Marlon Brando: An American Hero


The history of the motion-picture industry might be summed up as the development from the serials with the blade in the sawmill moving closer and closer to the heroine's neck, to modern movies with the laser beam zeroing in on James Bond's crotch. At this level, the history of movies is a triumph of technology. I'm not putting down this kind of movie: I don't know anybody who doesn't enjoy it more or less at some time or other. But I wouldn't be much interested if that were the only kind of movie, any more than I'd be interested if all movies were like Last Year at Marienbad or The Red Desert or Juliet of the Spirits. What of the other kinds?

While American enthusiasm for movies has never been so high, and even while teachers prepare to recognize film-making as an art, American movies have never been worse. In other parts of the world there has been a new golden age: great talents have fought their way through in Japan, India, Sweden, Italy, France; even in England there has been something that passes for a renaissance. But not here: American enthusiasm is fed largely by foreign films, memories, and innocence. The tragic or, depending on your point of view, pitiful history of American movies in the last fifteen years may be suggested by a look at the career of Marlon Brando.

It used to be said that great clowns, like Chaplin, always wanted to play Hamlet, but what happens in this country is that our Hamlets, like John Barrymore, turn into buffoons, shamelessly, pathetically mocking their public reputations. Bette Davis has made herself lovable by turning herself into a caricature of a harpy—just what, in one of her last good roles, as Margo Channing in All About Eve, she feared she was becoming. The women who were the biggest stars of the forties are either retired, semi-retired, or, like Davis, Crawford, and DeHavilland, have become the mad queens of Grand Guignol in the sixties, grotesques and comics, sometimes inadvertently.

Marlon Brando's career indicates the new speed of these processes. Brando, our most powerfuI young screen actor, the only one who suggested tragic force, the major protagonist of contemporary American themes in the fifties, is already a self-parodying comedian.

I mean by protagonist the hero who really strikes a nerve—not a Cary Grant who delights with his finesse, nor mushy heart-warmers like Gary Cooper and James Stewart with their blubbering sincerity (sometimes it seemed that the taller the man, the smaller he pretended to be; that was his notion being "ordinary" and "universal" and "real") but men whose intensity on the screen stirs an intense reaction in the audience. Not Gregory Peck or Tyrone Power or Robert Taylor with their conventional routine heroics, but James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson in the gangster films, John Garfield in the Depression movies, Kirk Douglas as a post-war heel. These men are not necessarily better actors, but through the accidents of casting and circumstances or because of what they themselves embodied or projected, they meant something important to us. A brilliant actor like Jason Robards, Jr., may never become a protagonist of this kind unless he gets a role in which he embodies something new and relevant to the audience.

Protagonists are always loners, almost by definition. The big one to survive the war was the Bogart figure—the man with a code (moral, aesthetic, chivalrous) in a corrupt society. He had, so to speak, inside knowledge of the nature of the enemy. He was a sophisticated, urban version of the Westerner who, classically, knew both sides of the law and was tough enough to go his own way and yet, romantically, still do right.

Brando represented a reaction against the post-war mania for security. As a protagonist, the Brando of the early fifties had no code, only his instincts. He was a development from the gangster leader and the outlaw. He was antisocial because he knew society was crap; he was a hero to youth because he was strong enough not to take the crap. (In England it was thought that The Wild One would incite adolescents to violence.)

There was a sense of excitement, of danger in his presence, but perhaps his special appeal was in a kind of simple conceit, the conceit of tough kids. There was humor in it—swagger and arrogance that were vain and childish, and somehow seemed very American. He was explosively dangerous without being "serious" in the sense of having ideas. There was no theory, no cant in his leadership. He didn't care about social position or a job or respectability, and because he didn't care he was a big man; for what is less attractive, what makes a man smaller, than his worrying about his status? Brando represented a contemporary version of the free American.

Because he had no code, except an aesthetic one—a commitment to a style of life—he was easily betrayed by those he trusted. There he was, the new primitive, a Byronic Dead-End Kid, with his quality of vulnerability. His acting was so physical—so exploratory, tentative, wary—that we could sense with him, feel him pull back at the slightest hint of rebuff. We in the audience felt protective: we knew how lonely he must be in his assertiveness. Who even in hell wants to be an outsider? And he was no intellectual who could rationalize it, learn somehow to accept it, to live with it. He could only feel it, act it out, be "The Wild One"—and God knows how many kids felt, "That's the story of my life."

Brando played variations on rebel themes: from the lowbrow, disturbingly inarticulate brute, Stanley Kowalski, with his suggestions of violence waiting behind the slurred speech, the sullen Ace, to his Orpheus standing before the judge in the opening scene of The Fugitive Kind, unearthly, mythic, the rebel as artist, showing classic possibilities he was never to realize (or has not yet realized).

He was our angry young man—the delinquent, the tough, the rebel—who stood at the center of our common experience. When, as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, he said to his brother, "Oh Charlie, oh Charlie ... you don't understand. I could have had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody, instead of a bum—which is what I am," he spoke for all our failed hopes. It was the great American lament, of Broadway, of Hollywood, as well as of the docks.

I am describing the Brando who became a star, not the man necessarily, but the boy-man he projected, and also the publicity and the come-on. The publicity had a built-in ambivalence. Though the fan magazines might describe him alluringly as dreamy, moody, thin-skinned, easily hurt, gentle, intense, unpredictable, hating discipline, a defender of the underdog, other journalists and influential columnists were not so sympathetic toward what this suggested.

It is one of the uglier traditions of movie business that frequently when a star gets big enough to want big money and artistic selection or control of his productions, the studios launch large-scale campaigns designed to cut him down to an easier-to-deal-with size or to supplant him with younger, cheaper talent. Thus, early in movie history the great Lillian Gish was derided as unpopular in the buildup of the young Garbo (by the same studio), and in newspapers all over the country, Marilyn Monroe, just a few weeks before her death, was discovered to have no box-office draw. The gossip columnists serve as the shock troops with all those little items about how so-and-so is getting a big head, how he isn't taking the advice of the studio executives who know best, and so forth.

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