Reviews

Brando

Brando is most original and inspiring when it looks at Brando's other work. As Bobby Seale remembers, "If I said, 'Constitutional democratic civil human rights,' I mean, it lit him up."

Brando

Airtime: 8pm, Tuesday (Part 1)
Cast: Marlon Brando, Johnny Depp, Martin Scorsese, Jane Fonda, Ellen Adler, Sacheen Littlefeather, Russell Means, George Englund, Dennis Hopper, Bobby Seale, Martin Landau, Budd Schulberg, Jon Voight
MPAA rating: N/A
Network: TCM
US release date: 2007-05-01
Website
Trailer
Amazon
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, (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), Julius Caesar and The Wild One (1953), and Waterfront (1954). All different, all remarkable. But Brando hated being famous, at first seeking out work that was meaningful to him, even if it seemed perverse to others. While the documentary overlooks his charming turn as Skye Masterson in Guys and Dolls (1955) or his harrowing consideration of the Nazis' appeal in The Young Lions (1958), it does underline his astounding range as an actor: Brando, it seemed, could do anything. Englund says, "Most actors as you see tend to play one finger melodies. He played chords. There was a simultaneity of things going on. You didn't know what he was going to do next."

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."

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.