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Contender, champ, bum: Brando

By Nicholas Stix
web posted July 12, 2004

Charley Malloy: Look, kid, I - how much you weigh, son? When you weighed one hundred and sixty-eight pounds you were beautiful. You coulda been another Billy Conn, and that skunk we got you for a manager, he brought you along too fast.

Actor Marlon Brando (R) portrays Terry Malloy along with actor Rod Steiger the 1954 film 'On The Waterfront.'Terry Malloy: It wasn't him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, "Kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson." You remember that? "This ain't your night"! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors in the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money.

Charley: Oh I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.

Terry: You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it. It was you, Charley.

- Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, and Rod Steiger, as his brother, Charley, in the taxicab scene from On the Waterfront (1954).

At different times in his career, Marlon Brando exemplified the best and the worst of the American acting profession. Brando died on July 2, at the age of 80, of pulmonary failure. Let's take a look, with clear eyes, at his life and work.

The best came mostly at the start.

Brando made his name as an actor in December, 1947, starring as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. He became a Broadway legend, playing the role for two solid years (800+ performances), but the provinces of Manhattan's West Side being what they are, most Americans still didn't know him from Adam. Streetcar was Brando's fifth Broadway show, and his last.

Brando burst onto the movie scene in 1950, in Fred Zinneman's The Men, playing an angry, wheelchair-bound veteran. "Angry" became him.

The next year, Brando became "Brando," the screen legend, in the film version of Streetcar. Elia Kazan, who had directed the stage version, directed the film adaptation, and much of the stage cast (Kim Hunter, Karl Malden, Rudy Bond, Nick Dennis, Ann Dere, Richard Garrick, Peg Hillias and Edna Thomas). The major change from the stage to screen version, was in Vivien Leigh being chosen to play the role of "Blanche DuBois," which had originally been played by Jessica Tandy.

Stanley Kowalski is a brute, as arrogant and overbearing as he is stupid. And yet, for all his abuse, his wife, Stella, loves him. Indeed, Stella loves the animal in Stanley. But Stella is secondary in Streetcar. The story revolves around the confrontation between Stella's older sister Blanche, who comes for a visit, and Stanley. The delicate Blanche, who has always depended upon "the kindness of strangers," is contemptuous of Stanley, and he knows it. (So, for that matter, is Stella.) And yet, Blanche is fascinated with him, and attracted to him.

Ultimately, Stanley rapes Blanche, and she mentally disintegrates, like a flower whose petals fall off.

The movie depicts Stanley as a monster, and Blanche as his helpless victim, yet I don't think that's how the author, Tennessee Williams, saw things. Williams saw in Blanche … himself. The homosexual Williams was drawn to brutes like Stanley, and wanted to be ravished.

Passionate, raw masculinity was to be the young Brando's trademark. Imagine a white, heterosexual actor being permitted to perform that way today. He'd have to be the heavy, or a comic foil.

For four years in a row, Brando was up for the best actor Oscar: For Streetcar, Viva Zapata, Julius Caesar and On the Waterfront. Some observers think it is an "enduring mystery" that Brando lost to Humphrey Bogart (for The African Queen) in 1952, but it was Bogart's turn, and it just wasn't Brando's time yet.

(I know Hollywood is terribly inconsistent in such matters, but a great many Oscars have been awarded to performers for relatively mediocre work, who had been passed over for their best performances, while other awards have been given for purely sentimental reasons. Think Helen Hayes in 1970, for Airport; Paul Newman in '87, for a lousy performance in The Color of Money; Jessica Tandy for Driving Miss Daisy in '90; and Jessica Lange in '96 for Blue Skies, instead of Meryl Streep, who in The Bridges of Madison County gave a performance that in my mind, was the equivalent of Vivien Leigh's in Gone with the Wind and Streetcar.)

In 1952, Brando starred as Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, performing lefty John Steinbeck's script about the Mexican Revolution, again with Elia Kazan helming. Gary Cooper won the award for his towering performance as Marshal Will Kane in Fred Zinnemann's High Noon.

In 1953, Brando had no business getting nominated for his mumbling Marc Antony in Joseph Mankiewicz' Julius Caesar, but as far as Hollywood was concerned, he could do no wrong.

