All Hail, King of the Runts!

Great art is one thing, but consistently pumping out the stuff quite another.

I mean, how many artists do you love (whether it’s film directors, musicians or, er, sculptors) only to admit a fair chunk of their work is actually pants?

Take a fucked-up little bald girl like Sinead O’Connor. Her first two albums are downright astonishing, the work of a unique talent. She sings like an angelic banshee and I only wish my balls would grow as big.  

Then there’s someone like the Stones, who took a little while to get going before hitting a glorious patch between 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet and 1972’s Exile on Main St.

There’s a window, you see, when an artist is on fire. Sure, talent and hard work are important, but I believe it’s also got something to do with combining a need to say something and a lack of self-consciousness. Sadly, however, that window closes. It might happen quickly, it might even briefly re-open later on, but most artists (the ones above being no exception) simply stay in the game far too long. They become victims of the law of diminishing returns. Their vitality drains away and irrelevance beckons.

Why?

Well, creativity’s a strange old thing. In most pursuits, the more you practice, the better you get. Art appears to be an exception with most artists reaching a plateau and then nose diving. They carry on anyway, addicted to a long-gone adulation while trying to scratch the itchy challenge of recreating former glories. Plus, they’ve gotta fill in their day just like everybody else.

Still, it’s often vaguely depressing how some of our favorite artists end up. In moviedom, this inevitable decline is just as apparent and I’m sure you can think of many examples.

However, there is one magnificent exception. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you John Cazale, Esq.

Sure, he’s not the best-known actor, his fame a mere blip next to greats like De Niro and Newman, but he beats them hands down when it comes to that little chestnut called artistic consistency.

Five movies, folks, and all of ’em classics.

So who was he? In short, a skinny man with a hangdog face that specialized in playing faintly ridiculous wimps. If he’d lived into the 1980s, there’s no way he would’ve been in the running for John Rambo. Tootsie, maybe, but Rambo, no.

In a way it was good he died young. Just like none of us want to imagine a geriatric Jimi Hendrix shakily trying to play the guitar behind his head, it would’ve been sad to see Mr Cazale eking out a living in the likes of Scary Movie 5. Instead the chain-smoker had the decency to die of bone cancer at the age of 42 before The Deer Hunter was even completed.

Good on him.

And just remember, whatever you do in life, whatever you think you’ve achieved, you’ll never, ever be as fucking cool as that pasty-faced King of the Runts, John Cazale.

The Godfather (1972)

Sonny’s got the alpha male punching power while Michael’s a savvy war hero. Adopted son Tom might be a non-soldier, but in Don Corleone’s eyes, he still brings legal brains and a silky finesse to the table.

And Fredo?

Well, his status is above that of the household cat, but most probably on the same level as his sister Connie and she’s a girl.

In fact, Fredo would have to be one of the most hapless hoodlums and resolutely ignored sons in cinematic history. He’s not only a square peg in a round hole but made of cardboard. The man is a grade A fuck-up, even though we know his heart’s in the right place and he’s trying. You can almost smell his desperate need for approval, but his irrelevance borders on the poignant. And, of course, runts like him are never gonna last long in such a dog eat dog world.

We first get a sense Fredo’s not at the top of his game when he meets Michael’s new girlfriend, drunkenly flopping to his knees and pushing his face into hers. A bit embarrassing, yes, but nothing next to the fiasco of filling in for his dad’s sick driver. Not only does he fail to offer any protection during the Don’s attempted assassination, he comically drops his gun. To round off a perfect day’s work, he then sits on the curb and bursts into tears as his critically wounded ‘pop’ slides down the car’s hood.

Later, there’s a tiny scene in which he sits alone by his recuperating father’s bedside. Vito knows he’s there, but doesn’t offer any acknowledgement. In that sad, telling moment we realize Fredo’s always been part of the wallpaper.

With barely a line of dialogue so far, Fredo is then sent to Nevada to learn the casino business. There’s a sense it’s not a proper job and they just want him out of their hair.

When Michael, the newly appointed Don, flies out for a crucial business meeting with the casino owner, Fredo looks quite different. He’s garishly dressed and has added some swagger, but although he’s learned to bark at bellhops there’s no real authority in his voice. Of course, he misjudges things again, springing a surprise party on the focused and deadly serious Michael. Told to get rid of the girls and the musicians, it’s here we start to grasp Cazale’s acting prowess. With his tongue poking his cheeks, he’s all averted, downcast eyes and hands on hips. Does anyone do a whipped puppy impression better?

Still, his humiliation only grows. Michael orders Fredo’s boss, Moe Greene, not to hit him again in public, which prompts further embarrassment when he explains the rough treatment was necessary because Fredo was too busy ‘banging cocktail waitresses two at time’ for the casino players to get a drink at their table.

