February/March 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 1
The Hidden Brando
Marlon Brando changed American acting and became enduringly famous astonishingly fast. Just four years encompass nearly all his career-defining roles: Stanley Kowalski in the film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951); the Mexican peasant revolutionary in Viva Zapata! (1952); the alienated but noble-souled biker gang leader in The Wild One (1953); and, of course, his Oscar-winning Terry Malloy, who “coulda been a contender” in On the Waterfront (1954).
Except for his Don Corleone in The Godfather nearly two decades later, almost all of Brando’s remaining acting career was a bewildering series of false starts, dead ends, and near misses. No other great American actor has appeared in so few films or so many outright bad ones.
And yet, in the nearly 40 years after his great, popular works, Brando turned in a dazzling and strange collection of performances in movies that have been either forgotten or ignored. A Marlon Brando obscure-film festival might include the following (all but one of them hard to find but available on VHS):
A neglected masterpiece from the Italian doctrinaire communist Gilo Pontecorvo, whose 1965 The Battle of Algiers is a landmark in world cinema. Burn! is almost pure Marxist propaganda, but it’s hip and exhilarating filmmaking that gave Brando one of his greatest roles, that of a British secret agent who is sent to a Caribbean island to foment a revolt that he will then be in the best position to crush.
Burn! was buried practically upon release. The Spanish government resented the Spaniards in the film being cast as villains—the fictitious island had been colonized by Spain—and lobbied with United Artists to change the story; parts of the film were reshot and cut to turn the island into a Portuguese colony. (Why the British didn’t object to Brando’s character isn’t known.) The movie was dumped on an international market without publicity and quickly sank.
This odd and uneven combination of horror and art film from the English director Michael Winner has been seen by so few people that to this day the impression lingers that it was a version of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw . Actually, it was supposed to precede the events in James’s novella and explain how Quint and Miss Jessel perverted the souls of the children in the story. The Nightcomers is, at times, legitimately terrifying, but it’s an ugly, murky, and unpleasant film. The one thing that’s undeniably right about it is Brando’s performance as Quint, which hints at depths of depravity that go deeper than even Henry James was willing to suggest.
This is one of the strangest collaborations in modern American cinema not to have been a success, a movie made from a book by a great American novelist, Carson McCullers, directed by one of our great filmmakers, John Huston, and starring one of our greatest actors, Brando, in one of his greatest performances. Reflections in a Golden Eye , which also starred Julie Harris, Elizabeth Taylor, and Brian Keith, delivered everything promised but could find no popular audience, not even an art-house one, in a year dominated by Bonnie and Clyde , The Graduate , and Belle de Jour . Perhaps McCullers’s 1941 short novel about life in an Army camp just before the Second World War seemed too dated; perhaps Huston, in spots, treated the Southern material with a bit too much of a gothic touch. Brando, as an officer married to Taylor who is barely managing to suppress his homosexuality, is a primping, narcissistic horror, at the same time appalling and pathetic. There are many times in Brando’s career when you feel that no other actor could have played his role; in this film, you think not only that no other could have played it but that no other would have.
This was one of the most publicized disappointments of the seventies, the movie that was supposed to set off sparks when the greatest film actor of the generation, Jack Nicholson, was paired off against the greatest film actor of the previous generation. With Bonnie and Clyde ’s Arthur Penn as director and a script by Thomas McGuane, there seemed to be no way it could miss. But Penn’s direction was uncertain, probably reflecting the principals’ uneasiness with McGuane’s script, which failed to develop the relationship between Nicholson’s stock thief and Brando’s bounty-hunting regulator. Both give excellent performances, but they seem to be acting in separate movies.
Still, it’s a fascinating film, with Brando’s sadistic killer, Robert E. Lee Clayton, constantly shifting his accents, his identities, even his hats, each time he stalks a foe. Unfortunately, audiences couldn’t apply the richness of the character’s psychosis to the framework of the traditional Western. (And as much could be said for another Western, One-Eyed Jacks , Brando’s only directorial effort, in which he plays a Billy the Kid type of character.)
Nearly two decades after The Godfather , Brando topped every Brando impressionist in show business with his own caricature of Don Corleone in this underrated comedy, costarring Matthew Broderick and Bruno Kirby (who played the young Clemenza in The Godfather, Part II ). More than that, he turned the caricature into a flesh-and-blood human being. Classic scene: A nervous Broderick, meeting Brando for the first time in the back of a restaurant in Little Italy, glances at a picture on the wall. “Is that Mussolini?” he inquires. After a pause Brando replies, “It ain’t Tony Bennett.”