In 1954, Brando gave his greatest performance, as washed-up boxer Terry Malloy, who gets by performing little favors and doing "show-no" longshoreman jobs for waterfront mob boss "Johnny Friendly," in On the Waterfront. The dramatic blockbuster, like Street Car and Zapata directed by Elia Kazan, would be nominated for 12 Oscars, and win eight.

As more than a few observers have pointed out, Brando's Terry Malloy combined brutishness and sensitivity. It also needs to be pointed out that Brando thrived on working with Kazan, a tough director who had made his mark on the New York stage.

After On the Waterfront, Brando would no longer enjoy the sort of success during the 1950s that he did at the beginning of the decade. And yet he continued to do excellent, often daring work.

In 1955, he starred in the film version of Guys and Dolls as "Sky Masterson," opposite Frank Sinatra's "Nathan Detroit."

In 1956, a physically unrecognizable Brando played a Japanese interpreter in the comedy set in occupied Japan, The Teahouse of the August Moon, opposite Glenn Ford. Brando was marvelous in the sort of role that actors used to fight for, in order to stretch their wings, but which now are largely off limits to whites, due to political correctness. Ethnic hustlers demand instead that such roles be given to mediocre members of their respective groups.

In 1957, Brando played military pilot "Ace Gruver" in the interracial James Michener romance, Sayonara, set in Japan during the Korean War and at the end of the American occupation. The movie was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Brando as Best Actor, and won four. The awards were dominated that year by David Lean's brilliant World War II story of the clash of civilizations, The Bridge on the River Kwai, which won seven of the statuettes. Brando lost out to Alec Guiness, who had given a towering performance as "Col. Nicholson" in Kwai.

Whaddya Got?

Marlon Brando as Johnny in The Wild OneGirl: What're you rebelling against, Johnny?
Johnny: Whaddya got?

Brando, as Johnny Strabler, in The Wild One, 1953.

All the talk about Brando's "sensitivity" is so much rot. The sycophantic
"experts" who say that Brando played "sensitive" brutes are confusing emotional neediness with sensitivity. In other words, they can't tell a naricissist from a saint.

The role that contributed the most to Brando's mystique, was that of motorcycle gang leader "Johnny Strabler," the title character of The Wild One (listed variously as 1953 or 1954).

The movie is entertaining trash, which owes a good deal of its attraction to the scenery-chewing work of a young Lee Marvin as "Chino," the leader of a rival gang. (In the big fight scene, Johnny gives Chino a pasting; in real life, the 5'10" Brando would never have had a chance with Marvin, a hard-drinking brawler who stood five inches taller than him.)

In The Wild One, in the face of a weakling sheriff, Strabler's gang takes over and lays waste to a small California town. Eventually, some civilians take matters into their own hands, and beat the hell out of Johnny. Director László Benedek suggested, ludicrously, that the townsmen were as brutal as the motorcycle gang, and in a view that would become widespread in the 1960s, that what Johnny really needed was "understanding." Hell, in such a situation, the townsmen would have been perfectly justified in lynching Johnny. I got your "understanding" right here!

Johnny Strabler was one of the early versions of what became the ultimate 1960s Hollywood cliche: The "anti-hero." During the mid-1950s, in his brief career, James Dean would specialize in this type, in East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause (the ultimate anti-hero movie title), and Giant, before dying in an automobile accident in 1955. Another then-famous anti-hero role was Paul Newman's performance as Billy the Kid, in Arthur Penn's The Lefthanded Gun, in 1958. (Though I admire much of Arthur Penn's work, when I saw the movie on The Late Show about thirty years ago, I found it so dreadful, that I shut it off after a few minutes.)

In the 1960s, the anti-hero became the dominant shtick in Hollywood, as Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, Newman and Redford, (a few years later) Charles Bronson, and countless other actors would earn millions of dollars through movies that were churned out, portraying anti-hero crooks and cops alike. (On TV, for a producer to sell a cop series, it had to be about an "unorthodox" cop.)

However, the anti-hero shtick did not help Marlon Brando. Brando's problem was that, rather than seeing playing anti-heroes as a calculated career move, he adopted the anti-hero as his personal shtick. But if you really act like an anti-hero in your personal and professional life, you become a source of grief to all who depend on you.

I once wrote that Frank Sinatra was for approximately 12 years one of the world's great movie actors, until he was felled, in his late forties, by the world's longest mid-life crisis.

