In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1990 and seven from 2000 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column). The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films that were among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.

Mr. Brando’s Skating Coach: Sandra Bezic

Given its similar typeface and symbolic outlandishness, you’d be forgiven for presuming this to be a chuckle-worthy cookie during the end credits of a 1990s Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spoof. OK, but what if it’s not a gag and there is a ’90s film in which Marlon Brando skates on ice? In 1989, Brando hadn’t made a film since his Razzie-nominated turn in The Formula nine years earlier. But the thespian’s gut-precedes-him girth had practically achieved its own sovereign-nation status through insistent press coverage. Such a scene has got to be some sort of punchline, right? A funny-ha-ha fat guy falls down, goes boom kind of thing?

Refreshingly, this moment is the exact opposite — an unexpectedly serene interlude to the otherwise crackling caper-comedy of writer-director Andrew Bergman’s The Freshman. By then, Bergman has more intelligently capitalized on Brando’s biologically and physically imposing aspects as Carmine Sabatini, an “extremely powerful importer” who holds court from a social club in New York’s Little Italy. Carmine is, of course, a mafioso and because he’s played by Brando, echoes and evocations of Vito Corleone from The Godfather are the point. 

Bergman didn’t write Carmine with Corleone in mind per se but tweaked Sabatini’s backstory once Brando signed on — after an alleged two straight days of discussions with Bergman about religion, philosophy, politics, ethics and everything except his script for The Freshman. Once they did get around to discussing the movie, Bergman says Brando told him he didn’t think he could do the movie without recalling Corleone. Thus, a rewrite in which Carmine is revealed as inspiration for that character (but really, don’t bring it up) — a meta-masterstroke that got funding for the film but is wisely minimized in service of its own standalone story.

Back to Brando’s body and how he uses it in The Freshman for intimidation and ingratiation: A cheek in which Carmine’s tongue darts like a dagger in disbelief or, worse yet for whomever dares cross him, disappointment. Meaty ham-hock hands that eclipse the mitts of mere mortals. Feet that shuffle more slowly than they once did but always with purpose. A barrel chest hiding the void Carmine feels when reflecting on a life of venal activity, however comparatively bloodless next to the Corleone saga. Weary eyes that alight as he fondly recalls Curious George details with Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick), a film-school freshman who seeks solace under Carmine’s giant wing after a rough start to life in New York … but not without compunction about the criminal activities that might complicate his choice.

That last moment plays out in a dorm room where Clark and Carmine strike a pleasant but not overly clunky paternal connection and it closes on a line that refers to Brando’s size and scope without mocking his physical appearance. A later scene that squeezes Brando into a Porsche squeezes Broderick and Penelope Ann Miller (as Carmine’s daughter) in there, too, for a conspiratorial conversation that demands close quarters. Indeed, Bergman never takes a cheap shot at his star’s physique, instead infusing it into how Carmine stands alone as his own character: When everyone finds you larger than life, can you ever recapture that which you’ve dwarfed? So when Marlon Freaking Brando glides across an ice rink with immediately heartwarming ease, it’s an expression of Carmine sensing a renewed purpose and joy for life in the public world — a return to the joys of life he had long thought lost to the long tail of his criminal empire.

Almost as effortless as Brando’s ice skating and endearing warmth? The fun he has with the film’s comic conceit. “How’d you like a nut?” is Carmine’s opening line, a small-talk gesture that shifts into absurd conviction about the quality of the nuts just in the way Brando lets it hang there. Yes, there are the usual late-period stories about the actor’s indifference to memorizing lines ahead of time and using an earpiece just to get through a scene. Of Brando, Bergman said: “Getting Marlon to do things was like turning around an aircraft carrier because he had a way he wanted to do it, but you could get him there. He was terribly respectful and funny.” (Brando also famously bashed The Freshman in the press as a looming turkey before producers ponied up more money he demanded after the film went over schedule. Once he got his money? Only kind things to say.) Brando speaks a lot of words in The Freshman, and without subtitles, you’ll understand 75% of them at best. But it’s immaterial to this material. Whether by actorly intuition or shrewd direction, Brando understands that Sabatini’s conversations are propelled by modulation of tone and tenor, the movement between lilt and loudness.  As Carmine himself says: “Sometimes in life, these emotions are … uh … beyond words!”

