Part I -- An American hero -- and antihero
Beyond anything else, Marlon Brando is the towering original who came outof the Midwest 58 years ago and electrified Broadway and then Hollywood withthe visceral excitement and veracity of his acting. He exploded propriety andexpressed intimate yearnings with unprecedented nakedness and power, only tohave 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 beinvoked as a model or a friend. But Brando is just as sure to be parodied bycomedians who mock the way he once fed Larry King a health-food cookie andkissed him on the lips.
Brando's ability to embarrass as well as to inspire is part of what Iadmire about him. When he turns interview sessions with King or Connie Chunginto showcases for his own eccentricities, he's being true to his roots. Hewas at the hub of that generation of artists who viewed the celebrity-fueledmedia not as allies in the American Success Game but as distorters of theirwork and invaders of their lives.
Again and again in books on Brando, biographers seize on the real-lifescene of Brando testifying in tears on behalf of his son Christian, who shotand killed his half-sister's lover. They use the broken-lion image ascounterpoint to Brando's masculine potency in movies of the '50s. It's as ifthey think Brando had embodied some stoic man's code that made it unseemly forhim to break even under such tragic circumstances.
So I was almost dizzy with delight when I re-read this proclamation by thelate film critic Pauline Kael: As "the major protagonist of contemporaryAmerican themes in the fifties, [Brando] had no code, only his instincts. Hewas a development from the gangster leader and the outlaw. He was antisocialbecause he knew society was crap; he was a hero to youth because he was strongenough not to take the crap."
In the course of devouring the recent flood of DVDs that immortalizeBrando's movie roles in pristine digital, I kept looking for coherence in thearc of his career. Is arc the right word? Brando's stratospheric hits andsubterranean flops and a fair number of little-known, underratedaccomplishments oscillate over the second half of our last century like adrunken top.
For help I pored through all the available biographies and found occasionalinsights wrapped up in confusion or abashment or wool-gathering. But therepeated 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 theperilous nature of his acting life than anything written before or since. Whenthinking of Brando getting caught in ghastly messes like Morituri (1965), Kaelquotes Emerson on the American artist's way of life: "Thou must pass for afool and a churl for a long season."
"We used to think that the season meant only youth, before the artist couldprove his talent, make his place, achieve something," she notes. "Now it isclear that for screen artists, and perhaps not only for screen artists, youthis, relatively speaking, the short season; the long one is the degradationafter success."
In a passage that goes beyond conventional criticism to a personaldeclaration of values and philosophy, Kael writes: "He was our angry young man-- the delinquent, the tough, the rebel -- who stood at the center of ourcommon experience. When, as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, he said to hisbrother, 'Oh Charlie, oh Charlie ... you don't understand. I could have hadclass. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody, instead of abum --which is what I am,' he spoke for all our failed hopes. It was the greatAmerican lament, of Broadway, of Hollywood, as well as of the docks."
To Kael, Brando at his early peak "represented a contemporary version ofthe free American." She admired "the sense of excitement, of danger in hispresence, but perhaps his special appeal was in a kind of simple conceit, theconceit of tough kids. There was humor in it -- swagger and arrogance thatwere 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 HongKong, she felt he had become "a selfparodying buffoon."
Still, her realization that Brando represented the first male Americanprotagonist who didn't have a code, who found new audacity and power from hisvery lack of mooring, accounts for Brando's continued power to intrigue us. Hemoves us like no other actor when his intuition and intelligence connect withour 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 whatmakes him so ferociously affecting as a World War II paraplegic who doubts hisability to please his wife in Fred Zinneman's The Men (1950). In Elia Kazan'sfilm version of his stage triumph, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar NamedDesire (1951), Brando, re-creating his role as Stanley Kowal-ski, brought offa lowdown burlesque poetry, spitting out unintentionally hilarious nonsequiturs 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'sBlanche DuBois.
Brando burned with revolutionary fire in Kazan's visually exciting VivaZapata (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 criticAlexander Walker wrote of his performance: "None of us was prepared for thetwist Brando gave the famous line, 'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me yourears.' He shouts it. He bawls it. He bellows it above the crowd, like a maitred'hotel bringing restaurant gossip to a stop for some announcement, perhapsabout evacuating the place because of fire. And he puts enormously unexpectedemphasis 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 WildOne hasn't aged well. Although its leather and chrome iconography and Brando'shipsterism inspired biker and rebel cults for decades to come, it fits all toosnugly into the musty category of "cautionary tale." Its story ultimatelyreduces Brando's biker to the quintessential crazy mixed-up kid.
