How Brando Broke the Movies

He reinvented acting, and Hollywood hasn’t recovered.
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Illustration by Jackie Lay. Photos by Bert Reisfeld/Picture-Alliance/dpa/AP; ASSOCIATED PRESS; Mondadori/Getty

Hollywood extracted entirely the wrong moral from the story of Marlon Brando. Working when the studio-contract system crumbled in the 1950s, he quickly leveraged the power he had accrued from his theatrical performances into a series of one-picture deals, allowing him to exercise unprecedented freedom in selecting roles. Straight out of the gate, he played a paraplegic (in The Men, 1950), a Polish factory salesman (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951), a Mexican revolutionary (Viva Zapata!, 1952), a Roman general (Julius Caesar, 1953), and a biker (The Wild One, 1953)—a remarkable, radar-jamming zigzag across the field that left the star system looking as fixed and faded as the stars once painted onto the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. That zigzag is now standard course for the modern movie-star changeling, flattered for “disappearing” into roles by everyone—studio heads, casting agents, publicists, magazine writers, even critics—except the general public, which gives no sign that its conception of the stars has moved an inch. Instead, chameleonism has become its own form of marquee spectacle: come see the stars transform. We don’t go to the movies anymore to be convinced. We go to be tricked—to admire acting as a kind of special effect. Watching Christian Bale, with a bloated belly and a thick Brooklyn accent, flop around in a comb-over in American Hustle, we must, for the performance to succeed, at the same time hold in our minds the idea of Christian Bale as we know him: a handsome Englishman who has also portrayed Bruce Wayne. As with trompe l’oeil, the trick must work but not work, simultaneously.

If chameleonism is bunk, then Brando’s chameleonism is double bunk. Even great screen actors generally have only two performances in them: a version of themselves and an inversion of themselves. Modifying that for the psychoanalytically inclined Method, we might say Brando’s two great roles were himself and his father, an ex–Army engineer turned salesman who beat his son and enrolled him at the local military academy in an attempt to instill some discipline in the boy. As they say: good luck with that. Brando played a military man eight times, his portrayals culminating in Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, as if exploding his father’s authority from within, like an ingested grenade. He was also one of the most fantastically undisciplined talents to grace the silver screen, turning indolence into its own style—“soft spoken, deeply independent, smiling, gentle, no aggression, subtly humorous, cat-like, lazy, not easy to frighten, or rush; amused at others, secure and confident,” in the words of Elia Kazan. Watch those early performances, and everyone else is projecting for the rafters, delivering their lines with a smile, like paperboys flinging the morning paper across the lawn. And then there is Brando, imperturbable as a whale, scratching an eyebrow or fondling a quarter, his voice both sleepy and alive, its inarticulacy anchoring him so unmistakably in the here and now of a living, breathing consciousness that he supplies the scene with a whole new gravitational center. It’s no contest: a machine-gun nest against the cavalry, a Chanel dress in a roomful of Edwardian bodices. As James Franco wrote in The New York Times recently, “Brando’s performances revolutionized American acting precisely because he didn’t seem to be ‘performing,’ in the sense that he wasn’t putting something on as much as he was being.

This isn’t to deny the extraordinary lengths Brando went to in pursuit of his performances—the weeks spent in a ward of paraplegics for The Men—or the pains he took rewriting scripts to his exacting standards of naturalism, as Susan L. Mizruchi reveals in her new biography. She’s the first to have access to Brando’s private archives, including his extensive library, film scripts, and research materials. Some of her findings are fascinating. Budd Schulberg’s original version of Terry Malloy’s famous speech in On the Waterfront—“I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve had class and been somebody. Real class. Instead of a bum, let’s face it, which is what I am”—was streamlined by Brando into the more idiomatic “I coulda had class, I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody—instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it,” with the emphasis falling on Malloy’s appalled self-recognition. For The Godfather, he reduced the don’s scripted exchanges by half. “You come into my house on the wedding day of my daughter and you ask me to do murder and you say ‘How much shall I pay you?’ ” became “You come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married and you ask me to do murder for money.” The alliterative disgust of murder for money is irresistible, although the real kicker in the scene is, of course, the cat: a striped stray Brando spotted on the set, scooped up, and cradled in his lap throughout, the control required to be so gentle while so angry frightening in itself.

We don’t go to the movies anymore to be convinced. We go to admire acting as a kind of special effect.

Brando touched everything. Just in that scene, he touches the cat, his hair, his chin, his cheeks, the chair. He eats chicken with his fingers in Streetcar, picks up Eva Marie Saint’s glove in Waterfront, plays with puppies in Zapata and lamp shades in Last Tango in Paris. Throughout his career, he reached for women with the unthinking entitlement of a primate plucking fruit. “He actually really touched whatever he touched as if it were part of him,” wrote David Foster Wallace in a wonderful passage in Infinite Jest, one of the most perceptive things ever written about the actor. “The world he only seemed to manhandle was for him sentient, feeling.” Both a means of centering himself in the moment and a case of rampant scene-stealing, Brando’s fondlings were also a means of rendering communion with the universe, his playful Epicureanism often delivering a small shiver of mortality. Those puppies in Zapata are the last thing he touches before he is mowed down by federal agents. Don Corleone’s last act before the attempt on his life is to buy fruit from a vendor’s stall. (He “points so as not to disturb the vendor’s display,” notes Mizruchi, with pleasing delicacy.) It’s telling that during the 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain named Zapata as his preferred Brando performance while Obama listed The Godfather among his favorite movies. The rebel and the patriarch: the picks signaled the extent to which that contest was fought out between conflicting notions of paternal authority—McCain’s maverick instincts honed in the shadow of his father, Obama’s more patient paternalism a simulacra constructed in the absence of his.

