Marlon Brando at 100: Maverick and his magic : The Tribune India

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Marlon Brando at 100: Maverick and his magic

Marlon Brando at 100: Maverick and his magic

The actor as anti-hero in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’.



Sundeep Misra

Budd Schulberg, an Academy Award winner for best story and screenplay for the 1954 crime-thriller ‘On the Waterfront’, which incidentally also fetched Marlon Brando his first Academy Award, believes the actor Brando arrived much earlier; that intensity later combined with a misty broodiness creating Brando not only as a cult figure but at the same time raising the bar for actors forever. While watching Tennessee Williams’ steamy play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Schulberg wrote in The Vanity Fair about Brando playing Stanley Kowalski: “Nothing will ever compare to the explosion set off by Brando in his savage portrayal of Stanley Kowalski, the brutal blue-collar tormentor of his defenceless sister-in-law, Blanche DuBois, who has come to take refuge with him and his wife. I will never forget the impact Brando had on me and the rest of the audience. This was beyond a performance. It was so raw, so real.”

A stunned Schulberg wrote on.

(From left) Brando in stills from ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘One-Eyed Jacks’, ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘The Godfather’.

“The way Brando’s Kowalski raged at his fragile victim and totally destroyed her at the climax was like a hard punch to the belly of the audience, and at the curtain, there was a strange pause, as if the audience were trying to catch its breath. Then the thundering applause, the standing ovation, and the bravos came as a burst of relief that Blanche’s ordeal was over and that the cast could return to their dressing rooms and become themselves again.”

Not many were themselves again. Least of all Brando, whose birth centenary falls on April 3. The path was, in so many ways, clear. He would be an actor. Brando had never received a high school diploma and he had been expelled from the Shattuck Military Academy, something to which he confessed to Truman Capote in a New Yorker article as ‘the asylum’. Much deeper was the fact that his father never let him live it down. Destiny, however, shook his hand when things almost seemed diving into an abyss. Headed for New York, his sisters took him along and he joined a school and one bright morning found himself in Stella Adler’s acting class.

Yet, it must have been a struggle. A friend of his describes those early Brando days in that brilliant Truman Capote New Yorker story ‘Marlon Brando, on Location’: “He was a brooder, all right. But it wasn’t all Gloomsville. When he wanted to, he could rocket right out of himself. He had a wild, kid kind of fun thing. He was the least opportunistic person I’ve ever known... Sure, part of that — the kind of people he didn’t like and the kind he did, both — stemmed from his insecurities, his inferiority feelings.”

Meanwhile, in New York, Brando was finding his way with Adler, who believed in the Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski’s methods where young actors were taught to internalise their character’s inner life, including their motivations and emotional states. Brando, a raging river, which was meandering like a thick body of water through a gorge, was intent on making its way to the ocean. Though one doubts whether Hollywood was a calling for the young actor then.

From the stage to films happened by 1950 with ‘The Men’, getting his first Oscar for ‘On the Waterfront’ (1954), Napoleon’s role in ‘Désirée’, followed by 18 films and 14 flops, some critically acclaimed but never setting the box office on fire, at least in the ’60s, which made producers wonder if he was ‘bankable’.

One day, Mario Puzo sent him his book ‘The Godfather’ with a note attached, saying he wanted him to play the role of Don (Vito) Corleone. Not bothered, Brando gave the book and note to Alice, his secretary and confidante, who upon reading it said that she “loved it”. Brando’s response was terse: “I am not going to glorify the mafia.” Alice didn’t give up. She knew Brando was Don Corleone. No one else could play it. She went back again. This time he threw the book at her. “For the last time, I won’t glorify the mafia!”

Alice kept chipping away and as Schulberg describes in The Vanity Fair, “But by some magic, the next time Alice showed up, Marlon had drawn a little moustache on himself with an eyebrow pencil and said, ‘How do I look?’ ‘Like George Raft,’ she said. Each time she went to see him, he was wearing a different mafia-don mustache.”

‘The Godfather’ was a smash hit. The cult of Don Corleone was cemented. Marlon Brando was Don Corleone. Never had an actor looked so much the part. On American screens, winging its way through theatres across the globe, Marlon Brando would always be known as Don Corleone.

Brando won the Oscar and refused to accept it. In his place, a woman named Sacheen Littlefeather showed up and gave a speech on the mistreatment of Native Americans by America. There was a mixture of applause and deafening boos.

In his 1994 autobiography, ‘Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me’, co-written with Robert Lindsey, he said: “Those people were booing at me. They were booing because they thought, ‘This moment is sacrosanct, and you’re ruining our fantasy with intrusion of a little reality.’”

Sixteen films would follow Bernardo Bertolucci’s erotic film ‘Last Tango in Paris’. He was caught between his inner turmoil, failed relationships, his son Christian killing Dag Drollet, his sister Cheyenne’s boyfriend, followed by a trial where tabloids and world television danced all along. His last days were on his beloved island of Tetiaroa in Tahiti, which may have given Brando some peace until his death on July 1, 2004.

In his memoir, Brando describes fame as something ruinous and wounding.

“Fame has been the bane of my life. I have been forced to live a false life,” he wrote. “All the people I know, with the exception of a handful, have been affected by my fame… People don’t relate to you as the person you are, but to a myth they believe you are, and the myth is always wrong.”

At his memorial, his sister Jocelyn prayed: “It’s over now. Let him be.”


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