I was wrong. Brando's midlife crisis began when he was still in his thirties; with each passing year, he acted ever more childishly.

The earliest case of Brando's deterioration that I know of, was during the filming, ca. 1961, of the remake of The Mutiny on the Bounty, in which Brando played Lt. Fletcher Christian. Bounty went way over budget and was late. Some Brandoists claim that this was due to Brando's "perfectionism." According to the story I heard, however, and that sounds more credible, one of the causes of thousands of dollars in cost overruns, was a Brando prank, in which during a scene shot on board the Bounty during a tropical storm, the actor shouted, "Mary had a little lamb …" When the rushes came back, it immediately became clear that the recording of the actual script could not possibly be matched to Brando's lip movements, and the entire scene had to be re-shot.

The 1960s saw Brando's stock as an actor steadily sink, as he made one poor choice of script after another. And he was unlucky, too. Even when he made a good movie, as he did with Sophia Loren, in Charlie Chaplin's swan song, the comedy, The Countess from Hong Kong, it bombed with audiences and critics alike. I seem to be the only person who likes this movie!

By the early 1970s, when he was given the chance to star as mob patriarch Don Vito Corleone, in The Godfather, which was being directed by a young man named Francis Ford Coppola, he had to take a screen test to get the role, an indignity he never had to put up with during the 1950s or ‘60s. But it was a blessing. The challenge invigorated him. According to legend, Brando put cotton in his cheeks for the screen test, to give the impression of an aging, Italian-born gangster. Legend or no, the movie earned the actor his second Oscar for best actor, provided a new generation with a new image of him, and indirectly made him millions through his revived fame.

The Godfather was based on Mario Puzo's runaway bestseller, which was the hottest book in America for about two years running. The movie smashed all box office records.

Brando earned himself some additional notoriety (read: publicity) through elaborately staging his refusal to accept the Oscar he'd won for The Godfather. Reportedly, he'd applied just two years earlier for the replacement of his Oscar for On the Waterfront, which he claimed had been stolen. Brando sent an unknown, part-Indian actress named Maria Cruz, in Indian garb and using her stage name Sacheen Littlefeather, to the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony, with a speech decrying Hollywood's treatment of American Indians.

The same year as The Godfather, Brando starred in the then revolutionary Last Tango in Paris, by Bernardo Bertolucci. Last Tango was rated X (today NC-17) for sex scenes that were considered of pornographic quality. At the risk of sounding like a libertine, when I finally saw Last Tango, both in the American and German versions, I suspected that material I'd read about had been edited out of it. (Or else, the original stories about the picture were exaggerated.) In any event, the story of a man who has just lost his suicidal wife, and who embarks on a narcissistic, anonymous, purely sexual relationship with a girl half his age whom he has just met, was an international sensation. "Paul" (Brando) insists that "Jeanne" (Maria Schneider) not fall in love with him, not even tell him her name. But she does fall in love with him, and ultimately kills him, when he stalks her.

What would have been tawdry, softcore pornography in less talented hands, became, through Bertolucci and Brando, and with Gato Barbieri's brilliant score, an epitaph for the budding sexual revolution (though I don't recall anyone saying so at the time). Sex Without Love = Death.

Although released in 1972, Last Tango qualified as a 1973 release, in terms of Academy Awards eligibility, and got Brando another Best Actor Oscar nomination. It was to be his last.

As the years wore on, and I learned more about Brando, I wondered whether I had seen, in Last Tango, a great performance of a role, or Brando simply playing himself. Brando is supposed to have said that his performance in Last Tango emotionally destroyed him. If he really said that, so much the worse for him.

In my college acting textbook, Respect for Acting, the great Uta Hagen, the original star on the Broadway stage of Clifford Odets' The Country Girl and Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and who replaced Jessica Tandy in Streetcar, argued that an actor should, by virtue of his work, be psychologically healthy. One gets to play act, and enjoy emotional catharsis on a regular basis. A real actor would have felt stimulated, refreshed, by a tour de force. The Brando who claimed to be ravaged by a movie performance, spoke not as an actor, but as a narcissist. The narcissist must always take from others, and feels that by giving anything to the audience, he is impoverishing himself. Had Brando written a book on acting, it would have to have been entitled, Contempt for Acting.

