ESFS FILM FESTIVAL 2: BRANDO IN THE DARK AGES (1961-1969) – Conclusion

Marlon-Brando-001Marlon Brando was a victim of his own talent and success.  If he had started slowly, giving a great performance in every three movies instead of exploding onto the scene with such a fiery series of performances, his public image may have survived the box office drought of the 1960s and his self-mockery during the 1990s.  George C. Scott, for instance, an extremely well respected and talented contemporary of Brando, was never admonished for taking his Oscar winning talents to mediocre money-grabbers like Bank Shot and The Hindenburg.

There are also the slew of formerly great actors of the 1970s who, try as they might, can’t seem to impair their status in the minds of the general public, no matter what kind of garbage they produce.  By 1980, Robert De Niro seemed to be a contender to Brando’s title as the greatest actor who ever lived, and he doesn’t seem to receive anywhere near the vitriol that Brando engendered in his down periods.  Are Brando’s appearances in Island of Dr. Moreau and The Score really that much worse than De Niro farces like Grudge Match and Last Vegas?

Of course, Brando didn’t do much to engender compassion or a rooting spirit from the press or even his industry cohorts.  His egregiously high salaries for small parts in Apocalypse Now and Superman were widely reported, likely garnering as much hostility in his industry as shock in the minds of the public, something that most actors are spared from. If we ever found out how much Jack Nicholson made for The Bucket List it would probably spark an Occupy Hollywood movement.

Brando also showed brazen contempt for the industry and the occupation of acting itself.  In interviews he would degrade the importance of acting and cinema every chance he got.  He hated the notion that actors had some special gift, and talked about it as though, at the very least, it is something that anyone can do.  When Matthew Broderick appeared on Inside the Actor’s Studio, James Lipton asked him what he learned from working with Brando during The Freshman.  Broderick thought for a second and replied, “How not to laugh… (Brando) was very funny.”  Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the great acting legend.

The public image he tried to foster, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, belies the dedication he had to creating good cinema.  In this “dark period”, with a handful of exceptions, there is ambition in his choices and performances, even if the end results vary widely in quality.  He worked with young, talented directors who would help shape the cinema of late 1960s and 1970s (Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn, Gillo Pontecorvo), as well as highly respected masters (John Huston, Carol Reed, and even Charlie Chaplin).  He also tried to make films that he hoped would have political or social relevance, as in The Ugly American, Burn!, and Candy . These films presage a social awareness that caused a sensation during the 1973 Academy Awards, when he famously arranged for a Native American spokesperson to accept his Best Actor award on his behalf. Only a small portion of his work during this period is comprised of effortless, throwaway junk.  The rest reveal honest effort, if not artistic or financial success.

Like so many other great movie stars, Brando was able to exploit his persona in his performances.  In One-Eyed Jacks, he dons his image of an alienated, rebellious, sexually magnetic outsider, merging the form of the western with the sensibilities of 1950s melodrama.  Only a few years later, Brando turns that image on its head in The Chase.  The explosive energy and sexual force that made Brando so famous early in his career is replaced by a pudgy, tired-looking, middle-aged sheriff who impotently strives for justice in a devolving society.

His most interesting performance of this festival, though, appears in Burn!  Brando, energized by the importance of the film, gives probably best performance of the decade.  In Burn!, we see the seedlings for his impending performance in The Godfather.  He is heavy, but not just in terms of poundage.  With great onscreen force, Brando acts and speaks with every ounce of the weight of his legend, as though his previous ten films had been highly praised masterpieces instead of box-office duds.  If his career was to reach perfection two years later in The Godfather, this was his entrant into a new stylistic phase of acting: one that relies on experience rather than raw vitality.

That next step in his style of acting would serve him well throughout the 1970s, though he didn’t work nearly as much.  He only appeared in three more films that decade after Last Tango in Paris.  One is his supporting role in Apocalypse Now, and another is his ten-minute appearance in Superman.  However, continuing his commitment to socially relevant material, he appeared in the epic miniseries Roots: The Next Generation as the head of an American Nazi group, a juicy role that Brando devoured.

Sometime in the late 1990s, Peter Bogdanovich lamented that there are no great movie stars anymore (“Do me an impression of Tom Cruise, do me an impression of Tom Hanks…”).  Impressions may be a form of flattery when someone is mimicking the suave Cary Grant or the outlandishly cool Jack Nicholson, but Brando impressions usually center on fat jokes and mumbling. For a rare exception, we must turn to Diane Keaton, of all people:

It may not be definitive, but it is evidence of Brando’s cultural status: a once-great artist who succumbed to fame and fortune, got fat, and wasted the talents to which we audiences were so entitled.

Brando will probably always be stuck between his consecration as the greatest actor who ever lived and the caustic critical outcry against his perceived “wasted” talent.  As always, though, reality lies somewhere in the middle.  Whether or not he is the best of all time (I would probably argue he is), he is undeniably great.  His lowest points are truly low, but even amid mediocrity, Brando is a compelling and singular talent.

4 comments

  1. I agree completely with your assessment of the 1962 version of “Mutiny on the Bounty,” at least where Brando is concerned. I think the second half is worse than you mention, with the final twenty to thirty minutes nearly unbearable. That being said, I’m glad you agree that it was actually a bold, nuanced performance. Sadly, it was that performance that sort of upended his career (along with all the mischief he was causing).

