Brando Broke The Mold

1924-2004

July 03, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

By his professional methods and by his personal stands, the legendary actor was far ahead of his time.

Marlon Brando's extraordinary emotional intelligence expressed itself in every inch of his body for every second - the phrase "being in the moment" might as well have been coined for him.

Of course, other actors in New York and Hollywood had been as physically expressive as Brando (think Cagney) and as naturalistic (think Barbara Stanwyck). But Brando went deeper and further: his urgent sensitivity and imagination gave his performances a poetic dimension that transcended realism. And he had an emotional range that burst the usual stereotypes of "male" and "female." He was forceful, vulnerable, primally canny.

In an interview with The Sun yesterday, Brando biographer Peter Manso said Brando "had the very good fortune of coming along at a time when he ran smack into Tennessee Williams, who in his own way was writing a new American theater that was more psychologically probing and more sexual."

But Brando should get credit for recognizing that he and Williams were a match. John Garfield famously rejected director Elia Kazan's offer to star as that brute Stanley Kowalski in Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, because he thought the play was only about the sad illusions of faded Southern belle Blanche Du Bois.

But Brando knew in his bones that he could make Stanley's drive to conquer her pitilessly and sexually not just horrifying but also sad and oddly funny. He found the doggerel comic eloquence in a limited man's fury at the superiority of a literate female. He connected with the audience so strongly that many directors equal to Kazan, like Tony Richardson, felt that the director and actor had altered the meaning of the play. That's just peer frustration.

What Brando did was set a bar for Stanley that other actors would have to equal or top if they were to realize the play in their own ways. Decades later, no one has matched him in the role.

With his creation of Stanley so early in his brief stage career (ironically, it capped his stage career), and his brilliant transferral of the performance to the screen in 1951 after just one other movie job (his heartbreaking yet white-hot portrait of a paraplegic war veteran in Fred Zinnemann's 1950 The Men) Brando was in the same enviable and risky position of artists who make a big splash early on and are expected to produce a flood of culture-transforming work. He would do a film of a Williams play just one more time - Sidney Lumet's fiasco The Fugitive Kind, a gaudy adaptation of Williams' already garish Orpheus Descending, blessed by an opening sequence in which Brando turns himself into a homegrown, grunting Orphic poet.

But the arc of his career echoed Williams': artistic and financial triumph in the 1950s, followed by mass and critical disenchantment in the 1960s, and rediscovery in the 1970s (with Brando due to The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, with Williams due to revivals of forgotten work like Eccentricities of a Nightingale).

Brando had the additional burden of transforming an entire art that in the popular consciousness was often not considered an art at all: acting. And he had the pressure beyond that of doing it in an American idiom and exploiting non-verbal resources that couldn't be captured on a script page.

Look at the cartoons in any smart magazine of the 1950s and you'd think that he was made up of grumbles and pauses and all manner of animal energy stuffed into a torn T-shirt and worn jeans. But Brando had tapped into profound things: the earthy lyricism of American life beneath the wholesome politesse; a streetwise psychological awareness of how the pressures and fleeting euphorias of youth persist into adulthood.

He did all this so potently and instinctively that without even thinking about it, audiences knew that he had catalyzed a revolution. Movie actors went from merely articulating or adding personality to an author's words or emotions - or doing that and offering interpretation - to contributing combustible creative resources.

Everyone remembers the cab scene between Brando and Rod Steiger as (respectively) the ex-boxer and union-fixer brothers in On the Waterfront. The conflict of an overgrown, semi-corrupt kid on his road to redemption (Brando) and a man too steeped in compromise to change (Steiger) emerge in a rush of accusations and defenses that convey the dashed hopes of decades. Just reading Brando's phrase, "I could have been a contender" brings back the grief and yearning mixed in his voice, the pain and anger in his eyes, the weary noble wag of his head and wave of his hand as if to say, "Who we are is all that matters here."

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