Part 1: A Myth Steps Down to a Soapbox
March 27, 1973. The clock is approaching the witching hour. Heads are nodding. The Academy Awards ceremony has been droning on with stupefying monotony, giving no indication, except for the awkwardness and ineptitude of its improvised moments, that it is a live show. It is a toss-up as to which is worse — the rehearsed “repartee” or the unrehearsed reflections on the unreadability of the Cue Cards. To the cue cards has been added another luckless prop, a letter opener brought by Cloris Leachman, that fosters much merriment — and more wasted energy, since the envelopes provided by Price, Waterhouse are barely sealed to begin with. But those of us who are left by now are hooked. We watch as we watch every year, hoping against hope that something unexpected will happen — not a scandal, a mere Freudian slip will do — so that Hollywood and television will redeem themselves with something worthy of the name of one of the last “live” shows on tv. And then it happens — the nominees for Best Actor award are read, and Marlon Brando is pronounced winner!
The camera pans down to the audience where moments before, in the focus-on-the-nervous-nominee warm-up, Brando had been conspicuously absent. A pigtailed maiden in buckskin rises and makes the long trek up onto the stage. You can almost hear the whispers and speculations. “Is this Brando’s latest girlfriend?” (After all, we know his taste runs to dusky, non-American slave-damsels.) “Is she going to accept the award for him?” Or … is it possible … ? It is. Identifying herself as Princess Sacheen Littlefeather from some improbably-named group called the Something Something Affirmative Image Committee, she reads part of a statement prepared by Brando (who is reportedly on his way to Wounded Knee) in which he refuses his Oscar in protest over Hollywood’s “degrading” treatment of the Indians. Gasp. Scattered boos, followed by half-hearted applause, probably in deference to Miss Littlefeather who is not to be penalized for Brando’s effrontery.
It is a historical moment — the first outright rejection of an Oscar by a star, by anyone. (George C. Scott simply didn’t “show” to pick up his for “Patton.”) The waves are still reverberating — through the halls of the Music Center, down Hollywood and Vine, over the vacant back lots of the studios, and on the editorial pages of the Eastern press. To that series of mini climaxes — Brando’s on-and-off, love-hate relationship with Hollywood, and Hollywood’s hot-and-cold, love-hate relationship with him — this at last was the orgasm. It was a moment that captured many of the contradictions of that relationship, and of the respective partners. Back in 1951, Hollywood, with sublime contrariness, had denied Brando the Oscar for his performance in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” giving one to every other member of the cast. In 1954, he won his first and, until 1973, last, Best Actor Award for his performance in “On the Waterfront,” one of those conjunctions of merit and reward so rare in the Academy’s history. Then in 1973 he wins for his portrayal of the Mafia patriarch of “The Godfather” — a role that is one-third as long as that of his son, played by Al Pacino, who is nominated for Supporting Actor! A typical Hollywood-hindsight move: the redressing of wrongs wrongly. And Brando, with typical nose-thumbing bravura, refuses it.
Why did he do it? There are not many subjects on which everyone’s a spokesman, but one of them is Brando. “It’s stupid.” “It’s terrific.” “It’s harmful to the Indian cause.” “It’s harmful to Brando’s career.” “It’s hypocritical — why didn’t he give his percentage of ‘The Godfather’ to the Indians?” “It’s insincere — why didn’t he come himself?”
To this last question, one answer is that he couldn’t bear the embarrassment of coming and not winning the award — no small consideration for an actor of Brando’s stature, who has made a career out of thumbing his nose at Hollywood.
“He didn’t want the award,” goes another argument. “He much prefers his performance in ‘The Last Tango in Paris,’ and wanted to wait and try to win for that next year.” This theory would make more sense if Brando had announced he would reject the award before the voting rather than afterward.
Whatever one thinks of his methods, Brando’s commitment to the Indians can hardly be questioned. It is a continuation of those political causes that Brando has embraced throughout, and sometimes in preference to, his career and by which he has asked to be taken “seriously” — as if his talent were not as great and serious a thing as a man could hope for.
In 1946, while still in the theatre, Brando left “Candida” where he was playing Marchbanks for $300 a week, to take a $48-a-week part in Ben Hecht ‘s pro-Zionist play, “A Flag Is Born,” because he wanted to lend his support to Palestine. He marched on San Quentin the night Caryl Chessman was gassed. He was at Gadsden and Birmingham for the civil-rights protests. He took part, in Tacoma, Washington, in a “fish-in” for some Indians whose fishing rights were in jeopardy. He had scuffles with the law in California — where he was picketing with CORE — and in Cambridge, Maryland. He participated in a Black Panther rally after the killing of Bobby Hutton. He has always been on the right side, doing all the right things for people that, in good radical fashion, are as far as possible from his own self-image and thus infinitely susceptible to romantic idealization. He gets points from the politicos, but loses them with anybody who gives a damn about movies, those of us who realize instinctively that his political maneuvers are not just a blow for civil rights, but a blow against the (implied) triviality of his art, just as the elaborate make-up jobs and caricatures of some of his roles are a rejection of the naked, emotionally-expressive man he once so consummately projected. And, ironically, that contempt for his craft (or for self-in-craft) places him squarely in the tradition of philistinism at the heart of the America whose politics he despises. For the man who left “Candida” for “A Flag Is Born” was not just leaving a non-political play for a polemical one, a higher salary for a lower one, but a better plan for an inferior one.
Nobody, not even those of us who are pejoratively labeled “aestheticians” by our enemies, would presume to say that actors should be categorically excluded from politics. Okay, let them lend their name to a worthy cause, but please pass the ear-plugs when the peroration begins. Because the very faculties that make an actor great — intuition, instinct — equip him poorly for his role as pundit. Unleavened by wit or originality, earnestness begins to sound like sanctimoniousness. Brando’s feelings about the Indian situation, like Jane Fonda’s on Vietnam — which at least she had the grace not to inflict on the Academy Awards — are less than earthshaking. There is nothing wrong with that, except that we expect magic from our heroes and heroines, and when they utter banalities we are outraged. What others can get away with, they can’t. When Brando betrays complete ignorance of recent movie history and its revisionist stance toward Indians (“Little Big Man,” “Journey through Rosebud,” “Cheyenne Autumn”) or even John Ford’s cavalry westerns which, if ideologically retrograde were an economic boon to the Apaches; or when he reproaches Hollywood for neglecting the cause of a minority group that he himself did nothing to advance when he had the opportunity, it casts doubt, rightly or wrongly, on his sincerity.
An actor capable of the most exquisite nuance in a performance becomes a sloganeering imbecile on the soapbox, and if we mistake his ineptitude for insincerity, it is not unlike those occasions when a non-actor is brought in to do an actor’s work. How many times have non-professionals, or “real people” in documentaries, conveyed a monolithic stupidity and insensitivity simply because they lacked the histrionic tools, the artistry, to express other dimensions.
Brando and Fonda are more intuitively savvy in a single gesture of “On the Waterfront” or “Klute” than in all their liberal polemics. Indeed, it was Jane Fonda who, during the shooting of “The Chase,” gave what is perhaps the neatest summation of Brando on record. In the middle of a scene she was doing with him, she suddenly stopped short, according to Arthur Penn and just stared at him. “God!” she finally said in amazement, as the cameras continued to roll, “You’re just the best fucking actor in the whole world.”
If as a political action Brando’s gesture misfired, as theatre it scored. Just as he illuminated so many bad pictures over the years — some of them as execrable as any Academy production — so he strikes sparks in an otherwise hopeless evening. And he does it, as he has in the past — sometimes hokily, sometimes authentically — using as his emissary Princess Sacheen Littlefeather (herself with one foot in showbiz, having once entered a contest for the title of Queen Vampire in a movie publicity stunt), with an instinct for theatre as sure today as it was when, in 1947, he lurched onto the stage as Stanley Kowalski and threatened, for a moment, to make all his contemporaries obsolete, and all actors and playwrights look like fustian, phrase-making fools.
But if his show-stopping theatrical instinct — operable on Academy night by remote control — is Brando’s genius, it is one he has made money off of, big money, and for that he must atone. Partly in passion, partly in penance, he champions the little men, the peasants, the proletariat, the disenfranchised. In his imagination, he comes from them, he is Zapata. If he can’t throw the money back in the moguls’ faces (he is reported to have gotten $1.5 million for “The Godfather”), he can throw mud in their eye. He’s not as free as he once was: it is two wives, at least two mistresses, and four children later, plus inflationary real estate taxes in Tahiti — but the rejection of the Oscar is a declaration of Independence. ”F— you and your payoffs,” it says, “and you too” to the audience.
If we occasionally wish Brando would get off his minority-group hobbyhorse, we may have to recognize the other side of the coin: that this compulsion to do something is one of the sources of his fascination as an actor, the ambition of Terry Malloy and Johnny, to be something more. He may, like Zapata, be that ultimate contradiction — a man “of the people” who towers above them, a man in constant tension with his own myth.
And Brando’s hatred for the audience, for any kind of dependency, is felt so strongly and palpably that night that he is much closer to us, to them, than all these parading stiffs, exposing their teeth and their breasts but none of their feelings, faking generosity and seething between the lines. The enmities that are in the air, are everywhere in the air these days, the hostility of what is left out rather than what is said, is finally crystallized in Brando’s grandiose snub, and it is a relief.
Part 2: The Woman in the ‘All-Man’ Legend
June 21, 1973
Spoiled by a rapid celebrity turnover, a fickle public must be reminded of its prior loyalties, and besides, who among us can resist forever the lure of publicity? This is the season for cinema’s most fashionable recluses to come down from their eyries and renew their lifeline with the public. After Ingmar Bergman at Cannes, and Brando on the Dick Cavett Show, it only remains for Garbo to choose her time and place — a guest appearance, say, on “Not for Women Only.”
But Brando had never been one for talk shows and, unlike Bergman, is not — as far as we know — planning to make a movie with Barbra Streisand (although he was seen lunching with her in some desert oasis). Brando’s first television appearance was to have been, according to an announcement he himself made back in 1955, on the Edward R. Murrow show, an honorable intention that somehow went agley. Instead it was as a guest of Faye Emerson on that pioneering, monumentally but endearingly inconsequential talk show that he made his debut, and it was, according to one eyewitness observer, a charming encounter. Brando was attired, characteristically, in Stanley Kowalski sloppy shirt and jeans, and Faye was attired, also characteristically, in an exceedingly low-cut gown. As she was talking, a slip of paper fell from her lap to the floor.
“Oh, Marlon,” she said pleadingly, turning to her guest. “I daren’t.”
