Forget what you know about Marlon Brando. Forget Vito Corleone, forget cotton-balls-stuffed-in-cheeks, forget the unspeakable things involving butter in Last Tango in Paris. Forget the obscured, bald specter of Apocalypse Now, and certainly forget the hulking embarrassment of Superman. Wipe your memory clean and just f-ing look at this man.
This was Brando at the height of his powers, when his approach to acting challenged Hollywood’s concept of performance, and the way he lived was an affront to the entire industry. This was when something burned behind his eyes, when his entire body seemed to undulate with energy like a live wire in search of a socket. This is when you could not take your eyes off him, when the alchemy of his physical and emotive presence threatened to burn through the film on which it was printed.
Despite never entering into a long-term studio contract or having the benefit of publicity “Fixers,” Brando was never embroiled in a single large-scale scandal — unless, that is, you count doubling your weight, retreating to your own South Pacific island, sending a Native American to accept your Academy Award, or having three children with your housekeeper scandalous.
But that was all Middle and Late Stage Brando. Early Brando, or Hot Brando, as I like to call him, was never thrown in jail like Robert Mitchum or denounced on the floor of the senate like Ingrid Bergman. Like his contemporary Marilyn Monroe (just wait, that piece is totally coming), he didn’t break societal rules so much as bend them. In this way, Brando not only changed what audiences expected of a “good performance” onscreen, but the type of behavior they’d accept off it.
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The beginnings of Brando’s career are well known. After studying The Method with Stella Adler at The New School, he appeared in some bad plays that earned him some good notices. As famed New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael would recall years later, the first time she saw him on stage,
... I looked up and saw what I thought was an actor having a seizure onstage. Embarrassed for him, I lowered my eyes, and it wasn’t until the young man who’d brought me grabbed my arm and said, "Watch this guy!" that I realized he was acting.
That. That is what I’m talking about.
After receiving tremendous critical acclaim for his role in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando moved to Hollywood to appear as a paraplegic in The Men. The plan was to show Hollywood what was up and then blow town, giving the movie colony the finger on the way back to Broadway.
Brando never made it back to the stage, but he never changed his attitude towards Hollywood. He wore his opprobrium on his sleeve, refusing to make friends with the gossip columnists or submit to interviews with the fan magazines. His wore “dirty dungarees,” which is to say JEANS, IN PUBLIC, ALL THE TIME. A Photoplay article scornfully described his “habitual costume of Levis, a t-shirt, and moccasins without socks,” which really just sounds like Your Dad, but when most stars were still rocking high-waisted and finely tailored trousers, this was a big deal.
Brando didn’t care about money. His “apartments change but never vary; one room with a bed that is rarely made up, a chest of drawers about as empty as his closet.” in 1951, he ran an advertisement in the Saturday Review of Literature: ‘Apartment Wanted – Any Old Thing.’”
He didn’t like “glamour girls” or Hollywood starlets, driving them “slightly crazy because he ignores them.” Instead, he preferred “girls he meets at drama classes and in offices.” (Which is another way of saying that he wants to take all of Hairpin on a date, amiright?)
He loved to play the bongos and marimbas, he hung out with black people who were not named Sammy Davis Jr., and he proclaimed his best friend to be a raccoon. He was “known to make an entire meal out of a jar of peanut butter.”
In other words, he operated in a completely different circle than the Hollywood elite. In today’s terms, he was at the dive bar drinking High Life unironically while the rest of the stars was getting bottle service at a night club named something like “Pure.” He did not give a shit — or, more precisely, he did not give a shit about toeing the line of what a star should be and how one should behave. When asked to pose for the cover of Life magazine, he answered “Why would I want to do that?”
Yet during this period, Brando appeared in a series of films that made it impossible for the industry to ignore him. He smoldered, abused, and tore his shirt in the film version of Streetcar (1951), donned full “brown face” as Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in Viva Zapata! (1952), proved he could do Shakespeare as Marc Antony in Julius Caesar (1953), helped codify the leather biker look and teen rebelliousness in The Wild One (1953), and wore the shit out of a longshoreman’s jacket in On the Waterfront (1954).
He earned four Oscar nominations in as many years, finally winning for On the Waterfront. (There are some hilarious pictures of him all polished up on on Oscar Night and posing with Best Actress Grace Kelly, who looks like she might be vaguely allergic to him.)
In these films, Brando’s performances made people feel something I don’t think we quite understand, as the vast majority of us have grown up with actors who either adhere to The Method (Robert De Niro, Daniel Day-Lewis, Meryl Streep, Christian Bale, Sean Penn) or bastardize aspects of it to “go ugly” and win an Oscar (Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman).
But back in the early ‘50s, Brando was operating on an entirely different level than everyone around him — kinda like LeBron before he betrayed the entire state of Ohio, Blake Lively when she was still a Sister of Traveling Virginity-Losing Pants, or Kanye when he was the sixth headliner at the Sasquatch Music Festival in 2004 and you got too drunk on vodka you’d smuggled in using plastic ziplocs shoved into your bikini bottoms and all you can remember is Kanye strutting across stage in a purple sequined suit yelling JESUS WALKS WITH MEEE!!!!!, but bygones.
Point is, Kanye ruled that festival, and Brando ate those films for breakfast.