    I liked “The Fugitive Kind,” with Brando again donning his brazen, immature, and sexually fuming Tennessee Williams mug. It was probably miscast a little in other roles (Anna Magnani may not have fit the bill as well as someone else). His performance is nothing at the level of his best work, but he breathes a lot of life into the film. He doesn’t just recreate Stanley Kowalski. “The Fugitive Kind” doesn’t appear to be all that well-liked, but like a lot of his stuff, it’s great to watch him even if the movie isn’t great (though for me, it’s a strong B).

    I also watched “The Ugly American,” which is Brando at his strangest by being his straightest. He plays an American ambassador to an Asian country that’s clearly a stand-in for Vietnam. With a Dylan-thin pencil mustache, pasted down hair, and a double-breasted suit, his well-meaning but hegemonic bureaucrat may have been more of a stretch for him to play than any other role up to that point. The movie doesn’t come together, lost in endless scenes of political shouting matches, leading up to an inevitable climax and heavy-handed messaging. It’s sort of a precursor to “Burn!”

    I also know that you, Daniel, aren’t a fan of some of the work you’ve seen, including “Reflections in a Golden Eye” and “The Night of the Following Day,” neither of which I’ve seen (though due to a scheduling error, “Reflections” will arrive at my house today). I know you don’t like them, but do you have any thoughts on how they fit into his 60s era?

    1. The more that I think about it, Brando’s performance in “Mutiny on the Bounty” almost feels like a dry run for his work in “Burn!”. Obviously, there is the flamboyant British accent, but also the idea of Brando as a physically massive symbol of colonialism set loose in the tropics. Yet his work in “Burn!” is infinitely more complex, and he plays the character with a zest that indicates a newly discovered love of film acting.

      When I made the “pass or fail” comment above regarding Brando’s 1960s films, I was referencing “The Night of the Following Day” and “Reflections in a Golden Eye” on the fail end of the spectrum. I posted an old blurb review of the comatose kidnapping thriller “The Night of the Following Day” earlier in the festival. It was directed by Hubert Cornfield, who made some promising low-budget pictures in the late 1950s and early 1960s (including an excellent Edmond O’Brien noir called “The Third Voice”, and the Sidney Poitier-Bobby Darin film “Pressure Point”), but by the time he made “Night/Following Day”, he hadn’t made in a movie in nearly a decade. Brando is wildly miscast as a terse hepcat kidnapper, and for the most part comes off as bored.

      “Reflections of a Golden Eye” got some attention at the time for its homoeroticism, but “dated” doesn’t even begin to describe the film’s attitude toward Brando’s closeted military man. It was directed by John Huston, but his 1960s output is far more deserving of scorn than Brando’s. The film could have been funny as high-energy camp, but it’s brutally underplayed by everyone involved, and the slo-mo cheesecloth fantasy images of a shirtless Robert Forster riding a white horse (symbolism!) belong in a Hall of Fame of insipid cinema.

      Yet even in both of these awful movies, you can see Brando striving to work with interesting directors and tackle challenging subject matter. I have not yet seen films like “The Appaloosa”, “A Countess From Hong Kong”, or “Candy”, but I imagine they all fall into this category.

      1. I should mention that there a handful of 1960s Brando movies that neither of us have seen – “Bedtime Story” (the origin for the film and musical “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”, with Brando in the Freddy Benson role played by Steve Martin in the remake), “The Appaloosa” (a Sidney J. Furie western…yikes), the WWII drama “Morituri”, Charlie Chaplin’s widely lampooned “A Countess From Hong Kong”, and part of the ensemble of Christian Marquand’s satirical “Candy”. They all look pretty awful, but I would be interested to hear if any ESFS members have seen these?

  2. Dub, now seems like a good time to discuss some of Brando’s 1960s work that was not covered during the festival. I’ll start with a film you talked about a little during your intro, the 1962 remake of “Mutiny on the Bounty” starring Brando as Fletcher Christian. His performance in the film was severely lambasted for decades, especially in comparison to what was at the time considered an iconic Clark Gable turn in the 1935 Best Picture winning original. Looked at today, Gable is borderline ridiculous, especially when he cinches that clipped Ohio accent around British slang. Meanwhile, Brando’s performance feels extremely daring and probably a lot more historically accurate – he plays Fletcher Christian as a spoiled dandy who slowly awakens to the injustices aboard the Bounty. The 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty was considered a big bomb in its day, and the long-time enmity toward it was no doubt exacerbated by the stories that leaked out of the shoot (multiple directors, weather problems, Brando’s compulsive dalliances with island girls, etc.). It’s actually a pretty good film, and holds up a lot better than the 1935 version, despite getting excessively draggy in the second half.

    This movie is also something of a turning point for Brando, especially when you consider that he made it right after his troubled and largely compromised directorial debut. He was misbehaving at an accelerated rate, and while part of it is Brando’s usual penchant for mischief and monomania, I think that he was also at his wits end with the studio system. I agree with your conclusion that, pass or fail and with only 1 or 2 notable exceptions, he was taking risks and trying new things throughout his “dark period” of the 1960s. Dub, I know that you watched a few off-calendar Brando films to prepare for the festival, including his decade-opening 1960 film “The Fugitive Kind”. Could you talk about that and some of the other Brando films we haven’t covered?

Comments are closed.