“Daren’t you?” Brando replied, smiling, as he leaned over and retrieved the paper. This was a side of Marlon, urbane and quick-witted, that was rarely allowed to surface and finally seems to have been permanently squashed under the combined weight of stardom and the white man’s burden.
Why, after so successfully avoiding the limelight, should Brando decide to go on the Cavett show and promote the Indian cause? No doubt to restore his missionary credibility, the credibility that Sasheen, with a flap of her Little Feathers, had reduced to the ashes of her own meteoric rise and brief stint in celebrity heaven.
Brando, competing with Watergate, went on the Cavett show to explain that he hadn’t gone to Wounded Knee because it would have looked like a “plot” to grab headlines. To remove the tincture of ego-tripping, Brando brings with him three Indians and a quote unquote non-Indian economic adviser to the Lumi tribe from Washington. The Brando delegation reminds me of the way Godard used to drag Gorin everywhere in the early days of their alliance, a symbol of that collective entity into which Godard had supposedly submerged his own despised Individuality. And indeed, this dual front did have the effect of politicalizing, and depersonalizing, every exchange.
Brando belittles acting with a choice of expression — “a craft, like plumbing” — that reduces it, typically, to the elemental-physiological level. And he babbles on about Indian rights, supported by “facts and figures,” with the kind of hard sell — leaving out such ticklish subjects as the rights of the original inhabitants of Wounded Knee, or the conflict between different Indian factions — that detergent and drug advertisers might find a little too one-sided.
He concedes that movies have given him a “good living.” But it is not the good living or the plumber-like execution of his craft that enables him to command the attention of television land for an hour-and-a-half lecture on the Indians, and a few insults besides. (In referring sneeringly to “beer-drinkers” Brando instinctively avoids insulting his true followers who are more likely to be on wine, whiskey, or hash.) It is, rather, the legend.
What is the legend, and how has it managed to stay alive through all these years of dubious achievements? It is written in a word. BRANDO. Like Garbo. Or Fido. An animal, a force of nature, an element; not a human being who must as a member of society distinguish himself from other members with a Christian name and an initial as well as a surname. There is only one Brando the actor, even as he plays his favorite role, that of serious, socially-conscious anti-star. One of the five or six greatest actors — some would say the greatest — the cinema has yet produced. And yet how few great films have gone into the formation of that reputation!
He exploded onto the screen, after he had made a name for himself in the theatre, in the early ’50s: “The Men” (1950), “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), “Viva Zapata!” (1952), “The Wild One” (1954), and “On the Waterfront” (1954).
The superlatives flew. Pauline Kael called his performance in “On the Waterfront” “the finest we have had in American films since Vivien Leigh’s Blanche duBois,” saying he “makes contact with previously untapped areas in American social and psychological experience.”
Stanley Kauffmann said of him, “His future has the farthest artistic horizon of any American film actor — indeed of any English speaking actor … except Christopher Plummer and Colleen Dewhurst.”
But hardly had the ink dried on the favorable reviews than the critics were complaining of the waste of a great talent, of the subversion of genius by American Hollywood commercialism. This was the period of scandal and setbacks, of poor decisions, altercations with directors, of walking off sets and being walked over by the press. The films ranged from commercial hits (“The Teahouse of the August Moon,” 1956; “Sayonara,” 1957; “The Young Lions” 1958; “Mutiny on the Bounty,” 1962), to moderate critical hits (“Guys and Dolls,” 1955; “Julius Caesar,” 1953; “One Eyed Jacks,” 1961; “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” (1967), to a great many near- and total-disasters, including “The Fugitive Kind,” 1960; “The Ugly American,” 1963; “Bedtime Story,” 1964; “Morituri,” 1965; “The Chase,” 1966; “The Appaloosa,” 1966; “Candy,” (1968); “The Night of the Following Day,” 1969; “The Night Comers,” (1971). Two, “The Countess from Hong Kong” (1967) and “Burn!” (1970 ), though not hits, had their followers. But for the most part it was a period of unfulfillment, and the mystery is not how Brando fell so low, but how he fell so low and remained so high! For all the while the man was dividing his time between politics and Tahiti, and the actor was squandering his creative resources on unworthy projects, the legend was alive and blazing. Whatever Marlon Brando might be doing or not doing, Brando was still a name whose potency was undiminished, a name to excite, to ignite, to conjure with.
As with Garbo’s career, you can count on one hand the great movies, and yet you wouldn’t miss one if your life depended on it, if you had to see it in Spanish on a double bill, or miss dinner, or spend your last dollar. And no matter how bad it was (and every one of them has its champions), you’d wait breathlessly for the next one. Indeed, the similarities between the careers, and the myths, of the two stars are too striking to overlook. First, as you bemoan the scarcity of good films, you begin to wonder if there wasn’t something in each of them that kept them from achieving a great, rounded oeuvre on the scale of the work produced by great artists in other fields — or even other film personalities who were perhaps more modest in their ambitions and/or talent. The actor is dependent on others for the realization of his potential, and yet, if he is a genius or feels “complete” in his own right, he has trouble submitting to a higher authority. Brando’s difficulties with directors attest to this, and neither he nor Garbo worked often, or repeatedly, with film-makers of the first order. Brando did his best work — understandably — for Elia Kazan, an “actor’s director” who, especially in his early work, was more inclined to accommodate the actor as a creative force on his own, rather than a director-surrogate or one element in a grand, directorial design. (Kazan’s films became increasingly autobiographical, and it is interesting to note that Brando bowed out of “The Arrangement” for “political reasons,” and the part of the protagonist, a Kazan-surrogate, was played by Kirk Douglas.)
In addition to their problems with directors, neither Brando nor Garbo ever seemed adequately matched in their co-stars and surrounding players. Their leading ladies and leading men were almost never remarkable or vivid in their own right, but were generally torch-bearers at the altar of the idol. Was this sheer coincidence, or was there something in the Brando-Garbo constitution, in their peculiar incandescence, that filled the space and left little room for other sources of light in the same sphere? Was it, perhaps, not just that they dominated members of the opposite sex, but that they contained ingredients of the other sex within them; was it not their androgyny, as much as their brilliance, that made their partners superfluous?
This is not unusual. Certain stars, like certain people, seem to reconcile sexual opposites. Chaplin and Mae West, Dietrich and Mick Jagger, are only the most obvious ones. And Garbo and Brando. They understand, intuitively, what it is to be “feminine” and “masculine,” and they explore these qualities while remaining just within the boundaries of their sex, i. e., without being “gay” or “butch.” Chaplin can be delicate, flirtatious, and coy, while Mae West is never less than forthright. Garbo is fearless in the transactions of love, while Brando hesitates in vulnerable self-defense. He is more sensitive than the women he loves, while Garbo makes the men to whom she devotes herself look indecisive and weak. Physically, too, they unite or borrow opposite sexual characteristics. Garbo and West are large-boned and lanky, while Chaplin and Brando are small and agile. Mae West’s voice, stride, and lechery are masculine, while Brando’s high-pitched “feminine” voice has been a determining factor in his career, preventing him from playing straight ro mantic leads in conventional love stories.
In movies as in real life, Brando’s female opposites have never been his “equals” — active or emancipated women with some claim to autonomy outside their Brando-bound destiny. Nor have they been, except for Magnani, full-bodied, sensual women with an appetite for life, (and even Magnani, in “The Fugitive Kind,” was the Older Woman, more to be pitied than feared for her sexual appetite). Rather, Brando’s partners have been virgins or romantic slaves who, from the pedestal or the ground, focused attention on him and happily accepted his dominance.
In both personal and fictional romances, an unusually large number were foreign or foreign type women: Lotus Blossom (Machiko Kyo) in “Teahouse”; Hana-Ogi (Miiko Taka) in “Sayonara”; Josefa (Jean Peters) in “Viva Zapata!”; Louisa (Pina Pellicer) in “One-Eyed Jacks”‘: Trini (Anjanette Comer) in “The Appaloosa'”; the blonde (Rila Moreno) in “The Night of the Following Day”; and, in real life: Anna Kashfi, to whom he was married from 1957-59; Movila, his wife from 1960-61; Rita Moreno as friend and occasional girlfriend; Josiane-Mariani Berenger, his one-time fiancee; and Tarita, whom he met during the shooting of “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
Then there were the films with no women (“The Young Lions,” “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “The Ugly American,” “Morituri,” “Julius Caesar,” “Burn!”) or films with women he wasn’t interested in: Teresa Wright as the wife, in an eviscerated part, in “The Men”; Vivien Leigh in “Streetcar”; Joanne Woodward in “The Fugitive Kind”; Elizabeth Taylor in “Reflections in a Golden Eye.”
And finally, the pure, undefiled virgins, the princesses on the pedestals who could never fully appreciate the intricate agonies of their all-too-human lover. Mary Murphy in “The Wild One,” Eva Marie Saint in “On the Waterfront,” and Jean Simmons in “Guys and Dolls” are all dolls, china dolls, who are even more remote from “life” than their dark-skinned counterparts. Just as his chattel-mistresses are dependent on Brando to bear the burden of life, they are dependent on him to initiate them into its mysteries. They are buds who will blossom at his touch, or (in Magnani’s case, a withered husk who can be revitalized. But Brando is always the center of gravity, a man that is more “man” than any of his women will ever know and yet, in his sensitivity, more “woman” than they are.
For Brando fans, the absence of a strong or interesting woman opposite him works to his, and their, advantage. Because his leading ladies are weak, transparent, unobtrusive, audiences can respond to him directly. Just as the male spectators of soft-core porn movies preferred all-female love-making scenes, where they could enter directly into the fantasy without the obstacle of a (competing) male figure, Brandolaters would prefer to have their sightline unobstructed. As he unites the characteristics of both sexes, he also appeals to both men and women. He is at once tough and vulnerable, the former a poor attempt to conceal the latter. He sees through the sham of sexual role-playing — particularly pernicious in the ’50s —but seems powerless to change it. Protecting himself on one side while exposing the other, he dances around like a prize-fighter, tries to break through, to reach the other person on a deeper, true level of communication, but he is usually blocked by the forces of convention. Eventually, he is sorry: the person turns out to be not unlike the rest, a little better, perhaps, but unwilling to take the risk to stand against society. And so he, Brando, is generally left alone, the rebel, the outsider, the outlaw, the artist, man against society, man-woman against men and women, actor-genius against the Hollywood film.
