Ever since Marlon’s death I have been struggling to find a way to express what his life and work meant to actors of every generation since Stanley Kowalski walked onstage at the Vivian Beaumont Theater and let go that howl of rage and need in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Or the way he transformed both film acting and film itself with Rod Steiger and Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront. Whatever his personal problems–and they were legion–this was a giant, the kind of talent who comes along once a generation if you’re lucky and influences everything everybody does after them. How do you sum up a man like that?
People will argue with this (especially theater people) but it is an almost undeniable fact that when Brando left NY for Hollywood, Broadway theater began its long, slow slide into endless remountings of mindless musicals and retread comedies. It was never again to be taken seriously as the high-point of American culture, never again looked to as the center of both theatrical entertainment and theatrical art as it had been in Helen Hayes’ day. When Brando shifted himself to California, he took all that with him and serious theater moved first to off-Broadway and later to off-off Broadway. Yes, the rise in ticket prices and the incredible expense of putting on a show in NY aided and abetted that process, but it began, if we’re honest, before that. It began when Marlon scooped up the heart and soul of theater and took it out west to Babylon.
It’s hard in these days when virtually every great American actor, from DeNiro and Pacino to Hoffman and Dreyfuss to Penn and DaFoe, uses bits and pieces of Brando’s style and approach to acting in their own performances, to remember that there was a time when both film and theater acting had turned moribund–style-less, skill-less and soul-less pottering about. The first great generation of traditional actors was all but gone–Bogart was dead; Tracy was drowning in an alcoholic stupor that rarely let up long enough to let him work; Cagney was as fiery as ever but getting old and tired of the grind; Grant was caught up in making big, flashy productions that called for him to repeat the same character over and over again until he wound up becoming his own parody–and the new generation was less than inspiring: pretty boys who looked good on film but couldn’t tell you their name and make it believable.
Not that there wasn’t talent. The Actor’s Studio had been training a cadre of brilliant actors for 20 years but none of them had broken out yet. Right behind Brando, waiting in the wings, were Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, James Dean, and Robert Redford, among many others. All they needed to re-energize acting culture was for somebody to muscle his way into the top tier and open the door for them. It was Brando who did that, and the irony was that he did it by being entirely indifferent to career considerations.
Before Streetcar, he was already famous in the tiny circle of up-and-coming NY actors for his stubborn refusal to compromise his belief in what came to be known (erroneously) as ‘The Method’. His commitment to his craft dictated all his choices, not the biggest salary or the most lavish production, and he drove directors to distraction by insisting that he understand every move a character made before he made it. ‘But why am I opening the door?’ Burt Reynolds says in a devastating–and very funny–parody of Brando’s style in a Twilight Zone episode. A frustrated director at the end of his rope shouts, ‘Because somebody’s knocking on it, you moron!”
It was easy to mock The Method’s outward appearance as represented by Brando–the trademark slouch, the mumbling, the long pauses between words–but it was impossible to knock its results. From the otherwise forgettable teen-pic, The Wild Ones, a low-budget 50’s biker movie that Marlon transformed single-handed into a classic, to the utterly unforgettable Waterfront, Marlon made movies serious again. He made us realize the possibilities of the medium that hadn’t yet been explored and opened our eyes to the power of honesty in acting: that there was more going on with people than the empty crossing of a room to open a door, that it made a difference whether your character was scared or elated or bored to tears–it made a difference to the film, it made a difference to the audience. He taught us, in effect, the meaning of depth; we learned not to underestimate it.
Inevitably, like pioneers everywhere, if he reaped the benefits of his courage and commitment to his craft he also reaped the whirlwind of jealousy, mockery and disdain that went with it. So great was his influence that he became a caricature of himself while he was a relatively young man with most of his career still ahead of him. Teahouse of the August Moon may perhaps best be understood as a (failed) attempt to break out of the mold Hollywood was trying to force him into.
For Guys and Dolls, I have no acceptable explanation. Brain-fart? Money? The hell of it? In the history of Hollywood, there are a lot of bad–miserable, incompetent, incredibly stoopid–casting decisions. Edward G Robinson as an Egyptian Pharoah, John Wayne as Genghis Khan, and Mickey Rooney as a blatant offense to Chinese everywhere in Breakfast at Tiffany’s were some of the most egregious and least forgivable, but surely turning down Frank Sinatra and handing the role of Skye Masterson to Brando (who sings about as well as cats howl at the moon) has to rank in the Top Ten of criminal casting decisions: it all but murdered the Hollywood musical.
Brando was one of a handful who had that kind of power: he could make your little movie a classic (Zapata, one of the least condescending and most complex performances ever put on film, Brando is more than brilliant in it, he’s other-worldly, as if he were channeling Steinbeck’s Emiliano directly; The Fugitive Kind, The Ugly American, et al) or break your blockbuster like a sledgehammer breaks a rock–into tiny, unrecoverable pieces (One-Eyed Jacks, Morituri, The Chase, or most famously, Mutiny on the Bounty, in which he was so weak that Trevor Howard stole the movie right out from underneath him). His choices were sometimes so odd that one had to wonder what he was thinking. Whatever possessed him to do The Countess From Hong Kong or The Missouri Breaks? Did he need the money or the humiliation?
