Brando as a boy already brandishing Brando

I had never seen The Godfather until last November and was sort of shocked by how brilliantly bad Marlon Brando was in the title role.  I wrote at the time on Facebook: “I thought Brando was coming out of dental surgery having had his wisdom teeth pulled and the bleeding needed to be stanched. Why wasn’t Pacino nominated for Best Actor instead of Supporting Actor? He was better in this to me than Brando was. Marlon was kind of mesmerizing in the way that Ethel Merman could unbelievably be. He would have made a great Mama Rose – which is sort of how he played Don Vito Corleone. I kept thinking of Tyne Daly singing Sondheim’s lyrics. She would have made a great Godfather herself.”

I have always been of two-minds about the two-minded Brando who seemed to purposefully pilfer his talent. There is a gay fairy tale about his being the lover of Wally Cox, his boyfriend friend – their ashes are scattered together in Death Valley where they loved to go to be alone together –  and there are times when I am watching a Brando performance that I think he’s channeling Cox, having a bit of a “Wally wallow,” is the way I have secretly, until now, called his prissy yet cantankerous, rather inappropriate comic preening that so many others seem to think passes for a kind of eccentric genius.  I find it aggressive in its self-aggrandizement even as it is purposeful in its degradation of his talent.  I don’t like being conned and I think Brando, brandishing himself, was conning us.  Was there a Method to the man’s madness?  Or just, well, a branding of himself as “Brando.”  Did he hold us in contempt, or just that other “Brando”? And yet it is within that contempt where his early talent at times dared to creep out into the light from time to time.  But mostly he seemed to be just that to me as an actor: a creep.  I think perhaps that was true because he really wasn’t one.  And that is the incongruity that no matter how hard he tried finally found a home within his talent and tied us all – him and the audience – to him.

Here are a couple of other opinions.

Photo by Carl Van Vechten

More from Claudia Roth:

The dismal fate of “Truckline Café” inspired Kazan to form the Actors Studio. Of the entire cast, only Brando and Malden had given the kind of performance that he and Clurman wanted: natural and psychologically acute, as contemporary American plays required. Their ideal of acting derived from their days in the Group Theatre, which had flourished in the thirties with brashly vernacular and politically conscious plays—Clifford Odets’s “Waiting for Lefty” was its first big hit—in which ordinary people were portrayed in a startlingly realistic style. (Group actors were so authentic that it was sometimes difficult to understand what they were saying.) This revolution in acting grew from Stanislavsky’s accounts of his performances with the Moscow Art Theatre—an approach eventually known simply as the Method—and, in its quest for onstage honesty, replaced traditional theatrical training with exercises designed to stir up personal memories, refine powers of observation, and free the imagination through improvisation. The Group’s larger goal was an anti-Broadway, anti-commercial theatre of power and relevance. For the actors, the goal was a paradox: real emotion, produced on cue.

Although the Group had disbanded by the time Brando arrived in New York, in 1943, he soon began taking classes with a charter member, Stella Adler, who had actually studied with Stanislavsky, and whom he credited as his teacher to the end of his life. (“She taught me to be real,” he wrote, “and not to try to act out an emotion I didn’t personally experience during a performance.”) Adler seems to have taken less than a week to decide that the brooding nineteen-year-old in the torn bluejeans and the dirty T-shirt was going to become “America’s finest actor,” but she always denied that she had taught him a thing. As his fellow-student Elaine Stritch later remarked, “Marlon’s going to class to learn the Method was like sending a tiger to jungle school.”

Yet Brando’s early rehearsals for “Truckline Café” had been disastrous. He mumbled his lines and could not be heard past the fifth row; Kazan, who was producing, worried that Adler—who was, not incidentally, married to Clurman—had made claims that her protégé could not fulfill. But Clurman, who was directing, sensed that the fledgling actor was nearly choked with feeling, and pushed until he got him to explode. As it turned out, that Broadway season was the first sign of a momentous transition in the art, if not the business, of acting: Varietys annual poll named Laurence Olivier Best Actor for playing Shakespeare and Sophocles on tour with England’s Old Vic; Brando, in a forgettable play, won Most Promising Young Actor and was out of work as soon as it closed. But he had learned from all his early mentors that even in America, deprived of Shakespeare and Sophocles, theatre was a morally serious enterprise that treated life’s important themes. And so, after an awkward stint in Shaw’s “Candida,” the Most Promising Young Actor turned down Noël Coward’s “Present Laughter,” imperiously demanding, “Don’t you know there are people starving in Europe?” He turned down a seven-year contract at three thousand dollars a week with M-G-M. Instead, in the fall of 1946, he chose to do a play that Ben Hecht had devised to raise money for transporting Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine, during which he shouted at the cowering audience, “Where were you when six million Jews were being burned to death in the ovens of Auschwitz?” It may not have been art, but a lot of people filled out the donation forms inserted in their programs.

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Brando was no one’s first choice when, the following summer, a great American play finally came along. Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” was the story of a highly sexed and poorly spoken middle-aged Polish-American man named Stanley Kowalski—another vet with a violent streak—who rapes an emotionally fragile and aristocratic woman, Blanche DuBois. The play’s cautionary theme was described by Williams, who strongly identified with Blanche, as “the apes will inherit the earth.” Kazan was scheduled to direct, Irene Mayer Selznick to produce, and all agreed that John Garfield, not only a movie star but a street-talking graduate of the Group Theatre, was the right choice for their antihero. It was only when Garfield made impossible demands that Kazan, scanning his “beginners” class at the Actors Studio, decided to take a risk on Brando, even though he was too young for the role. Auditioning for Williams, Brando was like lightning: electric and illuminating. Not only did he have the sexual power the play required; he provided the key to redressing what Williams had worried was the too easy moral imbalance of his work. Precisely because he was barely twenty-three, Brando humanized the vengeful Stanley, reducing his willful destructiveness to what Williams excitedly described as “the brutality or callousness of youth.” Good and evil were now more subtly matched: it would not be so easy to take sides. Brando was not as sure as Williams that he was a “God-sent Stanley.” He worked slowly, and seemed to find it difficult to learn his lines; Selznick repeatedly complained that she couldn’t hear him. But Kazan had faith, and so did Williams, whose opening-night telegram to Brando predicted, “From the greasy Polack you will someday arrive at the gloomy Dane.”