Everything contributes to the legend; even the failures of his career feed the idea of an actor too “large” for any one role. There is more of him than can be contained or expressed in one part, and consequently when he is bad or outrageous, it is somehow the film’s fault for trying to reduce him to the lineaments of a mere mortal. Like the wheelchair paraplegic in Fred Zinnemann’s “The Men” — an unfortunate metaphor for Brando’s whole career -he is a dynamo being restrained by forces outside his control. Because all but the best roles are too confining, he is constantly bursting their seams, exciting our imagination but throwing the movie out of line.
His essence is contradiction, conflicts, that can never come to rest in resolution. and he will therefore frustrate and disappoint all those who travel society’s single tracks. His course language and brute force are not the impulses of a boor but the masque of a poet, the cry of rage against the imprisoning niceties of civilization. And because of this side, he doesn’t belong with the pure roughnecks either, the toughs and delinquents who are genuinely coarse and unfeeling.
“You’re a fake,” Mary Murphy tells Johnny of “The Wild One.” Meaning you don’t belong with these hyenas and apes who run around scaring old men anymore than you belong to the straights, the parents and sheriffs and “squares.” But in her heart, like a good, sweet, obnoxious ’50s girl, she hopes she can reconcile him to that world. In making the effort she betrays the integrity of their love, and loses it. By this time, the motorcycle gang is long gone, and so Johnny rides off alone, hallway between gangster and straight society. And Brando, the man-myth who has not yet found his Indian delegation, is a rebel in search of a cause, but one who is destined never to unite successfully with a revolution because it is all within him, because the moment he thinks he is lighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the underdog he will find himself on opposite shores of his own inner self.
Part 3: Parable and Hopeless Paradox
June 28, 1973
Brando refused to play the game, the Hollywood Swimming Pool Brown Derby Pecking Order Be-Nice-to-Louella-Parsons Beverly Hills Limousine game. His great appeal — crystallized in the parts with which we most closely identify him — was to stand out against the materialistic bullshit of ’50s America, epitomized in the trappings of Stardom. It was all a waste of time. The mansions and conspicuous possessions were symbols of success rather than achievement, hallmarks of people who were, in his words, “failures as human beings,” Brando spoke — by barely speaking — for the instinctual man against the civilized phony. He was un-ceremonial, a nonconformist, “real.” And yet, we must beware of the word real, for he was in many ways as unreal, as mythic a personality as Dietrich, or Mae West, who were also anti-sham. With all his causes and political activities and socially-important films, he couldn’t erase that overriding sense of personal destiny. His ego, like his magnetism, was ineffaceable, and every attempt to bury it became a new harmony, or trick, or wrinkle worked upon it.
To the arrant materialism in Hollywood and the compromises of the studio system, he opposed his own arrogant purity — but not by simply walking away. The stage was set for a parable, an historic confrontation. Like Christ and the moneychangers, Like Joan and the Church fathers, they needed each other. “They’ve never made an honest picture in their lives, and they probably never will,” he told Lorenzo Semple, Jr., in an interview in 1948 which led the author to conclude, “His disenchantment with the West Coast has become progressively aggravated, until it is unlikely that he would at present consider any offer whatever.” At this point, two years before he actually went out, he was fighting it tooth and nail, like a hopeless attraction.
When he finally did accept an offer — to do Fred Zinnemann’s “The Men” — it was from the whore’s plain but honest sister, but once there, he was, within range of her seductive wiles. The struggle, though, was not just between the romantic and the whore. Brando was a romantic ego storming and thrashing at the battlements of one of the last strongholds of classicism, film. Technically and aesthetically, film was still a classical enterprise long after modernism had enveloped the other arts in self-conscious angst. Opposing his own genius to the “system” — and providing as martyr a too-convenient reference point, with Hollywood as Bad Guy, for the permanently disillusioned — Brando was one of the first modernists in film, the Orson Welles of actors. Both asked for complete autonomy, pitting their extravagant talents against the petty bureaucracy and collective mediocrity of Hollywood decision-making. But as usual, the elements of good and evil were more mixed: there was as much chutzpah as hubris in the rebels. And the Hollywood process was one that, for all its legendary ills, had nourished as many geniuses as it had starved or simply misplaced.
It was through the system, and through conventions at once as fixed and flexible as the diatonic scale, that such directors as Lubitsch, Ford, Lang, Hitchcock, Hawks, Cukor, et al. were able to express themselves, and such diverse act — artists as Chaplin, Keaton, Gish, Grant, Cagney, Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Garbo, Astaire, Bogart had left their imprint, through the exercise m various talents, but never without that mystical and culturally mistrusted quality called screen presence. This was something Brando had in spades, but he wouldn’t let it alone — not, however, because of some contempt for cinema in preference to the theatre and “real acting.” For whatever reason — perhaps an instinct for self-preservation — he never fell prey to the argument of the cultural superiority of theatre to film, although it was used, and continues to be used, against him. It is revived periodically in the New York Times by Brando’s “friends” like William Redfield. It was the ploy used by the druids of the Group Theatre to intimidate John Garfield into leaving the medium he was made for. No, with Brando it was something even more illusory — real life — that he held over cinema, and that was really a cloak for his own ego. By setting himself up as an individualist against the industry, Brando would become, like Welles, a wrench in the machinery he needed to survive. The role of the misunderstood genius has its practical drawbacks, one being that it is more effective at a distance than up close among those who are doing the misunderstanding. And the hiring and firing. Brando was probably last, popular with producers, whose purpose it was to get a film shot on schedule and within budget, but even directors who are now, in interviews, hotly defending Brando and their “marvelous” working relationships, were giving out different stories at the time. To the extent that filmmaking is a power struggle between contending (Oedipal) authorities — a hypothesis for which the lack of women directors is a kind of negative proof — Brando is a natural threat to any director.
He may challenge them directly: “What makes you think you know what actors are all about?” he is reported to have said to one neophyte. But what he is really asking for is his freedom, and probably no actor can do as much with it. Eliza Kazan and John Huston have both confessed, perhaps with unconscious ambivalence, to the experience of giving Brando a suggestion and having him come back with something far better.
“He would constantly come up with ideas that were better than the ones I had,” Kazan has said, calling Brando, in an interview with Stuart Byron and Martin Rubin in Movie, “the only genius I’ve ever met in the field of acting. All he’d do was nod,” Kazan continued. “I’d tell him what I wanted, he’d nod, and then he’d go out and do it better than I could have hoped it would be. To my way of thinking, his performance in ‘On the Waterfront’ is the best male performance I’ve ever seen in my life.”
But not all directors were quite so pleased with Brando’s inventiveness. When he won artistic control of his projects he began losing directors. Both Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah worked on “One-Eyed Jacks” before Brando took over, Lewis Milestone replaced Carol Reed on “Mutiny on the Bounty,” a culmination of stories of tantrums, clashes, and delays in the most expensive, and expansively covered, project of them all. Fact and fiction have never been clearly separated in the log of a production that came close to drowning in a sea of real and make-believe tempests. But Brando somehow wound up with the brunt of the blame, although from other reports — that Metro copped out on an agreement to devote some of the film to treating racial conflicts in Pitcairn Island — M-G-M would seem to deserve at least a lion’s share.
Brando, particularly in his later career, often altered his parts and had them rewritten — not to conform to a conventional good-guy image, or even a conventional bad-guy one, but in accordance with some idea of his own that was never wholly obvious and never quite the same. He was hard to handicap — sometimes he would enlist, sometimes lose audience sympathy, sometimes veer toward humor, sometimes toward greed and venality; sometimes he would suggest more than one emotion at a time, and often he would lapse into self-parody. And yet the image we retain of him is drawn almost entirely from his earlier roles, not just, I think, for his acting, but for his vulnerability. Although he exercised even more conceptual control over the later ones, we prefer the earlier Brando — the martyr, the pure counterculture rebel (before the term was even invented) to the querulous or ruthless authority figures of the later films. As Stanley, Terry, and Johnny, he was the forerunner of the ’60s rebel-hero, the archetypal Son. Being sensitive, anti-establishment, anti-patriarchal, he embodied certain “feminine” qualities that would prevail over the phallic, “masculine” side in the ascendancy of James Dean and his longhair epigones. But in Brando the war was still being waged, and the drive to succeed the thrust was there. That he wanted the less ingratiating “authority” roles is a sign not only of the seriousness of his ambition, but of an awareness of that other side of himself-the winner, the capitalist, the “contender” — that Terry Malloy yearned for and Brando won for him.
That is the final paradox. His career would be less impressive without what many consider his lesser roles, the Christian Diestls and Fletcher Christians and Weldon Pendertons (note the recurring Master Race nomenclature) by which Brando acknowledged the establishment side of himself and suggested that the threads of youth and age, love and self-love, idealism and corruption, are hopelessly intertwined, and that the rebel’s claim to purity and the officer’s to righteousness are branches of the same tree. The tree, like Brando as the sum of all his roles. is a single thing and yet infinitely varies, its trunk massive, its leaves fragile and dancing, its roots stretching into the ethnically rich, melting pot soil of the American experience, its branches reacting upward for an Answer and receiving only air.
Part 4: Tall Oedipal Tales from Omaha
July 19, 1973
Brando has never been the most reliable source of information about himself. In his sudden personality shifts — from Kowalski to gentleman, from urban sophisticate to antediluvian slob — and in the exotic half-truths with which he studded his autobiography, he has given his chroniclers a slippery time. Like Norman Mailer, another restless chameleon ego of our age, he was in the business of coming to terms with his multiple selves in a way that would put him one step ahead of the media while playing to their hunger for novelty and outrage. He was making himself more alluring acting a little crazy to compensate for an ordinary middle-class upbringing. For to have been born in Nebraska and raised in financial ease by two loving, relatively normal parents is, for the mid-20th century artist, the gravest of handicaps, and he is not to be blamed if he adds a few curls and flourishes lo the mundane truth.
His biographical note in the program of “I Remember Mama” (1944), in which he made his Broadway debut as the young Nels, reads:
“Born in Calcutta, India, but left there when six months old. Educated in several California schools and Shattuck Military Academy at Fairboll, Minnesota.” Actually he was born April 3, 1924 , in Omaha and went to school in Illinois where his family moved when he was five. Only the reference to Shattuck Military Academy is authentic, and the following information that “he enlivened the military atmosphere by so many pranks that he was kicked out of the school.”
