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Part I -- An American hero -- and antihero
Beyond anything else, Marlon Brando is the towering original who came out of the Midwest 58 years ago and electrified Broadway and then Hollywood with the visceral excitement and veracity of his acting. He exploded propriety and expressed intimate yearnings with unprecedented nakedness and power, only to have studio executives try to cut him down to conventional stardom.
Even now, he seesaws between living legend and butt of late-night jokes. Whenever another maverick is profiled or interviewed, Brando is apt to be invoked as a model or a friend. But Brando is just as sure to be parodied by comedians who mock the way he once fed Larry King a health-food cookie and kissed him on the lips.
Brando's ability to embarrass as well as to inspire is part of what I admire about him. When he turns interview sessions with King or Connie Chung into showcases for his own eccentricities, he's being true to his roots. He was at the hub of that generation of artists who viewed the celebrity-fueled media not as allies in the American Success Game but as distorters of their work and invaders of their lives.
Again and again in books on Brando, biographers seize on the real-life scene of Brando testifying in tears on behalf of his son Christian, who shot and killed his half-sister's lover. They use the broken-lion image as counterpoint to Brando's masculine potency in movies of the '50s. It's as if they think Brando had embodied some stoic man's code that made it unseemly for him to break even under such tragic circumstances.
So I was almost dizzy with delight when I re-read this proclamation by the late film critic Pauline Kael: As "the major protagonist of contemporary American themes in the fifties, [Brando] 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 the course of devouring the recent flood of DVDs that immortalize Brando's movie roles in pristine digital, I kept looking for coherence in the arc of his career. Is arc the right word? Brando's stratospheric hits and subterranean flops and a fair number of little-known, underrated accomplishments oscillate over the second half of our last century like a drunken top.
For help I pored through all the available biographies and found occasional insights wrapped up in confusion or abashment or wool-gathering. But the repeated quoting of Kael in several books sent me back to her 1966 essay, "Marlon Brando: An American Hero." It was a revelation.
Kael's essay does more to summarize Brando's blistering appeal and the perilous nature of his acting life than anything written before or since. When thinking of Brando getting caught in ghastly messes like Morituri (1965), Kael quotes Emerson on the American artist's way of life: "Thou must pass for a fool and a churl 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," she notes. "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."
In a passage that goes beyond conventional criticism to a personal declaration of values and philosophy, Kael writes: "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."
To Kael, Brando at his early peak "represented a contemporary version of the free American." She admired "the 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." By the mid-1960s, though, after too many movies like A Bedtime Story and A Countess from Hong Kong, she felt he had become "a selfparodying buffoon."
Still, her realization that Brando represented the first male American protagonist who didn't have a code, who found new audacity and power from his very lack of mooring, accounts for Brando's continued power to intrigue us. He moves us like no other actor when his intuition and intelligence connect with our own contradictory feelings. He remains our genius of the inchoate.
Part II -- 'On the Waterfront' and 'Wild One'
Brando had a rare potency in movies right from the start -- that's what makes him so ferociously affecting as a World War II paraplegic who doubts his ability to please his wife in Fred Zinneman's The Men (1950). In Elia Kazan's film version of his stage triumph, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Brando, re-creating his role as Stanley Kowal-ski, brought off a lowdown burlesque poetry, spitting out unintentionally hilarious non sequiturs while parading around in his tight T-shirt and jeans. What's more, he made it mesh with the heartbreakingly delicate lyricism of Vivien Leigh's Blanche DuBois.
Brando burned with revolutionary fire in Kazan's visually exciting Viva Zapata (1952) -- it's his most uncomplicatedly stirring, and macho, performance -- and he showed his range with his Mark Antony in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (1953). British critic Alexander Walker wrote of his performance: "None of us was prepared for the twist Brando gave the famous line, 'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.' He shouts it. He bawls it. He bellows it above the crowd, like a maitre d'hotel bringing restaurant gossip to a stop for some announcement, perhaps about evacuating the place because of fire. And he puts enormously unexpected emphasis on the word 'lend.' This is a Mark Antony who has lost his temper."