By then, Kazan was almost rueful that the play, which Williams had built around the character of Blanche, was looking like “the Marlon Brando Show.” Without changing a word, the actor seemed to have expanded the role and turned Williams’s original meaning upside down. Jessica Tandy, the British actress who played Blanche, was furious that the audience laughed along with Stanley’s jokes at her expense—as though he were a regular guy putting an uppity woman in her place—and stunned that it openly extended its sympathies more to the executioner than to his victim. The reason was not just Brando’s youth: it was the comic innocence that fuelled the gibes, the baffled tenderness beneath the toughness. The face above the heavily muscled body was angelic; the pain he showed when he broke down and wailed for his wife was searing, elemental. And his intensity was almost unbearable. One critic wrote that “Brando seems always on the verge of tearing down the proscenium with his bare hands.” “Streetcar” was an enormous hit and Tandy received excellent notices, but it was Brando the audiences loved. More, theatre people recognized him as the long-promised revolution in the flesh. In Kazan’s view, others were giving fine performances but Brando was “living onstage”—with the result that he longed to escape the play after only a few weeks. How many times, on schedule, can one rip oneself apart?

He had a contract, however, which kept him smashing dishes and wailing his soul out for a year and a half, during which his performance varied tremendously from night to night. Free at last, in late 1949, he ended up in Hollywood, where he cheerfully antagonized the local monarchs (Louella Parsons wrote that he had “the gall of a Kinsey researcher”) and announced that he would soon be returning to the stage. He was nevertheless excited about his first film, “The Men,” an uplifting Stanley Kramer production about a paralyzed veteran whose faithful fiancée draws him out of despair and into life. Although the film did not do well—the subject of wounded veterans lost its fascination as the Korean War began—Brando’s reviews tended toward ecstatic variations on the word “real.” And he became known for a correspondingly real if peculiar way of working: publicity stressed that he had spent three weeks living in a veterans’ hospital among paraplegics, learning how they moved and what they felt. On the set, the slow perfectionism of his endless retakes caused a co-star to grumble about “New York acting”—which was exactly what Kazan wanted when, in 1950, he began filming “Streetcar.”

Photo by Van Vechten

With the exception of Vivien Leigh, as Blanche, all of the film’s major cast members had been part of the Broadway production, and hardly needed to do more than get reacquainted with their roles. Kazan, however, disliked repeating himself as much as Brando did, and he seized on Leigh’s sublime fragility as a way to turn the play around again, and to restore something like Williams’s original moral balance. Brando, who had always thought that Tandy was miscast, felt that Leigh was truly Williams’s “wounded butterfly,” and reacted with an emotional and sexual charge beyond anything he had shown onstage. Seen against this tragically sympathetic Blanche, however, Stanley’s brutality was harder to tolerate; if he was not a villain, he was an extremely charming monster, and the audience was uncomfortably implicated in Blanche’s destruction by its early laughter and its deep attraction to him. Brando was nominated for an Academy Award (and so was Leigh, who won). Yet, as a result of the uncanny life he put into the slouching, scratching, sweating performance, his tabloid antics, and probably some public confusion about the much touted Method—did it mean an actor was just playing himself?—he was widely described as what he resentfully called “a blue-jeaned slobbermouth,” and dubbed “the Neanderthal man.”

This was not the only reason that Brando hated Stanley, whom he spoke of with a disgust not unlike that felt by Blanche DuBois. In his next film, “Viva Zapata,” a socially worthy effort (directed by Kazan) about an idealistic revolutionary, he virtually disappeared behind heavy “Mexican” makeup and a matching accent. Although this display of range won him another Academy Award nomination, the announcement that he was going to play Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar” was greeted most joyously by the nation’s comedians, who lost no time declaiming “Friends, Romans, countrymen” in a nasal, Kowalskian bleat. Brando himself was worried about appearing a fool. Although he was an avid reader and memorizer of Shakespeare, his performing experience had been confined to an acting-school production of “Twelfth Night” and, more recently, to taunting Vivien Leigh—then Mrs. Laurence Olivier—with a nastily precise imitation of Olivier’s Agincourt speech from “Henry V.” The director of “Julius Caesar,” Joseph Mankiewicz, came upon his star studying tapes of speeches by Olivier, John Barrymore, and Maurice Evans, and complained that the genteel result made him sound more like June Allyson. Brando later explained that the most daunting aspect of playing Shakespeare was relying on the written text, since he had learned to search around and under words—in pauses, in gestures, in grunts and mumbles, even in silence—for a sense of truth.

Once on the “Caesar” set, in 1952, he asked John Gielgud, who was playing Cassius, to make him a recording of Antony’s speeches, presumably as a model of diction and prosodic stress. Brando admired Gielgud, but there is not a trace of the British actor’s stylized and vibrato-laden music in the young American’s stark and driven reading. To accord with the rest of the cast, Brando adopted a British accent, but the way he inflected his lines was so unexpected and so commonsensical that the most familiar phrases took on a natural urgency (“Lend me your ears! ”) and much of the rest seemed nearly made up on the spot, as when the hint of a stutter causes him to falter in his plea: “Bear with me, my heart is in the coffin there with Caesar and I must p-pause till it come back to me.” Reviewers were thrilled—there was great pride in the thought that an American Olivier might be at hand—and he was nominated for yet another Academy Award. Gielgud was sufficiently impressed to ask his would-be pupil to participate in a theatre season he was directing in England, where Brando could fulfill Tennessee Williams’s prediction and play Hamlet. Brando turned him down. He seems to have been the only person who did not believe that he was up to the test.

