Volume 4 : Miscellaneous Column (3)

The American Godfather

Amitava Nag


He believed — " the only thing an actor owes his public is not to bore them". More than 40 films later and with 2 Oscar wins in his booty you have to take him seriously. Born to a local actress and an insecticide salesman in Omaha, Nebraska in 1924 he had a tumultuous childhood. His mother's profession drew him to stage acting. Being a gifted mimic, he developed a rare ability to acquire mannerisms of people whom he observed much like Charles Chaplin, who had been his idol from childhood days. After being expelled from several schools in Illinois (where the family moved) due to his unruliness in the face of authority, he landed in New York and got himself enrolled at the Actor's Studio run by Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. He learnt the basics of 'method acting' here, Adler's motto being "Don't act. Behave". He once wrote “She taught me to be real and not try to act an emotion I did not personally experience during a performance”. Adler soon became his mentor and being thoroughly impressed, she predicted that within a year, this man would be “the best young actor in the American theatre”. In 1944 he made it to the Broadway in the bittersweet drama ‘I remember Mama’ which brought him a swath of admirers including director Elia Kazan. Soon after, critics voted him “Broadway’s Most Promising Actor” for his role as an anguished, paraplegic veteran in the commercially failure play ‘Truckline Café’. In 1947, director Elia Kazan persuaded producer Irene Selznick to hire him for the Broadway role of a certain Stanley Kowalski – one of the angriest, sexiest men ever imagined, who “uses his animal appeal to manipulate his wife’s affections and terrorize his romantically delusional sister-in-law”. He sought out that role, driving out to Provincetown Massachusetts where the playwright Tenesse Williams was spending to audition for the part. Williams recalled that he opened the door and instantly knew that he had his Stanley Kowalski. So did all who experienced the Broadway hit – a star was born in America’s sky.

To talk about these tales is to talk about Marlon Brando –the controversial yet undisputed king of Hollywood actors.

Though Brando shot to fame with the groundbreaking performance as the brutal Stanley Kowalski in ‘A Street Car Named Desire’, he was not too comfortable with the fact that media wanted to identify him with Stanley. Truly, Brando being sensitive by nature was an antithesis of Kowalski. He told an interviewer – “Kowalski was always right, and never afraid. He never wondered, he never doubted. His ego was very secure. And he had the kind of brutal aggressiveness that I hate. I am afraid of it. I detest the character.” Soon Hollywood sought him, and after negating a number of offers he plunged into Stanley Kramer’s ‘The Man’ (1950) on crippled war victims.

The Actor: The First Phase

‘The Man’ showed glimpse of Brando’s method acting as he spent a month in bed at a veterans’ hospital as part of his homework. However, he became the new and completely different American icon only with the film version of ‘Street Car…’ directed by Elia Kazan in 1951. He lost the Oscar in spite of his stunning portrayal. Brando was disappointed and he came back strongly as Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in ‘Viva Zapata!’ (1952) that got him the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival as well as the Best Foreign Actor in the British Film Academy Award – which he repeated again for his role as Marc Antony in ‘Julius Caesar’ (1953). But he really peaked with a dazzling performance for his role as a conscience-ridden former boxer Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan’s ‘On the Waterfront’ (1954). Awards came pouring in — Best Actor Award in New York Film Critic’s Circle, Golden Globe, Cannes Film Festival, Academy Awards (Oscar) and Best Foreign Actor in British Film Academy Award. Brando was delinquent, tough but very common at the same time. He was no Cary Grant, Gary Cooper or James Stewart. He was a commoner and when as Terry Malloy he said to his onscreen brother – “Oh Charlie, oh Charlie…you don’t understand. I could have been Somebody, instead of a bum – which is what I am” he spoke of all failed hopes and entered into the heart of America. He soon followed his success with a critical mix of films enacting swagger and arrogance that seemed very American prompting movie exhibitors to vote him to be one of top 10 Box-Office draws in the country from 1955 to 1958. During this period and extended for a little more, he played Napolean Bonaparte in ‘Desiree’ (1954), gambler Sky Masterson in the musical ‘Guys and Dolls’ (1955), Japanese interpreter for U.S. Army in post war Japan called Sakina in ‘The Teahouse of the August Moon’ (1956), an Air Force Officer in ‘Sayanora’ (1957 – nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor), a sympathetic Nazi officer in ‘The Young Lions’ (1958), a wandering musician in ‘The Fugitive Kind’ (1959 – an adaptation of Tennese William’s play ‘Orpheus Descending’) and the antihero in ‘One–Eyed Jacks’ (1961). The gamut of his performances speak volumes of his staggering range and his prowess and puts him in the world map as one of the finest character actors of the Twentieth Century.

