of bravura moments: crying on the curb at the fruit stand after his failed effort at bodyguarding his father, a New Year’s in Havana with Michael, complete with a treachery uncovered. But none stands out in greater relief than Fredo’s final chat with Michael in The Godfather: Part II. After acknowledging the death of their father and their relationship to each other, Fredo bursts into a speech for the ages wherein he reminds Michael that he, the older brother, had been wounded in a way that would not heal.
“I’m your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over!”
In one speech, recrimination, resentment and a railing against fortune. He curses a fate that’s not even finished with him yet, but has dropped him back in a familiar place and space — a space where he is found wanting. Powerful. Unforgettable. And, when you consider all the other performances Cazale delivered, and how good they were, it’s almost unbelievable.
But seeing is believing, so see. Here.