Contender, champ, bum: Brando
By Nicholas Stix
web posted July 12, 2004
Charley Malloy: Look, kid, I - how much you weigh, son? When
you weighed one hundred and sixty-eight pounds you were
beautiful. You coulda been another Billy Conn, and that skunk
we got you for a manager, he brought you along too fast.
Terry Malloy: It wasn't him, Charley, it was you. Remember that
night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and
you said, "Kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on
Wilson." You remember that? "This ain't your night"! My night! I
coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title
shot outdoors in the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way
ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you
shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of
me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the
Charley: Oh I had some bets down for you. You saw some
Terry: You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a
contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is
what I am, let's face it. It was you, Charley.
Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, and Rod Steiger, as his
brother, Charley, in the taxicab scene from On the Waterfront
At different times in his career, Marlon Brando exemplified the
best and the worst of the American acting profession. Brando
died on July 2, at the age of 80, of pulmonary failure. Let's take
a look, with clear eyes, at his life and work.
The best came mostly at the start.
Brando made his name as an actor in December, 1947, starring
as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named
Desire. He became a Broadway legend, playing the role for two
solid years (800+ performances), but the provinces of
Manhattan's West Side being what they are, most Americans still
didn't know him from Adam. Streetcar was Brando's fifth Broadway
show, and his last.
Brando burst onto the movie scene in 1950, in Fred Zinneman's
The Men, playing an angry, wheelchair-bound veteran. "Angry"
The next year, Brando became "Brando," the screen legend, in
the film version of Streetcar. Elia Kazan, who had directed the
stage version, directed the film adaptation, and much of the stage
cast (Kim Hunter, Karl Malden, Rudy Bond, Nick Dennis, Ann
Dere, Richard Garrick, Peg Hillias and Edna Thomas). The
major change from the stage to screen version, was in Vivien
Leigh being chosen to play the role of "Blanche DuBois,"
which had originally been played by
Stanley Kowalski is a brute, as arrogant and overbearing as he is
stupid. And yet, for all his abuse, his wife, Stella, loves him.
Indeed, Stella loves the animal in Stanley. But Stella is secondary
in Streetcar. The story revolves around the confrontation
between Stella's older sister Blanche, who comes for a visit, and
Stanley. The delicate Blanche, who has always depended upon
"the kindness of strangers," is contemptuous of Stanley, and he
knows it. (So, for that matter, is Stella.) And yet, Blanche is
fascinated with him, and attracted to him.
Ultimately, Stanley rapes Blanche, and she mentally disintegrates,
like a flower whose petals fall off.
The movie depicts Stanley as a monster, and Blanche as his
helpless victim, yet I don't think that's how the author, Tennessee
Williams, saw things. Williams saw in Blanche … himself. The
homosexual Williams was drawn to brutes like Stanley, and
wanted to be ravished.
Passionate, raw masculinity was to be the young Brando's
trademark. Imagine a white, heterosexual actor being permitted
to perform that way today. He'd have to be the heavy, or a
For four years in a row, Brando was up for the best actor Oscar:
For Streetcar, Viva Zapata, Julius Caesar and On the
Waterfront. Some observers think it is an "enduring mystery" that
Brando lost to Humphrey Bogart (for The African Queen) in
1952, but it was Bogart's turn, and it just wasn't Brando's time
(I know Hollywood is terribly inconsistent in such matters, but a
great many Oscars have been awarded to performers for
relatively mediocre work, who had been passed over for their
best performances, while other awards have been given for
purely sentimental reasons. Think Helen Hayes in 1970, for
Airport; Paul Newman in '87, for a lousy performance in The
Color of Money; Jessica Tandy for Driving Miss Daisy in '90;
and Jessica Lange in '96 for Blue Skies, instead of Meryl Streep,
who in The Bridges of Madison County gave a performance that
in my mind, was the equivalent of Vivien Leigh's in Gone with the
Wind and Streetcar.)
In 1952, Brando starred as Mexican revolutionary Emiliano
Zapata, performing lefty John Steinbeck's script about the
Mexican Revolution, again with Elia Kazan helming. Gary
Cooper won the award for his towering performance as Marshal
Will Kane in Fred Zinnemann's High Noon.
In 1953, Brando had no business getting nominated for his
mumbling Marc Antony in Joseph Mankiewicz' Julius Caesar,
but as far as Hollywood was concerned, he could do no wrong.