Turning up every 20 minutes or so until a final act where he comes to the forefront, Brando’s work feels like six-minute sonatinas stacked in send-up and sincerity — impressionistic strokes that imprint as strongly when applied to superfluous shenanigans as to serious tragedy. Brando keeps The Freshman light but also from tilting over into something ephemerally broad like, say, Mickey Blue Eyes — a perfectly enjoyable comedy (also with a Godfather cast member coasting on connotation) but a piffle next to the perfection here.

Brando is a treasure, but The Freshman is only indelible because Bergman treats him as an expertly crafted paragraph rather than the whole story — regarding New York as a proscenium for farcical sensibilities and a whole host of comically outsized personalities. The late, great character actor Bruno Kirby brings rat-a-tat rodent energy to Victor, the sort of nephew Carmine may charitably describe with detachment as “my sister’s kid.” As Clark’s streetwise college roommate, Frank Whaley leads with a pompadour and attitude. (“We’re all victims! Welcome to New York,” he says to Clark before carpet-bombing chemicals on his coiffure.) Maximilian Schell injects some unexpected Sellers-in-Strangelove energy into Larry London, an eccentric and enigmatic chef prone to ominous outbursts of German song.

Paul Benedict plays Arthur Fleeber, Clark’s egotistical film professor, with the perfect ratio of nose in air to mouth on ring once he learns of Clark’s connection to Carmine. A pair of Department of Justice investigators show up late in the game; as one of them, veteran Coen Brothers go-to Jon Polito puts just the right amount of inflated importance on a designation of “Fish and Wildlife Division.” Kenneth Welsh (Windom Earle from Twin Peaks) brings tut-tut dickishness to Clark’s taskmaster stepdad. Tex Konig lends a memorably swarthy and sweaty mien to his brief turn as Big Leo, the walking-encyclopedia head of international cargo at JFK.

Even the Komodo dragon on whom the narrative hinges oozes with personality — or at least a visible sense of instinct akin to that on which Clark comes to run the deeper he gets into Carmine’s world. David Newman’s screwball score sends a slapstick set-piece into the stratosphere as the dragon cuts loose in a suburban mall. (“Will the owner of the reptile please report to the information booth?” the background PA system rings out as Broderick and Whaley scramble to save the animal.) The dragon coils its tail around Whaley’s shoulders at one moment with perfect timing — seeming to regard these humans as pals but also patsies. It reflects whether Clark is a useful idiot or a friendly intimate to everything Carmine and company have planned. Broderick is, of course, the straight man here, but allows us to understand Clark’s hesitancy and need to set out on his own course without putting too fine a point on it.

Bergman also creates a genuine crisis of conscience for Clark as he tries to reconcile Carmine’s gentle, if goading, glad-handing against the multimillion-dollar racket of animal abuse alleged against him. This all builds to a Miss America pageant joke involving singer and TV personality Bert Parks that will be lost on generations but doesn’t date or derail the movie.

What won’t be lost on anyone is the last scene’s loveliness. It’s a cornfield conversation between Clark and Carmine in which all dialogue was clearly recorded after filming. Broderick and Brando are walking away from the camera; hell, it’s entirely possible it’s not even Brando in the shot. However, it’s definitely him speaking — clearer than before, with the voice of a man able to greet a sunrise with a smile, aware a final sunset is inevitable but still far away. It’s a sweet inversion of the sour end to the orange-grove scene in The Godfather but, again, it  works within the context of this story on its own. It also features a great bit of Brando arguing with the sassy Komodo dragon that were it not for him, he’d have become a handbag.

You could argue that Brando’s 1990 comeback — which also featured an Oscar nomination for his supporting turn in the previous year’s A Dry White Season — was squandered pretty fast. Two years later, he starred in the lesser of two competing Christopher Columbus biopics — a low bar indeed if you’ve seen 1492: Conquest of Paradise. The charming septuagenarian romance of Don Juan DeMarco followed in 1995. Then, an infamous indulgence of his worst idiosyncrasies in 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau remake and, in his last high-profile role, 2001’s The Score, a heist film doing little with the multigenerational casting of Brando, Robert De Niro and Edward Norton. But to see Brando sail across the ice — and saunter so confidently through The Freshman — is to understand why he was a master.