Marlon Brando’s Politics of Reputation
In her feature-length obituary on Marlon Brando in the week following his July 2004 death, Entertainment Weekly echoed the near-unanimous critical sentiment of the occasion by remembering him principally as a towering, larger-than-life, implacable presence in the history of cinema. Even Lisa Schwarzbaum’s very first words could not escape the prevailing rhetoric on Brando: she notes that his being best remembered as Vito Corleone of The Godfather (1972) “is an irony of Brando-esque proportions.” What’s instructive here is her use of “Brando-esque,” a term casually tossed off here that by its very obviousness implies immensity and, in turn, the obviousness that he is great. This sets the tone not just for the rest of the piece but also for the vast majority of the laudatory ones elsewhere, mostly because his myth and attendant influence had, by 2004, become so large as to obscure any sort of alternative reading of his career. Indeed, a quick scan of the Schwarzbaum piece yields an Olympian awe and narrative high points very similar to the others: the celebration and the overt, patriarchal influence of his anti-authoritarian streak (most cite types like Jack Nicholson and Sean Penn as his direct descendants); the lament over his wasted talent and loss of beauty due to age, self-loathing, weight, apathy and bad projects; and above all, the depth of his pure, raw talent that has emanated through the generations. Reading this kind of rhetoric over and over again, especially regarding a man as widely anthologized and celebrated as Brando, becomes labored and, eventually, curious. How, apart from the party line towed by mainstream critics, did his reputation become so gargantuan?
In analyzing the Brando myth as propagated by both his own films and the media, I do not write this essay as an attempt to debunk or put his work down. Rather, I am fascinated by the ways Brando excites fans of both sexes, why we think of his work (especially his earliest films) today as electrifying and fresh, and how he transcends all the caveats of his nature to be proclaimed, as he often has, as the greatest actor of his time. The politics of reputation for stars, as Richard Dyer’s influential study argues, is a complex amalgamation of four elements – publicity, promotion, the texts themselves, and criticism. For the purposes of brevity, I will focus on the latter two elements, partially because the public perception of his films and criticism largely determined how he was publicized and promoted during his long tenure as a major star. I will also focus on one of his most famous and celebrated roles, as it is one of his most characteristic approaches to acting in his star-making 1950s period. That is, with this work his distinctive methodology is all there on the screen, and in Brando’s other roles, especially his work of the 1970s, this is no given. Using his performance in On the Waterfront (1954) and popular criticism of his work from subsequent periods, I will argue that Marlon Brando’s mythic reputation results from a foregrounding of three personal markers of difference: mannerisms, sexuality and sensitivity, often including an intertwining of all three.
Already a Broadway sensation from the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando, exhausted from the demands of the play’s run, permanently entered Hollywood and made an instant critical impact. After his debut The Men (1950) received strong reviews for his own performance, he reprised his famous Streetcar role as Stanley Kowalski for a film version in 1951. It firmly and irreversibly established his star, partially because Stanley Kowalski was a messy, thunderous, yet precise character usually played by a heavy or a John Garfield-type. Despite his aggressiveness, Brando was clearly no heavy, and his movements and words underneath the mumbling even suggested a sort of cunning aesthete behind Stanley’s raging masculinity. In other words, Brando’s Kowalski was so compellingly odd and unique as to merit instant fame. After a few roles that proved both his range (Julius Caesar ) and his increasingly confrontational stardom (The Wild One ), he began work on On the Waterfront with mentor and collaborator Elia Kazan, who had directed Brando both onstage and on film. It is important to note that Kazan’s presence here, in his final collaboration with Brando, helped to bring his distinctiveness of performance to full flower. Watching the film version of Streetcar, previously their most celebrated pairing, makes this trust evident, as it is clear that Kazan, ostensibly for authenticity’s sake, let Brando take Stanley as far into the unexpected and the odd as he dared. In a supporting role, Brando so dominates the film that it is hard not to read Kazan’s complicity in revising the play to fit his star’s power. Kazan was also widely known in cinema and theater as an exceptional director of actors, and thus it seemed in 1954 that the two could consistently bring out the best in one another.
