April 3, 2024

Speaking of Style — Marlon Brando at 100

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m looking for Marlon Brando on the covers of Susan L. Mizruchi’s Brando’s Smile (2014) and William J. Mann’s The Contender (2019). Filmgoers and biographers have a right to their own Brando. This filmgoer’s Brando, the Byronic avenger of One-Eyed Jacks (1961), has little in common with the self-consciously seductive, smugly smiling man on the cover of Brando’s Smile; put some period clothing on him and he could be the boy next door in Meet Me in St. Louis. And the face staring at me from The Contender is clearly the choice of a biographer looking for an image expressive of the pain and pathos of the line Brando’s been associated with ever since his “I coulda been a contender” moment in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). The main problem is that this painfully posed, well-groomed portrait taken by the celebrity photographer Philippe Halsman could, at first glance, be mistaken for that of some Brandoesque young actor of the day.

The Rock Star

Brando was a rock star a decade before Elvis, every movie the equivalent of a what-will-he-do-next concept album: Brando as Marc Antony, Brando as Zapata, Brando as Napoleon, Brando as Sky Masterson, Brando as a Nazi soldier. Never mind the director, every film belonged to Brando. Even as you began to outgrow him during a run of nightmares like Candy or Bedtime Story, you went to them anyway, to see what he did and how he did it.

While early audiences were jarred by Brando’s muscular, over-the-top performance in Streetcar Named Desire (1951), the most impactful blow (imagine time-released doses of rock star charisma) was struck in The Wild One (1953) by motorcycle gang leader Johnny, who tells a cop working him over, “My dad hits harder than that.” While Mann’s 623-page Contender doesn’t have much room for that film in a chapter titled “The American Hamlet,” there’s a hint of things to come when the author zeroes in on “a group of teen-aged girls in ponytails, poodle skirts, and fur-trimmed boots” waiting outside Times Square’s Palace Theatre in the frigid first week of January 1954, one of them telling a reporter “This is the fifth time we’ve seen it” and “We’ll probably see it five more times.” Even though The Wild One closed after a week, as Mann admits, the five girls represented Brando’s “growing fan base.”

There’s a striking difference in the way Brando plays the audience in The Wild One, his cool, coyly mannered Johnny a Hell’s Angel Mercutio compared to the beaten-bloody tragic hero Terry Malloy staggering nobly toward his testimony at the end of On the Waterfront. Mann describes the July 28, 1954 premiere of Waterfront from the point of view of New York Times film critic A.H. Weiler: “as the final reel unwound, … the audience at the Astor had leapt to its feet shouting and cheering and whistling,” and outside on the sidewalk “filmgoers were gathering, tossing around such adjectives as ‘phenomenal’ and ‘unbelievable.’ “ Weiler singled out Brando’s “shatteringly poignant portrait” and in a follow-up review called it “the film’s outstanding attribute.” The Motion Picture Academy agreed, giving the 30-year-old Brando a Best Actor Oscar. 

Capote and Brando

Neither biography puts you in proximity to Brando the way Truman Capote does in his November 9, 1957 New Yorker profile, “The Duke in His Domain.” At the time, when Brando was in Japan filming Sayonara, the two men met pretty much as equals, a famous writer interviewing a famous actor, since by then no mere journalist would be sharing dinner and hours of conversation with Brando in his Kyoto hotel room.

Talking about the meeting afterward, Capote claimed to have tricked Brando into making certain personal admissions about his attachment to his alcoholic mother by telling him colorful stories about his own family. Brando’s response to the piece (he supposedly vowed to kill Capote) would seem to suggest that he’d been the victim. True enough to a point, but there are also indications that Brando had set the scene so that Capote followed his lead.

In plain sight as the meeting began were some books, “a deep-thought cascade,” as Capote puts it, including Colin Wilson’s The Outsider and various works on Buddhist prayer, Zen meditation, and Hindu mysticism, but no fiction, “for Brando reads none. He has never, he professes, opened a novel since April 3, 1924, the day he was born, in Omaha, Nebraska.” Ouch! If that wasn’t a slap in the face, why tell a novelist that you never read novels? “But while he may not care to read fiction,” Capote continues, “he does desire to write it, and the long lacquer table was loaded with overfilled ashtrays and piled pages of his most recent creative effort, which happens to be a film script entitled “ ‘A Burst of Vermilion.’ ”

“Happens” is the word. Brando just happened to have a manuscript with a stylishly lurid title spread out on the table, a title that intrigues Capote, who keeps coming back to it, as when he notes that Brando “reached out affectionately to finger ‘A Burst of Vermilion,’ which will be the first script filmed by Pennebaker Productions, the independent company he has formed.”

