Remembering James Caan and his powerful blend of swagger and delicacy

With his thick neck and trapezoidal torso, Caan looked like the athlete he plays, but little about the performance in “The Rain People” i...


With his thick neck and trapezoidal torso, Caan looked like the athlete he plays, but little about the performance in “The Rain People” is obvious. It’s a weighty role – Killer is the story’s sacrificial lamb – but Caan, working with Coppola, imbues the role with a subtle, persuasive innocence that doesn’t protect the character or sanctify her disability. As an actor, Caan could certainly go big and exteriorize a character’s inner workings (he does a lot around the eyebrows), and Kilgannon has his outsized moments. Yet what makes the character work is the poignant deadpanness that conveys how brutally life has hollowed him out.

Caan’s ability to convey delicacies of feeling was no singular gift, but, in his finest roles, it worked in counterpoint to his swaggering physique and the implied roughness telegraphed by his cultivated Bronx and Queens accent. He looked tough, delinquent, villainous, potentially dangerous, even if his best characters were sometimes more complicated. As Caan’s reputation grew (he was a longtime favorite of this newspaper’s film critics) and a range of roles opened up to him, he played against and against type and expectations, becoming one of the defining faces of New Hollywood.

It may surprise you how big Caan was in the 1970s, especially if you really only know “The Godfather.” Two years after the explosion of Coppola’s film, in a test on “The Last Detail” which cemented Jack Nicholson as a major star, Vincent Canby of The Times also named Caan as one of the other notable youngsters of the era alongside Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and co-star frequent Caan, Robert Duvall. There are various reasons why Caan’s reputation faded over the following decades; on the one hand, while Nicholson cemented his fame as a sailor in “The Last Detail”, Caan returned to the navy in “Cinderella Liberty” (1973).

I like “Cinderella Freedom” but it was not canonized as “The Last Detail”, written by Robert Towne and directed by Hal Ashby. But “Cinderella” deserves the love, in part because Caan is terrific in it as a sailor who, on an unscheduled leave, suddenly gets involved with a slew of good times (a glorious Marsha Mason). They’re loose, funny, and sexy, and create a raw, unpredictable, and memorable romance together. Given how male-dominated so many 1970s classics were, it’s worth remembering that Caan was good with women in a lot more ways than “The Godfather” implied.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Remembering James Caan and his powerful blend of swagger and delicacy
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