Throughout his career, critics and observers had cited Brando’s spontaneity and resultant unpredictability as a key component of his “genius.” Note that John Huston, in a 1985 Playboy interview, sets Brando’s genius status alongside such canonized Americans as Hemingway, Faulkner, Rothko and O’Neill, and that his spontaneity witnessed upon working together is the central reason. The Godfather producer Al Ruddy is quoted in David Thomson’s biography as saying, “I had never watched a genius at work before,” a comment immediately following a note that Brando created most of the Godfather’s mannerisms spontaneously. Certainly these fawning comments stand out enough from the page to warrant inclusion in histories of Brando, and indeed there is little opinion-based writing on his abilities and life’s work that strays far from extremes. This extremism of opinion is not only sexy writing as a result, but it also serves to neatly encapsulate a complex legend in terms of innate gift and talent – a succinct and even easy explanation of his status. This discourse of innate talent is one of Brando’s clearest markers of difference: those, like Schwarzbaum and others, that lament his period of carelessness and decline in the 1960s chalk the downtime up to Brando’s great gift being betrayed by his lazy nature. Thus, the narrative of Brando’s greatness involves a unique bestowment of power upon him that ultimately made him the reluctant but chosen figure to advance acting. That Brando became the figurehead and patriarch for generations of actors that readily acknowledged his influence (ie. Jack Nicholson) only moved to make this narrative more legitimate and more marketable as a history.
All of this positioned Brando as an isolated paragon of talent and “genius.” His singularity and ability to stand out in history is duly assisted by his body of work, and On the Waterfront, for which he won the first of two Best Actor Oscars, is certainly no exception. Unlike Streetcar, a film where he did not have top billing but was still visually privileged over Vivien Leigh, Brando is clearly the raison d’etre for the film, as its subject matter purports to make a big moral statement about racketeering but is structured around Terry Malloy’s stumble into justice. Brando’s looks are also central to his standing out. In Streetcar, the young physique of Brando met the raw brutishness of Stanley Kowalski to turn him into a dominant figure that both attracted and repelled the audience. Terry Malloy is also a brute by way of being an ex-prizefighter, but his facial gestures and matinee-idol looks deeply undercut this. His makeup reveals scars over his eyes from boxing, but it still doesn’t make him look like a heavy. Terry only rarely plays tough, such as when he forcibly breaks into the apartment of Edie (Eva Marie Saint), but he quickly undoes this act by tenderly kissing her. The central question for Terry’s character isn’t whether or not he can overcome his violent past and rejoin society (as it implicitly is for Stanley), but rather whether or not he is a bum. Indeed, Terry is visibly offended by anyone calling him this, but instead of lashing out violently, he visibly internalizes his sorrow at knowing his own failure. In close-ups such as the intimate scene in the bar where Terry and Edie have their first “date,” the intensity on Brando’s face signals deep, pent-up frustration at his insecure status in life. The intimacy of their conversation also suggests a delicate sensitivity uncommon to tough guys on film; he is trying to reach out to Edie awkwardly and tentatively, and we sense this is so because he is lonely, unhappy and easily hurt. Only at film’s end does Brando use violence on anyone – his stock facial expression is inarticulate confusion, as he looks around in a puzzled way. All of these odd markers of difference are due to Brando’s unusual interpretation of the role, in which Brando-as-aesthete emerges through an ostensibly brutish tough guy. In other words, Brando’s Terry doesn’t act like a typical heavy, and I suspect this is what made the film so moving for critics that appreciate measured displays of the emotional cracks widening for a character. His widespread acclaim and awards signaled his success with this tactic, and two famous scenes in particular are instructive in focusing attention on how Brando stands out and makes his reputation.
The mannerisms of sensitivity enumerated above do not just indicate a radical characterization – Brando often comes across as somewhat effeminate and thus a sexually ambiguous star. I do not question his potency as a sex symbol – his looks and presence are too powerful to suggest otherwise – so much as his firmness on either side of the spectrum. This is where the legacy of Stanley Kowalski assists Brando’s reputation, because he was the ragingly heterosexual symbol whose prowess Stella was hopelessly drawn to. On the Waterfront broadens his range, and with it his critical reputation, by adding overt complexities previously unbeknownst to major American stars. A great part of the Brando myth is his dramatic split in intensity and ambiguity from older, stable, more distant stars like John Wayne and Cary Grant. In this way, Brando himself is positioned as the ultimate marker of difference, and within that he used sensitivity and sexuality to achieve this. The park scene, one of Waterfront’s most celebrated scenes, combined all these qualities. Midway through the scene, Brando added immeasurably to his naturalistic legend by spontaneously picking up Edie’s accidentally dropped glove and putting it on his hand while continuing to play the scene without a hitch (Kazan instructed the cameramen, ready to stop, to keep the scene going). The scene itself requires Terry to be as sensitive as he can so he can start peeling back the layers of Edie’s romantic defenses, but Brando further complicates his already-curious sexuality by, in an extremely limited way, having no problem with “cross-dressing.” Knowledge of the backstory behind this scene helped to illuminate Brando’s essential difference in style from established stars of the day, because the scene’s improvisational quality hinted at an actorly background in the theatre. Most of those other stars had neither that nor the naturalistic shoulder shrugs, hand waves and mumbled dialogue chosen for the purposes of “realism.” His talent gets all of this to work in his favor, as Brando is very skilled at characterization via mannerism – Terry Malloy is so affecting here because the ease of these mannerisms directly guide us towards believing the anguish at his core.