It's worth watching on DVD for the sensational way Brando slithers hiscasual, charged artistry through every crack in the movie's makeshiftarchitecture. When the small-town waitress who is supposed to be his salvationasks "Where are you going when you leave here?" Brando's Johnny responds "Ohman, we just gonna go," expressing the central beatitude of the Beat culturebetter than any features about Neal Cassady and Kerouac. When another girlasks, "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 ofthe 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 histransformation as galvanizing as that of Henry V.
At the age of 29, boxer turned dockworker Terry Malloy feels that his bestyears are behind him. He's still a good-looking bad boy, but his expressionshave taken on an overcast quality -- moody and potentially volatile. When helaughs, it's like the sun peeping through storm clouds. Something in his lifehas stunned him; Terry carries a hard-knocks malaise, a reflex withdrawal fromthe compromise and corruption he's sunk into.
Before he realizes that there exists a life apart from his crooked unionand its degrading labor practices, Terry is an arrested adolescent, living forjokes, thrills and camaraderie. The worst side of this life is the crueljoshing he endures in union boss Johnny Friendly's bar; the best side of it isthe 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 roothonesty, that narrow friendship excludes anyone beyond the secret world of therooftops, 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 brainybrother being more destructive than the brawny one. Rod Steiger is brilliantas 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. Hemixes an odd languor with physical menace, shadowy gestures with suddendecisive actions, and an unconventional stop-and-go phrasing that makes eachline his own. He expresses the inexpressible and gets at the core of Terry'sangst -- his throttled howl against a world that would label and box himwithout 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 couldhave been a contender," his lament, as Kael realized, goes beyond a lament forsocial corruption. It's a cry for authenticity and meaning -- a cry in thedark that lights up the dark.
Part III -- White elephants, 'Golden Eye'
For the dozen years after On the Waterfront, Brando ping-ponged betweenwildly various projects, sometimes testing himself and sometimes merely toyingwith expectations. The roster of these films will defeat the efforts of mostBrando-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 fitfullycompelling The Young Lions (1958), he tackles ethical conundrums but skews themeaning of the material. Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) is probably the mostenjoyable of Brando's mid-career debacles, though neither the two halves ofthe story nor the two halves of his interpretation of mutineer FletcherChristian -- as dandy and underdog hero -- jibe effectively.
But Brando's own directing effort, One-Eyed Jacks (1961), available only ona bargain-basement DVD, exudes a sexual glow and fascination. Even the film'srelocation of the Billy the Kid saga to Monterey and the California coastshows the visual instinct of a genuine movie director. Brando's chemistry withPina Pellicer, who plays his love interest, is simultaneously erotic andneurotic.
And in John Huston's 1967 Reflections in a Golden Eye, scandalouslyavailable only on a pan-and-scan VHS print, Brando once again forges afully-rounded performance in a first-rate movie. As a repressed homosexualmajor on a Southern army base, Brando connects with us in his first shot ofthe man lifting weights -- there's something amazing and pitiable about hisdetermination when this hefty soldier curls and jerks. Playing a man whoalternately is living beyond his emotions or in total denial of them, Brandoregisters as forcefully as other actors playing warrior-kings. Whetherpreening before a mirror -- giving us the major's pathetic imitations of botha Cary Grant bon vivant and a John Wayne drill sergeant -- or fantasizingabout his enlisted men's existence as a life lived "as clean as a riflebarrel," 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, inhis pal Christian Marquand's ragged film version of the porno classic Candy(1968). But as the elusive agent of colonialism in Pontecorvo's surging ifself-destructive Burn! (1970) he wryly articulated imperial capitalism to thedelight of campus radicals. He exploded with sexual sadism in Michael Winner'snasty melodrama The Nightcomers (1971). And later in 1971 and '72, nearly twodecades after Terry Malloy, Francis Ford Coppola gave him the opportunity onceagain to play a zeitgeist-defining figure -- this time, a massive patriarchalforce who ensures both his family's survival and its moral downfall.
To this day it's jolting to see Brando as Don Corleone -- the recededhairline, the gray pencil mustache, jowls hanging off a twisted mouth, and avoice cracked from years of command. Brando makes the characterextraordinarily complex largely through his physical expressiveness. He walksas if his shoulder blades were pinned behind him. But the sensibility beneaththe authority is surprisingly agile: the Don can suddenly break into mimicry,or turn his daughter in a waltz with a slight protective bent that catchessentiment in movement.
It's hard to overestimate the influence Brando's uncanny acting had on thismasterpiece. Even cinematographer Gordon Willis' daring, shady visual schemewas designed to preserve the mystery of Brando's characterization. AndBrando'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 whilelearning to bank his own. James Caan plays the eldest boy, Sonny, like the Donwithout his lid on or a Brando action hero on amphetamines, animating his bodywith a high-strung, barely-controlled rage. John Cazale's Fredo has thesurprising vulnerability and sensitivity Brando showed in movies like The Men.Robert Duvall, as Tom Hagen, Don Vito's German-Irish adopted son andconsigliere, echoes Brando in his eloquent wariness, his furtive intelligence.
