Marlon Brando is widely considered to be the greatest actor who ever lived. Even for people who don’t consider him the all-around best actor, his influence over modern acting cannot be disputed, and is rarely unappreciated. Brando brought to the screen rawness and authenticity never before seen on movie screens. As Stefan Kanfer explains in Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando, “There was screen acting before Brando and after Brando, just as there was painting before Picasso and after Picasso and writing before Hemingway and after Hemingway…” Put another way, Brando is the Citizen Kane of actors.
In a career that spanned five decades and over thirty films, Brando’s reputation has ultimately been consecrated in only a small handful of performances. However, those performances comprise some of the greatest acting that has ever occurred in Hollywood, and contain two or three of the most iconic performances in the history of American film. Think of the explosive rage and brute sexual force of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (Kazan, 1951); the vulnerable sensitivity of Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (Kazan, 1954); the authoritative heft of Vito Corleone in The Godfather (Coppola, 1972); the madness of evil as embodied by Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979).
Brando produced such powerful performances in those films, created such lasting impressions, his characters have been distilled into the American lexicon, one line of dialogue at a time. “Stella!” “I could’ve been somebody.” “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” “The horror, the horror.” These are words that, regardless of their original source, have become inseparable from Brando’s delivery of them.
In his finest performances, Brando was able to achieve in its most powerful form what all actors aim for in every performance: truth. Truth of the character, as well as the truth of the moment. Popularly mislabeled, at least in part, as laziness, Brando often used cue cards during filming, refusing to memorize his lines. For better and for worse, he felt that by discovering his lines in the moment of the scene they would contain more spontaneity, and therefore more reality.
During the release of the dreadful The Island of Dr. Moreau (Frankemheimer, 1996), the studio PR machine made a big deal of Brando being fed his lines through an earpiece during production. It was a studio leak created to deflect blame from the filmmakers and studio for the poor quality of the movie, but tabloids and critics ate it up, self-righteously pummeling Brando for getting fat and making a bad movie.
However, Brando had been using a similar technique since the early 1960s, including in his critically lauded performances in The Godgather and Last Tango in Paris. In Last Tango, in one of his most memorable moments on-screen, Brando confronts the death of his wife, an eruption of emotions he had denied himself since her death. During filming Brando improvised much of his dialogue, but he also placed cue cards above the set, so that when he looks to the sky, as though searching for the depths of his memory, he is also reading his lines.
Brando also used improvisation as a tool to find the reality of either the character or the moment (they were not always compatible realities, and he did not always chose correctly). At times, his improvisational flourishes added unexpected depth to his performance, as it did in the famous moment in On the Waterfront, when Brando instinctively picks up Eva Maries Saint’s fallen glove and playfully tries it on, a shy, adolescent attempt to keep the girl he loves from ending their conversation.
But Brando was not what you would call a “results oriented” actor, nor a perfectionist. Other times, such improvisational tics throw a wrench into the rhythm of the scene. In a frustrating moment in the very good The Fugitive Kind (Lumet, 1960), Brando’s “commitment” to the truth of the moment comes across as egotistical pranksterism, as he fumbles for a piece of paper in an otherwise dramatic moment. In forcing a moment of spontaneity, Brando decimates the reality of the scene, cutting the tension of the story and jarring us loose from our connection to the film.
Brando’s career exploded after Streetcar, and by the end of the 1950s, he was the biggest male star in Hollywood, commanding salaries second only to Elizabeth Taylor. At the same time, though, he became notorious throughout Hollywood as a difficult actor to work with. His on-set antics were no longer impish pranks, but caused sincere animosity among his coworkers and, worse, deleteriously impacted the quality of the finished product. During the release of the underwhelming remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (Milestone, 1962), the Hollywood PR machine again flooded the public with evidence of Brando’s culpability, all of which was true but only matters when someone needs to be blamed for a bad movie. He had been responsible for firing the original director, Carol Reed, and had exhibited great disrespect for Reed’s replacement, the venerable Lewis Milestone. He also alienated his costars, including Hollywood stalwart Trevor Howard and English newcomer Richard Harris – the movie’s final scene was filmed only in close-ups because by that point, Harris refused to act on the same set as Brando. Brando’s weight famously fluctuated so much that the wardrobe department created fifty-two different pairs of pants for him during the shoot. And because Brando would receive an extravagant $5,000 per day as an overschedule penalty, many in the cast felt he purposefully caused delays, elongating an already torturous shooting schedule.
The controversy over the production of Mutiny would help coerce critics into almost unanimous condemnation for the film, and particularly Brando’s performance. A complete departure from the rough-and-tumble, blue collar performance of Clark Gable twenty-five years earlier, Brando interprets mutineer Fletcher Christian as an effete, upper-class dandy, a naive man of privilege and honor. In retrospect, his performance is ambitiously nuanced, much more congruous than Gable’s before him, and has found pockets of critical appreciation as the controversy has dissipated over time.
Mutiny on the Bounty would be a turning point for Brando. Throughout the following decade, Brando’s power and demand plummeted, aided by a detrimental contract. Just as the Hollywood studio system was collapsing in favor of agent-centric, single-movie deals, Brando signed a long, multi-picture deal with MCA, a subsidiary of Universal, which one friend of his described as “a ten-year prison sentence.” Despite retaining some ability to choose his projects, Brando was plagued in the 1960s by poor decisions, missed opportunities, and a bad partnership to a studio that lacked the artistic ambition more suited to Brando’s aspirations.
This is the period defined by biographer Kefan as “eleven turkeys in a row.” Brando wouldn’t have a bona fide hit again until 1972, when back to back successes with The Godfather (which became the highest grossing film of all time) and Last Tango in Paris suggested the promise of a return to form for the greatest actor who ever lived. The films he made between Mutiny on the Bounty and The Godfather are largely forgotten, or at least disregarded. They comprise a series of slow-paced action movies, weighty dramas, broad ’60s comedies, and, yes, even a samurai film.
Brando: The Dark Ages will include a sampling of three of those box-office “turkeys,” each from a different section of the 1960s. We will begin in 1961, with One-Eyed Jacks, the last movie Brando made just before the turning point of Mutiny on the Bounty, and the only film he ever directed. Next we will watch The Chase, directed by Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) and costarring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, released in 1966 (to be reviewed by Daniel Barnes). Finally, we will look at the politically charged Burn!, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers), the first film Brando made after his release from his contract with Universal, marking his return to ambitious cinema.
As we watch the films, I will approach them with the following questions in mind. First and foremost, was Brando really as washed up as he seemed to be in the 1960s? Did he maintain his commitment to craft, summoning the reality of his characters and the moments in which they live, or did he slip into lazy, somnambulant performances? Even if these films are not of the quality of his earlier work, do they still exhibit ambition? And finally, how does Brando adjust to the dramatic stylistic changes in 1960s American cinema that he himself helped to spark?
Join us Wednesday for a discussion on the first of these films, One-Eyed Jacks.