It was Brando's next two films, The Wild One (1953) and On the Waterfront (1954), that made him a movie idol. Aside from Brando's performance, The Wild One hasn't aged well. Although its leather and chrome iconography and Brando's hipsterism inspired biker and rebel cults for decades to come, it fits all too snugly into the musty category of "cautionary tale." Its story ultimately reduces Brando's biker to the quintessential crazy mixed-up kid.
It's worth watching on DVD for the sensational way Brando slithers his casual, charged artistry through every crack in the movie's makeshift architecture. When the small-town waitress who is supposed to be his salvation asks "Where are you going when you leave here?" Brando's Johnny responds "Oh man, we just gonna go," expressing the central beatitude of the Beat culture better than any features about Neal Cassady and Kerouac. When another girl asks, "What are you rebelling against?" and Johnny replies, "What've you got?" you see the 1950s roots of the 1960s counterculture.
On the Waterfront, also with Kazan, holds up as one of the best examples of the creative synergy of gifted star and landmark role. For all its muckraking, the drama is based on the growth of a single character, and it makes his transformation as galvanizing as that of Henry V.
At the age of 29, boxer turned dockworker Terry Malloy feels that his best years are behind him. He's still a good-looking bad boy, but his expressions have taken on an overcast quality -- moody and potentially volatile. When he laughs, it's like the sun peeping through storm clouds. Something in his life has stunned him; Terry carries a hard-knocks malaise, a reflex withdrawal from the compromise and corruption he's sunk into.
Before he realizes that there exists a life apart from his crooked union and its degrading labor practices, Terry is an arrested adolescent, living for jokes, thrills and camaraderie. The worst side of this life is the cruel joshing he endures in union boss Johnny Friendly's bar; the best side of it is the bond he shares with a young kid from his old gang, the Golden Warriors, who loves to watch Terry race pigeons. In an instance of this movie's root honesty, that narrow friendship excludes anyone beyond the secret world of the rooftops, shutting out even the Nice Girl (Eva Marie Saint) who helps a priest (Karl Malden) fight for Terry's heart and soul.
The fulcrum of On the Waterfront is Terry's relationship with his brother, Charlie the Gent. It's a variation on the Cain and Abel theme, with the brainy brother being more destructive than the brawny one. Rod Steiger is brilliant as Charlie, embodying a glib maturity that even Terry sees through at the end. But Brando is the one who makes us see and hear what we never have before. He mixes an odd languor with physical menace, shadowy gestures with sudden decisive actions, and an unconventional stop-and-go phrasing that makes each line his own. He expresses the inexpressible and gets at the core of Terry's angst -- his throttled howl against a world that would label and box him without the love with which he pigeonholes his pigeons.
Director Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg had intended this child / thug to emerge as the epitome of their brand of liberal working-class heroism. And Terry Malloy is a valiant whistle-blower. But when Brando says, "I could have been a contender," his lament, as Kael realized, goes beyond a lament for social corruption. It's a cry for authenticity and meaning -- a cry in the dark that lights up the dark.
Part III -- White elephants, 'Golden Eye'
For the dozen years after On the Waterfront, Brando ping-ponged between wildly various projects, sometimes testing himself and sometimes merely toying with expectations. The roster of these films will defeat the efforts of most Brando-philes to strike through to instances of undiminished brilliance. Desiree (1954), Guys and Dolls (1955), The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), Sayonara (1957) -- all are white elephants in widescreen and color.
Trying to play a decent man who became a Nazi officer in the fitfully compelling The Young Lions (1958), he tackles ethical conundrums but skews the meaning of the material. Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) is probably the most enjoyable of Brando's mid-career debacles, though neither the two halves of the story nor the two halves of his interpretation of mutineer Fletcher Christian -- as dandy and underdog hero -- jibe effectively.