The Playbill for “Truckline Cafe” (1946) listed him as having originated in Bangkok (his father had gone there on a zoological expedition), and subsequent program notes and interviews gave such wild, but not unrelated, birthplaces as Bombay, Mindanao, and Rangoon. As usual, it is not the pathology of fibbing but the particular course it takes that is most interesting. Like Barney, “he knew even then” the locus of his spiritual home, the Shangri-la of the unconscious. When recognition and celebrity no longer permitted him to take refuge in these third-world fantasies. the part of the dark-skinned alien was assigned to the women in his life, many of whose Asian origin seemed to be as fictitious as Brando’s own. Movita, Anna Kashfi, Rita Moreno, France Nuyen, Tarita, and finally, as his latest surrogate, Princess Sasheen Littlefeather, whose claims to Apache aristocracy seem to have about as much validity as those of Anna Kashfi (nee Joan Mary O’Callaghan) to her Indian origins.
Whether out of an instinct for story telling. contempt for the interviewer, or for his own emblematically American background, Brando amplified his Oedipal conflicts and complexes into tall tales of a backwoods brute of a father (whose shadow hangs over Paul in “The Last Tango in Paris”) and a beautiful, alcoholic mother. From the accounts he gave to Truman Capote (the New Yorker, 1957) and other interviewers of having to pick up his mother at bars in the middle of the afternoon and of finally abandoning her to her misery, there is little record of the talented, forceful woman (and indeed, a great beauty) who found a partial if not ultimate outlet for her acting talent in community theatricals, and who encouraged artistic expression in her children. Nor would one know, from his agonized references to his father, that Brando, Sr., a successful manufacturer of insecticides, actually subsidized his son’s theatrical training, and became his business manager when he went to Hollywood — a position he still holds. As Jerry Tallmer pointed out in a recent article in the Post, the roughneck reprobate that Paul (in “The Last Tango”) describes as his father, is a more accurate portrait of Brando’s grandfather. Even the cow described by Paul as the bete noire of his adolescence — the one his father forced him to milk before allowing him to go out on a date — has its origin in fact. But it was hardly the sole means of sustenance of a poor farm family as the anecdote suggests, but rather one of many pets of a comfortable suburban one. It was actually Marlon’s own pet, and one can almost imagine the scene as it really took place: Brando, Sr., exasperated by his son’s irresponsibility, saying, “You made us get that cow, now you take care of it!”
It is more likely that the Oedipal conflict, which Brando obviously feels and has been deeply influenced by, took place in a far more subterranean manner. Although the marriage was by all accounts a congenial one, the polarization of values between the sensitive, “artistic” mother and the efficient, stoical father probably affected him more than his two sisters. In the Brando marriage we see the archetypal division of sex roles that so defines the antagonisms of American culture. However harmoniously the parents live together, the physical separation of “male” and “female” values is bound to set up a conflict within the son who, if he is at all “artistic,” is torn by contrary pulls. The “masculine” side is constantly vitiated by feeling and impulse, the “feminine” resents the unreasonable expectations of the super ego.
The father’s ambition and success-drive can never be wholly ignored — or satisfied. Hence the industry. Yet the mother’s spiritual hunger and contempt for material things demand equal space (At one point Brando had ambitions to become a Protestant minister, and such readings as have occupied him between and during assignments have almost always been in religion and philosophy.) It is as if Mother and Father Ideals set up shop on opposite shores of the son’s stream of consciousness; for a while they compete, then gradually they establish some working arrangement, without ever quite merging. The fact that husband and wife were congenial, and the mother was able lo exercise a strong influence on Brando, may explain the son ‘s relative case with the “feminine” side of bis nature: and the father’s less-than-overbearing masculinity, the equilibrium that was precariously maintained. After the brief stint at Shattuck Military Academy — which seems to have been his father’s last hope of instilling virtue in his son — Brando was off to New York with his father’s blessing and enough money to get started.
He went first to the Actors Studio which under Lee and Paula Strasberg was the American temple and training ground of Method Acting. He also studied at different times under Stella Adler and Erwin Piscator, both of whom subsequently — and no doubt truthfully — claimed to have recognized his genius at once. His first play was a children’s play by Stanley Kauffmann. It was called “Bobino” and some years later in a career piece on Brando, Kauffmann would write. “His role consisted of being hit on the head and falling down; but he managed to find a way of falling down that, without being obtrusive, was individual.”
John Van Drulen’s “I Remember Mama” was followed by Maxwell Anderson’s “Truckline Cafe” in which he had his first real success. He turned a relatively small, difficult part — he had to come onstage crying — into a personal triumph. His performance in “Candida,” playing Marchbanks to Katherine Cornell’s Candida, received mixed notices. Richard Watts. Jr., recently called it one of the worst Marchbanks ever, but Stanley Kauffmann recalls that Brando “sounded like a cab driver and moved like a third baseman but still had some touching moments.”
Even at this stage of his career, he had enough ego — or insecurity — to clash with such theatrical sacred cows as Noel Coward and Tallulah Bankhead. Witnesses of the rehearsals of Bankhead and Brando in “The Eagle Has Two Heads,” which Brando never opened in, must have seen the feathers flying. This doomed pairing was no doubt far more interesting than the official and unchallenged. Tallulah vehicle which actually opened. In this classic confrontation between the Grand Manner and the Method, there must have been a germ of truth in the complaint attributed to Tallulah that Brando drove her to distraction picking his nose, pausing too long, and scratching himself.”
In 1947 the stage production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” catapulted Brando to fame. It was one of those stunning conjunctions of actor and role that seem to change the very air we breathe, particularly the theatrical atmosphere in which it transpired. Whatever the reservations critics had about the play that Mary McCarthy called “A Streetcar Named Success,” no one had any about Brando. But the moment of his greatest triumph on the stage was also his last. Why did he never return? Perhaps it was an instinctive acceptance of his own limitations, particularly his vocal handicap in a medium dedicated to the Word. Perhaps it was the reason he gave in an interview years later when he said that one night, for one split second he had forgotten his lines, and that moment of terror had stayed with him forever. Perhaps it was the prospect of being paired with an actress like Magnani (efforts to unite them in a stage production of “The Fugitive Kind” failed) and the fear he expressed to Capotte that “She would wipe me off the stage.”
Maybe. Maybe not but for whatever reason. Brando left the theatre and went into film, and film is no worse for that. And probably — soothsayers conspiracy-theorists, and culture snobs to the contrary — Brando was no worse for that either. At any rate what we make of him now has less to do with a single Faustian choice of film over theatre than with individual choices of films, and what he made of them.
Part 5: Submerged in the Stanley Persona
July 26, 1973
It’s a toss-up as to whether Brando brought more of himself to his roles, or vice versa. The role of Stanley was like an emotional bank account: what he invested nightly in terms of intuition, feeling, personality traits, he drew on daily as a dungaree-wearing bohemian living in New York. He rode a motorcycle, played the bongos, and was a friend of waifs and winos — outcasts he would find on the street and bring back to the apartment he shared with his old school friend, Wally Cox. Tales told of these early years, Brando’s freest in terms of the relative anonymity he enjoyed at the threshold of his movie career, all contain a note of self-dramatization, of a man playing out a part, or practicing for a new one. The friend of the people was perhaps rehearsing for “Viva Zapata!” The guy who went to pick up a blind date on a motorcycle (and, according to Maurice Zolotow, told her, as they were whipping around Central Park, that he could do even better if he had his glasses I was revving up for “The Wild One.” As the years went on, lines from scripts, which he had no doubt inspired if not actually written, turned up in interviews. But can a man plagiarize himself?
He was completely submerged in the Stanley persona when he first went to Hollywood, no doubt as a safeguard against any claims it might try to make on him. The film he had chosen for his debut was Fred Zinnemann’s “The Men” (1950), study of the problems of adjustment of paraplegic veterans after World War II, and the furthest thing from Hollywood fluff. With one suit and tie in his suitcase, and wearing jeans and a T-shirt, he went to live with his aunt and uncle in a two-room bungalow where, coming and going at odd hours, he tried to maintain the low standard of living to which he was accustomed.
The “problem film” was the justification for going to Hollywood, a category in which “The Men” slipped more easily than some of Brando’s other films. These could be justified as socially conscious only by stretching the definition of the term — or the message of the film. “The Wild One” was a study of the delinquent mentality; “Teahouse of the August Moon” a dissection of Sino-American relations; “The Godfather” a parable of American capitalism.
But for being the most ostensibly high-minded of them all, “The Men” made greater compromises. A Stanley Kramer production, with a screenplay by Carl Foreman and a subject that would make up in heavenly rewards what it lost in mere commercial ones, it was drowning in good intentions. After a brief battle-scene prologue (the only “action” in the film), the rest of the picture dealt with the return home of a group of wounded GI’s. They try to pick up the pieces — Brando his life with his fiancee played by Teresa Wright, Jack Webb the girl he meets in the army hospital — only to have the pieces break into smaller pieces.
In preparation for his role as a paralytic (his first, but not his last), Brando went to live at the veteran’s hospital where the film would be shot. (This was the occasion of some relief to his aunt and uncle who, as much as they loved him, were beginning to feel cramped in their shared quarters and disconcerted by nephew’s lifestyle.)
Brando caught, with tense eloquence, the sudden change of moods, the raging bitterness, despair, and hope, of the disabled man. He rages inwardly and outwardly at his impotence, and his oscillations from boyish helplessness to demonic fury key the film’s emotional temperature. But the other half of his “problem” — the effect of his disability on his wife, and her conflicting reactions, are barely considered. The only other performance of any significance is that of Jack Webb in the subplot.
In Miss Wright’s reduced role lies a story, a parable that illuminates our own morality tale concerning the real or imagined battle between Art and Commerce. Miss Wright, according to a confession she made several years ago, was tired of the way her career was going at Paramount, and agreed to take a salary cut to do “The Men” because it promised to be a worthwhile project. After shooting several scenes in which she is courted by a man in love with her and tempted to divorce her difficult husband, she complained to the director and producer that the actor was utterly untalented and impossible to work with. They more or less agreed, but informed her that he was the son of the man who was financing the picture and therefore a non-negotiable condition of the picture. Filming continued with the newcomer and the picture was completed, but he made such a poor showing that all of his scenes had to be cut in order to release the film, with the result that Teresa Wright’s part was virtually cut in half. In the name of art, she became a reflector of Brando’s misery rather than a human being with decisions to make, and a life and alternatives or her own.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” came out in 1951, with the same director (Elia Kazan) and the same cast — Brando, Karl Malden, Kim Hunter — as the Broadway play, except with Vivien Leigh playing the Jessica Tandy part. The only important change — an unfortunate but no doubt necessary concession to Production Code morality — was the punitive unhappy ending in which Stella and Stanley are forced to separate.