Fredo reacts like the classic case of a battered wife, apologizing and making excuses for his abuser. “That was nothing, Mike,” he splutters to a roomful of people before telling him he can’t come to Las Vegas and talk to a man like Moe Greene like that. By now you’re close to wincing at his relentless cluelessness.

Michael simply takes a second to hand out another scolding. “Fredo,” he says, his voice full of disappointment, “you’re my older brother and I love you, but don’t ever take sides against the family ever again.”

Cazale’s Fredo is an indelible portrayal, so good it’s easy to forget his entire screen time in this legendary three-hour flick is about ten minutes.

Most Runty Quote: “Kid.” Er, Fredo, that’s not the way to address the newly crowned Don in public, even if he is your younger brother.

The Conversation (1974)

Not the movie to get your John Cazale fix, this is a slow-burn, Catholic-tinged study of paranoia and awakening conscience. It’s a mystery drama, lacking in big scenes like an equine decapitation, and the balding Cazale has no real opportunity to make a big impact. He plays Stan, an assistant to a legendary bugger. Like Fredo, he isn’t very good at his job and is easily distracted. He often interrupts at the wrong times or wants to take a break, clearly being seen as a hindrance. At one point he even deserts his boss to take up with a rival.

Typical runty stuff, really.

In truth, this is not an Earth-shattering role. Still, Cazale is part of a strangely memorable movie. It’s very well-regarded while its examination of society’s ever increasing level of surveillance remains uneasily relevant.

Most Runty Quote: “Just give me a bit of tongue.” Stan’s attention is wandering again, preferring to photograph a pair of pretty girls outside the surveillance van rather than concentrate on the important job in hand. And, of course, they’re not even aware of his existence.

The Godfather Part II (1974)

Aah, now this is the one.

Peak Cazale, the most brilliant portrayal of runtiness you’ll ever see.

Unreliable, resentful, naive, incompetent and treacherous, Fredo can’t do a thing right in the eyes of his all-powerful brother. Indeed, it’s his deteriorating relationship with Michael that provides this unrelentingly brilliant flick with its beating heart.

Fredo’s still trying his best, though. For a start he’s grown a moustache, perhaps to make himself look older or more mature or something. Whatever the case, he just looks shiftier. Even his hair doesn’t want anything to do with him, apparently determined to crawl away over the back of his head. His fashion sense has also worsened, leaving him horribly dressed throughout. Christ, at one point he wears a cardigan, a sartorial move no self-respecting gangster (no matter how down on his luck) should ever make.

He’s also married a blonde bimbo, a disastrous choice that provides his first public humiliation. We find him fuming by the side of the dance floor while his drunken wife stumbles around in the clutches of another man. When he attempts to straighten her out, she simply tells him: “You’re just jealous because he’s a real man.”

Ouch.

Fredo tries to scare her but it doesn’t fool anyone, especially his sneering missus. “You couldn’t beat your mama!” she laughs, leaving one of Michael’s men to escort her away.

Poor old Fredo. He can’t even keep his woman in line, Cazale already playing the guy like he’s got the weight of the world on his narrow shoulders.

Michael is fed up, too, of having to continually deal with such a familial weak link. After an attempted assassination at his home, he tells Tom: “Fredo… He’s got a good heart, but he’s weak and stupid.” It’s the first time Michael has been so blunt about Fredo’s myriad inadequacies, giving us a sense of time running out.

Meanwhile, Fredo is getting further and further out of his depth, a man who doesn’t even look at ease when he’s lying on black silk sheets. By now he’s too clumsy to remember his own deceits. An enraged Michael grabs his face as he reveals his damning knowledge of the attempted hit. “I know it was you, Fredo,” he cries. “You broke my heart.” A speechless Fredo can do nothing but stumble backward with shock etched on his face.

Later, we see him slumped in a chair, too broken to even get up. Michael stands by the bay window, the snow outside providing the perfect metaphor for their frozen relationship. Fredo swears he was just trying to carve something out for himself and had no idea his talks with the enemy would put Michael in the firing line.

“I’ve always taken care of you, Fredo,” Michael quietly tells him, implying he’s some sort of invalid.  It’s this stinging understatement that enables Cazale to do his very best work. In a big, impassioned moment all the years of pain, humiliation and wounded pride come spilling out.

“You’re my kid brother!” he shouts. “You take care of me? You ever think about that, eh? Send Fredo off to do this, send Fredo off to do that. Let Fredo take care of some Mickey Mouse nightclub somewhere. I’m your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over.”

After Connie implores Michael to forgive their brother, Fredo grabs hold of Michael with agonized relief and buries his face in his midriff, as if hanging on for dear life itself.

But the game’s up.

And, of course, it’s fitting this hopeless, yet somehow sweet sorry-ass of a man, should be fatally blindsided while wearing an intensely stupid hat.