The later scene with Terry and his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) in the taxicab is justly one of the most famous scenes in cinema because of similar powers. This time, Steiger is Brando’s equal in terms of Method training, and the scene is designed to bring pathos for both, but Brando walks off with the scene because of his off-putting yet touching characterization. Again, his hand gestures signify not just naturalism but are chosen to cross over into an uncommon, effeminate sensitivity. As Kazan himself excitedly remembers, note that, “what other actor, when his brother draws a pistol to force him to do something shameful, would put his hand on the gun and push it away with the gentleness of a caress?” (qtd. in Thomson 124) Kazan nails what makes Brando and his performance so striking: it’s hard to imagine anyone else choosing to exacerbate the lost love between the brothers by following up cries of shock with utter tenderness, where potential violence can only be replaced by disbelief. He then turns away from the spent Charley and strikes an even more effeminate pose of contemplation by gently resting his arm and hand against his body. It clearly demonstrates Terry’s rather non-masculine frailty, and then the two enter into the oft-quoted, melancholy “I could’ve been a contender” exchange that climaxes the scene. Certainly that section stands out in terms of Brando’s popular legend, but Brando’s more insidious mannerisms, sexuality and sensitivity beautifully connect the scene with the rest of his performance.
These subtleties combine with the media to cement Brando’s legacy to later generations. The immediate response to On the Waterfront was ecstatic. A.H. Weiler in the New York Times proclaimed Brando to be “shatteringly poignant…beautiful and moving.” (It is important to note that “beautiful” is a term most casually thrown about with regard to Brando himself rather than his acting. Biographer David Thomson, for example, uses the term dozens of times in his book and makes it a point of emphasis with regard to his youth.) Time called Brando’s Malloy “one glorious meathead” (qtd. in Hoberman). Variety noted that he “put on a spectacular show,” and he was clearly the thing this reviewer liked most about the film. These three highly influential reviews set the very positive tone, and its eight Oscars won a few months later didn’t hurt the ballooning reputations of itself and Brando. Remarkably, this critical appreciation turned over the intervening decades into lionization, as Brando’s work was seen as a milestone that at times overshadowed the film (now marred by Kazan’s self-justificatory motives in making it). Its brief 50th-anniversary re-release occasioned uniformly positive reviews, and even when the film was criticized, Brando received none of it. The acclaim for Brando still keeps rolling in: Premiere magazine, just weeks ago, proclaimed him to have given two of the top 30 performances of all time, including his Malloy at number two. The sheer gradient of it can all be a bit overwhelming if one looks into it deep enough, because “acclaim” can also refer to other actors’ and filmmakers’ takes on him as well as casual opinions of fans. When this is added, Brando’s reputation truly becomes imperturbable – in the years I have been reading about Brando seen through the eyes of countless observers, I can think of only one possible example of his essential skill as an actor being badmouthed. (Frank Sinatra once called Brando “overrated” according to Thomson, but even that was colored with bias because Brando had just stolen the part of Terry Malloy from him.) His testimonials from other actors, especially the neo-Method crowd of Nicholson, Depp and Penn, are overwhelmingly reverential, and his death has, if anything, only added to his acclaim. This gigantic outpouring of affection ostensibly serves the Brando myth in terms of emotional intensity, but when Jack Nicholson drops simply says something like, “He gave us our freedom,” he’s referring to the markers of difference that Brando unique and respected. This unique style time and time again manifested itself in terms of the mannerisms that served as a gateway to his character’s essence, sexual confusion and Brando’s own remarkable sensitivity of observation and feeling. Most observers and critics (such as Lisa Schwarzbaum does, by using terms like “craft,” “rawness” and “self-expression”) summarize this by referring to Brando’s remarkable “talent,” but as far as his early 1950s performances are concerned, the markers of difference that set him apart from other stars form the nuts and bolts of his mythic status.
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Hoberman, J. “Still A Contender.” Village Voice 1 Nov 2004.
Ed. Long, Robert Emmet. “Playboy Interview: John Huston.” John Huston: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
Schwarzbaum, Lisa. “The Contender.” Entertainment Weekly 1 July 2004.
Thomson, David. Marlon Brando. London: DK Publishing, 2003.
Unknown Author. “On the Waterfront.” Variety 14 July 1954.
Weiler, A.H. “On the Waterfront.” New York Times 29 July 1954.