March 12th, 2004

Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando is considered a massive influence, not just in movies. Gore Vidal even credited him with the spiritual invention of rock’n’roll. A star pupil of the Method Acting school, he supposedly brought a rugged, physical/emotional dimension of spontaneity to cinema, liberating male leads from the stylised constrictions of previous generations, investing an intensity into his roles that transcended the dictates of script and conventional direction. As Jack Nicholson said, “He gave us our freedom”.

Freedom indeed. Freedom to make a virtue of lazy, macho, overblown self-satisfaction, something Nicholson certainly learned from The Master. Freedom from such bothersome tasks as actually learning your part – Brando used cue cards from 1958 onwards, even for his minimal, grossly overpaid role in 1978’s Superman. Freedom to rest on your laurels for decades. Brando did indeed attain a freedom in Hollywood but it was an undeserved and squandered one.

Brando’s filmography is substantial and mostly forgettable. T’would be easy to mock his obese oil tycoon in 1980’s The Formula or his clayfooted efforts at light comedy in 1964’s Bedtime Story. Yet Brando is, in a sense at his worst in his most “unforgettable” moments which have become became the stuff of much-mocked cliche. (Brando’s “What’you got?” rebel persona was having the piss ripped out of it even in 1960, by Frank Gorshin in The Bells Are Ringing). His biker cool pose, for instance, in The Wild One, is so dated it would be considered too laughably camp in a provincial gay nightclub.

As for A Streetcar Named Desire, he’s beefy and physical enough, giving Vidal wet dreams in his wet, ripped t-shirt. Give him more than two sentences to string together, however, and it’s like listening to hardened criminals on their first day of drama therapy at Wormwood Scrubs. Having made his reputation as a proponent of masculine self-pity (cf On The Waterfront, whose famous speech Brando sounds like he’s reciting off the side of Rod Steiger’s hat), Brando began to specialise in self-indulgence, believing he could play any part, from his mumbling, broody Napoleon in Desiree to his mumbling, broody Sky Masterson in Guys’n’Dolls, in which his “singing” parts had to be cut and pasted together on tape from the bits where he wasn’t out of key. Brando spent the Sixties cultivating an ironic scorn and high-minded distance from Hollywood, while simultaneously taking every naff part going in a series of blisteringly minor movies, including Chaplin’s dismal The Countess From Hong Kong.

By the Seventies, Brando’s name was mud in Hollywood – an unreliable has-been. However, Francis Ford Coppola held out for him in The Godfather and rescued his career. How unjust, then, that what should be remembered as Al Pacino’s movie, the young war hero turned chilling Don, is instead forever recalled by hoarse parodies of Brando’s ridiculous Vito Corleone, whose “character” consists in stuffing his mouth full of Kleenex and playing a man in his late Fifties as if he’s in his late Eighties. All Brando brings to the film is the weight of his reputation, as opposed to substance to his part. When it came to Apocalypse Now, Brando brought weight in a literal sense, about 1000 extra pounds of it to the role of “gaunt” Colonel Kurtz. How did the fat fuck show his gratitude to Coppola, his saviour? By threatening to pull out of the production and keeping his exorbitant fee, by not even bothering to read Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness in “preparation” for his role. As it was, Coppola had to make do with framing Brando in the shadows, the way they used to Alison Moyet in press shots, to make him appear less obese, while his performance was another tour de force of Method, which for Brando means eating a piece of fruit while indifferently reciting your lines. The wanker. The wanker . . . Sure, Brando refused his Godfather Oscar as a protest at the plight of Native Americans but he should have refused it because he is a badly made-up blight on an otherwise great movie. He’s regarded as an “enigma” – but buying your own island and never going out makes you an uncommunicative couch potato, not an enigma. Visiting a discussion board on a Brando website recently was instructive. There were no postings, none, merely a plea for someone, anyone, to “get the ball rolling”. No dice. Brando coasted for years, carried about on a sedan chair of obsequiousness these last thirty. The lack of care he’s exhibited has now duly been repaid in kind.

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