Brando, of course, had an even more total and immediate influence on hisnext film, Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris. Brando poured all hisknowledge of life and acting into the role of an American expatriatedevastated by his wife's suicide and determined to have a sex-only liaisonwith Maria Schneider. And he was working with a director who resolved to takeBrando's and Kazan's improvisatory, psychodramatic techniques to new peaks ina heightened operatic style. Most lovers of Brando believe this is theperformance of his lifetime, and it inspired Kael to write her mostimpassioned and controversial review.
But there is so much that is laboriously wrong with the movie that I'venever 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, shesays, "plays out the American male tough-guy role -- insisting on his power inbed, because that is all the 'truth' he knows." What he and Schneider "gothrough together in their pressure cooker is an intensified, speeded-uphistory of the sex relationships of the dominating men and the adoring womenwho have provided the key sex model of the past few decades -- the model thatis collapsing."
And if you read the biographies of Brando, his reminiscing in Tango abouthis "supermasculine" father and "poetic" mother seems to expose the marrow ofa 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 forgoofiness 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. AndBrando's put-on gravitas in Superman (1978) set the pattern for decades ofhighly-paid cameo appearances.
At least working with Coppola again on Apocalypse Now promised a return tosubstance. 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 Cambodianjungle during the Vietnam War, is seen in half-light and heard inhalf-whispers. Brando's bulbous chieftain doesn't lay down the law -- he waxespoetic and pontificates. Trying to arrive at a concept of Kurtz that would fitBrando's newly bloated heroic presence, Coppola and his star make him Christand satyr, martyr and Manson.
In one speech approaching lucidity, Kurtz tries to explain himself to theassassin Willard (Martin Sheen): "It's impossible for words to describe whatis necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has aface, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are yourfriends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are trulyenemies." It's hard to resist feeling that you're in the presence of somethingprofound, or at least deep, or in the very least meaningful. In movies, as inphysics, the bigger the vacuum, the more power it has to suck you in.
Although a new scene in Apocalypse Now Redux adds political context toKurtz's rebellion, the rest of the restored footage doesn't do anything toaugment Kurtz's character. The movie and Brando's performance remain hybridsof lunging artistry, undigested content and untrammeled ambition.
If Brando has gone in and out of focus ever since Apocalypse Now, it's notentirely his fault. Moviemakers often don't know what to do with him evenafter they cast him. Most recently, Frank Oz, the director of the hollow 2001heist film The Score, lamented that he tried to challenge Brando instead oflistening 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 -- oneblack, one white -- destroyed by apartheid. Apart from the eloquent presenceof such phenomenal black South African actors as Zakes Mokae, the movie's oneoasis of artistry was Brando's performance as a super-smart, world-wearybarrister who attempts to expose apartheid's outrages in court.
Ultimately, the moviemakers cut down Brando's role to extended-cameolength. But even in truncated form, Brando's performance is still enormouslyeffective. He oozes the sardonicism a brilliant man would have to cultivate inorder to survive in a system that he hates. He uses his bulk to create acharacter who's carved out his own imposing space in a racist society.
In the very next year, 1990, Brando gave a scintillating comic performancein Andrew Bergman's best movie, The Freshman. It has one of those moments thatsends a thrill up the spines of moviegoers: the sight of Brando, as an Italianmobster named Carmine Sabatini, skating across a rink like an improbablygraceful ice boat. Brando performs with prodigious brio. The context issatirical, but what the actor delivers isn't self-parody, or even parody. Hetransforms the tragic ironies of Don Vito Corleone into the inspired comicironies of an adventurous criminal entrepreneur. As Don Carmine Sabatini,Brando is a sport. He doesn't just provide ripe sentiment and ominousgestures; he also exudes an infectious gaiety. Sabatini has a violent edge.Yet the way writer-director Bergman shapes his whirligig plot, Sabatini standsfor everything affirmative about urban life, from community and tradition tocatalytic energy. And Brando's performance floats through it like a gorgeoushot-air balloon.
Part VI -- 'Lying for a Living'
The next time we see Brando, it may be in an instructional acting video heis producing called Lying for a Living. Brando has already taped Sean Penn,Nick Nolte and Jon Voight improvising with nonactors for this video. Penn toldTalk magazine: "On the day of the first class he got one guy involved who wasgoing through a garbage bin behind the studio. He got him started in theclass, and the guy showed up on time the next day."
The intersection of raw reality and superb training reflects Brando's ownexpansive aesthetic. He calls what he does lying for a living. But he'sactually turned movie acting into the art of telling the truth.