However the next decade turned out to be absolutely miserable as his acting lost its vigour and energy and seemed rudderless. The slump reached its nadir for his overt mannerisms as Fletcher Christian in 1962’s big budget flop ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’. Turmoil in personal life left a deep impression and he earned the reputation as a difficult star to work with who kept on frustrating the directors. As Lewis Milestone, director of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ found out — "Before he would take direction, he would ask why. Then when the scene was being shot, he put ear plugs in so that he couldn't hear my direction."

During this time Brando moved close to social activism – again a trait found rare among Hollywood actors, and acted in a series of films where his characters cast a critical gaze on the American society. The notable roles include a diplomat in ‘The Ugly American’ (1963), a sheriff in ‘The Chase’ (1966), a politician in ‘A Countess of HongKong’ (1967 –directed by none other than Charles Chaplin), a gay American Officer in ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’ (1967) and a British emissary sent to investigate a slave revolt in ‘Burn’ (1969). However his off screen tantrums got better of him and he became involved in controversies galore – from wearing jeans in Hollywood parties to insulting star-making gossip columnists and publicizing his preference for dark-skinned women (a social taboo at that time).

He reached a crucial cross-road of his career – the dilemma of choosing between continuing as a sensitive artist on one hand and being a puppet in the hands of egoist gossip-columnists who decided the box-office draw of many a actor on their whims on the other. As Pauline Kael found out in her essay ‘Marlon Brando: An American Hero’ (1966) – “ Should he be a ‘king’ like Gable, going from one meaningless picture to another, performing the rituals of manly toughness, embracing the studio stable, to be revered, finally, because he was the company actor who never gave anybody any trouble? Columnists don't attack that kind of king on his papier-mache throne; critics don't prod him to return to the stage; the public doesn't turn against him.”

The Actor: The Final Phase

It was heard that Mario Puzo himself sent Brando the ‘Godfather’ (1972) script, hoping he would play Don Vito Coleone. Brando identified the character as a statement against corporate greed as he told Newsweek – “I don’t think the film is about the Mafia at all, I think it is about the corporate mind. In a way, the Mafia is the best example of Capitalists we have.” His performance was widely acclaimed and he came back strongly with it, reclaiming the admiration and love that he lost for sometime by grabbing the Best Actor Award at Golden Globe and Oscars. However he was entangled with controversy here again as he refused to appear at the Oscar ceremony to accept his award, protesting against the discrimination against Native Americans in films and in Government policy. Instead he dispatched a woman who claimed to be a Native American named “Sacheen Littlefeather” (revealed later to be an actress called Maria Cruz). She read an abridged version of Brando’s 15-page indictment of policies towards the Native Americans and was roundly booed. The following year saw another breath-taking performance from Brando in a superbly balanced psychotic interplay of human tension –Bernardo Bertolucci’s ‘Last Tango In Paris’. The film, which was very close to Brando included a number of his autobiographical speeches and won a couple of awards for him. His naked emotional display was stunning embodiment of sensitivity coupled with savagery as he “touched the deepest dynamics of his time and place”. The film again soared his Box-Office market making him a viable selling commodity. In her New Yorker review, critic Pauline Kael wrote that director Bernardo Bertolucci and Brando “have altered the face of an art form” and called the film revolutionary. But his last major acclaimed performance remains ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979) as Army Col. Walter E Kurtz, a shaved-headed symbol of madness during the Vietnam War. His later films were reasonably successful and he had minimal appearances in them. One such being Jor-El, Superman's father, in the first ‘Superman’ movie (1978)—a role he agreed to only on condition that he did not have to read the script beforehand and his lines would be displayed somewhere off-screen (A similar thing that he repeated in ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ (1996) where Brando used an earpiece to remember his lines.). He earned a supporting actor Oscar nomination for ‘A Dry White Season’ (1989), parodied his ‘Godfather’ role in ‘The Freshman’ (1990) and played a thoughtful therapist in ‘Don Juan DeMarco’ (1995) where he costarred with Johnny Depp – one of the many new generation actors who adopted his style.

The last leg of his life and career was marred by personal tragedies and setbacks including bitter experiences from his three marriages, many paternity suits, suicide of his daughter, excessive body weight (well over 300 pounds), manslaughter charges against his son and so on. He was submerged in debt amounting to millions of dollars and his last years were supported by Social Security benefits, pension form the Screen Actors’ Guild and some inconsequential small film roles. However this personal trauma had been his companion from childhood emerging from the troubled relationship between his parents. Brando was vulnerable and he wanted several women at once “as an emotional insurance policy”. When asked how he could bring in so much energy and élan in many of his characters which very few actors ever dream of, Brando was soulful – “All I have to do is think about something that reminds me of a sadness that I’ve had in my life”.

