Monday, March 30, 2009

April 3,1924: A Star is Born

As Don Corleone in The Godfather he stuffed wads of toilet paper into his mouth and reportedly read cue cards. As Paul in Last Tango in Paris he buttered Maria Schneider up and mooned the stuck up dancers in the ballroom. In Teahouse of the August Moon he turned Japanese while as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls he danced and crooned softly in Jean Simmons's ear.

In his long and controversial career Marlon Brando embraced a wide range of characters from the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in Viva Zapata! to the grotesque sci-fi drag queen Dr Moreau in The Island of Dr Moreau. Along the way he was both hailed as the greatest actor of all time and severely criticized for squandering his talents.

But whatever Brando’s failures and successes, both personal and professional, he did give us some beautifully rendered scenes. Among the best of these is his improvised encounter with the body of his deceased wife, Rose, in Last Tango in Paris. No tricks, no holds, no prisoners. For me that scene is right up there with Dirk Bogarde dying in Death in Venice, James Dean traversing his land in Giant, Peter O’Toole going on a killing spree in Lawrence of Arabia, Jack Nicholson ordering a chicken salad sandwich in Five Easy Pieces. If Brando’s entire oeuvre had consisted of only that scene I would still be inclined to declare him a celluloid genius. Thankfully, that scene wasn’t the only jewel he gave us.

His brooding sexual presence and fine emotional interpretations made films like The Ugly American, Sayonara, Burn! and Reflections in a Golden Eye worth watching and rewatching. And then, of course, there’s his portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, his second movie and the one that made him an overnight sensation.

It was that same sensual impulse, stripped of Stanley's brutality, that informed his performance in On the Waterfront, made three years after Streetcar. As longshoreman Terry Malloy, Brando uttered what have become some of cinema’s most famous words: “I coulda had class. I coulda bin a contender. I coulda bin somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am."

Some have said that in the years following Waterfront, Terry’s speech took on an ominous quality regarding Brando’s life and career. He was a difficult man to be sure. As a child he endured the abuse of his alcoholic parents. As a young man he came to fame much too suddenly. And once the world discovered him they would never let go. Relentlessly pursued, worshiped, vilified his was no easy road to travel.

Marlon Brando belonged to a generation of actors who rejected the controlled British approach to acting and instead embraced the raw improvisational techniques of the Method. Elaine Stritch said: ''Marlon's going to school to learn the Method was like sending a tiger to jungle school.''

In 1964 Brando made a comedic romp called A Bedtime Story wherein his low class smooth operator bounces off of David Niven’s high class gigolo. When the two first meet they engage in a discussion on the art of picking up women. Brando, unaware of the older man’s superior skills as a pickup artist and mistaking him for a "picked peach", sets out to enlighten him. In his signature mumble he tells Niven: “Let me put some new colours in your paintbox, Dad.”

That line says more about Brando's life and career than any of Terry Malloy's speeches. Marlon Brando gave us new, bolder colours. And he had class.