Brando's narcissism, his laziness, and his greed were the defining characteristics of the latter half of his life. His bizarre, occasional utterances on politics and other subjects were designed to draw maximum attention to himself, to remind directors that he was still around. He would then demand incredible salaries for minimal work. And his conduct was at times so unprofessional, as to ruin movies.

In The Missouri Breaks (1976), an Arthur Penn western in which horse thief Jack Nicholson is the "good guy," Brando played his assassin role with a combination of hamminess and bizarreness that would become a recurring theme in his later work, as he often would be poison for directors' careers. The movie signaled the decline of Arthur Penn as a director.

Then, Brando was signed by Coppola to star in Apocalypse Now, one of the most star-crossed productions in Hollywood history. While the Philippines production suffered monsoons, the near death of co-star Martin Sheen (then only 37) due to a massive heart attack, and the cost overruns and general indiscipline that would become associated with the middle-aged Francis Ford Coppolla, the initial problem was Brando. He showed up for his role as a Special Forces colonel 100 pounds overweight, and according to reports at the time, the script had to be re-written so that Brando would appear on the screen only for a few minutes. Thus did the star vehicle become a cameo role.

His next movie role, in 1980's The Formula, opposite George C. Scott and Marthe Keller, resulted in his being nominated for the Razzie Award as worst supporting actor.

But it was not to be Brando's last brush with acting ignominy. He would again be nominated for Razzies for Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992) and The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996).

Brando would not make another movie for nine years. In A Dry White Season (1989), he phoned in another bizarre, hammy performance, this time as a South African barrister, but since the movie was an anti-apartheid screed, and Brando was helping the good guys, he was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor.

The following year, a much more relaxed Brando played a parody of his Don Corleone character, in the entertaining comedy, The Freshman.

In 1995, Brando teamed up with Johnny Depp in Don Juan DeMarco. Depp played a psychiatric patient from Queens who insisted he was the great Don Juan. Brando played the psychiatrist who had to figure out whether Depp's character was delusional or the legendary lover. The chemistry between Depp and Brando was marvelous, and Brando turned in a performance that was uncharacteristically delicate and full of whimsy. (Unfortunately, there was no screen chemistry between Brando and Faye Dunaway, who played his wife.)

And yet, the following year saw Brando up to his old tricks again. On the set of The Island of Dr. Moreau, he reportedly sabotaged the production, inducing his younger, undisciplined, narcissistic co-star, Val Kilmer, into joining him in his shenanigans. The crippled movie was savaged by critics and ignored by moviegoers.

During Brando's last movie, a small role in The Score, he reportedly made a point of insulting and humiliating director Frank Oz, and demanded that Oz be off the set during Brando's scenes.

Since Brando's death, we have been told that he somehow gave actors "permission" to be emotionally authentic. We have also heard that it was the movies that let Brando down, beginning in the 1960s, rather than the other way around (Richard Schickel). Baloney!

A more intense acting style was coming into fashion after World War II, before Brando's arrival on the Hollywood scene. Witness the intensity of Kirk Douglas' performances as driven boxer Midge Kelly in Champion (1949), as Det. Jim McLeod in Detective Story (1951), and as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956). And already in 1946, in It's a Wonderful Life, note the embittered, emotionally raw quality of so much of Jimmy Stewart's performance as "George Bailey," a quality that characterized much of Stewart's best 1950s' work with directors Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock.

The Parents of the Angry Anti-Hero

Perhaps the greatest irony of Marlon Brando's decent into narcissism, is the reason why the narcissist cult of "anti-authoritarian" celebrity arose in the first place.

With the end of World War II, two conditions quickly arose which contradicted the circumstances of earlier, largely upbeat studio movies.

The depression was over, and the war was won. During the depression, Hollywood's studios felt obliged to churn out uplifting, escapist entertainment, which was either carefree, or which presented clear choices between "good guys" (white hats) and "bad guys" (black hats), in which good always prevailed over evil. With so much misery on the streets, there was no need to rub audience's noses in what they were already enduring. Besides, theatergoers would have stayed away in droves from such punishment. But when times are flush, people feel less of a compulsion to see upbeat stories, and many even obsess over the dark side of human existence.