Instead, he did a biker movie. It was meant to be another socially conscious film, based on an incident that had taken place in 1947, when a motorcycle gang terrorized a California town. Brando said he hoped that the film would explore the reasons that young people were resorting to antisocial behavior; in fact, juvenile delinquency had become such a huge concern that a Senate subcommittee was investigating its causes. “The Wild One,” released in December, 1953, did not so much explore the causes as define the era’s terms of opposition: jive-talking hipsters versus squares, leather jackets versus shirts and ties, easy-riding freedom versus the straight and narrow. Youth versus age. A mediocre film, it was just enough ahead of its time to strike a nerve: Jack Kerouac was struggling to get his book about his adventures on the road published (once it appeared, he begged Brando to make the movie); Elvis was a year away from appearing on national TV and being called “a guitar-playing Marlon Brando.” Brando’s Johnny, the leader of the pack, was an antidote to that other mythic figure of the fifties, the deadeningly conformist Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. But, as with Stanley Kowalski, the actor was indistinguishable from the role, and Brando himself came to embody the rebel myth. The script gave a hint of the pain behind Johnny’s steely cool, but his anger and dissatisfaction were unrelenting. Unlike the tough-guy heroes of the forties, with their ulterior noble causes—unlike, say, Bogart in “Casablanca”—Johnny had no idea what he really wanted. In the film’s most quoted line, someone asks, “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” And Brando answers, deadpan, “Whaddya got?”

What was real about the realest actor of them all? What did he draw on during those improvisations or rehearsals when, by training and by instinct, to go farther he had to go within? “The torment that underlay Brando’s art is the subject of this book,” Stefan Kanfer begins “Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando”—the first biography to appear since Brando’s death, at eighty, in 2004—because, as Kanfer explains, “the man’s internal anguish was what drove him on to the heights of his vocation.” Examining a career that spanned more than five decades and thirty-eight films, Kanfer maintains that Brando, unique among actors, “worked without a mask.” While other actors preserve boundary lines between their private lives and their performances, “no such boundary existed between Brando the actor and Brando the man,” both of whom apparently suffered from what Kanfer, assisted by several psychiatrists, labels “oppositional defiant disorder,” “narcissistic personality disorder,” and an “oral fixation.” This is not entirely news: long ago Harold Clurman wrote that Brando’s acting had “its source in suffering,” and Peter Manso, the author of a previous biography, consulted his own set of psychiatrists to diagnose the actor’s “dissociated personality,” “manic-depressive mood swings,” and “anxieties over sexual identity,” among other afflictions. (Brando appears to have slept with an uncertain number of men and a staggering number of women during his life.) But nothing has approached Kanfer’s assertion that the “Rosebud in Brando’s life” was “the mental illness that had dogged him for decades,” an illness that made his achievements all the more a marvel and his failures no surprise.

Brando might have agreed. In his later years, he told his story and freely explained its impact, starting with the fact that he was born in 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska, to a mother who “abandoned me for a bottle when I was little more than an infant,” and who proceeded to drink his childhood away; his father was an alcoholic, too, although in his case the larger problem was his failure to show his son any affection or approval. His two sisters provided some support, and a young nursemaid provided something like love, but she left one day without saying goodbye: he had been abandoned twice over, and, he wrote, “my world collapsed.” He flunked kindergarten, and did little better in school as the years progressed. He stammered badly, and he seems to have been dyslexic, so that reading out loud in class was an agony; some who knew him at the time suggested, in interviews with Manso, that this was the source of the famous pauses and obscuring mumble. Always the class bad boy, he was thrown out of the military school that was supposed to teach him discipline. Aside from sports, and despite his early speech problems, drama was the only subject in which he excelled.

Acting, which by another method might have provided an escape, was for him a way of sounding out his depths; he described his work with Adler as “psychotherapeutic,” teaching him not only about theatre but about himself. During his early New York years, his mother came to live with him for a time—she was an aspiring actress and a poetical soul, something of a Blanche DuBois—and when she returned to his father Brando confessed that he had a nervous breakdown. By the time he was in “Streetcar,” the panic attacks had got so bad, and he was so afraid that in his anger he might kill someone, that he began to see a psychiatrist recommended by Kazan. Five years later, in 1953, he told Kazan that the only reason he had agreed to do “On the Waterfront” was that the New Jersey location allowed him to be near his psychiatrist; his contract included the right to leave early every afternoon to make his session.

Brando had initially refused to appear in “On the Waterfront,” out of shock and disappointment that Kazan—whom he claimed was the best director he ever worked with—had testified as a “friendly” witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee, not only confessing his former membership in the Communist Party but betraying old Group Theatre friends. Kazan later admitted that the movie had been an attempt to excuse and even glorify his actions—or, as Brando put it, an attempt to justify “finking” on his friends. In the scenario, the naïve ex-boxer Terry Malloy slowly realizes that it is his moral duty to inform on his gangster friends before a government commission: this courageous act makes him a man and a hero. It is doubtful that many viewers saw a connection between Communists and mobsters, but the film’s emotional grip and its unprecedented visual authenticity made it a triumph.

Shot on the Hoboken piers during a freezing winter, with a cast drawn almost entirely from the Actors Studio, and backed by a population of authentically worn longshoremen, “On the Waterfront” signalled a new sort of anti-Hollywood, neorealistic style of filmmaking; no less than the revolutionary painters across the Hudson, Kazan and company could have been called the New York school. But the film’s success was also due to Brando, who by all reports invented Terry as much as played him, freely altering words and scenes with an infallible sense of what the gentle, tortured boy would do. Kazan, who called this performance the best ever given by a man in American film, spoke of the importance of Brando’s having been able to draw on his own “pain,” “self-doubt,” and “inner conflict,” but he also wrote of the actor’s professionalism and exceptional talent—without which no amount of anguish could have done the job. As for Brando, he said it was “so cold out there that you couldn’t overact.”