But Brando's own directing effort, One-Eyed Jacks (1961), available only on a bargain-basement DVD, exudes a sexual glow and fascination. Even the film's relocation of the Billy the Kid saga to Monterey and the California coast shows the visual instinct of a genuine movie director. Brando's chemistry with Pina Pellicer, who plays his love interest, is simultaneously erotic and neurotic.
And in John Huston's 1967 Reflections in a Golden Eye, scandalously available only on a pan-and-scan VHS print, Brando once again forges a fully-rounded performance in a first-rate movie. As a repressed homosexual major on a Southern army base, Brando connects with us in his first shot of the man lifting weights -- there's something amazing and pitiable about his determination when this hefty soldier curls and jerks. Playing a man who alternately is living beyond his emotions or in total denial of them, Brando registers as forcefully as other actors playing warrior-kings. Whether preening before a mirror -- giving us the major's pathetic imitations of both a Cary Grant bon vivant and a John Wayne drill sergeant -- or fantasizing about his enlisted men's existence as a life lived "as clean as a rifle barrel," he makes this homunculus breathe.
Part IV -- Larger than life, and doing a 'Tango'
After Reflections in a Golden Eye bombed, Brando went slumming again, in his pal Christian Marquand's ragged film version of the porno classic Candy (1968). But as the elusive agent of colonialism in Pontecorvo's surging if self-destructive Burn! (1970) he wryly articulated imperial capitalism to the delight of campus radicals. He exploded with sexual sadism in Michael Winner's nasty melodrama The Nightcomers (1971). And later in 1971 and '72, nearly two decades after Terry Malloy, Francis Ford Coppola gave him the opportunity once again to play a zeitgeist-defining figure -- this time, a massive patriarchal force who ensures both his family's survival and its moral downfall.
To this day it's jolting to see Brando as Don Corleone -- the receded hairline, the gray pencil mustache, jowls hanging off a twisted mouth, and a voice cracked from years of command. Brando makes the character extraordinarily complex largely through his physical expressiveness. He walks as if his shoulder blades were pinned behind him. But the sensibility beneath the authority is surprisingly agile: the Don can suddenly break into mimicry, or turn his daughter in a waltz with a slight protective bent that catches sentiment in movement.
It's hard to overestimate the influence Brando's uncanny acting had on this masterpiece. Even cinematographer Gordon Willis' daring, shady visual scheme was designed to preserve the mystery of Brando's characterization. And Brando's sway over the rest of the cast vitalizes the film on every viewing.
Al Pacino's Michael seems to draw on his father's emotional reserves while learning to bank his own. James Caan plays the eldest boy, Sonny, like the Don without his lid on or a Brando action hero on amphetamines, animating his body with a high-strung, barely-controlled rage. John Cazale's Fredo has the surprising vulnerability and sensitivity Brando showed in movies like The Men. Robert Duvall, as Tom Hagen, Don Vito's German-Irish adopted son and consigliere, echoes Brando in his eloquent wariness, his furtive intelligence.
Brando, of course, had an even more total and immediate influence on his next film, Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris. Brando poured all his knowledge of life and acting into the role of an American expatriate devastated by his wife's suicide and determined to have a sex-only liaison with Maria Schneider. And he was working with a director who resolved to take Brando's and Kazan's improvisatory, psychodramatic techniques to new peaks in a heightened operatic style. Most lovers of Brando believe this is the performance of his lifetime, and it inspired Kael to write her most impassioned and controversial review.
But there is so much that is laboriously wrong with the movie that I've never been able to give myself over to it. It's best seen after reading Kael, who articulates the movie's themes better than Bertolucci does. Brando, she says, "plays out the American male tough-guy role -- insisting on his power in bed, because that is all the 'truth' he knows." What he and Schneider "go through together in their pressure cooker is an intensified, speeded-up history of the sex relationships of the dominating men and the adoring women who have provided the key sex model of the past few decades -- the model that is collapsing."