Blanche and Stanley, the perfervid creations of a homosexual playwright writing in a period of repression, look outrageous today — several successful productions of the play notwithstanding. Sexually speaking the ’50s were a time of too much and too little, homosexuals halfway out of the closet, baroque fantasies masquerading as realism. Even then, the realism of “Streetcar” did not lie in the sex or psychology of the characters but in a basic tribal struggle, a competition among in-laws, as Mary McCarthy suggested when she dubbed the play, which she called a comic epic, “The Struggle for the Bathroom.” (Not that the humor was unintentional, and this is what we give Williams too little credit for, perhaps because he himself has denied it in his Neil Simonish determination to be profound.) The idea governing the in-law interpretation is to concentrate on the domestic territorial imperative — to see Blanche as the Older Sister (or, metaphorically, the Widowed Mother) who disapproves of her relative’s marriage and at the same time resents her happiness. She is the archetypal threat to marriage (a role that can also encompass the “homosexual experience from Stanley’s past”), and as instinctively as she is bent on destroying Stanley (and as instinctively as Stella is intimidated into deferring to her own blood) Stanley is bent on saving himself — hence the justification of his cruelty to Blanche.
But just as Blanche’s plantation fantasies keep intruding on the senses like cheap incense, so Williams’s homosexual distortions keep impinging on the authenticity of the domestic melodrama. They are all close to caricature: Stanley, an “ethnic” before his time who doesn’t really belong in this environment to begin with and is obviously a homosexual pin-up, a male sex object, while Blanche’s pinched-but-sensitive spinster is the traditional cover for the aging homosexual. The endlessly-glorified “animal” relationship of Stanley and Stella is the ideal of a homosexual view of the world in which sex occupies the supreme, central place. The difference between Henry James and Tennessee Williams, two writers with a “feminine sensibility” who identify with women (aside, but perhaps not separate, from the difference between a greater and a lesser talent), is that for James the mind and spirit are supreme (and in this he is truer to the nature of women) while for Williams, sex is uppermost and thus he is untrue to the women with whom he identifies.
Williams pours himself indiscriminately into all the characters, and contradictions naturally arise: Blanche is a self-deluded, thoroughly disruptive force (cut off from her “animal nature”) until suddenly she redeems herself by becoming the votary of art. Stanley is a slob, and yet he has a feminine intelligence, nerve ends that are as delicate and acute as Blanche’s own.
And yet, Brando and Leigh manage to bring it off. They make us accept these characters, become involved with them, even as we realize their essential hokiness. They deemphasize the contradictions by establishing a magic circle of their own, an equi. librium created not out of the naturalism, the “reality” they bring to the parts but, on the contrary, out of the equal degrees of unreality they both possess. To a far greater degree than Magnani (which may have been one reason why he didn’t want to play with her), Brando and Leigh are creatures of fantasy. Kazan knew instinctively how to deal with this, how to channel their larger-than-life voltage into something at once mystical and pseudo-real, and to turn contradictions into paradox. Who else could get away with the scene in which Brando, as elemental beer-drinking male, wails for his woman at the bottom of the stairs as Kim Hunter descends!
As Stanley, Brando was the American counterpart of the proletarian Angry Young Man in British kitchen-sink drama. His violence and destructiveness are both terrifying and curiously liberating. If he is cruel to Blanche, it is because the only way he can preserve his integrity in an emasculating situation is by never conceding an inch to her, by never participating, with so much as a gallant gesture, in the rituals of a social code by which she will always retain the upper hand. And reciprocally, as the angel of sensibility, she “gets to” him, shakes his male complacency and brings out the feminine side of his nature.
Part 6: Martyr and Primal Antagonist
August 9, 1973
As a brute male, the virtue Brando made of his vocal limitation was to make his voice virtually disappear. Until “The Last Tango,” or unless cloaked in the disguise of period, rank, or nationality, Brando never played a normal, articulate, educated American male. In “Viva Zapata!” (1952), the Elia Kazan-John Steinbeck version of the Mexican Indian who led the revolts of 1910-1919. Brando simply epitomized Zapata’s legendary charisma with his own. To Brando’s natural magnetism Kazan added his own inventive touches, giving Zapata a behavioral immediacy that had its electrifying moments but was no substitute for characterization, and only further confused the political issues involved.
Howard Hawks, who had treated Zapata’s northern counterpart in “Viva Villa!” (which he partially directed before Jack Conway took over), complained that Kazan’s film sentimentalized the leader of the people who was, in fact, a ruthless killer. In the socially-conscious, romantic liberal tradition, Kazan and Steinbeck exploit the legend of Zapata to make their own Stalin-Trotsky parable about the corruption of the revolutionary ideal, according to which the leader turns into a tyrant and thus into the very thing he is lighting against. The refusal to see the corruption as inherent in the very nature of the ideal, is underscored in having Brando — the ultimate romantic ego — play him. The parallel contradictions are striking; as the star, the supreme existential hero, carves out his own destiny, so the charismatic revolutionary leader — the “man on the while horse” — is elevated by his exceptional qualities into a denial of that collective identity to which he claims anonymous part. Zapata, like Brando, is a man above men. Each dies (Zapata as a martyr. Brando as an actor) so the myth may live and because, his moment of glory gained, he has no place to go.
Here we have the opportunity to see Brando with two different kinds of actors, Anthony Quinn and Joseph Wiseman. Quinn, who won a Best Supporting Actor award as Zapata’s older brother, struck many observers at the time as a subtler actor than Brando. Wiseman who, like Quinn and Brando, had made his reputation in the theatre, gave the most unusual performance as the intellectual revolutionary which he played with a relentless hysteria. Jean Peters, giving to Zapata’s sweetheart-turned-wife a cool, repressed dignity that was a change from the usual south-of-the-border spitfire types, got perhaps less credit than she deserved.
On the whole, the production suffered from the patronizing air of good intentions, and even Pauline Kael, Brando’s supporter in some of his more questionable projects, wrote of his performance: “in the timeworn actor-peasant tradition, he screws up his face when he has to think — as if thinking were heavy labor, like hod-carrying,” and ridiculed “the famous, supposedly terribly touching wedding night scene in which Zapata asks Josepha to teach him to read. (To deflower his virgin mind?)”
Brando was still better off in movies, where he could work around his voice, than in the theatre where his defect would eventually have caught up with him, as he himself obviously realized. The proof is not in the poor Hollywood films he did (as who didn’t?) but in the relatively good ones that should have been better, like the two he did for Joseph Mankiewicz. “Julius Caesar” and “Guys and Dolls” being heavily verbal as befits the films of a director coming out of a screenwriting tradition, reveal his shortcomings. Being no Demosthenes, Brando could hardly turn himself into the eloquent Anthony or the glib Sky Masterson, and not all the Brando charm, concealing a multitude of evils, could create the illusion of tongue-tripping eloquence.
Not that Brando couldn’t hold one’s attention along with the best of them. Alongside John Gielgud’s excellently cunning Cassius and James Mason’s probing Brutus, Edmond O’Brien’s oily Casca and Louis Calhern’s unctuous Caesar, Brando was a taut, athletic Anthony. Indeed, Roland Barthes found him the only iconographically plausible member of the cast. In one of his famous “Mythologies,” ignoring the British provenance of much of the cast, he wrote that a French audience found ludicrous the “combination of the morphologies of these gangster-sheriffs with the little Roman fringe.” Except for Brando’s Anthony, where the fringe was “combed on the only naturally Latin forehead in the film,” it was a clear case of sign falling into that condemned no-man’s land of myth (in the pejorative sense in which Barthes uses the term) between the abstract and the authentically-created of-the-moment.
Mankiewicz encouraged Brando to develop physical gestures — the hand covering the face, the eyes peering between the fingers — that would suggest duplicity in an almost stylized way. But the rabble-rousing speech over Caesar’s body lacked the oratorical fire to bring people to their feel. At least, so most critics felt. Others, like Bosley Crowther, found that his diction “which has been guttural and slurred in previous films, is clear and precise in this instance. In him a major talent has emerged.” If they could have seen into the future, critics might have said that a great talent had already emerged and was about to go under.
Brando’s projects were often paved with good intentions that, for better or worse (probably the former), under pressure of common- or dollars-and-cents, would evaporate. Of “The Wild One” (1954), the story, based on a true account in Life Magazine of a gang or motorcyclists who terrorize a small Midwestern town. Brando would later state: “That film was a failure. We started out to do something very worthwhile, to explain the psychology of the hipster. But somewhere along the way we went off the track. The result was that instead of finding why young people tend to bunch into groups that seek expression in violence, all that we did was show the violence.”
Whether or not any redeeming social or artistic value can be claimed for Laslo Benedek’s film, it remains one of the three or four landmarks of Brando’s career and contains his most mythic performance. In Johnny, the original rebel without a cause, everything comes together — the boy and the man, the stud and the poet, the lion and the lamb. In this comical, touching and unconsciously sexy performance, Brando initialed more nice little high school girls of the ’50s into the mystery of the “turn-on” than such overtly erotic successors, Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger.
It is ironic to think that “The Wild One” was considered a dangerously violent film when it appeared. Compared to later motorcycle films, and in the context of the escalated violence of the Hell’s Angels at Altamont, Brando and his fire-breathing, zoom-zooming cronies look like Archie and Jughead and Reggie at the corner drugstore. The real violence in “The Wild One” is not in the prankster antics of the gang, but in Brando, in the wrench of established social values that occurs when, from the noise and smoke, there suddenly emerges this Orphic presence.
Made in 1954, the film epitomizes that screeching neuroticism beneath the placid ’50s surface that convulsed the films of Aldrich and Ray. It begins with the ear-splitting noise of motors and mufflers on the soundtrack. Over the highway, a “warning” appears (thus justifying the violence in advance) that the incidents depicted are based on a true story and represent imminent danger to all communities of right-thinking Americans.
Then Brando’s voice comes on — soft, high, young slightly truculent — setting the scene in a prologue that is really an epilogue, a retrospective glance. “This is where it begins for me, right on this road … ”
The pack comes into view with Johnny in the lead. They stop, alight, and walk across the highway in the middle of a race. Brando saunters while the others (the distinction is important) swagger. He looks younger than we remember him, yet never as young as he ought to look: he has sideburns; he is wearing the leather jacket that will become emblematic in “The Fugitive Kind”; his cap is cocked, his mouth slightly open in a smile. Having disrupted the race, he immediately gets into an altercation with a cop. We feel here a primal antagonism, a fight that has been fought before and will be fought again. The cop is on his way to becoming a “pig.” As the semi-outlaw Johnny, at odds with conventional society yet not quite in stride with the macho bluff of the gang, Brando is the true anti-hero (that is, the protagonist who makes the word “anti” heroic), the spirit of the ’60s ahead of his time.