Photo by Van Vechten

“On the Waterfront” won eight Academy Awards—including Oscars for Brando and Kazan—yet it proved not the start of something but the end. No independent school of film developed from it, and the crassness of Hollywood only seemed to worsen as the studios struggled against the new menace of television, wooing audiences through sheer color and spectacle. Brando, who had let down his guard enough to sign a two-picture deal, was assigned to a bloated historical epic titled “The Egyptian,” which he fled as shooting began. Sued by the studio for two million dollars, he was officially released from the picture only after his mother died suddenly, in March, 1954, and he agreed instead to play Napoleon in another historical turkey, “Désirée”; on its release, he announced that he had let his makeup play the part. Time, in a cover story that featured Brando in his Napoleonic beaky nose and epaulets, focussed on the significance of this notably insignificant film: if Brando cared about acting as an art, what was there for him in Hollywood? Yet returning to the stage was no more promising, since Broadway rarely produced first-rate work, and “there is no U.S. repertory theater in which a young actor can try the great roles for size.” Compared with the careers of his European counterparts (Olivier, of course, or Jean-Louis Barrault, in France), even the roles he had already played were sadly limited, so many being “variations on the Kowalski theme.” These questions recurred with every film that Brando made for the next eighteen years. Here at last was the great American actor: not a copy of a British actor or a mere matinée idol but someone original, contemporary, and uniquely representative of the culture. But what could the culture produce for him to do?

The answer was “Guys and Dolls,” “The Teahouse of the August Moon,” “Sayonara,” “The Young Lions,” “The Fugitive Kind,” “One-Eyed Jacks,” and “Mutiny on the Bounty,” just to bring his career into the sixties. One can hardly doubt his desire to break away from the “Kowalski theme.” He played an elegant gangster who sang (a little), a Japanese servant, an American officer, a Nazi officer, a Southern stud, a frontier bandit, and an aristocratic British fop. He even directed, in the case of “One-Eyed Jacks,” a bizarrely Oedipal Western that seems almost an illustration of Kanfer’s thesis: a villain named Dad betrays the hero (Brando as Rio the Kid, inevitably called the Kid), prompting a consuming desire for revenge; although Dad further punishes the Kid with a vicious whipping, the Kid ultimately succeeds and shoots Dad dead. It was the first film made by Brando’s production company, Pennebaker Productions, established in 1955 under his mother’s maiden name, and with his father as chief employee—a standard Hollywood tax shelter that he dedicated to making “important” films of “social value.” Pennebaker produced very few films during its existence, but this idealism pervaded Brando’s work, and he now had the power to have scripts rewritten and characters refashioned to make his points: at his insistence, the Nazi of “The Young Lions” saw the error of his ways and rose to ethical enlightenment; the Pinkerton-like soldier of “Sayonara” overcame society’s racism and married the Japanese woman he loved. Through the immeasurable influence of movies, Brando believed that he might also help to refashion reality.

With such lofty goals, however, every project was sooner or later a disappointment. In response to his frustrations, he made trouble on the set, he refused to learn his lines, he ate so compulsively that he had to be fitted with new costumes in ever larger sizes—the line between self-indulgence and self-contempt becomes difficult to locate. And he cost the studios a fortune, as movie after movie failed. Yet the face on the screen was so compelling that the question of what to do with his talent remained a kind of national burden. Truman Capote, in a scathing profile from the late fifties, portrayed the actor as a bore and a poseur, yet pressed him earnestly about when he would return to play the “Mount Everest roles in stage literature.” By the late sixties, Pauline Kael, her hopes for his career seriously battered, noted that “his greatness is in a range that is too disturbing to be encompassed by regular movies.” But what other kind was there?

Brando had good reasons for choosing many of his films in these bleak years: “The Ugly American” and “Burn!” revolved around serious political issues; there was an accomplished young director, Arthur Penn, behind “The Chase,” and a legendary director, Charlie Chaplin, behind “A Countess from Hong Kong”; “Reflections in a Golden Eye” offered the image-shattering role of a stiffly repressed homosexual Army officer. His performances ranged from as good as possible in deadly circumstances (“The Chase,” “A Countess from Hong Kong”) to brilliant (“Golden Eye”), but there has been no other career that so clearly illustrates how complex a work of art a movie really is, and how many forces it requires—of whatever genius—to make it right.

Even when his pictures were plainly bad, he strained to hold on to some purpose—he fought against the usual Indian stereotypes in the cowboy movie “The Appaloosa”—but his sense of accomplishment no longer had much to do with his work, outside of earning the money required to support two ex-wives, a third wife who had been his Tahitian co-star in “Mutiny on the Bounty,” and a growing number of children. Avowedly searching for meaning in his life, in 1963 he became a vocal supporter of the civil-rights movement, raising money for Martin Luther King, Jr., and joining the march on Washington. It was easy to assume that he was nothing but a political dilettante, particularly after he got involved with the Black Panthers—Bobby Seale, it turned out, was a big fan of “The Wild One”—and he was frequently criticized for being distracted, and for disappearing to a private atoll he had purchased in Tahiti. There is no doubt, however, that he was deeply affected when King was shot, in 1968, and he probably meant it when he announced that he was quitting film entirely to work for civil rights. But by then it was more accurate to say that the movies were quitting him. With the failure of the incendiary “Burn!” at the box office, in 1969, he completed a full decade of commercial flops. He was, in his own words, “washed up and unemployable,” when Mario Puzo called.