The other development was the destruction of the old studio system, thanks to studio player Olivia De Havilland. In 1945, De Havilland launched, and eventually won, a lawsuit that broke up the studios' power over all aspects of moviedom.

Prior to De Havilland's lawsuit, the same studio that produced movies also owned the theater chain that presented them. The verdict in the lawsuit forced the studios to divest their control of theater chains, which meant that they were no longer guaranteed profits from most of their pictures.

And prior to the De Havilland lawsuit, movie stars were much like major league baseball players, who under the "reserve clause" belonged to the same team forever, unless it chose to trade them.

And so, Olivia De Havilland won for actors their independence, but this was a mixed blessing.

For one thing, it made movie production more expensive and risky, and thus cost a lot of low-level actors and artisans their jobs.

Under the old system, the studio heads decided what roles would be offered to a performer (which was what prompted De Havilland to sue). They also exerted considerable control over performers' private lives. Big stars tended to hate both aspects of studio control, and yet many performers could not cope with their new-found freedom. For instance, under the old system, stars did not have to read through dozens of submitted scripts, and choose the one great role in the batch; the studio told them what role they'd be playing. And previously, actors did not get to deal with the media. The studios told them what to say and where to say it. Studio publicity departments largely controlled the press, whom they fed a steady diet of phony stories about the stars, in exchange for reporters not hounding performers.

Under the new dispensation, many movie stars made poor script choices. And the notion that a movie star could create his own public persona proved to be fool's gold, as the newly empowered media descended upon the uncontrolled, unarmed narcissists (see Seberg, Jean). With time, the cannier movie stars, such as Tom Cruise, employed their lawyers and publicists to reinvent the studio publicity system, whereby they would contractually control every aspect of their publicity campaigns, with only those media organizations getting puff interviews that got every question cleared in advance, and promised in writing not to engage in journalism. What we call "celebrity culture," I believe, comprises the media and both the out-of-control narcissists and the control freaks alike.

In her Brando obituary, Suzanne Fields wrote of a dinner she attended with him in a restaurant a few years back. Brando loudly criticized everything about the restaurant, making a spectacle of himself, and then loudly complained that other diners, who no doubt recognized him, were looking at him. Had other diners not noticed him, he might have stroked out.

In a sort of poetic justice, the lazy media of celebrity culture couldn't even get their Brando stories right. The day after Brando's death, the TV show Extra "reported" that Brando's film debut was in Streetcar (it was in Fred Zinneman's The Men, the previous year), and that he appeared in "both" of Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather movies (Coppola made three Godfather movies; Brando only appeared in the first). And on Nightline, big-deal movie critic Roger Ebert said that, based on Brando's revolutionary influence, movie history could be divided into pre and post-1947 films. The only problem is, Brando didn't make his first movie until 1950. Ebert confused Brando's 1947 Broadway performance as Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar, with his movie performance of the same role four years later. Media sycophants also belabored the effects of Brando's son, Christian's 1990 murder of daughter Cheyenne's boyfriend, and Cheyenne's 1995 suicide on Brando. The fact is, that if anything, such tragedies were the effects, rather than the causes of a dissolute lifestyle that Brando had embarked on circa 1960. He left behind three ex-wives, some 15 children born in and out of wedlock, and countless abused ex-lovers.

Some have referred to Brando as America's greatest actor, and even as the greatest actor of the 20th century. I have to disagree. Brando may have possessed the greatest talent of any American actor of the past 100 years, but for most of his career, he wasted that talent.

Brando's case reminds me of baseball player Dwight Gooden. Gooden was the most talented pitcher of the past twenty years. However, after tremendous early success, he destroyed his body with drugs, alcohol, and sexual hijinks. And so, Gooden's early success was eventually matched or exceeded by many of his less gifted contemporaries. In the field of acting, Gene Hackman may not be Brando's equal in talent, and certainly hasn't had the sort of scripts sent to him that Brando did, and yet Hackman has had the more brilliant career, fully exploiting his gifts, and making the most of every role he has played.

For most of the last 40 years of his life, Brando was a bum, and he died a bum, but unlike Terry Malloy, he had no one to blame but himself. And yet, we will always have On the Waterfront, Viva Zapata, Sayonara and The Godfather, when he was beautiful.

Nicholas Stix can be reached at Add1dda@aol.com.

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