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The Assassination of Sterling Hayden by the Auteur Francis Coppola

The Assassination of Sterling Hayden by the Auteur Francis Coppola

This morning, I was pondering the mini-movie-marathon TCM will be dedicating to one of my favorite actors, Sterling Hayden, on his birthday, March 26th. The tall, Nordic-looking blond was often relegated to heading up B-Westerns and crime stories in the 40s and 50s,  like Arrow in the Dust and Suddenly, before finding a fan in director Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick first used Hayden in just that type of film, 1956’s The Killing, an early genre piece that really didn’t set the box office on fire. Hayden’s reputation didn’t really begin to attain a certain stature until a few years later. By then, Stanley Kubrick had become Kubrick™, the reclusive, one-named auteur who’d buck the Hollywood establishment and direct Hayden in the slightly bent role of Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). This atypical, blackly comic role helped Hayden get darker, pivotal roles from many of the top auteurs who’d come after Kubrick, as they ascended in the New Hollywood’s director-led artistic revolution, filmmakers like Robert Altman (The Long Goodbye), Bernardo Bertolucci (1900) and most notably, Francis Coppola. It was then, while thinking of Hayden’s role in Coppola’s The Godfather, that something wild occurred to me.

In 1972, The Godfather was something new to American cinema (the movie celebrated the 40th anniversary of its release on March 15th). It was a crime story that was also a prestige picture. No expense was spared in adapting the bestseller by Mario Puzo, mostly because the demanding Coppola resisted Paramount’s previous attempts to produce it quickly and cheaply, a la Martin Ritt’s box office bomb, The Brotherhood. It’s hard to imagine in retrospect, but actors lacking any trace of Italian ethnicity, like Ryan O’Neal and Robert Redford, were being considered to play The Godfather‘s protagonist, Michael Corleone, just like The Brotherhood had cast the lantern-jawed Kirk Douglas as its lead (for more on the ins and outs of The Godfather‘s production, read the indispensable The Godfather Companion by Peter Biskind). And why shouldn’t the studio have done so? Up until then, heroes and antiheroes, regardless of intended ethnicity, were played by WASP (or in the case of Douglas, WASP-looking) actors like Hayden himself.

A lack of positive ethnic representation in cinema forced Cuban Americans like myself to adopt Scarface and its Cuban drug-lord Tony Montana into our cultural iconography (which I talk about at length here). One thing Cuban Americans do share with Montana is his immigrant experience. And one of the reasons Tony Montana in particular was so easily accepted by myself and others like me is because of the actor who played him. Al Pacino not only looked like one of us, he looked nothing like Sterling Hayden. You couldn’t just stick Pacino in a Western without some kind of lengthy exposition to explain his presence in the film. But you could cast Pacino as the lead in a crime movie just like the ones Hayden starred in. And that’s what Coppola did, casting Pacino as the star of The Godfather against the protests of studio executives, while assigning the aging Hayden a secondary role as a police chief. And not just any chief, but an utterly detestable, racist, and corrupt one.

Pacino’s Michael Corleone was the first hero Cuban Americans had called their own, in a movie known to us as El Padrino. What Coppola did not just for Italians or Cuban Americans, but all ethnicities, was demonstrate that a prestige picture by a major studio could be carried by an Italian American, one who wasn’t fair-skinned and blue-eyed like Frank Sinatra, but brown-eyed and of olive complexion and short stature like Al Pacino. Combined with the casting of character actors like Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson or black actors like Richard Roundtree as leads in some of the most popular films of the era, it’s fairly simple to see why Pacino’s success in a movie of that scale opened doors for so many offbeat-looking characters that would follow. Coppola’s The Godfather was not just a major release. It won the Best Picture Oscar, spawned another Oscar-winning sequel, and has become one of the most watched movies of all time. And despite the risk of being overshadowed by no less an actor than Marlon Brando, Pacino carried The Godfather simply by virtue of being in every scene.

Coppola, who based many of the cultural touchstones of the film on his own family’s experience as first-generation Italian Americans, then did something remarkable when he cast Hayden as Captain McCluskey, the despicable police chief we rooted against. He had Michael shoot him in the head midway through the film. Al Pacino, New Hollywood icon and one of my cultural heroes, shot Sterling Hayden, Old Hollywood stalwart and one of my favorite actors. In the head. Francis Coppola assassinated Sterling Hayden, and American cinema would never be the same again.

Atlanta-based freelance writer Tony Dayoub writes about film and television for his blog, Cinema Viewfinder, and reviews DVDs and Blu-rays for Nomad Editions: Wide Screen, a digital weekly. His criticism has also been featured in Slant’s The House Next Door blog, Opposing Views and Follow him on Twitter.

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Craig Simpson

Very interesting piece, but here's a different angle: Was Sterling Hayden a WASP? I mean, maybe he was (born Sterling Relyea Walter), but I can't find hard evidence of his ethnic background online. Regardless, while Hayden (one of my favorite actors too) was Old Hollywood in a putative sense, and had the physique of a classic star, the dark recesses of his screen persona and sharp detours of his career seem to line up with Roger Ebert's take: that Hayden's appearance in THE GODFATHER was more the result of "understated typecasting" than a revolutionary move on Coppola's part. ("As the Irish cop," Ebert writes in his original review, "they simply slide in Sterling Hayden and let the character go about his business.") Had Michael shot a McCluskey played by a more conventional movie star – say, Henry Fonda (assassinated a few years earlier by Charles Buchinsky, aka Bronson) or Gregory Peck (granted, a Catholic, not a WASP) – then that would have been truly daring. With Hayden, shattering as the scene is, it still feels inevitable, on the nose.

Tony Dayoub

The point about Hoffman (and I would add Poitier as someone who preceded both Hoffman and Pacino) has been made elsewhere in response to this piece. Perhaps I should have been clearer on the distinction I was trying to point out. Hoffman was playing a WASP (a Jewish kind of WASP, Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out, but a WASP nonetheless).Pacino was an Italian playing an Italian in a successful prestige picture. And Coppola made no concessions in depicting that character's ethnicity, an accusation frequently lodged against Poitier.

Rena Moretti

What is particularly interesting is how many good actors were in that film (and many other A movies of the time).

Today, they'd cast Pacino's role with a dead-eyed model-type incapable of acting ala Ryan Reynolds.

Then again, they'd never make that film in the first place…

Times have changed, but not for the better.

The door was already somewhat open

I tend to think that the non-WASPy leading man door got opened more substantially five years before THE GODFATHER when Dustin Hoffman got the lead in THE GRADUATE and proved beyond doubt that someone who didn't look like Robert Redford (or the young Sterling Hayden — there's a beauty contest for you) could carry a successful A-picture.

Steve Lantz

Genius analysis! I appreciate your knowledge of film history and Hayden's career to draw the obvious parallel of art imitating (or, in a sense, creating) life, that I have enjoyed viewing, but would have otherwise missed. Spot on and great insight into the Cuban-American fan experience. I plan on using this insight to test some new theories of cultural identity that this review has planted in my head. On a different note, I had the pleasure of seeing The Godfather on the big screen during the 20th anniversary that seems like only yesterday. Having introduced the classic to my wife for the first time in recent weeks, I'll be looking for a big screen experience in South Florida we can both attend. If you know of any, please post the information. Thanks.

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