Puzo had Brando in mind all the while he was writing “The Godfather,” which was optioned by Paramount before he finished the book. Only Brando, he said, could bring the “quiet force and irony” that he wanted to Don Corleone, family patriarch and honorable killer. Although studio executives refused to consider him, the young director they hired for what they thought of as a low-budget gangster film, Francis Ford Coppola, had grander things in mind, and argued that the Don ought to be played by one of the two greatest actors alive: Olivier or Brando. Since Olivier was too ill to work, Coppola conspired with Brando to overcome Paramount’s qualms. Brando even agreed to do a screen test, mostly to show that, at forty-seven, he was capable of aging the required twenty years. He stuffed his cheeks to create jowls (“the face of a bull dog,” he said with satisfaction, “mean-looking, but warm underneath”) and devised a light, unthreatening voice based on tapes of the mobster Frank Costello: real power makes other people lean in to listen. Yet he could not or would not remember his lines. He wrote them on his cuffs, he kept cue cards stuck all over the set. When challenged by Coppola, he claimed that this was necessary for his spontaneity: “Real people don’t know what they’re going to say. Their words often come as a surprise to them. That’s the way it should be in a movie.” Whether or not this was really his reason, it worked. Brando’s improvisatory touches are among the most memorable aspects of the character: stopping to smell a rose as he denies being a murderer, suddenly slapping a whining younger man, molding an orange peel into a set of fangs when the Don plays with his grandchild in a summer garden. None of this was in the script but simply happened when the cameras rolled. Although Coppola says that Brando never asked for changes in the dialogue, he apparently made his feelings about it known, complaining at one point—as if looking back on the hero he had played so often—“Just once, I would like to see this man notinarticulate. I would like to see him express himself well.”

“The Godfather” was not only Brando’s redemption but Hollywood’s, proving that a big commercial movie could be a work of beauty and significance. It was an American epic, and, for a time, at least, it took the oxymoronic sting out of the term “mass culture.” Everyone agreed that it was the kind of film Brando should have been making all along. At the other end of the populist spectrum, so was his next picture, “Last Tango in Paris,” a European art film that used simulated sex and a veneer of existential chic to do for porn what “The Godfather” did for cops and robbers. The director, Bernardo Bertolucci, crafted the role just for Brando. Or, rather, he asked Brando to craft the role: “He wanted me to play myself, to improvise completely and portray Paul”—an American expatriate in Paris, who falls into an intense affair with a beautiful girl—“as if he were an autobiographical mirror of me.” Brando was more than willing to oblige. So when Paul tells the girl that “my father was a drunk, tough, whore-fucker, bar fighter” and “my mother was very very poetic and also a drunk,” the life Brando was exposing was his own, and he seems to have arrived at the precise crossing between the Method and psychoanalysis. The result, made all the more exciting by having been banned for obscenity in Italy, was greeted as a distinctly modern masterpiece. Pauline Kael compared its première to that of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” and declared Brando’s performance the fulfillment of his non-acting acting in “Truckline Café,” twenty-six years before. “Paul feels so ‘real’ and the character is brought so close,” she wrote, “that a new dimension in screen acting has been reached.”

“The Godfather” was released in the spring of 1972, and “Last Tango” premièred at the New York Film Festival that fall. It was a double tour de force, the Italian grandpa followed by the art-house stud, and Brando brought the old intensity and a mournful new dignity to both. Perhaps he should have stopped there; for a while, it seemed that he would. He followed his notorious rejection of his Academy Award for “The Godfather,” when he had an Apache woman give a speech about Hollywood’s mistreatment of Indians, with three years immersed in Indian causes. He talked about making a movie about Indian history, but it never went anywhere, and when he returned to what Kael had called “regular” films—bad scripts, no scripts, no one to control him—some final link of discipline was gone. He was getting enormous fees, but his performance in the incoherent “Missouri Breaks” was campy, edged with contempt; by the time of “Apocalypse Now,” in 1979, he had gained so much weight that Tennessee Williams suggested that he was being paid by the pound. Brando later wrote that the emotional delving of “Last Tango” had been so devastating that “in subsequent pictures I stopped trying to experience the emotions of my characters” and began “simply to act the part in a technical way.” He was certain that “the audience doesn’t know the difference.” It is impossible to know if he was trying to explain or merely to justify what he had become. In 1980, playing a fat old oil tycoon in “The Formula,” he wore a radio transmitter disguised as a hearing aid; past even the bother of using cue cards, he now had his lines read directly into his ears.

For the rest of the decade, Brando played only one small role, in a single film, “A Dry White Season,” about South African apartheid. He did it for scale: roughly four thousand dollars. The rest of the time, “I was content doing other things: traveling, searching, exploring, seeking.” At home in Beverly Hills, he saw a psychiatrist several times a week, slowly learning to “be the child I never had a chance to be.” At the same time, divorced again and the father of nine (by his own count; the actual number is uncertain), he was trying “to get to know my children better.” The efforts involved in these two ventures—becoming a child, becoming a father—were rarely compatible. It can hardly be a surprise that Brando’s children had childhoods apparently no happier than his own. His oldest son, Christian, had been hooked on drugs and alcohol since his teens, and had dropped out of high school; in his new attempt at closeness, Brando proposed that they get their high-school degrees together—Brando was sixty-three, Christian twenty-eight—but Brando could not keep up and let the project go. A similar fate attended all the utopian projects he dreamed up for his Tahiti paradise: it was going to be a gathering place for artists and intellectuals; there would be ecological experiments leading to breakthroughs in solar and wind power; hired scientists would find a way to process algae into a protein supplement for Third World nations. Instead, he watched his expensive equipment rust and his plans crumble. Discussing poetry with an interviewer there one day—“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” had come up—he remarked, “If the mermaids can’t sing for me here, Christ, they never will.”

In 1990, Christian Brando shot his pregnant half sister’s Tahitian boyfriend—point-blank, from behind, in the head—in the den of his father’s Beverly Hills house. The trial hypnotized the press, and some (including the father of the dead boy) considered Papa Brando’s performance on the witness stand one of the best he ever gave: sobbing, dazed, and often incoherent, he was wretchedly apologetic for what he swore had been a terrible accident. In the end, Christian pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and received a ten-year sentence. Brando, saddled with enormous legal bills, went to work on his autobiography.

The fee for the book was reportedly five million dollars; his first stipulation was that it should contain nothing about his films (not important enough) or his marriages and children. Although he was prevailed upon to discuss the films, the central irrepressible subject of “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” which appeared in 1994, was his childhood and what might be called the psychiatric life that followed from it. Sadly, even his best impulses are reduced to the language of the couch: “Frustrated in my attempts to take care of my mother, I suppose that instead I tried to help Indians, blacks and Jews.” His comments about acting are striking, however, whether for the scant respect he pays his own accomplishments—“for me to walk onto a movie set and play Mark Antony without more experience was asinine”—or his dismissal of Hollywood’s domination of international film and television as “a tragedy.” But, beyond the seventy-year-old unloved child’s self-denigration, it is worth considering Brando’s argument that in some sense his entire career was a mistake.