In 1954, Brando gave his greatest performance, as washed-up
boxer Terry Malloy, who gets by performing little favors and
doing "show-no" longshoreman jobs for waterfront mob boss
"Johnny Friendly," in On the Waterfront. The dramatic
blockbuster, like Street Car and Zapata directed by Elia Kazan,
would be nominated for 12 Oscars, and win eight.
As more than a few observers have pointed out, Brando's Terry
Malloy combined brutishness and sensitivity. It also needs to be
pointed out that Brando thrived on working with Kazan, a tough
director who had made his mark on the New York stage.
After On the Waterfront, Brando would no longer enjoy the sort
of success during the 1950s that he did at the beginning of the
decade. And yet he continued to do excellent, often daring
In 1955, he starred in the film version of Guys and Dolls as "Sky
Masterson," opposite Frank Sinatra's "Nathan Detroit."
In 1956, a physically unrecognizable Brando played a Japanese
interpreter in the comedy set in occupied Japan, The Teahouse
of the August Moon, opposite Glenn Ford. Brando was
marvelous in the sort of role that actors used to fight for, in order
to stretch their wings, but which now are largely off limits to
whites, due to political correctness. Ethnic hustlers demand
instead that such roles be given to mediocre members of their
In 1957, Brando played military pilot "Ace Gruver" in the
interracial James Michener romance, Sayonara, set in Japan during the Korean
War and at the end of the American occupation. The movie was
nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Brando as Best
Actor, and won four. The awards were dominated that year by
David Lean's brilliant World War II story of the clash of
civilizations, The Bridge on the River Kwai, which won seven of
the statuettes. Brando lost out to Alec Guiness, who had given a
towering performance as "Col. Nicholson" in Kwai.
Girl: What're you rebelling against, Johnny?
Johnny: Whaddya got?
Brando, as Johnny Strabler, in The Wild One, 1953.
All the talk about Brando's "sensitivity" is so much rot. The
"experts" who say that Brando played "sensitive" brutes are
confusing emotional neediness with sensitivity. In other words,
they can't tell a naricissist from a saint.
The role that contributed the most to Brando's mystique, was
that of motorcycle gang leader "Johnny Strabler," the title
character of The Wild One (listed variously as 1953 or 1954).
The movie is entertaining trash, which owes a good deal of its
attraction to the scenery-chewing work of a young Lee Marvin
as "Chino," the leader of a rival gang. (In the big fight scene,
Johnny gives Chino a pasting; in real life, the 5'10" Brando would
never have had a chance with Marvin, a hard-drinking brawler
who stood five inches taller than him.)
In The Wild One, in the face of a weakling sheriff, Strabler's
gang takes over and lays waste to a small California town.
Eventually, some civilians take matters into their own hands, and
beat the hell out of Johnny. Director László Benedek suggested,
ludicrously, that the townsmen were as brutal as the motorcycle
gang, and in a view that would become widespread in the 1960s,
that what Johnny really needed was "understanding." Hell, in
such a situation, the townsmen would have been perfectly
justified in lynching Johnny. I got your "understanding" right here!
Johnny Strabler was one of the early versions of what became
the ultimate 1960s Hollywood cliche: The "anti-hero." During the
mid-1950s, in his brief career, James Dean would specialize in
this type, in East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause (the ultimate
anti-hero movie title), and Giant, before dying in an automobile
accident in 1955. Another then-famous anti-hero role was Paul
Newman's performance as Billy the Kid, in Arthur Penn's The
Lefthanded Gun, in 1958. (Though I admire much of Arthur
Penn's work, when I saw the movie on The Late Show about
thirty years ago, I found it so dreadful, that I shut it off after a
In the 1960s, the anti-hero became the dominant shtick in
Hollywood, as Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin,
Newman and Redford, (a few years later) Charles Bronson, and
countless other actors would earn millions of dollars through
movies that were churned out, portraying anti-hero crooks and
cops alike. (On TV, for a producer to sell a cop series, it had to
be about an "unorthodox" cop.)
However, the anti-hero shtick did not help Marlon Brando.
Brando's problem was that, rather than seeing playing anti-
heroes as a calculated career move, he adopted the anti-hero as
his personal shtick. But if you really act like an anti-hero in your
personal and professional life, you become a source of grief to all
who depend on you.
I once wrote that Frank Sinatra was for approximately 12 years
one of the world's great movie actors, until he was felled, in his
late forties, by the world's longest mid-life crisis.
