By Mike Dub
In the introduction to last year’s ESFS Festival about the “Dark Ages” of Marlon Brando, we discussed the unrelenting stream of box office bombs that afflicted Brando throughout the 1960s. Hamstrung under a difficult contract with Universal, Brando would turn from the man who dethroned John Wayne as America’s biggest box office draw to an overweight has-been with a reputation for being a problem. The Maysles Brothers’ short documentary, Meet Marlon Brando, finds its eponymous subject smack in the middle of that decline in 1965. Following Brando over the course of a day of press junkets at a New York hotel, ostensibly to promote the release of his latest dud Morituri, the Maysles capture Brando’s idiosyncratic interviews in all their quirkiness. As a narrator states at the beginning of the film, “The questions were predictable, the answers were anything but.”
Despite the decline in critical and commercial success, the Brando we see in the Maysles’ film is still very much a star. Though a middle-aged, cosmopolitan regality has replaced the bristling sexuality of his youth, the actor is no less captivating. In his presence, reporters act like giddy schoolchildren, awed by the refreshing irreverence of a star who refuses to promote his own film, makes fun of his weight, and asks as many questions of his interviewers as they do to him. When one reporter vapidly asserts that Morituri is an excellent picture, Brando scoffs, “Where’d you hear that?”
But this is not Don’t Look Back (filmed in the same year as the Maysles’ film), where Bob Dylan wields irreverence and absurdity like they’re his only weapons in a neverending war with the press. Brando is above all an entertainer, and his easygoing charm belies a deep love of being loved. He is never as bright-eyed and at ease as when he is getting a laugh from a crew member, or when he coerces reporters into talking about themselves. It’s not exactly a coup when he gets a reporter to confess to playing flamenco guitar, but you get the distinct feeling that it’s a rare occasion for a person who spends his life plugging material for richer and more famous people. The reporter seems flattered by the novelty, and Brando is amused at having turned the tables.
Through the eyes of the Maysles brothers, though, exchanges like those illustrate the delicate and symbiotic relationship between Hollywood celebrities and the entertainment press. From Charlie Chaplin’s lavish industry parties to Tom Cruise mauling Oprah’s couch, Hollywood has always needed the press to sell movie tickets, and the press has always needed stars to sell their media. In the opening shot, Brando himself speaks earnestly of the press junket charade, although it’s hard to take his convictions too seriously when he turns into a wolf in the presence of any pretty woman.
Consequently, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that his effusiveness and impropriety are just forms of gamesmanship. He engages with reporters like he is playing chess, and exhibits himself a true master of controlling the conversation. Try to promote his film, and he will lightheartedly rebuke you; passively mention a social cause, and he will turn dourly intellectual (the plight of the Native American “is a subject I can’t be flippant about”); and if you’re a woman you are simply playing defense. To Brando, the consummate Method actor, everything is an improv game – as such, there may not be a lot of weight to his his interviews, but it does make for a fascinating glimpse into his star power.