“Generally actors don’t realize how deeply affected the technique of acting was by the fact that Stella went to Russia and studied with Stanislavsky,” Brando writes about his beloved teacher, Stella Adler, a half century after he studied with her in New York. And he adds, modestly, “Virtually all acting in motion pictures today stems from her.” Of course, most actors would say that it stems from Brando: the man who brought those slightly incredible theories about realism and honesty and a new kind of art to the screen. And none of the awful films besides the glorious six or eight that are his primary legacy have done any damage to his example or his reputation. He is the begetter of a tradition that extends from James Dean (“Mr. Dean appears to be wearing my last year’s wardrobe,” Brando sneered on the release of Dean’s first film, in 1955, “and using my last year’s talent”) to Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and beyond. Jack Nicholson, speaking for American actors, said, “He gave us our freedom.” But Brando’s thoughts on his heritage continue: “This school of acting served the American theater and motion pictures well, but it was restricting.” For all the gains, something essential had been lost, or, rather, was never given a chance to develop: an American capacity “to present Shakespeare or classical drama of any kind satisfactorily.” The single contemporary performance that Brando discusses with rapt admiration is Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V.” “In America we are unable to approach such refinements,” he writes. “We simply do not have the style, the regard for language, or the cultural disposition.” And we are probably farther from it after Brando than we were before. Stella Adler, speaking late in life about the roles her former protégé had not played, replied to a question about whether Brando was indeed a great actor, “We’ll never know.”

Yet there was a way in which the contrasting styles were in accord, a deeper and more satisfying truth about truth in acting. “If you’re not good at improv you’re not an actor,” Brando insisted in his last major interview, with Rolling Stone, in 2002, just two years before his death. He had been teaching an acting workshop—with assistance from Leonardo DiCaprio and Sean Penn—to a select group that included the tightrope walker Philippe Petit, one of Michael Jackson’s bodyguards, several local acting students, and a man he’d found rummaging through the trash outside the studio. He was putting the group through a lot of improvisations, and, for the first time in years, he was enjoying his work. Still talking about improv, he informed the interviewer of another source for the tradition that he had unwittingly founded. “There’s a speech from ‘Hamlet’ that applies to all artists,” he explained, “but it certainly applies to actors: “ ‘To hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature.’ To be natural.” Didn’t this sum up the lessons he was trying to pass on? And then, against every expectation about who he was and what he stood for, Brando backed up a few lines and launched into Hamlet’s soliloquy—Act III, Scene 2—from memory: “Let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature.” “And it goes on,” Brando told the guy from Rolling Stone. “It says it all.”


Photo by Van Vechten


The history of the motion-picture industry might be summed up as the development from the serials with the blade in the sawmill moving closer and closer to the heroine’s neck, to modern movies with the laser beam zeroing in on James Bond’s crotch. At this level, the history of movies is a triumph of technology. I’m not putting down this kind of movie: I don’t know anybody who doesn’t enjoy it more or less at some time or other. But I wouldn’t be much interested if that were the only kind of movie, any more than I’d be interested if all movies were like Last Year at Marienbad or The Red Desert or Juliet of the Spirits. What of the other kinds?

While American enthusiasm for movies has never been so high, and even while teachers prepare to recognize film-making as an art, American movies have never been worse. In other parts of the world there has been a new golden age: great talents have fought their way through in Japan, India, Sweden, Italy, France; even in England there has been something that passes for a renaissance. But not here: American enthusiasm is fed largely by foreign films, memories, and innocence. The tragic or, depending on your point of view, pitiful history of American movies in the last fifteen years may be suggested by a look at the career of Marlon Brando.

It used to be said that great clowns, like Chaplin, always wanted to play Hamlet, but what happens in this country is that our Hamlets, like John Barrymore, turn into buffoons, shamelessly, pathetically mocking their public reputations. Bette Davis has made herself lovable by turning herself into a caricature of a harpy–just what, in one of her last good roles, as Margo Channing in All About Eve, she feared she was becoming. The women who were the biggest stars of the forties are either retired, semi-retired, or, like Davis, Crawford, and DeHavilland, have become the mad queens of Grand Guignol in the sixties, grotesques and comics, sometimes inadvertently.

Marlon Brando’s career indicates the new speed of these processes. Brando, our most powerfuI young screen actor, the only one who suggested tragic force, the major protagonist of contemporary American themes in the fifties, is already a self-parodying comedian.

I mean by protagonist the hero who really strikes a nerve–not a Cary Grant who delights with his finesse, nor mushy heart-warmers like Gary Cooper and James Stewart with their blubbering sincerity (sometimes it seemed that the taller the man, the smaller he pretended to be; that was his notion being “ordinary” and “universal” and “real”) but men whose intensity on the screen stirs an intense reaction in the audience. Not Gregory Peck or Tyrone Power or Robert Taylor with their conventional routine heroics, but James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson in the gangster films, John Garfield in the Depression movies, Kirk Douglas as a post-war heel. These men are not necessarily better actors, but through the accidents of casting and circumstances or because of what they themselves embodied or projected, they meant something important to us. A brilliant actor like Jason Robards, Jr., may never become a protagonist of this kind unless he gets a role in which he embodies something new and relevant to the audience.

Protagonists are always loners, almost by definition. The big one to survive the war was the Bogart figure–the man with a code (moral, aesthetic, chivalrous) in a corrupt society. He had, so to speak, inside knowledge of the nature of the enemy. He was a sophisticated, urban version of the Westerner who, classically, knew both sides of the law and was tough enough to go his own way and yet, romantically, still do right.