I was wrong. Brando's midlife crisis began when he was still in
his thirties; with each passing year, he acted ever more childishly.
The earliest case of Brando's deterioration that I know of, was
during the filming, ca. 1961, of the remake of The Mutiny on the
Bounty, in which Brando played Lt. Fletcher Christian. Bounty
went way over budget and was late. Some Brandoists claim that
this was due to Brando's "perfectionism." According to the story
I heard, however, and that sounds more credible, one of the
causes of thousands of dollars in cost overruns, was a Brando
prank, in which during a scene shot on board the Bounty during
a tropical storm, the actor shouted, "Mary had a little lamb …"
When the rushes came back, it immediately became clear that
the recording of the actual script could not possibly be matched
to Brando's lip movements, and the entire scene had to be re-
The 1960s saw Brando's stock as an actor steadily sink, as he
made one poor choice of script after another. And he was
unlucky, too. Even when he made a good movie, as he did with
Sophia Loren, in Charlie Chaplin's swan song, the comedy, The
Countess from Hong Kong, it bombed with audiences and critics
alike. I seem to be the only person who likes this movie!
By the early 1970s, when he was given the chance to star as
mob patriarch Don Vito Corleone, in The Godfather, which was
being directed by a young man named Francis Ford Coppola, he
had to take a screen test to get the role, an indignity he never had
to put up with during the 1950s or ‘60s. But it was a blessing.
The challenge invigorated him. According to legend, Brando put
cotton in his cheeks for the screen test, to give the impression of
an aging, Italian-born gangster. Legend or no, the movie earned
the actor his second Oscar for best actor, provided a new
generation with a new image of him, and indirectly made him
millions through his revived fame.
The Godfather was based on Mario Puzo's runaway bestseller,
which was the hottest book in America for about two years
running. The movie smashed all box office records.
Brando earned himself some additional notoriety (read: publicity)
through elaborately staging his refusal to accept the Oscar he'd
won for The Godfather. Reportedly, he'd applied just two years
earlier for the replacement of his Oscar for On the Waterfront,
which he claimed had been stolen. Brando sent an unknown,
part-Indian actress named Maria Cruz, in Indian garb and using
her stage name Sacheen Littlefeather, to the 1973 Academy
Awards ceremony, with a speech decrying Hollywood's
treatment of American Indians.
The same year as The Godfather, Brando starred in the then
revolutionary Last Tango in Paris, by Bernardo Bertolucci. Last
Tango was rated X (today NC-17) for sex scenes that were
considered of pornographic quality. At the risk of sounding like a
libertine, when I finally saw Last Tango, both in the American
and German versions, I suspected that material I'd read about
had been edited out of it. (Or else, the original stories about the
picture were exaggerated.) In any event, the story of a man who
has just lost his suicidal wife, and who embarks on a narcissistic,
anonymous, purely sexual relationship with a girl half his age
whom he has just met, was an international sensation. "Paul"
(Brando) insists that "Jeanne" (Maria Schneider) not fall in love
with him, not even tell him her name. But she does fall in love
with him, and ultimately kills him, when he stalks her.
What would have been tawdry, softcore pornography in less
talented hands, became, through Bertolucci and Brando, and
with Gato Barbieri's brilliant score, an epitaph for the budding
sexual revolution (though I don't recall anyone saying so at the
time). Sex Without Love = Death.
Although released in 1972, Last Tango qualified as a 1973
release, in terms of Academy Awards eligibility, and got Brando
another Best Actor Oscar nomination. It was to be his last.
As the years wore on, and I learned more about Brando, I
wondered whether I had seen, in Last Tango, a great
performance of a role, or Brando simply playing himself. Brando
is supposed to have said that his performance in Last Tango
emotionally destroyed him. If he really said that, so much the
worse for him.
In my college acting textbook, Respect for Acting, the great Uta Hagen,
the original star on the Broadway stage of Clifford Odets' The
Country Girl and Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia
Woolf?, and who replaced Jessica Tandy in Streetcar, argued
that an actor should, by virtue of his work, be psychologically
healthy. One gets to play act, and enjoy emotional catharsis on a
regular basis. A real actor would have felt stimulated, refreshed,
by a tour de force. The Brando who claimed to be ravaged by a
movie performance, spoke not as an actor, but as a narcissist.
The narcissist must always take from others, and feels that by
giving anything to the audience, he is impoverishing himself. Had
Brando written a book on acting, it would have to have been
entitled, Contempt for Acting.