And if you read the biographies of Brando, his reminiscing in Tango about his "supermasculine" father and "poetic" mother seems to expose the marrow of a multifaceted man -- and put you in a state of voyeuristic awe.
Part V -- The actor, heavy and light
Brando began to let his burgeoning flab fan out and permit his bent for goofiness to run amok in the sour satiric Western The Missouri Breaks (1975). How remarkable to see a movie in which Jack Nicholson is the underactor. And Brando's put-on gravitas in Superman (1978) set the pattern for decades of highly-paid cameo appearances.
At least working with Coppola again on Apocalypse Now promised a return to substance. But it came off as a parody of their collaboration on The Godfather. Kurtz, the madman who's carved out his own kingdom in the Cambodian jungle during the Vietnam War, is seen in half-light and heard in half-whispers. Brando's bulbous chieftain doesn't lay down the law -- he waxes poetic and pontificates. Trying to arrive at a concept of Kurtz that would fit Brando's newly bloated heroic presence, Coppola and his star make him Christ and satyr, martyr and Manson.
In one speech approaching lucidity, Kurtz tries to explain himself to the assassin Willard (Martin Sheen): "It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies." It's hard to resist feeling that you're in the presence of something profound, or at least deep, or in the very least meaningful. In movies, as in physics, the bigger the vacuum, the more power it has to suck you in.
Although a new scene in Apocalypse Now Redux adds political context to Kurtz's rebellion, the rest of the restored footage doesn't do anything to augment Kurtz's character. The movie and Brando's performance remain hybrids of lunging artistry, undigested content and untrammeled ambition.
If Brando has gone in and out of focus ever since Apocalypse Now, it's not entirely his fault. Moviemakers often don't know what to do with him even after they cast him. Most recently, Frank Oz, the director of the hollow 2001 heist film The Score, lamented that he tried to challenge Brando instead of listening to him -- and the result is listless.
I was lucky enough to see an early preview cut of A Dry White Season (1989), Euzhan Palcy's adaptation of Andre Brink's tale of two families -- one black, one white -- destroyed by apartheid. Apart from the eloquent presence of such phenomenal black South African actors as Zakes Mokae, the movie's one oasis of artistry was Brando's performance as a super-smart, world-weary barrister who attempts to expose apartheid's outrages in court.
Ultimately, the moviemakers cut down Brando's role to extended-cameo length. But even in truncated form, Brando's performance is still enormously effective. He oozes the sardonicism a brilliant man would have to cultivate in order to survive in a system that he hates. He uses his bulk to create a character who's carved out his own imposing space in a racist society.
In the very next year, 1990, Brando gave a scintillating comic performance in Andrew Bergman's best movie, The Freshman. It has one of those moments that sends a thrill up the spines of moviegoers: the sight of Brando, as an Italian mobster named Carmine Sabatini, skating across a rink like an improbably graceful ice boat. Brando performs with prodigious brio. The context is satirical, but what the actor delivers isn't self-parody, or even parody. He transforms the tragic ironies of Don Vito Corleone into the inspired comic ironies of an adventurous criminal entrepreneur. As Don Carmine Sabatini, Brando is a sport. He doesn't just provide ripe sentiment and ominous gestures; he also exudes an infectious gaiety. Sabatini has a violent edge. Yet the way writer-director Bergman shapes his whirligig plot, Sabatini stands for everything affirmative about urban life, from community and tradition to catalytic energy. And Brando's performance floats through it like a gorgeous hot-air balloon.
Part VI -- 'Lying for a Living'
The next time we see Brando, it may be in an instructional acting video he is producing called Lying for a Living. Brando has already taped Sean Penn, Nick Nolte and Jon Voight improvising with nonactors for this video. Penn told Talk magazine: "On the day of the first class he got one guy involved who was going through a garbage bin behind the studio. He got him started in the class, and the guy showed up on time the next day."
The intersection of raw reality and superb training reflects Brando's own expansive aesthetic. He calls what he does lying for a living. But he's actually turned movie acting into the art of telling the truth.