So monolithic and magisterial were the combined achievements of The Godfather and The Godfather II, and so emphatic were their identification with the New Hollywood legacy, that it was only inevitable that they would in time spawn a secondary canon of satires, spoofs and spin-offs. For the most part, this impulse was concentrated in two particular eras – the early 70s, when a number of Italian parodies emerged in response to the original film (The Godson of the Godfather, The Funny Face of the Godfather), and the late 90s, when the release of the third film seemed to make American parodies viable and acceptable in a new kind of way (The Godson, Mafia!). Yet the greatest parody of all doesn’t belong to either of these moments but was instead sandwiched between them, released in 1990 on the cusp of The Godfather III. That position in itself would give Andrew Bergman’s The Freshman a special resonance, since there has been no other time since the release of the first film when the fate and canonicity of the franchise felt so at stake. Yet The Freshman has an additional ace up its sleeve in the casting of Marlon Brando, who more or less reprises the role of Vito Corleone in a parodic vein, as if competing to contain and pre-empt whatever the third film in the trilogy might mean for the legacy of the series, and for the legacy of Brando’s brief but defining role in the series.
Acting against Brando here is Matthew Broderick, who plays Clark Kellogg, a young man from Vermont who arrives in New York to attend the NYU Film School but finds himself immediately intercepted by the Mafia from the moment he gets off the train at Grand Central. If Coppola’s first two films are novelistic – and self-consciously novelistic – in their sense of pacing, tone and character development, then Bergman is comically peremptory, since it’s only a matter of scenes. before Clark finds himself engaged to marry Tina Sabatini (Penelope Ann Miller) and welcome into the “family” by her father, Carmine (Brando). With another lead actor, that might all be a bit too preposterous to swallow, but Broderick knows how to play the role of the precious naif to a tee, to the point where The Freshman often feels like a parody of his particular brand of contrived innocence as much as a parody of Brando’s post-Godfather legacy. In fact, the more astonished Broderick becomes, the more the film stretches itself to accommodate his astonishment, culminating with the revelation that Carmine’s main business venture is heading an exotic reptile smuggling ring, and that he will only allow Clark to marry his daughter if he agrees to smuggle Komodo Dragons from JFK Airport to an undisclosed location in the middle of New Jersey.
Given that Clark’s stepfather is a member of an extremist mammal protection society in Vermont, the stage is set for a clash of families and syndicates that increasingly recalls the weird blend of crime cultures present in Sidney Lumet’s Family Business, also starring Matthew Broderick. Yet before we even get to the Mafia stuff, the film has a brilliant receptacle for Clark’s incredulity in its depiction of the NYU Film Studies Department, here personified by Paul Benedict in a truly brilliant cameo as Arthur Fleeber, a Film Studies Professor who has made his name with a series of groundbreaking monographs on 30s and 70s Hollywood. Continually citing the “Fleeber Thesis” to his students, The Godfather and The Godfather II are his particular passion project, and he knows them both off by heart, liberally quoting them in class and refusing to allow any dissent or disagreement about their role in the canon. From his disquisition on “And the Wheels Go Slow: Form and Function in 42nd Street” to his – apparently – groundbreaking – study of Coppola, “Guns and Provolone,” Fleeber is a walking, talking time capsule of academic jargon, but in ways that just seem to accentuate everything that is juvenile, visceral and irreducibly unacademic about film fandom as well. In one terrific scene, he demands that the class write a paper comparing the Lake Tahoe scene in The Godfather II to Marx’s Das Kapital and Kant’s Critique of Pure Judgment, but also mouths along rapturously to every line in the film, like a child transfixed.
The result is a fond and fascinating glimpse of Film Studies in the early 90s, when old titles were suddenly available again on VHS and many of the academic conventions that we take for granted today – around article titles, lecturing style, public image – were starting to consolidate in a new way. More specifically, Fleeber also feels like a vision of a certain kind of academic ushered in by the culture wars and the rise of Cultural Studies as a discipline and mindset, since in lieu of anything resembling traditional professorial knowledge or gravitas we’re instead presented with something like a heightened and intensified fanboy. That sense of academia as accelerated and validated fandom seems even more delightfully comic and absurd for the fact that Benedict himself was such a venerable character actor by this point in time, and the incongruity between his presence and his role often seems to beg the question of what was at stake in this new iteration of academic life in a particularly pointed and pregnant way. That sense of academia (and Film Studies specifically) as a space who future is as yet unwritten is epitomised by Fleeber’s fixation on the singularity of the first two Godfather films, as Bergman offers us the last real vision of Film Studies before the release of Coppola’s third instalment. As a result, The Godfather III often looms over the film like the horizon of Film Studies itself, which of course also means that The Freshman itself partly appropriates that horizon, offering its characters and scenarios as a kind of irreverent and parodic close reading of Coppola’s two masterpieces as much as an immersive feature-length experience.