Brando's narcissism, his laziness, and his greed were the defining
characteristics of the latter half of his life. His bizarre, occasional
utterances on politics and other subjects were designed to draw
maximum attention to himself, to remind directors that he was still
around. He would then demand incredible salaries for minimal
work. And his conduct was at times so unprofessional, as to ruin
In The Missouri Breaks (1976), an Arthur Penn western in
which horse thief Jack Nicholson is the "good guy," Brando
played his assassin role with a combination of hamminess and
bizarreness that would become a recurring theme in his later
work, as he often would be poison for directors' careers. The
movie signaled the decline of Arthur Penn as a director.
Then, Brando was signed by Coppola to star in Apocalypse
Now, one of the most star-crossed productions in Hollywood
history. While the Philippines production suffered monsoons, the
near death of co-star Martin Sheen (then only 37) due to a
massive heart attack, and the cost overruns and general
indiscipline that would become associated with the middle-aged
Francis Ford Coppolla, the initial problem was Brando. He
showed up for his role as a Special Forces colonel 100 pounds
overweight, and according to reports at the time, the script had
to be re-written so that Brando would appear on the screen only
for a few minutes. Thus did the star vehicle become a cameo
His next movie role, in 1980's The Formula, opposite George C.
Scott and Marthe Keller, resulted in his being nominated for the
Razzie Award as worst supporting actor.
But it was not to be Brando's last brush with acting ignominy. He
would again be nominated for Razzies for Christopher
Columbus: The Discovery (1992) and The Island of Dr. Moreau
Brando would not make another movie for nine years. In A Dry
White Season (1989), he phoned in another bizarre, hammy
performance, this time as a South African barrister, but since the
movie was an anti-apartheid screed, and Brando was helping the
good guys, he was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting
The following year, a much more relaxed Brando played a
parody of his Don Corleone character, in the entertaining
comedy, The Freshman.
In 1995, Brando teamed up with Johnny Depp in Don Juan
DeMarco. Depp played a psychiatric patient from Queens who
insisted he was the great Don Juan. Brando played the
psychiatrist who had to figure out whether Depp's character was
delusional or the legendary lover. The chemistry between Depp
and Brando was marvelous, and Brando turned in a performance
that was uncharacteristically delicate and full of whimsy.
(Unfortunately, there was no screen chemistry between Brando
and Faye Dunaway, who played his wife.)
And yet, the following year saw Brando up to his old tricks
again. On the set of The Island of Dr. Moreau, he reportedly
sabotaged the production, inducing his younger, undisciplined,
narcissistic co-star, Val Kilmer, into joining him in his
shenanigans. The crippled movie was savaged by critics and
ignored by moviegoers.
During Brando's last movie, a small role in The Score, he
reportedly made a point of insulting and humiliating director
Frank Oz, and demanded that Oz be off the set during Brando's
Since Brando's death, we have been told that he somehow gave
actors "permission" to be emotionally authentic. We have also
heard that it was the movies that let Brando down, beginning in
the 1960s, rather than the other way around (Richard Schickel).
A more intense acting style was coming into fashion after World
War II, before Brando's arrival on the Hollywood scene.
Witness the intensity of Kirk Douglas' performances as driven
boxer Midge Kelly in Champion (1949), as Det. Jim McLeod in
Detective Story (1951), and as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for
Life (1956). And already in 1946, in It's a Wonderful Life, note
the embittered, emotionally raw quality of so much of Jimmy
Stewart's performance as "George Bailey," a quality that
characterized much of Stewart's best 1950s' work with directors
Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock.
The Parents of the Angry Anti-Hero
Perhaps the greatest irony of Marlon Brando's decent into
narcissism, is the reason why the narcissist cult of "anti-
authoritarian" celebrity arose in the first place.
With the end of World War II, two conditions quickly arose
which contradicted the circumstances of earlier, largely upbeat
The depression was over, and the war was won. During the
depression, Hollywood's studios felt obliged to churn out
uplifting, escapist entertainment, which was either carefree, or
which presented clear choices between "good guys" (white hats)
and "bad guys" (black hats), in which good always prevailed
over evil. With so much misery on the streets, there was no need
to rub audience's noses in what they were already enduring.
Besides, theatergoers would have stayed away in droves from
such punishment. But when times are flush, people feel less of a
compulsion to see upbeat stories, and many even obsess over
the dark side of human existence.
