In the deep freeze of Toronto this winter, me and mine project movies on the wall. The heat source not from the radiation of flickering lights, but from a pajama’ed fortress mortared with popcorn.
Recently, I have proposed early Brando films. I had only ever seen him in his later roles as a cotton-mouthed mobster, forest spook and butterfingered lover, all of which I unfortunately mashed-up in a weird-celebrity ball with his family’s murder-suicide scandals back in the 90s. I had never laid eyes on the young talent he once was, who had apparently freeze-framed the movie industry in a mid-orgasmic paroxysm because no one like him has existed since.
So, we watched the movie that launched him. A Streetcar Named Desire had the hallmarks of the 1950’s–it was very character-driven and gentlewomanly–an ancient formula by our standards now of half-thoughts, CGI and gun-drama. So, it’s hard to express in today’s terms how it blew minds, mine namely.
Let me try. [These ramblings have some spoilers].
First, incomprehensibly, the Oscars went to everyone BUT Brando and Director Elia Kazan on that film. Googling that afterward made me realize that the Academy had chosen to acknowledge the exact negative of this celluloid cultural artifact. It was as if the Academy, in its haste to develop the evidence of unimaginable beauty finally captured on film, fainted from the chemical fumes it had fumbled in the mixing; or fainted from the mere promise of this talent’s light etched in the dark. Hollywood was clearly not ready for the full exposure of Marlon Brando and the incredible artistic partner he had in Kazan.
But that was just the awards. Audiences knew. They had known from the two years prior of standing ovations they had rained down on him on Broadway. The film version was likewise flooded.
Upon researching Brando’s famed mentor from the Actor’s Studio, Stella Adler, it might best be said that it was Brando’s choices that comprised his talent. The beat of a moment he took before whipping a cup against a wall, smashing it in a rage. The way he would let the wet of the chicken he was eating, open-mouthed, mix in with his contemptuous words. The low maximum of intelligence he was willing to afford his character, confining us to the claustrophobic world of common sense that Stanley Kowlaski, day labourer, would speak. The raccoon-like rifling of Blanche’s dresses as if digging through garbage, impervious to femininity, to delicacy; his reactions to Blanche’s innuendoes were also of patent disinterest. It was clear that the sexual magnetism would be one-way and it wasn’t he who ever had to work for it. These subtle spells were cast with every movement and word, consuming our will and sympathies for his character. Best Supporting Actress Kim Hunter’s Stella became not interesting enough to warrant the affections of her sex-god lout of a husband; Vivien Leigh’s Best Actress for Blanche DuBois was an annoying, flouncy git who got everything coming to her; Karl Malden’s Best Supporting Actor for Mitch was hardly convincing in his retributive angst against Stanley–because everyone but everyone just serviced Brando’s negative spaces; merely gilded the frame for him to walk into; were incidental fluffers; pilons in his mad course. Near the end, I was in denial that Stanley could have ever raped Blanche. “I never once touched her,” is what I chose to hear. Stanley could do no wrong. Not sure that’s what Tennessee Williams had intended…
I tell you, Stockholm Syndrome never knew of such devoted groupies as ones Brando harvested with that role, on and off screen.
I couldn’t stop there. A Streetcar Named Desire had set my head on fire. YouTube and video streaming, my partners in crime, helped me vortex into the life, mind and words of Marlon Brando. His appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Wild One, On the Waterfront, Appaloosa, Sayonara, his yellow-face stint as an Okinawan, Connie Chung interview, Larry King appearances, interviews with his sister Jocelyn, interviews with his contemporaries, ex-wife, children, grand children…sure Stanley Kowalski and the young, troubled characters Brando first came out with had cemented his legend as the Manliest–and this was the chief fascination. But, for some comet chasers like me, we wanted to know who this being found on earth was, with so-finely-tuned an emotional instrument as to make people feel as if they had finally seen human authenticity for the first time–in, of all things, an actor.
Truth be told, knowing that he lived and breathed in my era, gave me a hopeful sense that I might have some Venn Diagram overlap that would somehow put me in association with The Interesting and Emotionally Authentic, in the case that we might share the same views about issues of our time. But what I found over and over, in my Brando nerd-out, actually, was simply a sensitive spirit, observant and watchful of the world around him. He seemed to constantly struggle in the noise of his fame in order to sort out some quiet, clear messages. His body eventually started showing his submission to indulgence and excesses that fame and fortune afforded him. Or maybe just stress. But then in every interview there was the well-humoured man of constant lucid insights, so prescient, they seemed like they could be from today’s liberal socio-political zeitgeist, but said in the 50s, 60s and 70s! He took public issue with racial equality; homophobia; global warming; indigenous rights; Palestinian statehood in the era of media paternalism and conservatism. Long before the limousine liberalism of Hollywood became a cliche, he was there walking alongside native chiefs, even Martin Luther King Jr. at the Washington Mall, helping to bear the standard.
Particularly amazing is footage of people from the old days, from Brando’s twenties, who had seen him as a nobody stage-actor. Astonished that his techniques were so real, some said it was weird, almost embarrassing to watch–that there had to be some mistake, that a strange man had walked into an actors’ rehearsal! Or there was the thunderous applause for a bit role he had done–because of the anger he could so ferociously emote, as if he were living art, depicting mundanity so intricately and precisely, he had made it beautiful again. There were the heaps of praise he’d get from protege actors he had worked with on The Godfather and Apocalypse Now citing the strange, time-consuming demands he’d make on everyone to get the script right and the nuances of his character and the scenes right, going millions over budget, driving everyone to the edge, until the movies won multiple Academy Awards and critical praise. Actors and actresses who barely shared screen time with him circled back in their seventies and eighties, at the time of his biographies or his death just to say that they had stood back and watched him in fascination as he brought to life every scene through minute brush strokes of genius acting decisions.
Though, my favourite time-warp was into The Dick Cavett Show in the early 70s. This short hour in TV history, made me realize Brando just didn’t give a #$%^. Brando is deconstructing the celebrity interview as it is happening, questioning why more important issues can’t be discussed instead of gossip. He can’t escape from having to explain, though, why just the previous day, he sent a Native American to accept his Oscar in front of 85 million viewers, with a prepared statement on Hollywood’s racist depictions of ethnic minorities in film. He doesn’t seem to be a purposeful pain in the ass about it because Cavett obviously is complicit later in dedicating half the show to indigenous issues that Brando cares about. Cavett, also intelligent and gracious, to his credit put forth this unconventional episode’s agenda despite clearly struggling with the light, sensationalist nature of celebrity interviews that his conservative network and audiences preferred. Anyway, Brando is about 50 at the time and even in his criticism of the premise of the show’s celebrity scrutiny, a long dour issue in his career by then, his conversational steps are light and sensitive to response. He is unable to conceal an easy smile and connection to his host, whom he clearly liked and respected. As were true of all of his other interviews, he sits there and denies that he is any hot thing. That acting’s a job, he has bills to pay, there are others with bigger problems, hence, WTF. The iconoclasm of being anti-Hollywood could only be pulled off by a Hollywood icon.
To see Marlon Brando as an obese older man from the impossibly gorgeous 20-something within the span of a week was a huge insight into someone who survived the worst type of cultural machinery of our time, somehow able to still smile. He was a spirit that suited, actually, the round comfortable man he ended up becoming. In the end, he still had that soulful, emotive face that could distill clear thoughts; that somehow made things that we never knew were important or beautiful, all that ever mattered.