I don’t know that you directed Marlon Brando. I certainly didn’t even attempt to You just turn on the camera, capture whatever he’s willing to give you and basically, a guy like that is gonna give you a zillion options… The thing to do is just keep your mouth shut, turn the camera on and let it rip.
— Johnny Depp
Marlon brought all of that kind of raw, surprising, dynamic humanity to everything that he did. When people struggle to be real, they’re dishwater. When people try to protect themselves from their own reality, they’re Marlon Brando.
— Sean Penn
He’d just go into a territory that most non-black Americans would not even think about. Marlon never had that fear because he was informed in the history of this country and the other countries too, in governments and so forth. I’ve always admired that, because it was very real.
— Quincy Jones
“Well, I tell you Ed, up until last year, I sort of regarded acting as a means of making a living, and not much more. I was interested in other things, but I’ve taken a pretty active interest in it and since I don’t do anything else well and up to this time I haven’t decided what else I would like to do, I might as well put all my energies into being as good an actor as I can.” Things changed for Marlon Brando when he won the Academy Award for On the Waterfront, at the time, the youngest person (31) to win one. But as his celebrity and prestige expanded, his options appeared to contract. As he politely put it to Edward R. Murrow, during an interview of the sort he despised, Brando imagined he would take acting more seriously now that he had been allotted the prize. He was going to commit himself to his art.
The moment is fleeting. Coming at the start or Brando, TCM’s grand new documentary (three hours over two nights, starting 1 May), Brando’s declaration is also acutely performative. He appears in his home, as did most all the guests on a 1955 episode of Person to Person, speaking to Murrow back in the studio. Posing in an armchair, he looks offscreen as if at a person, speaking briefly about acting, then appears in another shot, playing the congas, the camera close on his hands. When his face appears in frame, he looks young and urgent and intense. And in that face, you see that he will never leave off those many other interests.
Brando reminds you of those interests, so vital and profound. They speak to his sense of risk and pain, the desires he pursued throughout his life, including his love of Tahiti, his support for the American Indian Movement, his commitment to Civil Rights and the Black Panthers. Such interests were forged, the documentary submits, during his early life. In high school, recalls a friend, he was “sort of different… he would drum on the bottom of his foot,” an early sign of what he would call his fascination with “rhythm.” As the documentary reveals, such fascination would lead him in multiple directions, beyond himself and back again, seeking to make right the injustices that formed the world that was easy and familiar.
Born in Omaha in 1924, Brando was shaped early by loss and limits. “My mother taught me to love nature,” he says of his “small town” childhood. “I guess that’s all she could do.” An alcoholic, Brando’s mother, Dorothy Pennebaker, figures in the documentary as a kind of repeated point of departure: his efforts to please her as a child led to his interest in performance, his fear of abandonment produced an inability to commit to later relationships, his desire for that long-lost connection led to numerous relationships with women who resembled her. Expelled from high school (“He would not conform, says his longtime friend George Englund, “That’s the epicenter and living, breathing soul of his art, nonconformity”), then shipped off to a military academy, where he hardly fared any better. By the age of 16, he was in New York City, where, Brando recalls in an archival interview, he met his first black person.
Here he engaged with Stella Adler and The Method, and dated Ellen, her daughter (who recalls, “He had all kinds of things he’d rather do than get to the theater on time”). His work was brilliant, of course. Bud Schulberg remembers his performance in A Streetcar Named Desire: “From the moment that he came on the stage, you had the feeling that the whole way of acting had changed.” The many colleagues and friends who remember this performance — on stage on screen — underline the point. In an archival interview, Williams asserts, “The screen does a great deal for Marlon because you can get close into his face and catch all of these mercurial flickers of emotions that he has”; Edward Norton says that while most observers “focus on the hypermasculine” aspects of Brando’s Stanley, “For me, it’s a juxtaposition of things in him. He’s at the same time incredibly masculine and incredibly feminine.”
