Brando Redux


Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post notes that unlike Ray Charles, Brando’s death seemed to go largely unnoticed–or at least unremarked. He thinks he knows why.

Brando’s effect was never confined to the realm of dramatic representation. By virtue of the roles he played and the figure he cut in the first half of the ’50s, he became an icon of the social rebellion of that decade — hipster, beat, at times delinquent, at all times sexual — that evolved into something much bigger and more political in the ’60s and has been part of our national DNA ever since (however much other strains in our national DNA fiercely oppose it). The onscreen biker who, when asked what he was rebelling against, answered “Whattaya got?” was also the off-screen star who rebelled against stardom and the studio system, who shunned premieres, didn’t dress up, and dared to do what half of Hollywood had always wanted to do but lacked the guts: blow off Hedda and Louella. A system that had at its apex Louis B. Mayer, Brando was saying, was somebody’s idea of a joke, and damned if he’d take it seriously.


Brando’s icon had legs. You can see it in the young Bob Dylan, in Bruce Springsteen, even in Eminem — young men whose quest for authenticity is defined against old social mores. Brando added sexual menace and working-class violence, a touch of the outlaw, to the instinctual social criticism of Huck Finn, and young American males — and females — have never gotten over it (even the most establishment among them, or haven’t you seen John Kerry on his Harley?). When the generation of Vietnam War protesters broadened their critique to the whole damn society, they were building, though not consciously and by no means exclusively, on Brando.James Dean joined Brando in shaping this icon; but Dean died just as he was starting out, ever a rebel without a cause. Brando went on, eventually to depict in Don Corleone the most seductive, cunning and deadly patriarch in our national canon. In a sense, “The Godfather” is ’50s Brando stood on its head — a film about the catastrophic failure to escape the confines of family, neighborhood, business and the whole traditional authority against which the ’50s hipsters had raged. Either challenging authority or depicting its rot, Brando remains beyond the pale of official canonization.

America has a long line of artists with whom officialdom has never felt comfortable, of course — from Theodore Dreiser to Allen Ginsberg, from vaudevillians to rappers — but it was Brando who brought rage and rebellion, however unfocused, to the center of the culture. States don’t honor rage and rebellion, and states that engender rage, as America has under George W. Bush, apparently don’t honor the representation of rage, either. That Brando’s death went unmarked by power is a testament not to his failings but to his success; not to his failings but to ours.

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