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  Texas : Features : Humor : Column - "A Balloon In Cactus"


by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand
April 3 is Marlon Brando's birthday and, if you ask any actor, it should be declared a national holiday.

Brando was the best film actor this country has ever produced. He was a river of talent, itself producing great tributaries: McQueen, Dean, Nicholson, Newman, DiNiro, Pacino, and it looks as if Edward Norton and Kiefer Sutherland might eventually join their ranks.

As a movie fan and one-time trivia expert in the field of motion pictures, I've seen hundreds of films of all genres, through all generations, and all societal trends, and no actor has what Brando had. Julie Harris said that he tried to destroy his immense gift because he didn't know what to do with it. She said he could eat himself into a huge size, he could denigrate acting, he could choose bad pictures to make, but still, he could not destroy his immense talent.

Never in the history of movies has a presence been as intense as Brando's. Never has an actor been so "present," and never has an actor been so creative as Brando. When he's onscreen, try to keep your eyes on anyone else. You just can't. Sure, he sometimes upstaged and could be a pain in the ass, but he never did it when he respected the story. Sure, he often refused to learn his lines, but he explained to Francis Ford Coppola during The Godfather that it was a necessary part of his naturalistic acting style. "You said you liked me in Waterfront, right?" Brando argued. "Well I'm doing the same thing now that I did then. Real people don't know what they're going to say. Their words often come as a surprise to them. That's how it should be in a movie." John Huston also agreed that Brando's seeming failure to memorize lines was really responsible for his enormous gift of spontaniety.
From the moment Brando first trod the boards in Truckline Cafe, he was the focal point and elicited raves for his five-minute bit. When Elia "Gadge" Kazan, who had seen Brando in Truckline, suggested to Tennessee Williams that Brando play Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire and sent Brando to Connecticut to meet the playwright, it changed the entire concept of the play. Originally, Stanley was to have been considerably older and more of a brute but when Tennessee met Brando, he phoned Kazan "... in a voice near hysteria. Brando had overwhelmed him," said Kazan in his autobiography, A Life.
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Elia Kazan: A Life
Jessica Tandy, a talented stage and screen actress, was cast as the original Blanche DuBois. Kazan states in his book: "My secretary has dug up research in which Jessie is quoted as saying Brando was 'an impossble, psychopathic bastard.' There may have been days when she felt that, but there were more days when she felt what everyone else in the cast felt, admiration for the scorching power of this man-boy.... and that she had to be very good indeed to hold stage with Marlon." When Tandy's husband, character actor Hume Cronyn, came to Kazan and asked "Don't give up on her. Keep after her. She can do it," Kazan thought perhaps Hume meant that by contrast with Marlon, whose every word seemed not something memorized but the spontaneous expression of an intense inner experience -- which is the level of work all actors strive to reach ... was that enough for this play?... Hers seemed to be a performance; Marlon was living on stage... Marlon, working "from the inside," rode his emotion wherever it took him; his performance was full of surprises and exceeded what Williams and I had expected."
Brando himself preferred the screen version of Streetcar to the stage version. He said Vivien Leigh was a better Blanche, a "broken flower," and held the sympathies of the audience equal to Stanley. That made, he said, a better balance.

Fans and critics alike assumed Brando was really like the mumbling Stanley Kowalski and all were therefore stunned at his performance as Marc Antony in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, directed by Joe Mankiewicz. By enunciating perfect English, after much diligent studying of the vocal cadences and pronounciations of classical actors like Barrymore, Olivier and Gielgud, opinions had to be revised. He was so good, that John Gielgud, who played Cassius in the film, invited him to come to England to costar with Paul Scofield in a classical season that he was planning to direct at Hammersmith. "I do remember begging him to play Hamlet," Gielgud later expained. "He said he had no wish to act in the theater again."
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For Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Brando realized he would have to deny his Method acting style. "I realize now that you've got to play the text," Brando said. "You can't play under it, or above it, or around it, as we do in contemporary theater. The text is everything."

