Scenes From My Life: A quiet word about loudness

I do not want anybody yelling at me.

Yelling does not grab my wandering attention. Yelling does not further harden my firm convictions, nor soften the ones you’re yelling at me about.

Yelling does not scare me. Yelling does not change my mind.

Yet activist people of the progressive persuasion are getting frantic about the upcoming elections. They repeat the ritualistic, “The GOP is going to take over Congress and the world will end!”

Everyone seems to be afraid and their remedy for fear is to yell at the Dems for not yelling loudly about how rotten the GOP is.

Every Democrat running is being accused of failing to make his/her case to the American people. By yelling more, yelling louder. “Republicans are all yelling and scaring people, Dems have to yell louder.” As if it’s an absolute truth that loud noise sells the message; yelling scares people and wins elections.

I don’t think so.

In 1971 or so, Francis Coppola was filming The Godfather in the streets and buildings of what was then called Little Italy, now SoHo. Francis and I had become friends. I visited the film locations a couple of times.

On one of those visits, Francis introduced me to his father, Carmine — “This is my father,” he said in a formal way, and we shook hands. Then, “And this is the Godfather,” Francis said in the same tone of voice. It took me a second to realize I was about to shake hands with Brando.

Before production began, one of the internecine Godfather fights concerned whether Brando should be cast as Don Corleone, an unusual choice Francis was adamant about.

There exists somewhere in film archives a thirty-minute video Francis made with Brando, who wanted the role enough to be willing to, in effect, audition for the part. Since I was then working for Stanley Jaffe, Paramount’s president, I was one of a few able to watch the video, in which Brando quietly transformed himself, stuffing pads of cotton wool into his cheeks and mouth while talking over what he was doing, into Don Corleone. Masterful, and Francis got his Don, as did all of us.

One evening, I went to a screening of the dailies, the scene in which Brando meets with Sollozzo, who is pitching Corleone about getting into the drug trade. The scene was dark (Gorden Willis’s lighting) and the conversation calm, reasoned, businesslike. The menace was surreptitious.

After the dailies, Francis murmured to me that he’d been getting some criticism about Brando’s quiet tone of voice in the scene. What did I think?

It was both an endearing and potentially disruptive aspect of Francis’s personality to invite people around him into offering advice. “What do you think?” he’d say. A number of these people became convinced their comments were of high significance, that Francis was depending on them, ceding some authority to their superior wisdom. Eventually, there’d be, um, some upheaval.

I am not one of those people. I thought the scene was great, that Francis was a brilliant director and knew best what worked. And that’s what I told him.

A day or so later, I was summoned up to the 42nd floor, to Charlie Bluhdorn’s office. Charlie and I had an odd, mutually amused relationship, more or less springing from a toy hedgehog I once gave him.

“Nomi,” he said (that’s how he pronounced my name), “What do you think about the way Brando is talking? Don’t you think he’s too quiet? He’s supposed to be a scary person, but he’s almost whispering.”

Ah. I now understood who was causing Francis concern. I had to think of how to explain what I’d seen and heard. “Well,” I said, “I think the softness is much more menacing than if he were loud. The way he’s playing it, you lean forward to hear him, to focus on what he’s saying.”

By this time in the film, we know who the Don is, we know his power. And we all know Brando’s size as an actor. He doesn’t have to yell to be the Don. He’s much scarier when he speaks softly and makes us listen.

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