How Brando Broke the Movies

He reinvented acting, and Hollywood hasn’t recovered.
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.

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