July 3, 2004

Evaluating Marlon Brando.

The NYT runs an above-the-fold obituary for Marlon Brando. (You'll have to look at the paper copy to see this, but here's the obit.) Meanwhile, will the anti-Brando people resist having their say? Terry Teachout doesn't hold back out of respect for the recently dead. (Via Jeff Jarvis, via Memeorandum.) I favor having a full discussion of Brando, just as I think it was appropriate to evaluate Reagan's life work right after he died. One ought to refrain from nasty sniping, perhaps, especially if there are still family around, but the death of a great man or woman is a unique occasion for a retrospective, for learning about art or politics or some other important area of human endeavor, and readers deserve good information and trenchant opinion. Brando was a controversial figure for many reasons, and he himself had a broad idea of what was appropriate to do on a given occasion, as he showed when he used the Oscar ceremony to plead for attention to the way movies portray Native Americans. In fact, Brando did a lot of bad and sloppy work, and he made too few movies and too many bad movies. He squandered much of what he had to offer, and that was a great loss.

I watched "Don Juan de Marco" last night, and it demonstrates many of the problems. For one thing, Brando's body, once a powerful part of his screen expression, was a constant obstacle to full expression. For another thing, he was not trying half as hard as the two brilliant actors--Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway--who seemed all jazzed up by the opportunity to play opposite him. He didn't bother to meet the enthusiasm they brought to the project.

His off-screen statements show that he was not interested in the phenomenon of being Brando. These statements remind me of the sorts of things The Beatles said about breaking up: they got tired of being The Beatles. But when you're a one-person phenomenon, you can't break up--at least not the way a foursome can. You can become so fat that you're not that screen idol anymore. It's to his credit that he put that broken-down man on film in at least three great films: "The Godfather," "Last Tango in Paris," and "Apocalypse, Now."

Here are some apt lines from the NYT obit:
And more often than not, he would express contempt for the craft of acting. "Acting is the least mysterious of all crafts," Mr. Brando once said. "Whenever we want something from somebody or when we want to hide something or pretend, we're acting. Most people do it all day long."

He described himself as a lazy man, and he was notoriously lax about learning his lines. "If a studio offered to pay me as much to sweep the floor as it did to act, I'd sweep the floor," he said. "There isn't anything that pays you as well as acting while you decide what the hell you're going to do with yourself. Who cares about the applause? Do I need applause to feel good about myself?"

Yet no one was better at finding brilliant touches that brought a character to life. Many have pointed to a scene in "On the Waterfront" during which he delicately put on the dainty lace glove of the young woman he was awkwardly trying to court, a seemingly unconscious gesture that fills the moment with heart-breaking vulnerability.

The NYT refers "to a pair of truly odd appearances on "Larry King Live" in the mid-1990's." I'm thinking King will re-run these over the weekend and recommend setting the TiVo.

1 comment:

Dhiraj said...

Grandeur of Marlon Brando’s persona is not based on a petulant self loathing mal-adjusted personality. He is an icon-perhaps the most influential actor because of his ability to find new ways of communicating brutality, beauty and vulnerability in one frame. He is great because he never failed to fascinate- even in his trashy movies.