Of course, that attempt to puncture the academic mystification and untouchability of the first two Godfather films could also be seen as Bergman’s effort to make space for the third film – and who better to do that than Brando himself? Indeed, Clark recognizes Carmine from the moment he meets him, quickly telling him that he looks like the Godfather from The Godfather, and only just falling short of observing that he actually looks like Marlon Brando. In another actor’s hands, that level of self-referentiality could quickly feel tiresome, or play as straight satire, but Brando’s presence here is utterly amazing, right on the cusp of being a serious performance, since he has a residual gravitas even in the most ridiculous and preposterous situations and knows exactly how to play to it in this particular case, such the genius of The Freshman almost lies in the way in which Brando plays to this preposterous premise as earnestly as he plays to the auteurist aspirations of The Godfather. In fact, this would become defining feature of Brando’s ate career and a legacy of Kurtz – playing any role he was offered as earnestly as possible, culminating with his reversion to method acting in The Island of Dr. Moreau. Yet in this particular case that very misplaced earnestness is the subject matter of the film, which is perhaps why it often feels as if we are watching Brando prepare for and rehearse a role as much as actually perform one.
At a narrative level, that earnestness plays out mainly in terms of the sheer arbitrariness with which he invests himself in Broderick’s character, since in a kind of comic riposte to Vito Corleone we now have a Godfather who latches himself onto the first son-in-law who comes his way. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Brando still does all that with the ceremonial gravitas of Coppola’s film, nor that the whole tone, mood and palette of The Freshman perfectly mimics Gordon Willis’ cinematography, which is perhaps why – amazingly – Brando doesn’t seem to have aged much facially, appearing much younger (if much paunchier) than in many of his 80s roles. The omniscient benevolence of the original Godfather is thereby given a new spin as Carmine determines to extend house, hearth and hospitality to Clark, no matter how unwelcome, inexplicable or incongruous it feels. Before he knows it, Clark is set to be married off to the Don’s daughter and elevated to a senior fixture in the family, somehow enjoying the most glowing reputation across the entire business despite needing Carmine to give him chance after chance after chance.
As with the original film, that sense of stately benevolence is clearest around food and eating, since Carmine gradually reveals that the motivation for the reptile smuggling is the “Gourmet Club,” an anarchic, postmodern, bratpack (but also a parody of New York fine dining at the turn of the 90s) that, since 1985, has staged a series of moveable feasts whose entire menu consists of endangered species. Meeting every three to six months with a baseline price of $200 000, the meals get pricier as the species get more endangered, with the ultimate sign of privilege and status being the opportunity to eat the last surviving member of a species for a “cool million.” Even without Brando, the scenes of Clark ferrying the Komodo Dragons across New Jersey would be brilliant on their own terms, especially a great set piece when the lizard escapes across a parking lot and into all the interstices of a Jersey Mall, syncing up with the water features, indoor ferns, ferris wheel and piped-in exotic music in a wonderfully pointed and satirical manner. At the same time, there’s clearly a sense of Brando himself being an endangered species, along with his brand of method acting, which is perhaps why the reptilian backdrop increasingly seems to converge the Godfather overtones with the landscapes of Apocalypse Now, Brando’s last really extravagant method exercise and the exhaustion, really, of his method impulse.
Yet by acknowledging that exhaustion the film also gives Brando permission to relax, while the focus on food also paints his body with a more forgiving brush than many of his subsequent appearances. Whereas Brando’s later roles often required him to conceal his girth, or at least tried to distract the audience from it, here the pleasure lies in how dexterously he handles his rotundity, until it seems like a ripple or undulation of his mellifluous voice. Not only do we see more and more of his body as the film proceeds but his voice becomes more and more embodied, less and less shrouded in Coppola-esque darkness, culminating in a wonderful ice skating sequence in which he glides across the rink like a polar bear. For me, there was something quite poignant about the way Brando allowed himself to inhabit his body in such an elegant and comfortable way here, not unlike Orson Welles’ role in some of his later films, with the film’s gastronomical focus giving his girth a real sense of culture and accomplishment. In the process, Bergman really captures the fetishistic fixation on food and eating at the heart of The Godfather, especially as it pertains to Brando, who always seems to be chewing over his words – and chewing scenery – even as this is also one Mafia crime story that defies promoters to develop a spinoff cookbook.
In other words, nobody has ever impersonated Brando as effectively as Brando impersonates himself here. In that sense, The Freshman often plays as the real third film in The Godfather trilogy, building to a beautifully sincere conclusion that plays as a swansong to Brando’s greatest acting moments. And while Brando would go on to play memorable – if increasingly sporadic – parts until The Score in 2001, this is probably his last great role, or the last film that was really able to give him the gift of a great role; a perfect piece of late work that reflects upon and revises his greatest performances without ever feeling slavishly indebted to them.