Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Marlon Brando should have died like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain or James Dean - in the tornado like blitzkrieg of a dazzling genius. Stamping the world with one’s unique talent and changing it forever. Then leaving the world letting romance of death to create an unending portrait in popular iconography. But that was not to be. Brando had to live till 80 simmering in tantalizing possibilities of that one more come back. Marlon Brando- the defining icon of cinema acting, pioneer of new grammar of acting and a blazing wastage of monumental talent. He has impacted notions of acting, characterization and what constitutes plausible portrayal radically. He was responsible for rescuing cinema (at least Hollywood Cinema) from the theatricality of mannered acting and clear-cut style utterly devoid of nuances and, in most cases, realism. He burst open on the scene in 1947, aged 23 as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams's play ''A Streetcar Named Desire'' directed by Elia Kazan. The standing ovation lasted half an hour. The play was about Blanche Du Bois played by Jessica Tandy. She was universally admired. But it was Brando’s performance as “Stanley Kowalski, later repeated on film, provided one of our age's emblematic images, the defining portrait of mass man--shrewd, vulgar, ignorant, a rapacious threat to all that is gentle and civilized in our culture.” Our standards for performance, our expectations of what an actor should offer us in the way of psychological truth and behavioral honesty, were forever changed.
He realized himself for sure, but such treats were rare and painfully episodic. Five-six great performances in the career spanning six decades alongside a cesspool embarrassments is a painfully thin foundation for such a towering figure of the cinematic history. His is a saga of mismanagement of self and success. His very few unforgettable performances are pitted against a slew of rubbish- films chosen with relentless disregard for their suitability. This potpourri of slap dash, insensitive junk include Désiree (1954); The Teahouse Of The August Moon (1956) Sayonara (1957); The Young Lions (1958); Mutiny On The Bounty (1962); The Ugly American (1963); Bedtime Story (1964); The Saboteur Codenamed Morituri (1965) Appaloosa (1966); A Countess From Hong Kong (1967); Candy (1968); The Night Of The Following Day (1969); The Nightcomers (1971); Superman (1978); The Formula (1981); Christopher Columbus (1992). Then we have smoldering performances in sleek packages like Streetcar, The Men, Zapata, On the Waterfront, The Fugitive Kind, The Chase, The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris to remind us that behind all the self-loathing and self parody lurks a major cultural figure.

Born in 1924, "Brando was the child of alcoholics." He was brought up in Nebraska and Illinois by cultural wannabe mother and abusive father. One should not be too inclined to give much importance to the psycho-analytical explanations of his personality and acting foundations. “The world is full of children of alcoholics who did not become Marlon Brando.” Brando dropped of military school, at the age of 17 and moved to New York, where his sisters were living. He went through his acting apprenticeship and first bit roles, leading to his Broadway appearances in "I Remember Mama" in 1944 and Maxwell Anderson's "Truckline Cafe," directed by Harold Clurman, in 1946. 1947 was, of course, the year of Streetcar.
World conspires to bring down grand personalities to the level of mundane manageability. Some capitulate and carve a decent career- examples can be Clarke Gable and even Paul Newman. Some like Brando go down fighting. Eccentric greatness and survival intelligence are uneasy bedfellows. This need not be so. There is a third category too. Names like Picasso and Bob Dylan come to mind where non-conformity, breaking of new vistas and unbridled genius were accompanied by a long and productive career of continuous reinvention. It is difficult to romanticize the failings of Brando. 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.
A naturally charismatic actor, Brando brought a new authenticity to acting. In Europe this task was performed by the directors but in most of the film cultures this was happening and some actors were leading the way. Brando was the purveyor of this realism in Hollywood. “His naïveté and brooding melancholy — that made millions of strangers enshrine him as a symbol of a new, rebellious generation, sick of the correct poses and posturings of the past and committed to an unvarnished authenticity and emotional truth.” Apart from this pioneering influence Brando, due to his magnetism was seen as the most eligible vehicle for the new method school. Boy geniuses are often tasked with this kind of responsibility. Bob Dylan was also thought to be the leading light of the protest song movement. However, often, these titans are too big for the straitjacket that cult expectations put on them. Their ‘betrayal’ of the fervent followers is often traumatic. Continued success is the only cure of this uncomfortable situation. Dylan evolved and Brando floundered on this count. He was redeemed only when he was asked to carry another dubious mantle at the fag-end. Last Tango in Paris can be seen as mainstream entry of explicit films which were lurking in art-houses or late night grind houses. Brando was the ultimate respectability they could have expected. Last Tango along with Godfather is the reasons that Brando iconography remained intact.
For all his pioneering greatness of Brando would have been relegated to trash-heap of history if these two immortal performances had not come to remind people the true mettle of the icon. His legacy was reinforced by these late hurrahs. Both these performance are volcanic in their affirmation of his gigantic talent and sublime in their understated grandiosity. Affable menace and undercurrent of mental torture accentuated his Oscar winning Godfather performance. Don Corleone was stately, generous, cruel even vulnerable simultaneously. His mannerisms, understated dignity and just-below-the surface violence are pleasure to watch. In Last Tango too he is able to deploy most appropriate histrionic tool with minimum of efforts. This effortlessness is a sign of a true master. These performances make us even sadder for the wasted years.
His legacy is the most important reason for his iconic stature. In the words of Jack Nicholson Marlon Brando had a gift that “was enormous and flawless, like Picasso….was the beginning and end of his own revolution.” But he ends by saying "He (Brando) gave us our freedom." This freedom was inherited by many including Nicholson. The list goes on- James Dean, Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio among the most prominent ones. Ryan Gosling is reminding critics of Brando with his method play and deprecating remarks about the profession of acting. Hollywood cinema has that unmistakable dividing line –before Brando and After Brando. He is the signpost, howsoever ravaged, against which every traveler has to pay respect. He shied away from revolution but the revolution continues in his name.

-Dhiraj Singh


  1. A wonderful, great detailed post about Brando. You have also given a apt title. Brando is really a enigma.