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Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

March 1966

Marlon Brando: An American Hero

by Pauline Kael

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.

In the case of Brando, the most powerful ladies were especially virulent because they were obviously part of what he was rebelling against; in flouting their importance, he might undermine their position with other new stars who might try to get by without kowtowing to the blackmailing old vultures waiting to pounce in the name of God, Motherhood, and Americanism. What was unusual in Brando's case was the others who joined in the attack.

In 1957, Truman Capote, having spent an evening with Brando and then a year writing up that evening (omitting his own side of the conversation and interjecting interpretations), published "The Duke in His Own Domain" in the New Yorker. The unwary Brando was made to look public ass number one. And yet the odd thing about this interview was that Capote, in his supersophistication, kept using the most commonplace, middlebrow evidence and arguments against him--for example, that Brando in his egotism was not impressed by Joshua Logan as a movie director. (The matter for astonishment was that Capote was--or was willing to use anything to make his literary exercise more effective.) Despite Capote's style and venomous skill, it is he in this interview, not Brando, who equates money and success with real importance and accomplishment. His arrows fit snugly into the holes they have made only if you accept the usual middlebrow standards of marksmanship.

It was now open season on Brando: Hollis Alpert lumbered onto the pages of Cosmopolitan to attack him for not returning to the stage to become a great actor--as if the theater were the citadel of art. What theater? Was Brando really wrong in feeling that movies are more relevant to our lives than that dead theater which so many journalists seem to regard as the custodian of integrity and creativity? David Susskind was shocked that a mere actor like Brando should seek to make money, might even dare to consider his own judgment and management preferable to that of millionaire producers. Dwight Macdonald chided Brando for not being content to be a craftsman: "Mr. Brando has always aspired to something Deeper and More Significant, he has always fancied himself as like an intellectual"--surely a crime he shares with Mr. Macdonald.

If he had not been so presumptuous as to try to think for himself in Hollywood and if he hadn't had a sense of irony, he could have pretended--and convinced a lot of people--that he was still a contender. But what crown could he aspire to? Should he be a "king" like Gable, going from one meaningless picture to another, performing the rituals of manly toughness, embracing the studio stable, to be revered, finally, because he was the company actor who never gave anybody any trouble? Columnists don't attack that kind of king on his papier-mache throne; critics don't prod him to return to the stage; the public doesn't turn against him.

Almost without exception, American actors who don't accept trashy assignments make nothing, not even superior trash. Brando accepts the trash, but unlike the monochromatic, "always dependable" Gable, he has too much energy or inventiveness or contempt just to go through the motions. And when he appears on the screen, there is a special quality of recognition in the audience: we know he's too big for the role.

Perhaps, as some in picture business say, Brando "screws up" his pictures by rewriting the scripts; certainly he hasn't been very astute in the directors and writers he has worked with. What he needed was not more docility, but more strength, the confidence to work with young talent, to try difficult roles. But he's no longer a contender, no longer a protagonist who challenges anything serious. Brando has become a comic.

The change was overwhelmingly apparent in the 1963 Mutiny on the Bounty, which, rather surprisingly, began with a miniature class conflict between Brando, as the aristocratic Fletcher Christian, and Trevor Howard, as the lowborn Captain Bligh, who cannot endure Christian's contempt for him. Brando played the fop with such relish that audiences shared in the joke; it was like a Dead-End Kid playing Congreve. The inarticulate grunting Method actor is showing off, and it's a classic and favorite American joke: the worm turns, Destry gets his guns, American honor is redeemed. He can talk as fancy as any of them, even fancier. (In the action sequences he's uninteresting, not handsome or athletic enough to be a stock romantic adventure hero. He seems more eccentric than heroic, with his bizarre stance, his head held up pugnaciously, his face unlined in a peculiar bloated, waxen way. He's like a short, flabby tenor wandering around the stage and not singing: you wonder what he's doing there.) .

In The Ugly American (1963) once again he is very funny as he sets the character--a pipe-smoking businessman-ambassador who parries a Senate subcommittee with high-toned clipped speech and epigrammatic sophistication. When he plays an articulate role, it is already rather a stunt, and in this one he is talking about personal dignity and standards of proper behavior. His restraint becomes a source of amusement because he is the chief exponent of the uncouth, the charged. Even his bull neck, so out of character, adds to the joke His comedy is volatile. It has the unpredictable element that has always been part of his excitement at any moment we may be surprised, amazed. When he submerges himself in the role, the movie dies on the screen.