Brando represented a reaction against the post-war mania for security. As a protagonist, the Brando of the early fifties had no code, only his instincts. He was a development from the gangster leader and the outlaw. He was antisocial because he knew society was crap; he was a hero to youth because he was strong enough not to take the crap. (In England it was thought that The Wild One would incite adolescents to violence.)

There was a sense of excitement, of danger in his presence, but perhaps his special appeal was in a kind of simple conceit, the conceit of tough kids. There was humor in it–swagger and arrogance that were vain and childish, and somehow seemed very American. He was explosively dangerous without being “serious” in the sense of having ideas. There was no theory, no cant in his leadership. He didn’t care about social position or a job or respectability, and because he didn’t care he was a big man; for what is less attractive, what makes a man smaller, than his worrying about his status? Brando represented a contemporary version of the free American.

Because he had no code, except an aesthetic one–a commitment to a style of life–he was easily betrayed by those he trusted. There he was, the new primitive, a Byronic Dead-End Kid, with his quality of vulnerability. His acting was so physical–so exploratory, tentative, wary–that we could sense with him, feel him pull back at the slightest hint of rebuff. We in the audience felt protective: we knew how lonely he must be in his assertiveness. Who even in hell wants to be an outsider? And he was no intellectual who could rationalize it, learn somehow to accept it, to live with it. He could only feel it, act it out, be “The Wild One”–and God knows how many kids felt, “That’s the story of my life.”

Brando played variations on rebel themes: from the lowbrow, disturbingly inarticulate brute, Stanley Kowalski, with his suggestions of violence waiting behind the slurred speech, the sullen Ace, to his Orpheus standing before the judge in the opening scene of The Fugitive Kind, unearthly, mythic, the rebel as artist, showing classic possibilities he was never to realize (or has not yet realized).

He was our angry young man–the delinquent, the tough, the rebel–who stood at the center of our common experience. When, as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, he said to his brother, “Oh Charlie, oh Charlie . . . you don’t understand. I could have had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody, instead of a bum–which is what I am,” he spoke for all our failed hopes. It was the great American lament, of Broadway, of Hollywood, as well as of the docks.

Photo by Van Vechten

I am describing the Brando who became a star, not the man necessarily, but the boy-man he projected, and also the publicity and the come-on. The publicity had a built-in ambivalence. Though the fan magazines might describe him alluringly as dreamy, moody, thin-skinned, easily hurt, gentle, intense, unpredictable, hating discipline, a defender of the underdog, other journalists and influential columnists were not so sympathetic toward what this suggested.

It is one of the uglier traditions of movie business that frequently when a star gets big enough to want big money and artistic selection or control of his productions, the studios launch large-scale campaigns designed to cut him down to an easier-to-deal-with size or to supplant him with younger, cheaper talent. Thus, early in movie history the great Lillian Gish was derided as unpopular in the buildup of the young Garbo (by the same studio), and in newspapers all over the country, Marilyn Monroe, just a few weeks before her death, was discovered to have no box-office draw. The gossip columnists serve as the shock troops with all those little items about how so-and-so is getting a big head, how he isn’t taking the advice of the studio executives who know best, and so forth.

In the case of Brando, the most powerful ladies were especially virulent because they were obviously part of what he was rebelling against; in flouting their importance, he might undermine their position with other new stars who might try to get by without kowtowing to the blackmailing old vultures waiting to pounce in the name of God, Motherhood, and Americanism. What was unusual in Brando’s case was the others who joined in the attack.

In 1957, Truman Capote, having spent an evening with Brando and then a year writing up that evening (omitting his own side of the conversation and interjecting interpretations), published “The Duke in His Own Domain” in the New Yorker. The unwary Brando was made to look public ass number one. And yet the odd thing about this interview was that Capote, in his supersophistication, kept using the most commonplace, middlebrow evidence and arguments against him–for example, that Brando in his egotism was not impressed by Joshua Logan as a movie director. (The matter for astonishment was that Capote was–or was willing to use anything to make his literary exercise more effective.) Despite Capote’s style and venomous skill, it is he in this interview, not Brando, who equates money and success with real importance and accomplishment. His arrows fit snugly into the holes they have made only if you accept the usual middlebrow standards of marksmanship.

Photo by Van Vechten

It was now open season on Brando: Hollis Alpert lumbered onto the pages of Cosmopolitan to attack him for not returning to the stage to become a great actor–as if the theater were the citadel of art. What theater? Was Brando really wrong in feeling that movies are more relevant to our lives than that dead theater which so many journalists seem to regard as the custodian of integrity and creativity? David Susskind was shocked that a mere actor like Brando should seek to make money, might even dare to consider his own judgment and management preferable to that of millionaire producers. Dwight Macdonald chided Brando for not being content to be a craftsman: “Mr. Brando has always aspired to something Deeper and More Significant, he has always fancied himself as like an intellectual”–surely a crime he shares with Mr. Macdonald.

If he had not been so presumptuous as to try to think for himself in Hollywood and if he hadn’t had a sense of irony, he could have pretended–and convinced a lot of people–that he was still a contender. But what crown could he aspire to? Should he be a “king” like Gable, going from one meaningless picture to another, performing the rituals of manly toughness, embracing the studio stable, to be revered, finally, because he was the company actor who never gave anybody any trouble? Columnists don’t attack that kind of king on his papier-mache throne; critics don’t prod him to return to the stage; the public doesn’t turn against him.

Almost without exception, American actors who don’t accept trashy assignments make nothing, not even superior trash. Brando accepts the trash, but unlike the monochromatic, “always dependable” Gable, he has too much energy or inventiveness or contempt just to go through the motions. And when he appears on the screen, there is a special quality of recognition in the audience: we know he’s too big for the role.

Perhaps, as some in picture business say, Brando “screws up” his pictures by rewriting the scripts; certainly he hasn’t been very astute in the directors and writers he has worked with. What he needed was not more docility, but more strength, the confidence to work with young talent, to try difficult roles. But he’s no longer a contender, no longer a protagonist who challenges anything serious. Brando has become a comic.