But though you can catalog the failures all you want, you’ll never be able to erase or even dim the luminous successes. Brando at the top of his game was like nothing else in the world of acting; he brought dimensions of life to his characters that not even their creators had imagined, and he did it with the simplicity and bare-knuckled ruthlessness of a street-fighter: without compromise, live-or-die in total commitment to the moment, to the truth.
There is one of those moments in Zapata, a moment that haunts everyone who sees it. His brother, friend, and partner, played by Anthony Quinn (another brilliant and often overlooked performance), has betrayed President Zapata’s promises of land reform by setting himself up as a lord in a run-down mansion and ordering the peasants around like the aristocrats their revolution has just replaced. Emiliano leaves the capitol to find out what’s going on and to face his brother as brothers should: eye to eye.
He finds his brother, drunk, living in the pig-sty he has made of the old mansion and cavorting with his mistress. He defends himself by insisting that after all the years of sacrifice to the revolution, he found himself with nothing–nothing. Doesn’t he have a right to a reward? Doesn’t he have a right to live out the rest of his days without worrying about money after a decade of being shot at, hiding out, making war in the name of ‘the people’? Brando’s reasponse to this tirade is to…lower his eyes.
That’s all. He lowers his eyes, but in that slight motion is all the hurt, disappointment, fear, and recognition of the price they have both paid for what they believed when they were young and have fought for ever since. It is so painful an insight that Zapata cannot stand to look at the source of it, and so his brother will die and Emiliano will do it. Beside that look, the dialogue pales into inaudibility. We don’t even hear it.
It is a chilling moment to watch, so small, so subtle, that many don’t even see it. But when you do, it changes the movie for you; when you watch the film again, you watch it knowing that what you’re seeing leads directly to that moment. That’s the kind of actor Brando was: with a single, tiny movement he could re-order your understanding, put a film into a whole new context and take it to a new and deeper level than anything on the page or in the director’s head. He was the essence of what good acting is about–letting us see the truth of the characters they play and in the process showing us the truth about ourselves.
But Marlon Brando wasn’t ‘just’ an actor, he was also an activist. There was a different Brando, the Brando who sent Sacheen Littlefeather to reject his Academy Award, the Brando who stood side-by-side with the Puyallop Indians of the Northwest when they fought to regain their fishing rights. This Brando.
Yesterday, with word of the great American actor’s death on Thursday at age 80, the Indians who once stood in protest with Brando during Washington’s “Fish Wars” of the 1960s, remembered him not as acclaimed movie star, but as a sensitive defender of civil rights.
“Marlon Brando was the first person of non-color to step forward to help us,” said SuZan Satiacum, 63, whose husband, the late Puyallup Chief Bob Satiacum, fished and was arrested with Brando during protests against what they saw as the state’s trampling of Indian fishing rights.
“Marlon Brando was ahead of his time.”
Remembering Brando’s presence among the protests four decades ago brought both laughter and tears from Satiacum’s sister, Shirley, and widow, SuZan, yesterday as they recalled a violent decade of defiance that, before the famed actor’s arrival, had not gotten much attention. With the onset of the 1960s, Washington’s game wardens clamped down hard on Indian fishing, arresting dozens of tribal members, often in brutal fashion. The exercise of authority over tribal fisheries came amid dwindling salmon runs and the state’s attempts to conserve the resource for the non-tribal commercial and sport-fishing industries.
“All kinds of authorities were coming down to the river and attacking us,” SuZan Satiacum said. “And not just the game wardens, it was anyone with a badge.”
Still, the Indians had trouble gaining public support. Newspapers refused to allow the tribes to buy ads professing their rights, and public officials were slow to respond.
“Nobody — the newspapers, TV — nobody would want to hear what the Indians wanted to say.”
That all changed when Brando accepted an invitation extended by Bob Satiacum and a public relations consultant the tribes hired to get their message heard.
On March 2, 1964, Brando walked the bank of the Puyallup with Episcopal clergyman John Yaryan from San Francisco. They boarded Satiacum’s boat, set out a drift net, “and caught one little salmon,” recalled SuZan, who observed the fishing from the river’s bank. “But one’s all it took.”
When Brando, Satiacum and the minister returned to the shore, they were arrested and taken to the Pierce County Jail. The county prosecutor later refused to charge Brando, but the actor’s point already had been made.
“His appearance kind of gave the Indian people more backbone,” said Shirley Satiacum. “When Marlon showed up, then we knew the word was out all over town — and it made us braver.”
That was Marlon Brando, too, maybe the real one, the one outside and beyond all the characters he played so honestly. He went to jail for a people not his own, turned down the most prestigious award in his profession to make a point in which he believed with the same kind of commitment and refusal to compromise he brought to his work.
That’s the way I suspect I will finally remember Marlon Brando: in the side-by-side twin images of Emiliano Zapata facing his brother’s betrayal of their beliefs and Marlon Brando being marched away in handcuffs in an attempt to protect the rights of people who were being deprived of them unfairly. It seems to me now, in retrospect, that these two Brandos have a lot in common.