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.”