For the next question, imagine Capote crooning it with just the faintest touch of ridicule in his tone: “And did ‘A Burst of Vermilion’ satisfy him as a basis for the kind of lofty aims he proposed?” Brando’s response? “He mumbled something.” And then the most eloquent mumbler in movie history “mumbled something else.” Asked “to speak more clearly, he said, ‘It’s a Western.’ ” At this point Capote has to be thinking what better punchline for his little play on “lofty aims” than that lowliest of genres, the horse opera? And so Brando played along, patronizing the patronizer: “He was unable to restrain a smile, which expanded into laughter. He rolled on the floor and roared. ‘Christ, the only thing is, will I ever be able to look my friends in the face again?’ ”

Having set the stage, Brando told Capote what he’d been planning to tell him all along: “I spent a year and two hundred thousand dollars of my own money trying to get some writer to come up with a decent script. Which used my ideas. The last one, it was so terrible I said I can do it better myself. I’m going to direct it, too.”

“Not My Style”

A year later Brando began filming One-Eyed Jacks — his most personal film, the only one he ever directed — which wasn’t released until March 20, 1961. That summer I saw it for the first time in a 42nd Street rerun house with a wildly receptive audience cheering or whooping and hollering at every juicy line. Like presumably everyone else in the theatre, I didn’t know that Brando had finished shooting the film two years before on June 2, 1959. Nor did I know that even after he’d cut the six-hour-long labor of mad love in half, Paramount, according to Mann, offered 34 more “suggestions for cuts.” After reluctantly settling for a final scene he’d argued against, Brando added a humorous epilogue to the revised pages for the final retake. After Brando’s Rio rides off into the sunset: “The audience storms the box office and in a screaming rage, to a man demand their money back at the pain of death. The manager refuses and the theatre is razed to the ground. The End.”

Of the many quotable lines in the film, the one that has stayed with me after multiple viewings over the years is spoken when Rio is at his low-point. After being jailed and bullwhipped in public, his gun hand pounded to a pulp by a rifle butt wielded by his onetime bank-robbing pal and mortal enemy, Dad Longworth (Brando’s close friend Karl Malden), he’s healing in a fishing village south of Monterey with his buddy Modesto and two unsympathetic gunmen who have joined him to rob the local bank and are tired of waiting for his hand to heal. When the most combative of the two gunmen, Bob Amory (Ben Johnson), suggests “laying outside” Longworth’s house to “cut him down with scatterguns and then take that bank,” Rio cooly, quietly, tells him, “That’s not my style, Bob.”

It’s not so much the plaintive turn Brando gives the sentence that makes it at once powerful and poignant, it’s knowing that the writer/director himself is speaking through his character. Of all Brando’s feats of vocalizing throughout the film, this is the one that always comes first to mind because “not my style” goes to the heart of an embattled and infamously violated film that remained close to Brando’s heart and is now generally considered one of Hollywood’s greatest westerns.

A Significant Revelation

Somehow, perhaps by virtue of his novelistic sensibility, Capote caught something in Brando’s voice that comes close to what I hear when he delivers that quietly definitive line. Capote writes: “Resuming his position on the floor, he lolled his head against a pillow, drooped his eyelids, then shut them. It was as though he’d dozed off into a disturbing dream; his eyelids twitched, and when he spoke, his voice — an unemotional voice, in a way cultivated and genteel, yet surprisingly adolescent, a voice with a probing, asking, boyish quality — seemed to come from sleepy distances.”

What Brando says at this moment in the interview, one of the article’s most significant revelations, is that the “last eight, nine years” of his life “have been a mess.” After admitting that he’s been seeing a psychiatrist:

“I was afraid of it at first. Afraid it might destroy the impulses that made me creative, an artist. A sensitive person receives 50 impressions where somebody else may only get seven. Sensitive people are so vulnerable; they’re so easily brutalized and hurt just because they are sensitive. The more sensitive you are, the more certain you are to be brutalized, develop scabs. Never evolve. Never allow yourself to feel anything, because you always feel too much.”