However its not sadness alone that swept across his stoic profile. He oozed a self-confidence hitherto unnoticed in Hollywood – the next-door rookie as well as the underground mafia who is dangerous and brutal yet personifying a deep undercurrent of male beauty. Critic Hal Hinson writing remarked in The Washington Post — “Brando is never less than a miraculously magnetic camera subject; just to have him in front of the lens is, in most cases, enough.” Added to this is his image as a defiant child – both on-screen and off it. The defiance was portrayed in his physique as well –he was a strikingly muscular figure who defined 1950s leather-jacketed masculinity and later became excessively obese – the disintegration of an American Sex Symbol for over a generation. Perhaps this was his denunciation of Hollywood that worshipped physical beauty above everything else.

July 1,2004 brought an end to this dynamic personality – his death at age 80 was due to lung failure. Looking back, it will be perhaps apt to sum up his life in his own words – “I can draw no conclusions about my life because it is a continually evolving and unfolding process. I don't know what is next. I am more surprised at how I turned out than I am about anything else. I don't ever remember trying to be successful. It just happened. I was only trying to survive”.

The Man : Social Activism and Individualism

It was one of those usual long day of work on Thursday, December 1955 for a seamstress for a Montgomery, Alabama department store. She was tired, physically and also of the treatment that she and other African Americans received everyday of their lives. The segregation laws allowed “Black” people to sit in the rear portion of the bus as long as no “White” person was standing. But Rosa Parks was a “Black” woman with a difference. She preferred to walk up the stairs of a building rather than riding elevators marked “Blacks Only”. On that eventful evening as the bus became packed up, she remained seated, refusing to yield to the driver’s threats. Rosa Parks got arrested, convicted of violating segregation laws. It created a bang – and four days later, a young pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church led the movement that rapidly spread through the breadth of the country. The world heard the voices of non-violence again after Mahatma Gandhi. “We must meet violence with non-violence” – so spoke Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Almost a year later on November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that Montgomery’s segregation laws are unconstitutional.

This incident was one of the many, which shook Brando and made him to think “what it is to be black in this country”. However, the slaying of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the final blow as Brando announced his devotion to civil rights movement. And he meant serious – “ If the vacuum formed by Dr. King’s death isn’t filled with concern and understanding and a measure of love, then I think we all are really going to be lost here in this country.” He had been close to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) since the early 1960s and during the Civil Rights movements he initiated a “1 percent of income” fund-raising campaign in which he urged all to donate 1 percent of their income to the SCLC in Atlanta – the money will be used to help the cause of the Black Americans in USA. He himself donated about 10 percent and convinced many of his colleagues to donate – including Barbara Streisand, Joan Crawford, Paul Newman, Merv Giffin to name a few. And he was the first actor activist who marched for civil and Native American rights. He also participated in “Free Huey” protests after Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton was tried in 1968 for allegedly killing an Oakland, California policeman.

Throughout his life he empathized the cause of the Black Americans as well as the Native Americans. Below is an excerpt of Brando’s interview in the CNN talk show Larry King Live that will bring out some idea about Brando’s emotional attachment to these issues:

LK: When I mentioned to you that, last night, Ted Turner and Robert Redford signed a big deal in New York to do movies about the Native Americans, you said you'd work for them.
MB: That's right. I said I'd work for nothing, too.

LK: Why?
MB: Because I believe that we must understand one another, and if we don't, we're going to be in an awful lot of trouble. And I don't think that is enough. I think that we have to alter ourselves in a fundamental sense. And the idea of being successful and having a lot of money and having all your dreams come true is completely crazy. I've had so much misery in my life, being famous and wealthy. And I know so many people….

LK: But how does that equate to the Native American?
MB: The Native Americans are an example of the kind of bifurcation of the Americans' sense of themselves. We committed genocide. We are, by the United Nations' definition, which we were a party to in forming, committing genocide on the American Indian. When all the other countries, France, England, Holland, Italy, all the countries of Europe, all the imperialistic countries, were giving up their possessions after World War 11, we applauded softly with gloved hands. And although we say, "Oh, the Indians got a bad deal. They got a raw deal," we have never given one single postage stamp size of earth back to the American Indian.”

In the same interview he added – “I have been in support of the Jews who came out of the concentration camps, to try to find a home for them. I was in support of the Indians in America. Four hundred treaties-read them-four hundred treaties have been broken by the United States government. If one time Cuba said, "I'm sorry, we don't recognize the treaty of Guantanamo," they'd have the Marines in there in eight seconds. They'd bomb Havana flat. They'd make a parking lot out of it. Why is it that we cannot give- One-third of America is owned by the U.S. government. The blacks in this country have struggled, have fought, have died of misery and bro- ken hearts, perfectly and wonderfully documented by the best writer of the world, in my estimation, Toni Morrison, in her books. And I think they should be read everywhere in the world, to have a sense”.