All this roiling and flickering made Brando a sensation. His work in movies made him worldwide, even as he sought out risky, “fascinating” roles. The list of first titles is incredible: The Men (1950,
Such unpredictability extended to his personal life, which the film only mentions briefly — including his several troubled marriages, many children, and family tragedies (his son’s conviction of murder, his daughter’s suicide), focused instead on his efforts to maintain a semblance of “privacy.” He remained conflicted about his career and his genius, resisting the very idea that he might have exposed himself in Last Tango in Paris. Bernardo Bertolucci remembers that Brando said, “I can give you something which is not what you have seen all the time in the movies, but which is not who I am, because I am very strict about my privacy.” During his later career, he made plain his disdain for the job: asked about his $12 million paycheck for what amounted to a cameo in Superman, he says,
I have no guilt at all. I have a price in the marketplace. So do cars so do hoola hoops. So do useless endeavors. I don’t suppose that actors are any different from rock bands that inflate balloons from their ears and that happened to catch on. But to devote my whole life to that would be unpleasant and uninteresting.
Brando does best when it focuses on Brando’s other interests. To its immense credit, the film contextualizes his decision to turn back the Oscar for The Godfather, beyond the sensational moment at the 1973 ceremony that has become so familiar. Sacheen Littlefeather, whom Brando infamously sent to read his statement in support of the American Indian Movement, recalls the outrage of the evening (“Meanwhile, backstage,” she says, “John Wayne had to be restrained by several big men from coming onto the stage and dragging me off”). Alongside her, Russell Means, AIM’s first national director, underlines the importance of Brando’s gesture, as well as his decision to go to Wounded Knee the day after the Oscars, during the Oglala Sioux’s occupation. At last the press — tagging along with Brando — reported from what Means calls “inside” the struggle. “It was probably was the finest for us in the entire 20th century,” says Means. “He saw what we saw and he felt what we felt. He was the only non-Indian who stepped out front with us.”
Brando recalls as well Brando’s dedication to Civil Rights, as he worked with the BPP and became “involved with King,” as Dennis Hopper puts it. Bobby Seale remembers his support (“Brando was right at the brink of saying, ‘I’m a Black Panther'”), and footage from Bobby Hutton’s funeral shows Brando speaking: “I’m gonna start right now,” he says, “To inform white people of what they don’t know. The reverend said, the white man can’t cool it because he’s never dug. And I’m here to try to dig it. Because I myself, as a white man, have got a long way to go and a lot to learn.”
Brando’s commitment to social and political causes, observes Jane Fonda, was groundbreaking. “When I first became an activist,” she says (wearing a cowboy hat adorned with a little U.S. flag), “There weren’t very many movie stars I could look to as role models. I mean, it’s hard to think of Marlon as a role model for anybody, at least for a woman, but you know, he had taken a very active stand in support of Native Americans and in support of Black Panthers who were in jail… It was to Marlon that I turned to get information and to talk.” In an archival interview, Brando disparages “the ignorance I see concerning the Indian,” as even so-called “scholarly people” and “informed people… know nothing.” Ed Begley, the actor-activist mentored by Brando, says “he felt a responsibility” to use “that spotlight” to draw attention to injustice.
During the 1960s and ’70s, he made films that spoke to these interests — including The Ugly American (1963), Burn! (1970), even Roots: The Next Generations, in which he played a Nazi (1979). Patt Morrison observes, “In these political dramas, he would play the opposite of what he believed in, it would be to bring attention to the issue, and to challenge people’s thinking.”
Again and again, actors and colleagues commend Brando’s “revolutionary” work on stage and screen (as heartfelt as such praise may be, it’s certainly not news). But when Bobby Seale calls him “a revolutionary,” the word resonates more profoundly and in a new way, raising not only the possibility that celebrity might be put to such use but also the responsibility that Brando articulated. As Depp says, his acting was extraordinary, but, “I think he probably felt that in the grand scheme of things, that was small potatoes.” Brando is most original and inspiring when it looks at Brando’s other work. As Seale remembers, “If I said, ‘Constitutional democratic civil human rights,’ I mean, it lit him up.”