He is intensely physical, strong, sensual. and yet there is, in his stillness, the hesitation of a troubled soul. He watches like no-body else watches, and behind the glare is a mind that knows more than it will ever, can ever utter. This is a man who will never articulate the right, and gripes of a man because he is too busy embodying them, the way he twists a chair playfully or holds a coffee cup by the bowl instead of the handle — at his (and the Method’s) best, inventing the sign, in a manner Barthes would approve, as a unique, organic, once-only expression of a composite emotion.
Where the wounds of an actor like James Dean are open and gaping, Brando’s are hidden — only not so deep that he ever for a moment forgets them: “My old man could hit harder than that,” he says, providing Johnny’s (or his ?) psycho-history in a nutshell. The wounds lie beneath several fairly transparent layers of defenses. In “The Wild One” the facade is composed of ’50s jive parlance, hipster swagger, cool cover, the contempt for the square. But with Brando-Johnny, this is more than just a defense mechanism — he is rebelling against both the constraints and the Mickey Mouse pleasures teenagers (how quaint the word sounds) in straight society. When Mary Murphy asks him where they are going on their date, if he is going to take her on a picnic, he scoffs at so tame and limiting an idea.
“Man, we just gonna go,” he says. “You don’t go any one special place, you just go!”
And later, when one of the girls in the bar asks him what he’s rebelling against. as a “Black Rebel.” he replies with the memorable, all-embracing question, “Whaddya got?”
The hoodlum stands as a threat to the ideals of normal society. When Johnny gets in a fight with his rival buddy, played with grand exuberance by Lee Marvin, their only casualty is the plate glass window of a bridal shop — and the bride and groom mannequins standing in it.
“I don’t get you,” says the state patrolman who has been summoned after a death with which Johnny has been framed, to prevent a lynching, “I don’t get your act at all.”
He makes the man nervous, while he in turn, just wishes they would get off his back. He expresses the reasonless rebellion of adolescence, the irritation you used to reel as a teenager, when your mother called and intermediately you in the midst of some activity, for it quickly shook you from your illusion of omnipotence with a reminder of your dependency.
Emotionally, the cards are stacked in Johnny’s favor. The people of the town — a kind of allegorical Everytown USA, like the one in “High Noon” — are such an unprepossessing assortment of irascible old men, idiots, antiques, and rigid law-and-order men (with Robert Keith as the torn-down-the-middle lily-livered liberal), that no one would be blamed for taking the first bus, bicycle, stagecoach, car or seaplane out of there, how ever many bodies were strewn in one’s wake.
Most insidious is the girl, whose apparent sweetness masks the prim, possessive morality of a social decoy. If he stuck around, she would make every effort to remodel him. Just as he prefigures the anti-heroes on the run of the ’60s, she, being in league with society and the “older generation,” is the ’60s woman as arch-enemy. In the tradition of the American action film, the Brando genre film (and apparently the continuing tradition of the intellectual-macho novel), the relationships between the men — Brando and Quinn in “Viva Zapata!” Brando and Marvin in “The Wild One,” even Brando and Steiger in “On the Waterfront” — are more vivid and important than the relationships with the women Bosley Crowther could complain, with some justice, that both “Viva Zapata!” and “The Wild One” go soft when love interest enters the picture. A revealing double-entendre, that, when a phrase signifying a tendency towards the feminine, emotional side also means to go mushy, weak in the head, inferior.
Part 7: Striking Out From Hoboken
August 30, 1973
Outside of Stanley Kowalski, the two roles that we now think of as “pure Brando” are Johnny in “The Wild One” and Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront.” Both capitalize on that contradiction — between the prize fighter’s body and the face of the poet — that is Brando’s greatest fascination. The two extremes, animal and saint, co-exist, in tension and in resolution, one transubstantiated into the other without losing its original identity. As a magical eucharistic figure, Brando also performs that essential function of all theatrical art (not just the Hollywood variety) of allowing us to have our cake and eat it too. (This is theatre’s seductive property, the false and “corrupting” influence that moralists such as Rousseau have traditionally inveighed against.) Through the social and intellectual extremes that Brando holds in equipoise, we experience, vicariously, and simultaneously, aspects of personality that generally present themselves as sequential, or mutually exclusive, in life.
Terry Malloy, the would-be contender, a battlefield of suffering and aspiration, enables us to experience inarticulateness as poetry, to live the history of the human race in transition from primeval slime to pure awareness, without the intermediate price of alienation. In reality, a longshoreman with Terry’s sensitivity would most likely get educated, write poetry or polemics, espouse the cause of his people, while trying to recall the taste of poverty and the feel of rough edges which vanish forever in the act of trying. Terry/Brando allows us to regain our lost paradise, to indulge the nostalgia for the mud of our undifferentiated innocence, without paying the price of experience: fragmentation and self-consciousness.
But of course, the price must be paid, and it is Brando who will pay it. The searing emotional nakedness he gives us is as dependent upon youth as a sex kitten’s appeal is upon her not turning into a cat. Brando’s vulnerability is as mutable a commodity as a sex star’s figure and a model’s smooth skin. “On the Waterfront,” in 1954, was the last film to contain, undiluted, this particular essence of Brando.
Directed by Kazan from a Budd Schulberg screenplay, the film, in its use of real locations and in the proletarian concerns of its story, was as much a reaction against traditional (i.e., Hollywood) cinema as Brando’s dredged-from-the-depths performance was against classical acting. But realism being the most relative and value-loaded of terms, the fact that Brando’s performance stands up so much better than the film suggests how much artifice, or at least art (with its hidden preservatives), went into it. The use of real locations in Hoboken and along the Jersey dock only points up the theatricality of the script and its view of labor relations that even critics of the time who welcomed socially-conscious subjects found too superficial. We are in the land of the Manichaeans, with the bad guys — Lee J. Cobb’s venal labor leader, in a role similar to the one Brando would be playing 20 years later in “The Godfather” (a connection Andrew Sarris made in reviewing the latter film when he said it was a role that Lee J. Cobb could play with his eyes closed), and Rod Steiger’s crooked older brother; and the good guys: the union members, Karl Maiden’s maudlin priest, and Eva Marie Saint’s virgin princess. Terry Malloy, a more complex character than his good and bad angels, is nevertheless more victim than agent in the tug-o-war between conscience and expediency. Having already lost the initiative (“I coulda been somebody”), his destiny is to suffer, and suffer he does, voluptuously. His tendency to martyrdom (what one critic called a Saint Sebastian complex) is most lavishly gratified in this film, from his childhood story of being slapped by the sisters, to actual and emotional beatings he takes. to his spiritual identification with Edie Doyle’s saintliness. But the masochism is kept in check by the pugilism of the punk. He is still a fighter, and if he can turn a rooftop, a table in a bar, the corner of a vacant lot, into an altar of communion, he can turn a bar or a domestic sanctuary into a bloody battleground.
The film is memorable not just for Brando’s performance, but for those of Steiger and Saint, both of whom were making their film debuts. As the older brother, Steiger gave what may well be the performance of his career, culminating in the justly-famous taxi scene with Brando. Here, in a remarkable display of mutuality, the two actors convey the ambiguous rapport of brothers; the margin between them narrows, in the thickness of blood: there is a mingling and then a divergence as their distinctly different natures reassert themselves.
The relationship with Saint is one of those incredible fragile-yet-physical encounters that Kazan does so well-a rapport that derives its beauty from what is not. done, rather than what is done, just as the power of the intimacy between Barbara bel Geddes and Richard Widmark in “Panic in the Streets” comes from their not touching.
In retrospect, 1954 seems to have been a turning point in Brando’s career. He suffered privately (it was the year of his mother’s death) as he enjoyed his greatest public triumphs. He dropped the Stanley pose and became a nice guy long enough to win — and pick up — the Oscar for “On the Waterfront.” He and the industry were on speaking terms, but only briefly, for they were out to get him now. He got caught in an old-fashioned contract bind (he fled the set of “The Egyptian” and had to agree to do “Desiree” to fulfill his contract with Fox), and took the hard line that was to characterize his attitude from then on. In an eat-or-be-eaten situation, it was probably his only alternative, but the timing was bad. because the industry was losing its teeth. Stranglehold contracts and even those historical dinosaur epics were on their way out.
The role of Napoleon in the lavish Cinemascope joke directed by Henry Koster (from a screenplay by Daniel Tarradash) was probably the all-time low of Brando’s career. But if this sentimental but sentiment-less reconstruction of the Napoleon-Desiree romance did little for either Brando or Jean Simmons, there may be some consolation in knowing it did even less for Merle Oberon as the Empress Josephine.
Brando’s Napoleon, a kind of dry run for Fletcher Christian, was followed a year later by an unexpectedly charming Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls.” There was much excitement and breathholding over the announcement that Brando would sing his own songs. If the voice that emerged was not quite the Met tenor promised by Sam Goldwyn, it was quite endearingly Brando’s own — high-pitched, unmellifluous, and enchanting. He had more trouble with the shooting-from-the-hip dialogue of the Damon Runyan character, to which Mankiewicz had inexplicably added additional dialogue. It was a part that Robert Alda had filled effortlessly on the stage. But if Brando was not quite the glib Lindy’s night-owl born (and if he was the antithesis of the addictive gambler type), he brought something else to the role: a kind of sweet, heavy comic seriousness (particularly in his scenes with Jean Simmons as the Salvation Army muse) and a selflessness that make it a favorite among many (largely, I think, among those who are not regular Brando admirers).
If the role of Sky Masterson was a change of pace, the role of Sakini, the Japanese interpreter in “Teahouse of the August Moon,” was a veritable disappearing act. With a set of false teeth, darkened skin, and squinty, darting eyes, he created a broadly artificial impersonation and set the style of his character portrayals for the years to come. Where the more nondescript David Wayne had slipped (in the stage version) into the skin of Sakini with little ado, and from this base, developed a reserve of feeling, Brando had a longer distance to cover to get to Sakini (and to suppress his own ego), and had concomitantly less energy left over, when he got there, to express feeling. He used his expert mimic’s voice to catch the tonalities timbre of Sakini, but he could never efface himself, Japanese style. You couldn’t take your eyes on Brando, it was as if you were wailing for a time bomb to explode, and the contrast between Brando’s exoticism and Glenn Ford’s naturalism made them seem like characters from two different movies.