"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears," he leaned into it, as the extras fell silent. The speech went on unbroken for its thirty-four lines, Brando's voice rising like a torrent until reaching its climax. With the director's "Cut!" nobody moved. Then from every corner of MGM's stage 24, the crew burst into applause. "I felt a fucking chill go up my spine," Mankiewicz recalled. "It was the greatest moment I have ever felt as a director ... It's what made [my] whole career worthwhile."
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The Marlone Brando Collection
Brando chose his next movie because it satisfied his social conscience, says Peter Manso in his book, Brando: The Biography. It would prove to be the coming of age of an entire generation, and cause the establishment to recoil. It was Stanley Kramer's The Wild One, based on the true story of a leather-jacketed motorcycle gang that had terrorized a small town. One line made cultural history. When Brando's character, Johnnie Strabler, was asked "What are you rebelling against?" he replied simply, "What've ya got?"

An example of Brando's improvisational genius is the scene in which he sits at the lunch counter about to be waited on by Mary Murphy's character. He puts a quarter on the counter and as she reaches for it, he pulls it back, taunting her, then pushes it towards her again, playing, teasing. There's something inherently sensual in Brando's action, not only to Murphy, but to the entire audience.
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The Wild One
On The Waterfront, directed by Kazan, certainly deserves mention here, not only as Brando's first Oscar-winning performance (he was nominated eight times, won twice) but as another outstanding example of his improvisational work. Written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, Brando's favorite director at the time, Brando was happily surrounded with Actors Studio pals: Karl Malden who had appeared with him in Truckline, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam and Rudy Bond. Roger Donoghue, former light heavyweight boxer, was hired to tutor Brando in the art of prizefighting so that, as former boxer Terry Malloy, he would more easily adopt a fighter's attitude and even a fighter's walk. He and Brando practiced at Stillman's Gym, at the Actors Studio, and on Hoboken rooftops. Donoghue picked up on Brando's concentration and attention to the smallest detail. The boxer recalled, "Whenever I'd vary my footwork, he noticed it right away.... He was terrific, but I realized he was always studying me."

Brando, dressed as Terry Malloy in a plaid jacket, rode the subway to work for even more authenticity. He missed nothing. It was so freezing cold on that New Jersey waterfront production that Brando joked it was "too cold to overact." Eva Marie Saint wore thermal underwear. Saint, new to motion pictures in 1953, described what it was like for her to do a scene with Brando: "He was very seductive, and I remember ending up dancing with him. In those days we wore full skirts and leather belts, and I remember he took my skirt and went whoosh, like spinning me around in order to fan it out after the dance. The hem of the skirt just kind of whipped around. I remember crying, because it was very emotional. Whatever Kazan saw that convinced him to cast me, Marlon had provoked it in me. I would have had to work for weeks with another actor to get what we got, because like Kazan, he knew how to touch certain buttons."

Brando's genius was again apparent in the glove scene with Saint. "The glove scene happened," she explained, "because I actually accidentally dropped the glove. When Marlon picked it up and put it on his hand, that became the catalyst for me to stay in the scene. Before, I'd felt awkward, dishonest, wondering why I was talking to him, thinking I ought to just walk off. Once he had the glove, i wanted it back, so there was a reason for me to stay."

Manso's book describes Brando's inventiveness. "In the bar, as she questions Terry about her brother's death, she elicited the same unspoken gentleness, something so deep, so melancholy and untutored that her openness is the only response possible. ... what made it work in front of the camera was Marlon's understanding that one character's innocence could only be the reciprocal of the other's."
At the approach of the famous taxicab scene with his brother Charley, played by Rod Steiger, Brando expressed his unhappiness to Schulberg. "I just can't do it, I just can't." "Why?" demanded Schulberg, who was proud of the scene. "I can't. the scene won't work. ... If someone has a gun, if somebody actually ... like Charley pulls a gun on me, actually has a gun, I'm not going to say all those things. I can't have all that to say, 'I could have been this or I could have been that.' I can't say all that if somebody is aiming a gun at me." Kazan said, "Look why don't you just reach out and put the gun down? Then could you say it?" Brando nodded. "Yes, then I could say it fine." In this scene, Brando's problem of interpretation solved, he had never been so fluent, so in command of his body. Inside the mock-up cab, he responded to Steiger's weapon with an ensemble of tiny movements consisting of his eyes, the roll of his head, the slope of his shoulders, and even the lift of his lip, all of it mirroring a pain and surprise more telling than the agonized "Wow" that follows.
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The body language is inspired, as is the agonized pause before he launches into the unforgettable "contender" lines that subvert the gun. The phrasing was exquisite, the modulation, accent, and pacing all flawless. He delivered the lines as if he'd shrunk into himself.

