Let's Talk About James Caan's Most Underrated Performance

James Caan was the epitome of American manliness in the 1970s. It all started with his tempestuous performance as the fiery, ill-fated Sonny Corleone Ford Coppola's "The Godfather." Before he gets shredded by bullets on the Jones Beach Causeway, Sonny is the walking-talking-socking motor of the movie; he's his father's worst impulses gone nuclear. 

Caan's half-charming/half-challenging demeanor as Sonny wasn't entirely an act. He was a loquacious live-wire who could talk an interviewer's ear off, as well as a pugnacious, fiercely personal man who bristled at bad press. While he was earning plaudits and making bank as the star of "The Gambler," "Freebie and the Bean," and "Rollerball" — films that couldn't be more different in terms of genre and tone – Caan had a well-publicized good time

At least, it looked that way from the outside. How else to interpret a year's residence at the Playboy Mansion after taking his lumps during a difficult divorce? We can say in hindsight that this might've been a problematic living arrangement, but in the 1970s, this was basically living in Shangri-La. Caan struggled, sure, but it seemed like he always landed on his feet. And unlike other actors who've succumbed to the temptations of stardom, whatever was going on in Caan's life had zero effect on the work. The man never lost a bit of zip on his fastball.

That is until 1982's mirthless romantic comedy "Kiss Me Goodbye." Caan was miscast and completely checked out as the ghost ex-husband of Sally Field. When he returned in 1987 with "Gardens of Stone," the world was a vastly different place. His swaggering masculinity didn't play in a world dominated by Yuppies and torn asunder by AIDS. Caan had to reinvent himself.

The wrath (or lack thereof) of Caan

After an unsatisfying, tough-cop star turn in "Alien Nation," Caan reinvented his image wholesale as the vulnerable, laid-up author Paul Sheldon in Rob Reiner's "Misery." There's nothing sexy or (until the end) vicious about this guy. He's as mild-mannered as they come.

It's a fine performance, probably one of Caan's best, but it's also totally untethered to his movie-star past. Caan could've easily used his triumph in "Misery" to make a clean break with his macho '70s iconography, but, in 1992, he opted to shred this image as high-rolling gambler Tommy Korman in Andrew Bergman's zany romantic-comedy "Honeymoon in Vegas." It's a hilariously unpretentious turn that most actors of his stature might've eschewed altogether.

It took no shortage of chutzpah for writer-director Andrew Bergman to cast Caan after having gone through hell with the actor's "Godfather" co-star Marlon Brando during the making of 1990's "The Freshman," but if there are stories of on-set contentiousness, they never made the papers. Whereas Brando works a lightly modulated variation on Don Vito Corleone, Caan amplifies every single quality that made guys like Sonny, Axel Freed, and Jonathan E. so magnetic. Our introduction to Tommy finds him muscling a new concierge (Tony Shalhoub) at Harrah's Casino in Las Vegas because the President of Brazil is currently occupying his favorite penthouse. It's a pathetic display of power that establishes the character as a vain, insecure bully.

Selling the smarm

Throughout the first act, Tommy does absolutely nothing to prove us wrong. When he goes gaga after spying what he sincerely believes to be the reincarnation of his dear departed wife in the form of Betsy (Sarah Jessica Parker), he immediately sets up a rigged poker game to win her away from small-time detective Jack Singer (Nicolas Cage). It's the desperate act of a deranged man, and he overplays his scheme every step of the way. 

Tommy and his co-conspirators (including legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian) laugh way too hard at Jack's jokes, and, once they've hooked him on a $1,000 marker, bet far too loosely. Fortunately for them, Jack is so preoccupied with the Oedipal guilt of getting married in the first place — he promised his mother on her deathbed that he would never wed — that he can't spot the con.

Once Jack is into Tommy for $65,000 he most assuredly does not have, you expect the gambler to ease up and guide the poor schmuck into his desired arrangement: one innocuous weekend with Betsy. But here's the thing: Tommy is also a schmuck. He may be wealthy enough to practically own a Hawaiian island, but, like most men who power their way into prominence, Tommy knows deep down that he's a fraud. 

So he sticks with the hard sell, and Caan has a ball with this. The scene where Tommy gets Jack alone in his suite is a master class in awkwardness. Caan invades Cage's space at every opportunity. He's literally in his face at times. At one point, Caan sits down next to Cage, and, for reasons I've never entirely understood, he readjusts the younger man's arm a half-inch. It takes a schmuck to know how to unsettle a schmuck, I guess.

Of jostling and jousting

Tommy switches up his tactics when he gets Betsy to himself. He has to; Betsy's savvier than Jack. She might come off as a ditz, but, as Bergman showed us in the first act, she's a well-read elementary school teacher who can spot a clumsy con coming down Broadway. Her first instinct is spot-on: the poker game was rigged. This forces Tommy, who values Betsy solely for her striking resemblance to his dead wife, to gin up an emotional appeal. 

I love this movie, but there's nowhere near enough on the page to justify Betsy's change of heart. This shortchanges Parker, and leaves the fate of the film in Caan's hands. If he can't convince us that Tommy is slick enough to earn Betsy's sympathies to the extent that she'll run off to Hawaii, the film is dead.

Caan doesn't just get us to buy into Tommy's powers of persuasion, he gets us to like the bastard. Bergman does Caan a huge favor during the Hawaii segment by not turning the promised arrival of Tommy's son into a screwball comedy bit. When the kid turns up with his wife and baby, shock of shocks, they're normal people! The kicker arrives when Tommy woos Betsy on a boat ride. "If I were a medieval knight, I would've jostled for you." She corrects him. "Jousted." She's charmed by his sudden guilelessness, and so are we. Maybe this guy is a well-meaning, lovestruck loon. And maybe she's better off with him than a momma's boy whose hands go clammy at the thought of marriage.

A perfect Caan job

"Honeymoon in Vegas" must eventually adhere to its screwball formula, which requires Tommy to turn into a manhandling jerk. Initially, I resented Bergman for acceding to the dictates of the genre, but revisiting the film today, I realized I was miffed at being conned by Caan. I wanted to believe this guy wasn't the person he had to be to become a major Vegas operator. Caan got me there. And The Flying Elvises finale doesn't work without that effort.

Like many people of my generation, I bought into the entire James Caan package. The toughness, the sexiness, the extravagance... he was larger than life. In "Honeymoon in Vegas," he cut himself down to life-size. This isn't what conceited movie stars do. Caan was always real with us when it mattered. There is no higher praise for an actor.