Brando’s career, too, spooled out between those two poles—an early burst of brilliance playing a series of majestically insolent rebels for Kazan, followed by a shadow-draped comeback for Coppola, as Corleone, the most famous patriarch in the history of movies. There is a great irony here, one that goes to the very heart of Brando and the secrets of screen performance. What happened in between—and after—those high points? Some critics have sensed an abyss of self-loathing, into which Brando fell, a figure of Wellesian tragicomedy fattened on burgers and fucking and unending disenchantment with the “lies” of the movie business. Not so fast, says Mizruchi. “The idea that Brando retreated immediately to Tahiti [after shooting The Godfather], where he drowned in the past and ate gluttonously, is unsupported by the facts,” she insists, with rather too much, perhaps, riding on that immediately. This is Brando viewed through an overly forgiving squint. Disdaining what she sees as previous critics’ “excessive emphasis on his romantic affairs,” Mizruchi relegates Brando’s experiments in free-form paternity to a series of parentheses and footnotes. Instead she gives us Brando with his nose buried in Camus and Baldwin—Brando the intellectual, thinker, and bibliophile whose book collection “outstripped those of most academics”; a “visionary” whose multicultural perspectives heralded our own.

Brando’s two great roles were himself and his father, an ex–Army engineer turned salesman who beat his son.

From this view, some of the idealistic luster is restored to the series of films he made in the late 1950s and ’60s. Brando spotted “real prospects for educating the public” about fascism in The Young Lions, says Mizruchi. Mutiny on the Bounty presented a perfect opportunity for “pointing up the idiocy of protocol and our unnatural formality and our lies,” Brando said, and The Ugly American an equally unmissable chance to highlight American smugness and “make people alert about what is going on in the world.” The observer became quite the scold, locked in an admonitory Oedipal struggle not just with Hollywood and the audience but seemingly with America herself.

Mizruchi’s own pedagogic background—a professor of English at Boston University, she’s the author of The Rise of Multicultural America and Becoming Multicultural, among other books—may explain her blindness to just how fatal a didactic instinct is in an artist, let alone a film artist, let alone an actor. Too much of what she calls Brando’s “thinking” seems merely an addiction to ever more Olympian poses of superiority. The sententiousness reached a state of glorious, humming overload during the shooting of Apocalypse Now (1979). Brando turned up overweight, not having read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (his voracious reading stopped short of fiction, interestingly). Coppola had to shut down shooting for at least a week while the two of them, on a houseboat, came up with the film’s ending. Mizruchi does an admirable job of disentangling the skein of regurgitated dialogue that went into Brando’s improvisations. “You’re an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect the bill,” Kurtz tells Willard, a reheat of Fletcher Christian’s characterization of the mission in Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) as “a grocer’s errand.” Elsewhere, she catches echoes of “a confrontation at a concentration camp from The Young Lions (1958); a denunciation of reality from Last Tango in Paris (1972); and a strategy session on outwitting guerillas from Burn! (1969),” all swilling around in the Brando brain like sediment in wine. Coppola later recalled that when he suggested they explain away the weight gain by having Kurtz gorge himself on fruit, surrounded by girls, Brando said that he didn’t want to “portray himself that way”—an interesting slip. He was by this point beyond mere acting. If his early performances punched a hole in the screen through which the future of film performance seemed to flow—a kind of solipsistic naturalism paying mesmerized attention to the actor’s immediate sensory sphere—toward the end he threatened to capsize any movie he appeared in. The final reel of Apocalypse Now still makes less sense as the last stop on Coppola’s psychedelic trip into the Vietnam experience than as a vérité record of a movie star in the process of supernova implosion. Ultimately, the only way of being more “real” than everyone else is to stop acting altogether.

You can’t really blame Mizruchi for getting lost in the man: there is more of Brando than we know what to do with, and going native is, after all, a very Brando thing to do. He is the maze from which modern acting, in its dedication to the protean and its distrust of all that the term movie star used to promise, is still trying to escape. You want an explanation of Daniel Day‑Lewis’s semiretirement as a Florentine cobbler during the late 1990s, or James Franco’s adventures in higher education, or Shia LaBeouf’s experiments in celebrity deconstruction? Brando is your man, “the most mistrustful man I’ve ever met, and the most watchful,” according to the screenwriter Stewart Stern. But seeing the world and seeing through it are not the same thing, and may sometimes even be antithetical. Brando’s disenchantment is ours. Cinemagoers are seasoned skeptics, and Hollywood’s faith in its own illusions is at an all-time low. It may take another actor of Brando’s stature to make us believe again.

Tom Shone’s latest book, Scorsese: A Retrospective, will be published in September.
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