This sudden attack on his roles from the outside, the stylized artificiality, may have been an attempt to get away from the strain and drain of the Method, and an unconscious admission that one could not go on “using” one’s interior forever. Although the role of Major Gruver in ”Sayonara” (1957) was a relatively straight, leading-actor part, Brando developed a Southern accent for the occasion, thereby creating an emotional distance between him and the character. Audiences laughed when they first heard the sound of it, but presumably they adjusted soon enough because this film, directed by Joshua Logan from the Michener novel, was a huge commercial success. Red Buttons and Miyshi Umeki won Supporting Actor Oscars for their performances, and as the Air Force officer in Japan, Brando has one moment that would have to be included in any compilation of Brando scenes: it occurs when he walks in and discovers Buttons and Miyoshi dead as the result of a double suicide, and he merely stands there and then kneels slowly, expressionless. Instead of reacting or crying out, he simply looks at his buddy, allotting the emotion to well up and overtake him before he acts it out.
Although none of these roles was in any way damaging to his career, Brando could hardly take personal credit for the success of the films themselves. They were audience “naturals” — big, blowsy, panoramic spectacles — a category into which “The Young Lions,” despite the literary pretensions of its source (the Irwin Shaw novel), squeezed without much trouble.
As Christian Diestl, the Nazi, officer disillusioned by war, Brando caught the external attributes and aura to perfection: from the blond hair and stiff formality to the resigned Weltschmerz. But once again he extended himself so far in establishing the “Germanness” of the character (the kind of character that Maximillian Schell could, and almost did, play in his sleep) that there was little time left for emotional coloration. And yet the very hamminess of the performance makes it one of those near-camp gems beloved of Brandomanes. Who can resist the strutting star, struggling unsuccessfully to disguise himself; or the pleasure of seeing him play with, and against, the inimitably relaxed Dean Martin, and the fascinatingly impenetrable Montgomery Clift?
“The Fugitive Kind” (1960) was based on Tennessee Williams’s “Orpheus Descending.” which was written — or re-written (it was an expansion of “Battle of August,” Williams’s first full-length play) — for Brando and Magnani, but was done on the stage by Cliff Robertson and Maureen Stapleton.
In the movie directed by Sidney Lumet, Brando plays a wandering minstrel, an itinerant guitar-player (the movie’s best scene is the first, in which in a halting, dreamy monologue. he explains his way of life to a judge) who arrives in a small town and catalyzes it into sexual chaos. The setting is even more symbolical than usual for a Williams work. Between the moment the fire is lit and the actual conflagration (when Magnani’s finally realized dream. the wine garden, burns down with her in it), Brando causes the regeneration of one woman (Magnani’s storekeeper) and the initiation into love of another (Joanne Woodward as the town wild girl).
If we feel a clash between two modes of realism, Magnani’s and Brando’s, it is a reflection not just of the two actors’ differences, but of the dialectic within Williams’s work, a redeeming (if also realistically damaging) tendency to donate the pomposity of his own conceits. On the one hand. Brando is the mythic stud; on the other, his innocence, his putative ignorance of the effect he causes, is a pose. Though she is no better able to resist him as a consequence, Magnani sees through it. She gives him and his snakeskin jacket such a look (the same look she gave Lancaster when he showed up with his tattoo; the same look she gave Fellini before she disappeared into the privacy of her home in “Fellini-Roma”) that says, Oh come off it, who are you trying to kid? With Brando, whose game is sincerity, this approach is particularly dangerous. But he survives, as he survives other assaults of realism or comedy or his illusion, possibly because, in always withholding something (unlike Magnani, who gives everything) he suggests that he already knows your objections, has anticipated them himself, even regards himself with some detachment. Even in his early, genuinely youthful roles, where there was little of this detachment, there was always something held in reserve. Brando may tie himself in knots for a role, but he will never beg for love. He will never grovel, not for a woman, not for a man, not for an audience; and so we usually come crawling to him.
Part 8: Bandit, Mutineer, and “Prevert”
September 6, 1973
For anyone who still had the illusion that Brando was either a realistic actor or a committed ideologue, “One-Eyed Jack,” which he both starred in and directed, came along in 1961 to dispel both ideas. One of the most romantic and un-western westerns ever made, it was shot against the sea and was studiedly picturesque in its ef feels. As an American bandit in Mexico, out to avenge his buddy (Karl Malden) who has betrayed him, Brando has the fastest draw and the slowest drawl in the West. One has only to try and imagine him fulfilling the most routine functions in a Ford or Hawks western to sense the gap between him and the orthodox action hero, or understand why he never worked under those directors. Nor is Rio Kid a relative under the skin of the Third World heroes Brando played elsewhere, and despite the presence of a South-of-the-border heroine (Pina Pellicer) and the usual assortment of Mexican extras “One-Eyed Jacks” is about as political as “West Side Story.” But if it was neither a western nor an anti-western, it was an interesting in-between, and the high level of ensemble acting suggests that Brando would have been better off directing his own movies.
The over-publicized “Mutiny on the Bounty” seemed in 1962 to be the last heave of a sinking ship that threatened to bring everyone down with it. Although, as it turned out, there were more last gasps to come from Hollywood in the years ahead than spasms in an Elizabethan death scene, this one really was the most damaging in terms of a single career — Brando’s. He was blamed for every delay and misdemeanor in a project that had never been thought through to begin with; that was launched on the high seas without a shooting script; that went through two official directors (Milestone and Reed) and god knows how many unofficial ones; that brought together, in a demonic stroke of casting, the three biggest hell-raisers of the English stage as ship’s officers: Trevor Howard, Hugh Griffith, and Richard Harris.
Despite the rumors and reports, nothing quite prepared us for Brando’s Fletcher Christian, the dandified English officer, first mate of the ship and leader of the mutineers. With his whiny pseudo-upper-class accent and foppish gestures, he seemed more the stuff of sabotage than sedition. On one take, he got into a brawl with Richard Harris and lashed out at him with a hand as limp as a fly-swatter. And yet he is never less than compelling through three turbulent hours of screen time, from pre-mutiny orgies in Tahiti to the post-mutiny “crucifixion” of Fletcher Christian-Saint Sebastian or Pitcairn Island. But for the difficulties he undoubtedly caused on the set, coupled with the consequences of certain side trips to Tahiti, he was branded from then on as “untouchable.”
Extending by the length of a pipe his repertory of upper-class exotics, in “The Ugly American” (1963) Brando played the American ambassador to an unspecified Southeast-Asian country who naively precipitates a revolution. Emerging as a cross between Fletcher Cbristian and Major Gruver, Harrison Carter MacWhite is “ugly” through the discolorations of prolonged innocence rather than any vicious design. Stewart Stern’s screenplay fudges over most of the issues of the Burdick and Lederer novel, and George Englund’s direction does little to sharpen them. Indeed, the only real interest in the film is the politics of what Andrew Sarris called “Lower Brandovia.” The entire production, Sarris maintained, was “designed to make Brando the center of attention of all times. Sandra Church (“Gypsy”) comes out on the screen in the colorless tradition of Julie Adams and Virginia Leith. Brando could steal a scene from her by simply breathing, but no, he has to practice a few additional gestures to render her more invisible.” Finding that Arthur Hill and Eiji Okada were also inordinately overshadowed by Brando, Sarris wondered why Brando never played with people who were his equals, either in talent or (to insure his investment) box-office appeal. This, of course, is the typical but misguided instinct of the insecure person, to surround himself with his inferiors. like two girl roommates (in the old days when women did such things) inviting only men to their parties. It didn’t work, in either case. Probably one reason Brando looked even better than he deserved in “The Godfather” was that he was set off by a brilliant cast.
“Bedtime Story” (1964) was Brando’s first, and only, attempt at farce. There were some loyal Brandophiles like Stanley Kauffmann who made noble efforts to defend it, and Bosley Crowther called Brando a “first-rate farceur,” but the consensus was that light comedy was not Brando’s hidden talent. As a con-man recently arrived on the Riviera, Brando challenges the current reigning ladies man, a bogus prince played by David Niven. Their running battle issues in one funny and rather significant scene, in the midst of a skirmish over the hand and fortune of the American “soap queen” played by Shirley Jones. Having won her sympathy with the story that he is paralyzed from the waist down. Brando and Miss Jones are sitting in her suite when David Niven enters. Upon hearing the story his rival is peddling, he takes his cane and whacks him one on the legs. There is a resounding crash, but not a muscle twitches in the broad smile on Brando’s face. Perhaps (for here is the screen’s great masochist) it even deepens — inwardly. Brando’s unflinching submission to physical assault is the comic equivalent of the scene in “One-Eyed Jacks” where his hands are beaten and he refuses to cry out.
“Morituri” (1965) was one of those revisionist spy melodramas that came along in the ‘6os, reversing the usual good-guy/bad-guy roles, and blaming America for World War II. Neither Brando nor a last-minute change of title from “Morituri” to “Saboteur-Code Name: Morituri” could save the film at the box office. The failures of “The Chase,” and they were monumental, were none of them Brando’ fault. It may have begun with a workable script by Lillian Hellman, but by the time she, Horton Foote, producer Sam Spiegel, and director Arthur Penn got through with it, this overstuffed anti-Southern allegory was more bigoted than the people it satirized, for once. Brando, as the sheriff of a small Texas town, was surrounded by interesting actors, but little good it did him or the picture. A blend of “Peyton Place” and “High Noon,” the movie concerns the efforts of a liberal sheriff (and what’s an ACLU champion doing in a place like this, and how did he get elected?) to prevent the lynching of a fugitive convict (Robert Redford) on his way back to join his wife (Jane Fonda). Leading the bloodthirsty pack are E.G. Marshall as the local oil baron, James Fox as his son, and Janice Rule as the sexually insatiable and socially-ambitious wife. Once again, there is the mandatory beat-Brando scene, as the sheriff is assaulted, almost killed, by some of the men in the town.
We’ve come a long way in the intervening how-many-New Yorkers-bus-their children-to-racially-mixed-schools? decade. And we can’t use the South as a whipping boy with quite the impunity we once did. Ironically, in recent movies set in the Southern backwoods, the only pure villain, the only guy we can hate with pure, delicious hate, is the redneck sheriff — a stereotype that is confirmed with unsettling frequency on the evening news. Chastened, maybe we can enjoy “The Chase” for Brando’s wonderful one-liners, but as a morality tale that exploits its “white trash” for their sensational elements, the film is not too far from the rubbish heap that is its proudest conceit.