Most Runty Quote: “Mama used to tease me. She’d say: ‘You don’t belong to me. You were left on the doorstep by gypsies.’ Sometimes I think it’s true.” Fredo lays bare what it’s like to be a runt.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

There’s a moment early on in this much-loved classic that throws up a tiny suspicion Cazale’s opted to play a different sort of character. He walks into a Brooklyn bank and sits by the manager, who’s on the phone. He then pulls a machine gun from his briefcase and trains it on him, coolly telling him to keep talking.

Is this a new Cazale? Decisive? Dominant? God forbid, an action man?

Well, no. It’s not long before he’s revealed to be a dimwitted, utterly incompetent criminal. What was I thinking? This is John Cazale. He doesn’t do the all guns blazing thing. Hell, this guy doesn’t even run.

The toughest thing he does here is make a girl cry by pointing his weapon at her. And no, I don’t mean his enormous cock.

He’s a bank robber called Sal, roped in to help Sonny (Al Pacino) get enough cash to pay for his ‘wife’s’ sex-change operation.

As they say, only in America.

Once again, Cazale is sheepishly playing second fiddle, his machine gun-toting presence strangely peripheral throughout. At no point does he appear in control or able to influence events. He comes across as a feeble, listless non-entity with nothing going on behind his eyes, only sparking into some sort of life when the TV news reporters start saying he’s gay.

But that’s how it goes for a runt. Wrongly thought to be homosexual, we also learn he’s an ex-con, has never flown, and has no one to talk to or say goodbye to when things go awry. His pronounced lack of sophistication is best shown when Sonny asks what ‘special country’ he wants the getaway jet to land in and he replies Wyoming.

As Sonny’s gay lover says on the phone: “Sal’s with you? Oh, boy. You’d be better off giving up.”

Most Runty Quote: “Were you serious about throwing bodies out the door? I’m ready to do it.” I guess runts can talk as tough as anybody, but Sal barely looks capable of having the strength to pull the trigger let alone move the corpse of an overweight bank manager.

The Deer Hunter (1978)

At first glance Cazale has finally left his runtiness behind in this superb, Oscar-winning epic. Not only is he a Pennsylvanian steelworker (a proper manly occupation in anybody’s book), but he also has a pretty girlfriend and a bunch of mates. He sings and dances and horses around like a normal bloke.

What the hell’s going on?

OK, there are little clues his innate runtiness will eventually bubble to the surface. For a start, his sense of humor is a tad off. “Hey, Steven,” he calls to a mate about his impending wedding night, “any help you might need tonight just call on me.” He keeps doing things that provoke mild rebukes, like mock-tripping the best man at the wedding, running off his mouth or forgetting to bring important stuff. There’s just something about him that winds the others up and it’s not long before you start to suspect he’s the least mature and least popular of the six-strong group.

Still, nothing really prepares you for how quickly this veneer of apparent normality is ripped away. While dancing with his girl during the wedding celebrations a guy cuts in. Cazale sullenly watches as her new partner repeatedly grabs her ass. Then he gets up and walks over. You think we’re going to see the worm turn, that we’re actually going to see John Cazale punch a bloke.

Nah.

Instead he whacks his missus, leaving her spark out in the middle of the dance floor and almost getting into a fight with his protesting mates.

Classic runty behavior. Why punch a male wrongdoer when you can simply whack a woman instead?

Of course, he doesn’t go to Nam, either. Not that you’d expect such an archetypal pussy to do so. The Vietcong would only snigger. Could you picture him in a bamboo cage playing Russian roulette with three bullets in the chamber? The silly fucker would probably drop the gun and blow his own foot off.

Cazale, already in the last stages of terminal cancer here, nails every moment whether unwisely giving De Niro the needle or claiming he’s getting more ass than a toilet seat.

It’s another memorable portrayal of an awkward guy who just can’t fit in.

Most Runty Quote: “In case.” His response to being asked why he’s carrying a revolver is simply another example of him trying to play a tough guy and fooling no one.

A Summary of John Cazale’s Runty Movie Career

Punches thrown at men: 0

Women hit: 1

Guns fired: 0

Guns dropped: 1

Babes banged onscreen: 0

Number of times respect earned: 0

Positions of power obtained: 0

Number of times killed: 2

Mishaps and humiliations: Countless

Number of convincing performances: 5

Dave Franklin has been known to write about a runt or two in such charming works as Looking for Sarah Jane Smith.

About Dave Franklin

Dismayed by the state of the post-2000 cinema, Dave Franklin hasn't visited a movie house in more than a decade. He can usually be found in a dingy room dressed up as Marilyn Monroe, pining for the lost days of the 70's cinema. Saying that, he will visit you for an appropriate fee to read excruciating excerpts from his novels.