A new profile of actor Marlon Brando is—with apologies to Tennessee Williams—stellar, stellar.
Brando examines the iconic actor, impassioned activist and conflicted man. The documentary explains why Brando, who died in 2004, inspires such complicated feelings. He was brilliant and difficult, innovative and greedy, playful and tragic. He was never one way, and neither is this thoughtful profile.
The two-part, three-hour program, which premieres at 8 p.m. EDT Tuesday and Wednesday on TCM, restores humanity to his legend. All movie stars should be so lucky.
This profile will be indispensable to movie fans. “He is the marker,” director Martin Scorsese says. “There’s `before Brando’ and `after Brando.’”
Part 2 is mandatory for anyone who loves The Godfather, the 1972 mob drama. Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and James Caan discuss pivotal scenes. The profile shares Brando’s knockout test for Don Corleone, the role that brought him a second best-actor Oscar.
Sacheen Littlefeather describes declining that prize and witnessing John Wayne’s fury at Brando’s denunciation of Hollywood for mistreating Native Americans.
The segment on Last Tango in Paris, a 1973 drama, is equally fascinating. In a 1977 interview, Brando says, “I never could figure out what that movie was about.”
Director Bernardo Bertolucci wanted authenticity from Brando in playing a widower. The actor delivered, especially in a ferocious monologue directed at the corpse of his character’s suicidal spouse. Bertolucci says the movie shocked Brando and caused a rift between them for years.
Brando never again matched that career peak. His dismissive behavior toward acting divides his colleagues. “This was not a dedicated actor who was going to work his craft,” Jane Fonda says. “This man who brought so much joy to the rest of us, consummate actor, never enjoyed it.”
Johnny Depp says Brando didn’t care all that much, but concludes: “He’s the god, and he would kill me for saying that.”
Part 1 studies Brando’s seminal collaborations with director Elia Kazan on A Streetcar Name Desire and On the Waterfront. Martin Landau notes that Brando was nothing like the brutish Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar.
Kazan liked Brando’s turmoil, ambivalence and passion. Those qualities were all on display in 1954’s On the Waterfront, which brought Brando his first best-actor Oscar. Brando recalls his shame at collecting that prize.
Brando grew increasingly difficult on sets, and the disastrous 1962 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty poisoned Hollywood against him.
“He could eviscerate you,” says George Englund, a friend who directed him in 1963’s The Ugly American.
The actor was the child of an alcoholic mother and an overbearing father. The profile suggests those beginnings shaped him. He had a reputation for breaking women’s hearts and clashing with directors, who are father figures on sets.
The program touches on family tragedies that devastated the actor. But in this balanced profile, his children and grandchildren testify to his humor.
The profile contains many fascinating nuggets. Edward R. Murrow conducted a revealing interview with Brando in 1955. Brando and Montgomery Clift clowned in a home movie. Brando went into a sexy dance during a UNICEF gala in 1967. Praising Brando in vintage clips are John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, who says, “I adore Marlon.”
It’s a shame that director Francis Ford Coppola didn’t weigh in on The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. Other missing voices include Eva Marie Saint, Elizabeth Taylor and Jack Nicholson.
Still, wonderful lore fills Brando. Scorsese reveals that the inspiration for Robert De Niro’s “you talkin’ to me?” in Taxi Driver came from Brando talking to himself in a mirror in Reflections in a Golden Eye.
However Brando felt about acting, he left an indelible contribution. The documentary Brando puts that legacy in thrilling perspective.
Cast: Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Dennis Hopper.
Where and when: The two-part documentary premieres from 8 to 9:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday and May 2 on TCM.
Parents guide: Coarse language, sexual themes, violence.
Hal Boedeker can be reached at hboedeker AT orlandosentinel.com. Read Hal’s TV Guy blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/tvguy.