Take, for example, his role in On the Waterfront. You’ve heard the “I coulda been a contender” monologue, which is great, sure, but what’s better is the way he interacts with his love interest, played by Eva Marie Saint.
He puts on her little white glove! I DIE! Then he tells her she was a hideous braces monster when she was younger but wins her over with “I just mean to tell ya that ya grew up very nice.” [!!!!!]
What Brando does with Saint over the course of the film is subtle but spectacular: A woman made of Catholicism, shrillness, pointy edges, and buttoned up jackets becomes sexy before our eyes.
Part of the transformation can be credited to good directing, lighting, costuming, etc., but as Brando falls in love with her, the way he looks at her — all lusty with those eyelids that fold over on themselves — somehow becomes the way we look at her.
Now, if Brando had just been talented, he’d most likely have stayed on the stage. mainstream Hollywood supports many things, but serious, experimental art has not historically one of them.
But as evidenced so thoroughly above, Brando was also spectacularly, ruinously handsome. And while he certainly inspired no small amount of teen squeals, he was no teen idol. He left that job to James Dean, who was busy mimicking the Brando scowl and mumble. Crucially, Dean was also more accessible to girls still ambivalent enough about actual sex that they want their objects of affection feminine-faced and shiny, looking like they’ve just come from a facial and an eyebrow wax. (See also Zac Efron, young Leonardo DiCaprio, and David Cassidy.)
Brando, however, was the kind of handsome that gives grown women shivers, with a sort of physical imprint that lingers in the back of your head and dreams for days. Sixteen-year-old me saw nothing in Brando; 30-year-old me sees everything.
That everything, of course, is sex. Hedda Hopper called him “Hollywood’s New Sex Boat,” recounting how, when she mentioned his name over coffee, it “instantly spread over my living room like a flash fire. ‘Marlon Brando? He’s exciting! Marlon Brando! He’s coarse, he’s vulgar! Marlon Brando, he’s male!”
INDEED, HEDDA’S COFFEE CLATCH. Brando was male, and it made people feel something funny in their bathing suit parts. More importantly, he seemed to represent the working class male — in part because the roles that made him famous were so clearly marked as such (Stanley Kowalski, road biker, longshoreman) but also because the way he comported himself off the screen so precisely matched that image, all dirty dungarees and motorcycles and t-shirts rolled over the biceps.
Of course, the fetishization of the working class male has a long history, spanning from Walt Whitman’s exclamation points all the way to Ryan’s wife beaters in The O.C. Working class guys build things! With their hands! They will then TOUCH YOU with those hands, all lusty and man-like! And the 1950s, like today, were filled with anxiety over the feminized male, the desk-bound husband, and Momism, rendering this type of man tremendously appealing.
The gossip industry obviously had no idea how to process Brando. After years of spoon-feeding readers pablum from the studios about family Christmases and chaperoned dates, it was like People magazine trying to explain Lady Gaga to the minivan majority.
But Brando, for all of his iconoclasm, understood that shunning publicity was publicity in and of itself. In the early 1950s, he could manipulate the studio as savvily as any studio star, he simply played the game by entirely different rules, with no coach, personal trainer, or real teammates to assist him.
Which is all to say that Brando was the first of a new brand of stars, and his success would encourage others, including pot-smoking Mitchum, to take their careers and publicity into their own hands, or at least out of the studio's hands and into those of an agent who could then be subject to the star’s personal demands. It was a new calculus of control, with the balance of power swinging from the studios to the talent.
On the surface, this seems like a great idea. The classic studio system could be feudal and exploitative, and no one would have given Jim Carrey $20 million for Bruce Almighty.
But as Andre Bazin and other writers for the Cahiers du Cinema recognized, there was a certain genius to the classic system. The efficiency with which films were made, the guidelines and budgets to which the directors, producers, and writers were forced to hew, and the immaculate constraint of star images resulted in more spectacular films, more great films, more good films, and far fewer Transformers 2 films.
The genius, then, sprung from control: Give me a million dollars and no deadline to write my next scandal piece for Hairpin and I’ll turn in something two years from now that basically recites “I Love You Ryan Gosling Take Off Your Shirt.” Have me do it for free with only the promise of personal glory, and I’ll give you something with esoteric adjectives, turns of phrase, and jokes concerning my home state — plus I’ll turn it in on time, every time.
Same goes for the stars. With effectively no oversight and enormous demand for his services, Brando began to indulge: in women, in food, in his own vanity. The films after On the Waterfront are successively more bloated and embarrassing, and a 1957 New Yorker profile, written by Truman Capote, made it clear that Brando was not just a jackass but perhaps also a dilettante. And it’s completely heartbreaking.
The true scandal, in the end, was that a talent so promising would so predictably succumb to his own hubris. Brando’s decline was far more tragic than any illicit affair or recreational drug use, as it betrayed what fame and adulation could do to the actual bodies and psyches that compose our popular images. Indeed, for all Brando’s gravitas in The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, both performances lack the vibrance and vitality of his work in the early ‘50s. Instead, they seem to spring from a well of of shame and despair, appealing for the audience to mourn an ideal of masculinity gone to seed.
Brando had an entire generation’s desire pulsing under his finger. But the lesson, it seems, is that no one can wield such power on his own. Not a king, not a movie star, not even a brilliant actor in dirty dungarees.
Previously: Lana Turner, Sweater Girl Gone Bad.
Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.