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Are My Methods Unsound?: Marlon Brando, 1924-2004

Kelly Manion, with Cynthia Fuchs

On screen, he rebelled against 'the man'; offscreen, he rebelled against the rebel stereotype imposed on him.

"What you rebellin' against?"
"Whatcha got?"

This unforgettable exchange from The Wild One (1953) forms a lingering collective memory of Marlon Brando. He was never comfortable with celebrity. On screen, he rebelled against "the man"; offscreen, he rebelled against the rebel stereotype imposed on him.

While Hollywood is full of rebels, Brando was different, bringing authentic-seeming pain and rage to his performances. In part, this honesty emerged from his dedication to The Method. The first major movie star to employ method acting, Brando helped to popularize the technique that famously uses one's experiences to assist in characterization. The most well known proponent of this technique, Lee Strasberg, ran the Actors' Studio, where Brando studied, as did director Elia Kazan. Impressed by Brando's portrayal of the brutish, animalistic Stanley Kowalski in the stage version of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Kazan signed him to star in the film. The director changed playwright Tennessee Williams' focus on Blanche Dubois (played in the film by Vivien Leigh) to Stanley, resulting in Brando's immediate stardom.

And yet, Brando, the restless child of alcoholics, soon came to see his profession as decadent and trivial, openly criticizing the film industry. At the same time, he was never more critical of others than of himself. He called his dramatic ability an expression "of a neurotic impulse" and a "self-indulgence." Neurotic impulse, perhaps, but to his audience, Brando was nothing short of mesmerizing.

His combination of vulnerability and determination as washed-up boxer Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954) earned Brando his first Academy Award ("Hey, you wanna hear my philosophy of life?" asks Terry, "Do it to him before he does it to you"). It also earned the actor a measure of respect and admiration in Hollywood and beyond that would persist until his death, despite numerous professional disappointments, personal tragedies, and outrageous conduct. Such respect did not always translate into material well-being: though Brando demanded almost $4 million for little more than a cameo appearance in Superman (1978), and his work in The Godfather earned him $1.5 million and 5% of the film's profits, he reportedly died living off of Social Security payments.

His art was also inconsistent, as he often took roles, as he put it, to get paid. Before Waterfront, his star had been consistently rising, with three Oscar nominated parts in a row: Streetcar, Viva Zapata! (1952), Julius Caesar (1953). He was nominated again for Sayonara (1957), performed an improbable and delightful song-and-dance turn in Guys and Dolls, (1955), and an impressive directorial debut with the dark character study, One Eyed Jacks (1961), Brando's career lapsed into disarray.

In part this career shift was by his own design -- however conscious or not. Reportedly unhappy with the simultaneous excesses and critical failure of Lewis Milestone's Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), he bought property in Tahiti, and endeavored to remove himself -- at least emotionally and philosophically -- from the bustle of the industry. This doesn't mean he stopped working, however: during the 1960s, he starred in a series of films that ranged from uneven (The Ugly American [1963]) to dreadful (The Appaloosa [1966]). At the same time, the man himself was, perhaps ironically, becoming an emblem of privilege and excess, indulging his many appetites; by the end of his life, he had married and divorced three actresses (Anna Kashfi, Movita Castenada, and Tarita Teriipaia), and fathered at least nine children (some reports say 11 children; his daughter Cheyenne committed suicide in 1995).

Brando made something of a "comeback" in 1972, when two frankly startling films hit theaters. Bernardo Bertolucci's remarkable and highly controversial Last Tango in Paris had Brando's depressive, passionate Paul, involved in a "sex-only" relationship with the impetuous Jeanne (the amazing Maria Schneider). The largely improvised film introduced the actor's "naturalistic" intensity to a new generation of viewers, and ensured that no one who saw it would ever think of butter in quite the same way again.

As ferocious and heartrending as this performance was, still, it was Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather that cemented Brando's legacy. His role as Mafia boss Vito Corleone defined and also delimited his reputation as a brilliant artist, intuitive, inspired, and wholly affecting. His subtle performance revealed in the gangster a complex man, at once wise, violent, and anguished.

Despite (or perhaps because of) being awarded a second Oscar for The Godfather, Brando's own resentments against the film industry remained. He had by then determined, however, to put his star power to what he considered substantive use, that is, to raise public awareness of social and political causes. In this instance, he sent actress Maria Cruz, dressed in Native garb and identifying herself as "Sacheen Littlefeather," onto the stage to reject the prize and pronounce his displeasure with the history of U.S. abuses of Native Americans. While such sentiment and his ongoing activism are commendable, Brando's clumsy statement-making repeatedly got him into trouble and cast doubt on his political sincerity.

No matter his personal desires or pronouncements, Brando's impact on the art of acting is indisputable. This even in the case of performances that went notoriously askew, as, for instance, Colonel Kurtz in the notoriously out-of-control production of Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979). Like most everyone else involved in the project, Brando (who showed up in the Philippines, rather notoriously, overweight and without any intention of reading a script) used the film to wrestle with his own demons, his confusion, anger, and ego.

His performances in later years would only echo his early work. But while a movie like The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) is best remembered via South Park's parody, his scenes with Johnny Depp in Jeremy Leven's Don Juan Demarco (1995) might remind us again of Brando's sly wit, occasional magnificence, and indeed, his poignant self-understanding. "I have no doubt that losing a love like this can be very painful," his Dr. Michler tells the patient who believes himself to be Don Juan (Depp). "But you must understand my friend, that the power of love, the power of Don Juan's love, is eternal and will not be denied."

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