The change was overwhelmingly apparent in the 1963 Mutiny on the Bounty, which, rather surprisingly, began with a miniature class conflict between Brando, as the aristocratic Fletcher Christian, and Trevor Howard, as the lowborn Captain Bligh, who cannot endure Christian’s contempt for him. Brando played the fop with such relish that audiences shared in the joke; it was like a Dead-End Kid playing Congreve. The inarticulate grunting Method actor is showing off, and it’s a classic and favorite American joke: the worm turns, Destry gets his guns, American honor is redeemed. He can talk as fancy as any of them, even fancier. (In the action sequences he’s uninteresting, not handsome or athletic enough to be a stock romantic adventure hero. He seems more eccentric than heroic, with his bizarre stance, his head held up pugnaciously, his face unlined in a peculiar bloated, waxen way. He’s like a short, flabby tenor wandering around the stage and not singing: you wonder what he’s doing there.) .

In The Ugly American (1963) once again he is very funny as he sets the character–a pipe-smoking businessman-ambassador who parries a Senate subcommittee with high-toned clipped speech and epigrammatic sophistication. When he plays an articulate role, it is already rather a stunt, and in this one he is talking about personal dignity and standards of proper behavior. His restraint becomes a source of amusement because he is the chief exponent of the uncouth, the charged. Even his bull neck, so out of character, adds to the joke His comedy is volatile. It has the unpredictable element that has always been part of his excitement at any moment we may be surprised, amazed. When he submerges himself in the role, the movie dies on the screen.

Brando is never so American as when his English or foreign accent is thickest. It’s a joke like a child’s impersonation of a foreigner, overplaying the difference, and he offers us complicity in his accomplishments at pretending to be gentlemen or foreigners. What is funny about these roles is that they seem foreign to the Brando the audience feels it knows. When he does rough, coarse American serviceman comedy, as in Bedtime Story, he is horribly nothing (except for one farcical sequence when he impersonates a mad Hapsburg). Worse than nothing, because when his vulnerability is gone, his animal grace goes too, and he is left without even the routine handsomeness of his inferiors.

He had already implicated us in his amusement at his roles earlier in his career, in 1954 with his Napoleon in Desiree, in 1957 with his hilarious Southern gentleman-officer in Sayonara, but these could still be thought of as commercial interludes, the bad luck of the draw. Now he doesn’t draw anything else. Is it just bad luck, or is it that he and so many of our greatest talents must play out their “creative” lives with a stacked deck?

It is easy these days to “explain” the absence of roles worth playing by referring to the inroads of television and the end of the studio system. Of course, there’s some truth in all this. But Brando’s career illustrates something much more basic: the destruction of meaning in movies; and this is not a new phenomenon, nor is it specially linked to television or other new factors. The organic truth of American movie history is that the new theme or the new star that gives vitality to the medium is widely imitated and quickly exhausted before the theme or talent can develop. The industry makes tricks out of what was once done for love.

What’s left of the rebel incarnate is what we see of Brando in the 1965 Morituri: his principal charm is his apparent delight in his own cleverness. Like many another great actor who has become fortune’s fool, he plays the great ham. He seems as pleased with the lines as if he’d just thought them up. He gives the best ones a carefully timed double take so that we, too, can savor his cleverness and the delight of his German accent. And what else is there to do with the role? If his presence did not give it the extra dimension of comedy, it would be merely commonplace.

In Morituri all we need is one look at the cynical aesthete Brando in his escapist paradise, telling us that he’s “out of it,” that war never solves anything, and we know that he’s going to become the greatest warrior of them all. It can be argued that this hurdle of apathy or principle or convictions to be overcome gives a character conflict and makes his ultimate action more significant. Theoretically, this would seem to explain the plot mechanism, but as it works, no matter how absurd the terms in which the initial idealism or cynicism or social rejection is presented (as in such classic movie examples of character reformation as Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, Stalag 17), it is the final, socially acceptable “good” behavior which seems fantasy, fairy tale, unbelievable melodrama–in brief, fake. And the initial attitudes to be overcome often seem to have a lot of strength; indeed, they are likely to be what drew us to the character in the first place, what made him pass for a protagonist.

In Morituri, as in movies in general, there is rarely a difference shown, except to bring it back to the “norm.” The high-minded, like the Quakers in High Noon or Friendly Persuasion, are there only to violate their convictions. They must be brought down low to common impulses, just as the low cynical materialists must be raised high to what are supposed to be our shared ideals. This democratic leveling of movies is like a massive tranquilizer. The more irregular the hero, the more offbeat, the more necessary it is for him to turn square in the finale.

Brando’s career is a larger demonstration of the same principle at work in mass culture; but instead of becoming normal, he (like Norman Mailer) became an eccentric, which in this country means a clown, possibly the only way left to preserve some kind of difference.

When you’re larger than life you can’t just be brought down to normalcy. It’s easier to get acceptance by caricaturing your previous attitudes and aspirations, by doing what the hostile audience already has been doing to you. Why should Bette Davis let impersonators on television make a fool of her when she can do it herself and reap the rewards of renewed audience acceptance?

Perhaps Brando has been driven to this self-parody so soon because of his imaginative strength and because of that magnetism that makes him so compelling an expression of American conflicts. His greatness is in a range that is too disturbing to be encompassed by regular movies. As with Bette Davis, as with John Barrymore, even when he mocks himself, the self he mocks is more prodigious than anybody else around. It’s as if the hidden reserves of power have been turned to irony. Earlier, when his roles were absurd, there was a dash of irony; now it’s taken over: the nonconformist with no roles to play plays with his roles. Brando is still the most exciting American actor on the screen. The roles may not be classic, but the actor’s dilemma is.

Emerson outlined the American artist’s way of life a century ago–“Thou must pass for a fool for a long season.” We used to think that the season meant only youth, before the artist could prove his talent, make his place, achieve something. Now it is clear that for screen artists, and perhaps not only for screen artists, youth is, relatively speaking, the short season; the long one is the degradation after success.


  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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