by Alun Thomas
The death of Marlon Brando on July the second of lung failure brought to an end the life of undoubtedly the greatest actor of our times, and one who will never be surpassed. Suitably the news made the headlines of most news programs that day, a fitting tribute to one of the twentieth centurys greatest icons. Brando was a man who will never sit alongside other figureheads like Elvis, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe in terms of nostalgia, simply because he outlived them all. He lived a life that became scrutinized to the point of tragedy and ridicule, like those three, but with a stance that shunned the very profession that bought him fame, acting. In this regard Brando is more than a legend. He showed open disgust towards Hollywood and the hangers-on, a viewpoint shared by few, especially the "applause junkies" Brando despised like the late Bob Hope. It still rankles however to watch broadcasts showing recent pictures of the frail Brando, claiming he was far from the statuesque figure he once was. What do they expect? The man was eighty years old. That was more than fifty years ago.
My fascination with Brando began a decade ago along with my brother as we discovered "A Streetcar Named Desire." Brandos performance as Stanley Kowalski remains the best of his career narrowly and ushered in a new form of acting, the famed and ultimately shameful "Method" style. To watch Brando go through his paces, antagonizing his wife Stellas sister Blanche, is to marvel at a genius. His sudden outbursts of anger, his sense of cool, the way he delivered his lines, were so authentic its hard to believe it was 1951. Watching other actors of the time is laughable by comparison, especially fading hams like Humphrey Bogart. This staggering performance (one Brando had perfected in the stage version) led to instant fame and more huge roles, notably "The Wild One" and "On The Waterfront," for which he won an Academy Award. Brando later said that he wished he had never shown up for the ceremony and that the famous "I could have been a contender" line wasnt that memorable, it was just something people took to heart to base their own failures on.
Following this string of hits, Brandos choice of roles began to falter, amusingly so. Films like "The Teahouse Of The August Moon" and "Sayonara" were flops, interspersed with the odd classic, like the 1958 World War II film "The Young Lions" with Montgomery Clift and Brandos only directing effort, the 1961 western "One Eyed Jacks." Aside from these it was films like the failed "Mutiny On The Bounty," "Morituri," "The Chase," "Burn," "Reflections In A Golden Eye," "The Nightcomers" and countless others that suggested Brando was past it. I dont subscribe to that. His performances even in his most forgotten movies were always watchable, adding that extra bit of presence to a tepid film. There was a constant thought that you never knew what was coming next from him. That he starred in so many duds makes him even better.
Of course Brandos turn as Don Corleone in 1972s "The Godfather" reversed his fortunes and won him a second Academy Award. This led to one of his greatest moments as he refused the award and sent a phony native American Indian to accept the award (in front of a bemused Roger Moore) to protest treatment of Native Americans. This total disregard of such a supposedly prestigious event was pure class, confirmation for those who think such awards are a farce, Brando stating on many occasions he didnt believe in awards of any kind. Brando turned around and delivered perhaps his second-best acting display in that same years "Last Tango In Paris," where he played a middle-aged American named Paul living in Paris who has an anonymous affair with a young girl. One can only shake his head at moments such as Brando telling Maria Schneider to stick her finger up his ass or flying into fits of rage at the blink of an eye. A definitive display.
Brando disappeared until 1976s western "The Missouri Breaks," in which he appeared opposite Jack Nicholson. An underrated classic, the film displays Brando in vintage mode. One scene sees him one second talking in an Irish accent, the next a normal American one. Words cannot do it justice. As Brando had a knack for doing whatever he wanted, there was nothing the director could do about it. Nor the scene where he lets out a fart, clearly not part of the script, nor one suspects the scenes in which he dresses like a women. By now he was out of control, had nothing but disdain for the movie business and was intent on making a mockery of it. Even when he did that he was superior. Brando had brief, celebrated roles in "Superman" and "Apoclaypse Now" before starring in the 1980 flop "The Formula," which Brando later said he knew was one from the start. Of his later movies Brando just did them for the money, and why not? Anyone would take five million for five minutes work. He even went on record and called 1990s "The Freshman" "a stinker" before it was released.
Im not going to rehash Brandos personal woes in the 1990s, which included his ballooning weight, his sons jail sentence for murder and his daughters suicide. Larry King once tried to press Brando on the subject and was dismissed with a harsh "Jesus, Larry!" To me its what he did on screen and his rebellion against it which makes him so remarkable. In various interviews and his 1994 autobiography Brando explained the thoughts behind his actions and they made for entertaining reading. One of the best things he ever said was that he wished he never had to work and that his ideal life would be to have someone come to his door every week with money and leave. Thats one of the cleverest statements Ive ever read. Brando told Larry King in 1994 that nothing paid as well as movies and as easily, so it was the next best thing. Watching him ask King if he was an applause junkie and totally downgrade him was also a highlight. When one considers Brandos rough upbringing with alcoholic parents, however, his unique personality can be understood. Ashamed of his parents illness, he resorted to making up lies that he was born in Bombay and his father was a zoologist. This early trauma taught him to be a rebel. A real rebel, something he was until his death.
The image of Brando, circa "Streetcar" menacing stare, tight T-shirt, athletic build, is the definition of the man. Few can compare to his cool. His death has been imminent for sometime, but now that it is reality, it is still a harsh blow. That he left behind such an eventful life, and a career more influential in its genre than anyone in its history, is the mark of someone who ultimately succeeded, even if Brando didnt care. In that sense he was more real than Charles Bukowski, because Brando walked the walk. He did what he said. He was a hero. He will never be forgotten.