Brando is never so American as when his English or foreign accent is thickest. It's a joke like a child's impersonation of a foreigner, overplaying the difference, and he offers us complicity in his accomplishments at pretending to be gentlemen or foreigners. What is funny about these roles is that they seem foreign to the Brando the audience feels it knows. When he does rough, coarse American serviceman comedy, as in Bedtime Story, he is horribly nothing (except for one farcical sequence when he impersonates a mad Hapsburg). Worse than nothing, because when his vulnerability is gone, his animal grace goes too, and he is left without even the routine handsomeness of his inferiors.

He had already implicated us in his amusement at his roles earlier in his career, in 1954 with his Napoleon in Desiree, in 1957 with his hilarious Southern gentleman-officer in Sayonara, but these could still be thought of as commercial interludes, the bad luck of the draw. Now he doesn't draw anything else. Is it just bad luck, or is it that he and so many of our greatest talents must play out their "creative" lives with a stacked deck?

It is easy these days to "explain" the absence of roles worth playing by referring to the inroads of television and the end of the studio system. Of course, there's some truth in all this. But Brando's career illustrates something much more basic: the destruction of meaning in movies; and this is not a new phenomenon, nor is it specially linked to television or other new factors. The organic truth of American movie history is that the new theme or the new star that gives vitality to the medium is widely imitated and quickly exhausted before the theme or talent can develop. The industry makes tricks out of what was once done for love.

What's left of the rebel incarnate is what we see of Brando in the 1965 Morituri: his principal charm is his apparent delight in his own cleverness. Like many another great actor who has become fortune's fool, he plays the great ham. He seems as pleased with the lines as if he'd just thought them up. He gives the best ones a carefully timed double take so that we, too, can savor his cleverness and the delight of his German accent. And what else is there to do with the role? If his presence did not give it the extra dimension of comedy, it would be merely commonplace.

In Morituri all we need is one look at the cynical aesthete Brando in his escapist paradise, telling us that he's "out of it," that war never solves anything, and we know that he's going to become the greatest warrior of them all. It can be argued that this hurdle of apathy or principle or convictions to be overcome gives a character conflict and makes his ultimate action more significant. Theoretically, this would seem to explain the plot mechanism, but as it works, no matter how absurd the terms in which the initial idealism or cynicism or social rejection is presented (as in such classic movie examples of character reformation as Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, Stalag 17), it is the final, socially acceptable "good" behavior which seems fantasy, fairy tale, unbelievable melodrama--in brief, fake. And the initial attitudes to be overcome often seem to have a lot of strength; indeed, they are likely to be what drew us to the character in the first place, what made him pass for a protagonist.

In Morituri, as in movies in general, there is rarely a difference shown, except to bring it back to the "norm." The high-minded, like the Quakers in High Noon or Friendly Persuasion, are there only to violate their convictions. They must be brought down low to common impulses, just as the low cynical materialists must be raised high to what are supposed to be our shared ideals. This democratic leveling of movies is like a massive tranquilizer. The more irregular the hero, the more offbeat, the more necessary it is for him to turn square in the finale.

Brando's career is a larger demonstration of the same principle at work in mass culture; but instead of becoming normal, he (like Norman Mailer) became an eccentric, which in this country means a clown, possibly the only way left to preserve some kind of difference.

When you're larger than life you can't just be brought down to normalcy. It's easier to get acceptance by caricaturing your previous attitudes and aspirations, by doing what the hostile audience already has been doing to you. Why should Bette Davis let impersonators on television make a fool of her when she can do it herself and reap the rewards of renewed audience acceptance?

Perhaps Brando has been driven to this self-parody so soon because of his imaginative strength and because of that magnetism that makes him so compelling an expression of American conflicts. His greatness is in a range that is too disturbing to be encompassed by regular movies. As with Bette Davis, as with John Barrymore, even when he mocks himself, the self he mocks is more prodigious than anybody else around. It's as if the hidden reserves of power have been turned to irony. Earlier, when his roles were absurd, there was a dash of irony; now it's taken over: the nonconformist with no roles to play plays with his roles. Brando is still the most exciting American actor on the screen. The roles may not be classic, but the actor's dilemma is.

Emerson outlined the American artist's way of life a century ago--"Thou must pass for a fool for a long season." We used to think that the season meant only youth, before the artist could prove his talent, make his place, achieve something. Now it is clear that for screen artists, and perhaps not only for screen artists, youth is, relatively speaking, the short season; the long one is the degradation after success.


Copyright 1966, Pauline Kael.

Pauline Kael is the author of FOR KEEPS: Thirty Years at the Movies, published by Dutton.

Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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