He was sick of the American concept of intruding the privacy of others—be it be a nation or an individual — “I have always hated the fact that I have been obliged to conform. I agree that no man is an island, but I also feel that conformity breeds mediocrity. I think this country needs, in addition to a good five-cent cigar, a little five-cent investment in tolerance for the expression of individuality.” And he continued – “Well, I really did feel I had every right in the world to resist the insipid protocol of turning my private life into the kind of running serial you find on bubble-gum wrappers. You can't just take sensitive parts of yourself and splatter them around like so much popcorn butter. Personal freedom has always been terribly important to me, and I have carried aloofness as a sort of banner to my sense of freedom.”

He hated the laws that govern Hollywood and had always been vocal in his resentment — “When I came to Hollywood I had a rather precious and coddled attitude about my own integrity. It was stupid of me to resist so directly the prejudice that money is right. But just because the big shots were nice to me I saw no reason to overlook what they did to others and to ignore the fact that they normally behave with the hostility of ants at a picnic. The marvelous thing about Hollywood is that these people are recognized as sort of the norm, while I am the flip. These gnarled and twisted personalities see no other way to live except on a pedestal of malicious gossip and rumor to be laid on the ears of unsuspecting people who believe them.” He never wanted himself to be controlled by the Hollywood system and flaunted – “ I am myself and if I have to hit my head against a brick wall to remain myself I will do it”. The sensitive person that Brando was, he failed to cope with the demands of Hollywood – both physical and mental and he refused to be a part of it. As he once stated – “I’ve never had any respect for Hollywood. It stands for greed, avarice, phoniness,………” and on a different account, “Hollywood is ruled by fear and love of money. But it can't rule me because I'm not afraid of anything and I don't love money." And may be on this regard, he, as a person moved emotionally closer to Stanley Kowalski. On a separate account (on the CNN talk show – Larry King Live) he was frustrated by Hollywood’s lack of social awareness and remarked – “Hollywood is run by the Jews, and they should have greater sensitivity about the issue of the people who are suffering because they have been exploited.

But his most open attack on the Government policies against the Native Americans was in his speech at the First American Gala. Following are the excerpts:

“Do we recognize the treaties in the world? Damn right we do! Wasn't too long ago Kissinger went down to Panama, the Panamanians said listen, we want to renegotiate the treaty, we want a bigger share, a bigger cut of the pie. What do you think if Fidel Castro said get out of Guantanamo Bay in 38 hours or it's gonna all come down on ya? How long do you think we'd say uh, Mr.Castro, we think that uh perhaps the better part of valor would be to recognize the validity of our treaty with you?
Nobody knows that the Boy Scout manual was based on Indian lore! Nobody knows that the Pilgrims wouldn't have lasted two seconds if the Algonquins or the Delawares or the Mohawks had said, listen, off the turf now, beat it, we don't want you here! Supposing they'd been like Captain Cook trying to go to Fiji where they would've eaten him alive if he'd landed. They didn't do that. They're welcoming people. Columbus wrote about the nature of the warmth and the welcome he received all up and down the coast and then for the thanks, the warmth, the generosity and the kindness, and I know what that means because I've been touched by that tradition. I've been touched by the warmth and the hospitality of Indians that has lived somewhere under the ground, under the pain and the anguish of these years that have gone by.

Well they helped us and what did we do? Cut their throats, lied to them, cheated them, starved them to death. If you have any doubts about what I'm telling you I will present you with United States military records, documentation that shows how we set about to destroy these people body, soul and spirit and this is going on today. Yeh….on the Lenni reservation, in the past month, Indian was out there in his boat, laying' his nets and because of Judge Bolt's brave decision to recognize the treaty that gives parity to Indians, that allows them to have 50 percent of the catch…when the white man came into the territory, the Indians said here, fish. Are you hungry? Here's some food. Yeh…they taught the white man how to fish and what did the white man do? Came and took all the fish. All they did was pass laws, one law after another, like that, with the regularity of a clock. They sent them to Oklahoma and said, "as long as the rivers run and the grass shall grow". Then they found oil in Oklahoma, and they passed laws that said everything under the soil from three feet to the center of the earth belongs to the United States Government. Whenever they wanted Indian land they passed a law! That's all they did. Wasn't any different from the poll tax. Wasn't any different in the literacy regulation.

I wanna say that uh…let's do for the Indians what we did for our enemies…uh, it's a matter of justice. I wanna tell you that one of the reasons I'm here is because I'm part of a profession that has done more damage to Indians- and to white people- we've raped your minds. We've made pictures about Indians, these savages, and these stinking, horrifying, raping, mad uneducated people…these heathens. We've raped everybody's mind.”




Copyright Silhouette.
Reproduction of this site content by any means is subject to approval of Silhouette.