The other development was the destruction of the old studio
system, thanks to studio player Olivia De Havilland. In 1945, De
Havilland launched, and eventually won, a lawsuit that broke up
the studios' power over all aspects of moviedom.
Prior to De Havilland's lawsuit, the same studio that produced
movies also owned the theater chain that presented them. The
verdict in the lawsuit forced the studios to divest their control of
theater chains, which meant that they were no longer guaranteed
profits from most of their pictures.
And prior to the De Havilland lawsuit, movie stars were much
like major league baseball players, who under the "reserve
clause" belonged to the same team forever, unless it chose to
And so, Olivia De Havilland won for actors their independence,
but this was a mixed blessing.
For one thing, it made movie production more expensive and
risky, and thus cost a lot of low-level actors and artisans their
Under the old system, the studio heads decided what roles
would be offered to a performer (which was what prompted De
Havilland to sue). They also exerted considerable control over
performers' private lives. Big stars tended to hate both aspects of
studio control, and yet many performers could not cope with
their new-found freedom. For instance, under the old system,
stars did not have to read through dozens of submitted scripts,
and choose the one great role in the batch; the studio told them
what role they'd be playing. And previously, actors did not get to
deal with the media. The studios told them what to say and
where to say it. Studio publicity departments largely controlled
the press, whom they fed a steady diet of phony stories about
the stars, in exchange for reporters not hounding performers.
Under the new dispensation, many movie stars made poor script
choices. And the notion that a movie star could create his own
public persona proved to be fool's gold, as the newly
empowered media descended upon the uncontrolled, unarmed
narcissists (see Seberg, Jean). With time, the cannier movie
stars, such as Tom Cruise, employed their lawyers and publicists
to reinvent the studio publicity system, whereby they would
contractually control every aspect of their publicity campaigns,
with only those media organizations getting puff interviews that
got every question cleared in advance, and promised in writing
not to engage in journalism. What we call "celebrity culture," I
believe, comprises the media and both the out-of-control
narcissists and the control freaks alike.
In her Brando obituary, Suzanne Fields wrote of a dinner she
attended with him in a restaurant a few years back. Brando
loudly criticized everything about the restaurant, making a
spectacle of himself, and then loudly complained that other
diners, who no doubt recognized him, were looking at him. Had
other diners not noticed him, he might have stroked out.
In a sort of poetic justice, the lazy media of celebrity culture
couldn't even get their Brando stories right. The day after
Brando's death, the TV show Extra "reported" that Brando's film
debut was in Streetcar (it was in Fred Zinneman's The Men, the
previous year), and that he appeared in "both" of Francis Ford
Coppola's Godfather movies (Coppola made three Godfather
movies; Brando only appeared in the first). And on Nightline,
big-deal movie critic Roger Ebert said that, based on Brando's
revolutionary influence, movie history could be divided into pre
and post-1947 films. The only problem is, Brando didn't make
his first movie until 1950. Ebert confused Brando's 1947
Broadway performance as Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar, with
his movie performance of the same role four years later. Media
sycophants also belabored the effects of Brando's son,
Christian's 1990 murder of daughter Cheyenne's boyfriend, and
Cheyenne's 1995 suicide on Brando. The fact is, that if anything,
such tragedies were the effects, rather than the causes of a
dissolute lifestyle that Brando had embarked on circa 1960. He
left behind three ex-wives, some 15 children born in and out of
wedlock, and countless abused ex-lovers.
Some have referred to Brando as America's greatest actor, and
even as the greatest actor of the 20th century. I have to disagree.
Brando may have possessed the greatest talent of any American
actor of the past 100 years, but for most of his career, he wasted
Brando's case reminds me of baseball player Dwight Gooden.
Gooden was the most talented pitcher of the past twenty years.
However, after tremendous early success, he destroyed his body
with drugs, alcohol, and sexual hijinks. And so, Gooden's early
success was eventually matched or exceeded by many of his less
gifted contemporaries. In the field of acting, Gene Hackman may
not be Brando's equal in talent, and certainly hasn't had the sort
of scripts sent to him that Brando did, and yet Hackman has had
the more brilliant career, fully exploiting his gifts, and making the
most of every role he has played.
For most of the last 40 years of his life, Brando was a bum, and
he died a bum, but unlike Terry Malloy, he had no one to blame
but himself. And yet, we will always have On the Waterfront,
Viva Zapata, Sayonara and The Godfather, when he was
Nicholas Stix can be reached at Add1dda@aol.com.
Enter Stage Right -- http://www.enterstageright.com