On the Sonny side of the street

James Caan's career took a nosedive after 'The Godfather'. Now he's on the way back
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Film Studies

Film Studies

James Caan is looking good again - and a touch younger than the actual 62. In interviews, he starts to say something and then lets the thought trail off into a private chuckle where he's reminded of how he set them - the guys - straight. No one puts anything over on Jimmy Caan. Except for Caan himself, of course. There was a sad time, in the 1980s, when he wandered onto a TV talk show and you had to ask someone who'd been paying more attention, "Is that Jimmy Caan?" His laugh had gone; his great chest was shrivelled. Then, next time, he'd be overweight and slowed by painful thoughts that never cohered. Whatever happened to Caan, he was the idiot and the champ.

There was a time when he reckoned he could do anything. In 1971, he was in an exceptional TV movie, Brian's Song, where he played a footballer, Brian Piccolo, whose forlorn struggle with cancer was helped by friendship with another player, Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams). This was a long time ago, when real-life dramas were less common on TV. But it was well done, and Caan was nominated for an Emmy (he lost to Keith Michell as Henry VIII).

Then he got the role of Sonny Corleone - losing his temper, beating up his brother-in-law and having that virtuoso tollbooth death scene - in The Godfather. The performance was as thick as his chest hair, and there were guys who complained that the film lost its heart and energy when Jimmy was butchered. He was nominated for the supporting actor Oscar, but he lost again - to Joel Grey in Cabaret.

It looked as if Caan was going to become a real star. He had been acting 10 years, and he owed his discovery and some of his attitude to the veteran Howard Hawks who cast him in Red Line 7000 (1965) and El Dorado (1967). He had also drawn attention in Lady in a Cage (1964), the early Robert Altman film, Countdown (1968), and Francis Ford Coppola's The Rain People (1969), where he played a simple-minded athlete.

But in the 1970s, he became known for wayward choices, often against the advice of others. But Jimmy ... Well, you know the line: he went his own way and he liked risky projects. So he was the university professor who is also The Gambler (1974), and he brought off the intellectual as well as the desperado. He was good again, with Marsha Mason, in Cinderella Liberty (1972). But the choices grew stranger: Freebie and the Bean (1974); as Billy Rose opposite Streisand in Funny Lady (1975); very athletic in Rollerball (1975); in Peckinpah's The Killer Elite (1975); with Elliott Gould in Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976); for Claude Lelouch, Another Man, Another Chance (1977); Comes a Horseman (1978); and Chapter Two (1979), in which the part of the grieving writer was beyond him.

It was an inconsequential run that drew attention to the gap between aspirations and ability. But you couldn't tell him anything. He devoted a lot of time to directing a film of his own: the fascinating Hide in Plain Sight (1980), where he plays a man who loses touch with his young children when his ex-wife marries a man who goes into a witness protection plan. It was a good idea, well directed, but rather spoiled by Caan's histrionics - the man he played needed to be simple, but Caan seemed fixed on matching Brando.

Just before the fall he did Thief, for Michael Mann, maybe the best thing he's ever done in which the blazing fierceness seemed nothing but a proper response to life. Then came cocaine and booze, and the reclusiveness of someone who can't tell what has happened to him. He recovered; he stopped the drugs. He seemed so much older and wounded in Gardens of Stone. And he did fine work in Misery and Flesh and Bone. Now he's here with two offbeat pictures, The Yards and The Way of the Gun, in which he plays men accustomed to a hard world with all the grim simplicity of character actors. A man who has seen Sonnys come and go.

Caan is interviewed at the NFT on Wed, 6pm; 'The Yards', London Film Festival, Tues, 8.45pm, Wed, 3.30pm; 'The Way of the Gun', Wed, 8.30pm, Thur 4pm (020 7928 3232 for box office and venue)