While directing “The Appaloosa” (1966), an arty western about a cowboy hunting down the ranchero (John Saxon) who has stolen tis treasured horse, Sidney J. Furie and Brando reportedly almost, came to blows. Furie yelled at Brando that he was “nothing but a middle-aged character actor,” but it is to Brando we owe what life there is in a film that almost suffocates in visual atmosphere. The journey to the moment of truth, where Good and Evil fight it out silhouetted against snow-capped mountains, is an actionless trek protracted through endless landscape shots and tortured camera angles. Brando finally retrieves his horse and, as second prize, gets Saxon’s wife, played by Anjanette Comer.
“The Countess from Hong Kong,” Chaplin’s 1967 comedy with Brando and Sophia Loren, was shot down by the critics as if it were a live rattlesnake, or an attack on their honor. Chaplin was 83, he belonged to another era, and he was making a film that was as alien to current fashion as a waltz or a valentine but one which will probably be revived and admired when the prize-winners of that year (“In the Heat of the Night” at least) have been forgotten. Loren, as Chaplin’s surrogate “tramp,” had the central role, but Brando, out of an admiration for the great man and a commendable desire to work with him, executed his part in as graceful and compliant a manner as he could.
“Reflections in a Golden Eye” was one of the more interesting not-quite-successes of Brando’s and John Huston’s career. As the homosexual officer in the film made from the Carson Mccullers novel, Brando’s haunting performance stays in the memory like the eerie just — before the storm color scheme of the film. Major Weldon Pendleton is but one “deviated prevert” in the quadrangle of misfits on an army in the ’50s. The others include Pendleton’s horse-and-sex loving wife (and you can guess which facet interests Huston most, played by Elizabeth Taylor, Brian Keith as her lover and the only “straight,” Julie Harris as Alison, his fey neurotic wife, and Zorro David as her shrewd, devoted Filipino houseboy. Robert Forster plays the young soldier who arouses the officer’s latent passion and is finally murdered by him. Huston seems curiously attuned to the strangulated atmosphere of this world, an anti-romantic limbo to which he gives a refracted, faraway feeling. It is an island of lost souls, a colony within a colony (the army base) that is itself going through the motions of imperialist command with the futility that marks the all-American enterprises (burglary and espionage) of Huston’s other films. Brando’s major is the perfect emblem of this world, a military man without imagination or tolerance who is suddenly rent by the forces of darkness and chaos for which his life made no allowance. Brando is brilliant, a figure of comic pathos, as he preens before the mirror and follows his love object, his dignity a ludicrous shell that can neither disguise, nor defend him against, the passion that must destroy him.
Part 9: Taking the Rap for the Rest of Us
September 26, 1973
Our popular gods and goddesses, like their Olympian forebears, are our link with eternity. But where they were immortal, ours are mortal, and are doomed to a meteorically short career by the very nature of their-function. They are founded on impossibilities, on mutually exclusive characteristics — Garbo on sex and romance; Monroe on sex and innocence; Jack Kennedy on idealism and power; Brando, the consummate expression of the failure to communicate — and they are not permitted to change or grow old. They are dead as soon as the jig is up, as soon as we have moved from one cycle to another. For they are often transitional figures: Garbo bridging the explicit passion of silent film with the sublimated feeling of sound; Monroe displaying the burgeoning outline of sexual liberation in the puritanical ’50s. But they are poised precariously atop the bridge, their dual natures uncomfortable with either extreme. It is others (LBJ as the executor of Kennedy’s testament) who, without ever attaining their magic, carry out the blueprint of their lives.
Other symbols died, got shot, or retired; Brando slipped into self-parody, went the Tallulah route, crawled into a cocoon of camp, keeping in touch with his fans, until he could emerge reborn with a new persona — the Older Man in “The Godfather” and “The Last Tango in Paris.” There was hardly a role from Terry Malloy up to (some would say including) Don Corleone that couldn’t have been played by almost any other actor. Naturally, Brando gave them something they wouldn’t have had otherwise, a disturbing resonance, or perhaps only a memorable line reading; he was incapable of “walking through” a role. But, like a corpulent man in a frail wicker chair, the additional psychological weight he . brought to bear often drew our attention to the thinness of the surrounding film
This was not precisely the problem with “Candy” (1968), Christian Marquand’s misbegotten adaptation of the Terry Southern novel. As the Jewish guru, Brando was not uproariously funny, but then he expended the least energy in humor’s behalf. While all around him were flailing away, trying to be madcap in a satire that was more softheaded than soft-core, Brando maintained a lumpen Buddhist cool. He was exempted even from having to rise to the bait of Ewa Aulin’s danish pastry pseudo-innocent Barbie doll, an abstinence that did him no harm.
In “The Night of the Following Day” (1969), Hubert (brother of Bernie) Cornfield attempted, apparently, to create a visual atmosphere analogous to the brooding Brando persona, but the movie was merely a pretentious Melodrama that made little of its plot and less of Brando. As a gangster-chauffeur outfitted in black from head to gloves, Brando makes surprisingly few appearances, and these are mostly in long shot: silhouetted atop the hill of the seaside hideaway where a kidnapped girl (Pamela Franklin) is being held. There are occasional sparks in the relationship between Brando and the jealous, pill-popping stewardess played by Rita Moreno, possibly because it draws on elements from their real-life association or, in the fight when Brando breaks a bottle and gives it to Moreno to hit him, on reported incidents in the bitter enmity between Brando and Anna Kashfi. And there are moments when we hear the sadder-but-wiser voice of an older Terry or Johnny, as in his reply, in that whiny, familiar timbre, to Jess Hahn, “There aren’t going to be any rainbows, man.”
In 1970, Brando got out of his commitment to do “The Arrangement” with Kazan on the grounds that he wanted to devote more time to political activities, which presumably covered the making of “Burn!” with Gilio Pontecorvo. Pontecorvo had been responsible, along with screenwriter Franco Solinas, for “The Battle of Algiers,” the rousing reconstruction of the French-Algerian debacle that was being used as a “teaching tool” for Third World militants. But the much-publicized conflicts between director and actor (the crew had to move from Cartagena, Colombia, to North Africa), suggested that perhaps neither was prepared to submerge his identity in the Cause.
Brando plays Sir William Walker, a 19th century British aristocrat and adventurer who is sent to the Portuguese colony of Queimada as an agent provocateur to incite what turns out to be a successful revolution against the mother country. This is in the interest of British trade, as the subsequent revolution which he is sent to quell 10 years later is not. He finds himself face to face with the native, Jose Dolores, whom he had trained as a revolutionary 10 years before. Their enmity culminates in Sir William’s burning the lands in an insane, obsessive act of revenge. Once again, the political and collective message is undercut by the mythic, existential presence of Brando. He seems to subvert the cycle of historical necessity, or dialectical materialism, with his own private madness and guilt. There is a double-edged irony in the confrontation between Brando, the erstwhile Zapata, and a real third-worlder, Evaristo Marquez, the Colombian native Pontecorvo “discovered” for the’ part; and conversely, between the real actor and the non-actor. In Marquiz’s failure to convince as an actor, he renders theatrically suspect his claims as a revolutionary leader — which is, ultimate irony, the ultimate “role,” and the manservant (Brando), lavishing a perverse attention on the latter as his evil is transferred, pseudo-Gothic style, to the children. By “liberating” the characters from their repression, Winner destroys their ulterior meaning, their demonic hold on the unconscious. Incidentally, we see more of Brando nude than in “The Last Tango,” and, to fill the sado-masochist quotient, he is killed by the children with an arrow in his forehead.
“The Godfather,” for which Brando won the 1972 Best Actor award, set off a heated debate as to whether this role. which even the actor’s most ardent fans had a hard time fitting into the Leading Actor category, was a stunt or a fully-developed characterization. The rationale was that though Don Corleone occupies relatively little screen time, his presence “fills the film,” much as the influence of the powerful patriarch reigns in the more moderate personalities of the second generation sons and henchmen. And indeed, by suggesting the sweetness as well as the ruthlessness of the retiring Mafia chieftain, Brando keyed the tone, and the success, of this block- buster film which was to make it on the exploitation of nostalgia for family feeling as much as for its violence.
If there is something unintentionally comic in Brando’s first appearance in his office, with his jaws extended by the size and shape of a sourball, there is something undeniably moving in the scene in the garden with the grandchild, where he reveals his abiding instinct for the inside emotional track (here, in a leap of generations). The ability to submerge himself in a child’s world was a quality that Truman Capote had remarked upon in his New Yorker interview years before, when he said that with children Brando completely lost the patronizing air that he automatically assumed with adults.
“The Last Tango in Paris” represents in many ways the climax of Brando’s career — a film in which he seems to have had as large a creative hand as director Bernardo Bertolucci. It is the study of a man actor (Paul Brando) exposing himself and yet not exposing himself, undressing, literally and figuratively, up to a certain point — and no further. It is the occasion on which the man and the myth come together in an expression of Brando’s true nature, which is the ultimate in concealment and in revelation. For those who held onto Brando as some beacon of emotional truth, some changeless pipeline of integrity, while all other actors were posturing, the film would be a disappointment. (In an aside in its drooling cover story, Time informed us that in the scene of lament over his dead wife’s body, Brando was not transported, but merely reading his lines off a high point on the walls.) It was possible to “see through” the routines of this ranting expatriate, this middle aged roue, this consummate actor, and still succumb to him.
Those who cried for more, more! bringing charges of calculation and faintheartedness be cause Brando had not removed his pants and entered the arena with Harry Reams, were generally the very people who had deplored the lack of imagination, even the erotic dead-end of hardcore pornography. Here, despite artistic lapses and pretensions, was a true turn-on. at least for my money. But my money, and my seeing of the film at its first showing at the New York Film Festival, was not quite the same thing as seeing it in the aftermath, once it had become enmeshed in its own coils of publicity, a sideshow of hype that would impinge on the sightlines of all subsequent spectators, so that it was almost impossible to see it neutrally. Not that Bertolucci, or Brando, were blameless, for isn’t this sensationalism what both their careers were leading up to? How could the smoldering, sensitive Brando go out with less than a bang?
Hence if Brando’s martyrdom, killed by the girl he has initiated into the backwaters and byways of sex, is extreme, even unjustified, in the film’s terms, it is the apotheosis of his career, a convulsion of all those moments when he was abused, beaten, and accused, unfairly, when he took the rap for the rest of us and loved doing so, because he did it so gracefully. Brando alias Stanley alias Johnny alias Terry alias Paul must be martyred. Brando the lover the idealist the madman the mimic must be polished off. He will be shot, will stagger with all the energy and flamboyance of the ham side of his nature and finally fall from the balcony, but not before sticking his chewing gum under the railing. A touch of corn? or class? You tell me.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 6, 2020