Marlon Brando (1924-2004)
To me the perversity of Marlon Brando’s career is unparalleled in the history of cinema. His first appearance in movies during the early 1950s sent a shock wave of seismic proportions throughout the world of motion pictures. He was young, handsome, inarticulate, sometimes brutish and even crude. But somewhere in the middle of all that was a sensitive poetic soul trying to break through and often did in flashes and glimpses. And frequently, as in the case of his performance as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954), for the duration of the entire film.
He was a powerful presence on screen. There is no doubt about it. So powerful in fact that even when the film wasn’t very good and lacking in many other areas (writing, direction etc) like The Wild One (1953), he could still tower over its ineptitudes and make the experience unforgettable for the audience…Critics of the day puzzled by his power and appeal tried to pigeonhole and parody what he did with phrases like; “The scratch and mumble school of acting”. But then just at the moment when they thought they had him categorized or more properly his acting style figured out, he would switch things around and confound them once more with something unexpected and excellent. Like the time when he decided to tackle the one thing they thought he could never handle namely Shakespeare, an author whose works were thought to be the exclusive province of British actors. Yet his performance as Mark Anthony in Joseph Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar (1953) has redefined the way the role is thought about and performed everywhere. Then there are the other classic performances that everyone of a certain age talks about and praise. A Street Car Named Desire first on stage in 1948 and then on screen on 1951, Viva Zapata (1952),the previously mentioned The Wild One and On the Waterfront and later on just when everyone, critics and audiences alike, figured he was finished, The Godfather and the controversial Last Tango in Paris both in 1972. But between these films there were several great or near great performances that went unnoticed in films like Sayonara (1957), The Young Lions (1958), The Ugly American (1963), Gillo Pontecorvo’s curious yet compelling revolutionary drama Burn (aka: Quiemada- 1969). It is in this film that Brando says he gave his best performance. These along with his short but eye-catching turn in Euzhan Palcy’s apartheid drama A Dry White Season (1989) attests to the quality of work he was doing even when not many were paying attention. My favorite performance and I think it’s a great one is his role as the severely repressed homosexual Major Penderton in John Huston’s adaptation of Carson McCullers Reflections in the Golden Eye (1967).
He directed one film which critics at the time dismissed as “a method western”. But I thought it was terrific and still do. That film is One Eyed Jacks (1961). In recent years I’m happy to say, there has been some reassessment and appreciation of the film and its various virtues. Perhaps this will continue and maybe lead some company like Criterion into providing us with a completely restored version. All that’s available now are badly printed versions usually housed in cheap box sets of grade C westerns. For those of us who love this film, and there are many of us I suspect, such a restoration is long overdue.
His choices were eclectic and perverse to say the least. How else does one explain a career that includes such titles as Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), The Countess from Hong Kong (1967), Night of the Following Day (1968) and the execrable Candy (1968). Yet in-between were some respectable misses; like The Chase (1966) and The Nightcomers (1970).
Then somewhere along the way, during the late 60s it seems, Brando became disillusioned with both acting and the movies. He at one point even dropped out of films for eight years (1980 to 89), gained a lot of weight and started giving deliberately disinterested and oddball performances in films like The Missouri Breaks (1976), The Formula (1980 and Apocalypse Now (1979). In one of his rare TV interviews with his friend Larry King Brando said that he didn’t like acting. When King then asked why then did he do it his response was if they paid him the same amount of money to cut sausage then that’s what he would be doing. During this time any number of people both publicly and privately were criticizing him for “squandering his God given talent”. For by this time it was almost universally accepted that he had what some people, Elia Kazan included, referred to as a “genius” for acting. It was felt that with such a proven talent he should’ve been tackling the great parts instead of frittering his time away with things like Superman (1978), Christopher Columbus- The Discovery (1992), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) and Free Money (1998).I never went along with that opinion. My feeling was/is that it was his talent to squander if he felt so inclined. I was and am still grateful for the great performances he had already given and ambitions that they inspired. And during those years he again gave what to me is yet another great performance as Carmine Sabatini in The Freshman (1990).A film where he masterfully recreates yet parodies his own iconic performance in The Godfather.
I still wish that he had been able to realize the last dream of serious acting that he had been contemplating. It was to be in David Lean’s film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. An all star cast had been put together by Lean director of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) including Paul Schofield, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Quinn, Dennis Quaid, Isabella Rossellini, Christopher Lambert and Marlon Brando. It was said that Brando was very excited about the project and was looking forward to giving it his most serious effort in years. But Lean died six weeks before production was to begin and the film was never made. Shame.
Brando’s film career went its jokey way for another ten years ending in 2001 with The Score. And three years later in 2004 Brando was gone too…He might not have cared much for acting but he left an indelible mark with the great performances he gave. And as perverse as his career might have been he still left a legacy in acting that has not been matched by anyone thus far.