Al Pacino first saw “On the Waterfront” at a triple feature at the local movie house. The 14-year-old was so blown away that he sat through the two other movies again just so he could experience again the force of nature that was Marlon Brando.
“I related to that movie in a way I’d never related to anything before,” Pacino recalls in “Brando,” the three-hour, two-part documentary premiering this week on Turner Classic Movies.
Even as a kid, Pacino recognized that with Brando, “You saw the future.”
Pacino is just one of a dozen big-name actors who testify to Brando’s position as the greatest film actor of his or any generation. But this actor was much more.
Though it dabbles in both, the film isn’t strictly a conventional biography or an inside look at a show-biz career. Perhaps it should have been called “Why Brando Matters,” for its true subject is the impact he had on acting, movies and the greater culture.
For today’s young people, who probably don’t appreciate just how big a deal Brando was, the film is a revelation. And for those of us who grew up watching him, “Brando” reminds us of just what a potent force he was, not to mention a lightning rod for controversy.
“I worked very hard to never impose my own personal opinion on the documentary,” said Leslie Greif, the film’s executive producer, in a phone conversation from Los Angeles. “I wanted to bring Brando to the world through his friends, family and colleagues. Instead of having a narrator, I wanted to describe the man through the persons who knew him.”
To that end Greif interviewed some of Hollywood’s biggest names (John Travolta, Johnny Depp, Martin Scorsese), as well as Brando’s childhood friends from rural Illinois, who describe the kid they knew as “Bud” as “a different type of person.”
Brando was different. He grew up torn between a withdrawn, alcoholic mother (his earliest performances were designed to pull her out of depression) and a hypercritical father who had women stashed along his salesman route. Marlon grew up hating all authority figures; as an adult, he routinely made life miserable for his directors.
“He would not conform,” says George Englund, a lifelong friend who made the mistake of trying to direct Brando in “The Ugly American.” “That’s the living, breathing soul of his art.”
But what Brando brought to a role—an intense, emotionally based “method” that seemed wholly natural and revolutionized acting—made him the most in-demand actor in America.
Fellow thespian Henry Silva recalls being in the Broadway audience when Brando made his entrance as Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
“I didn’t see an actor. I thought somebody had made a mistake and walked on the stage. But at the same time, my hair was standing up because he was so full of this contained energy.”
That intensity translated beautifully to the silver screen. Between 1950 and 1954 Brando starred in “the six greatest films in a row ever made by an actor,” according to his peers: “The Men,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Viva Zapata,” “Julius Caesar,” “The Wild One” and “On the Waterfront.”
“Movies in the `50s were exhibiting a gritty reality,” Greif said, “and Brando had the perfect style to handle that. He stripped away the facade of actor and simply became the man, the character. And by doing so, he let the audience relate what was happening on the screen to their own lives.”
Brando quickly became a source of humor for detractors who accused him being good only for brooding and mumbling. But in 1953, he played Marc Antony in a film version of “Julius Caesar” opposite respected Shakespeare vets such as John Gielgud and James Mason. According to British actor James Fox, “He just destroyed them.”
“Brando” has too much juicy stuff to enumerate here. But among the highlights:
Brando’s screen tests for “Rebel Without a Cause” (he lost the role to James Dean) and, years later, for “The Godfather.” He would win an Oscar for playing Don Vito Corleone, but initially Paramount refused to consider him because of his reputation for being difficult. Director Francis Ford Coppola shot the test surreptitiously and showed it to the studio brass, who loved the performance but didn’t recognize Brando behind the stuffed jowls. He got the role.
Brando was embarrassed about stardom and hated the accompanying loss of privacy. He saw acting mostly as a way to support his lifestyle, which included owning a private island in Tahiti.
According to his long time agent Jay Kantor: “He never liked to work. It wasn’t difficult to get him work. It was difficult to talk him into doing it.”
Brando’s love of practical jokes and crude humor provide a couple of hysterically funny moments. In one, Robert Duvall and James Caan describe mooning Brando on a New York street while shooting “The Godfather.” In another, Johnny Depp talks about using a hidden fart machine so effectively that Brando, alarmed for his friend, offered to call a physician.
He had a voracious sexual appetite. Angie Dickinson describes the young Brando as “a dangerous, dangerous man. Almost irresistible.”
Yet with few exceptions, his relationships ended in anger and recriminations. “He had a lot of rage with women,” one friend said. “He never let anybody in.”
Before Brando, Hollywood was a black-tie town, where people dressed up to dine out. When the star of “The Wild One” began showing up in a T-shirt and perched atop a motorcycle, much of that formality fell by the wayside.
The actor was ridiculed for his support of social causes such as civil rights and the American Indian Movement, but his dedication to these causes was genuine and deep. AIM leader (and actor) Russell Means claims that when Brando rejected his “Godfather” Oscar because of Hollywood’s mistreatment of Indians, it was the single most important act in legitimizing the American Indian cause.
Of course, the documentary is crammed with scenes from Brando’s movies. Excerpts from “Streetcar,” “Zapata” and “Waterfront” are so intense that you’re tempted to immediately run out and rent them on DVD.
“Brando” premieres Tuesday and Wednesday on Turner Classic Movies. Several of Brando’s films also will be aired.
8 p.m.: ” Brando, Part I”
9:30 p.m.: ” The Men”
11 p.m.: ” Brando, Part I”
12:30 a.m.: ” A Streetcar Named Desire”
2:45 a.m.: “Guys and Dolls”
5:30 a.m.: “Teahouse of the August Moon”
8 p.m.: “Brando, Part II”
9:30 p.m.: “The Wild One”
11 p.m.: “Brando, Part II”
12:30 a.m.: “On the Waterfront”
2:30 a.m.: “Sayonara”
5 a.m.: “The Missouri Breaks”