In Kazan's words, "I've been highly praised for the direction of this scene, but the truth is I didn't direct it ... the extraordinary element in that scene and in the whole picture was Brando, and what was extraordinary about his performance, I feel, is the contrast of the tough-guy front and the extreme delicacy and gentle cast of his behavior. What other actor, when his brother draws a pistol to force him to do something shameful, would put his hand on the gun and push it away with the gentleness of a caress? Who else could read "Oh, Charlie!" in a tone of reproach that is so loving and so melancholy and suggests that terrific depth of pain? I didn't direct that; Marlon showed me, as he often did, how the scene should be performed. I could never have told him how to do that scene as well as he did it."

In Patricia Bosworth's biography, Marlon Brando, she talks about interviewing people in a School for the Deaf. When asked who was their favorite actor, one hundred per cent of the people answered, "Marlon Brando!" When asked why, they said, "It doesn't matter that we can't hear him. We know what he's feeling just the same."
I talked with John Huston in the mid-80s at the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award honoring him. A small, portable oxygen tank at his side did not deter him from affectionately talking about Reflections in a Golden Eye, which he believed was one of his (Huston's) best. He talked about Brando's amazing presence and mentioned asking him at the beginning of the shoot if he could ride a horse. Brando said yes. But, said Huston, Brando was so nervous around the horse that even Elizabeth Taylor, a superb horsewoman, began to feel fear. It wasn't till long after the scene where the spooked horse runs off wildly, Brando clinging to his back, terror evident on his wind-whipped face, that Huston realized, of course Brando knew how to ride (Viva Zapata! One-Eyed Jacks, The Appaloosa) but the character he was portraying, Major Weldon Penderson, an uptight army officer with repressed homosexual desires, was terrified of horses.
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The Marlone Brando Collection
Brando's concentration and total immersion were legendary. So were his scene-stealing habits of using whatever was at hand to clarify his character. Remember the gray cat Brando stroked while supplicants asked him for favors on his daughter's wedding day in The Godfather? Didn't that indicate the Don's soft side better than any dialog could have? The cat purred so loudly, it covered the dialog and Brando had to do some looping at the end of filming. Coppola said that Brando had many great ideas and every one he used improved the picture. It was Brando's idea to have the godfather slap the singer, Johnny Fontaine, because singer Al Martino, playing the role, was not giving the desired reaction. The reason Martino's reaction finally looked perfect was because he was actually dazed by Brando's unexpected slap.

The Godfather's producer, Al Ruddy, said he was impressed with those improvised turns that lent the powerful and ruthless don a gentler side. "It's in those little shticks of the godfather that you get the totality of the film as well as the character. It was Brando who came up with them. Like stopping to smell a rose between the first part of his line, 'After all, we're not murderers,' and the second, 'whatever that undertaker thinks." (I reran the film yesterday, and he smelled the rose after the entire line and not in the middle.)
Brando was revered by other actors, who regarded him as a god and who became so awestruck when he came onstage that they practically turned to stone. Brando took time to put them at ease, sometimes joking and sometimes mooning. In the scene in The Godfather where Don Vito Corleone comes home from the hospital and his stretcher must be carried upstairs, Brando had the prop department load the stretcher down with 300 pounds of hidden extra weight, and even Coppola, despite the added cost, had to laugh at the straining actors trying to lift the don.

The don's death scene was also made memorable by Brando's idea of cutting an orange peel and putting it in his mouth to "frighten" his little grandson in order to elicit the desired reaction for the camera. Prior to this, the boy playing the grandson simply was unable to adequately animate. That scene is arguably the one best remembered by most fans.
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Few actors have such charisma, talent, and technical proficiency as Brando. This last impressed even the great cinematographer, Gordon Willis, on The Godfather. In the Manso book, Willis says "He was entirely cooperative. His concern -- and rightly so -- was that with all that age makeup on, he had to be lighted properly or it would look like shit. I knew that if I simply put light directly in front of him, the effect of the makeup would be neutralized. So I had to come up with the kind of lighting that would not only be right for him, but also right for the rest of the movie. I explained this and he immediately understood. He seemed to have an intuitive grasp of what had to be done technically and how to function within those limitations."

Before each take, Brando even asked Willis which lens would be used and how much of his body would be appearing in the frame. "He was aware of having to determine how big or small the field size of the screen would be," said Willis, "and he adjusted his movements accordingly. From that first makeup and lighting test, I saw that he had a very attuned sense of visual containment."
Last Tango in Paris illustrates more fully the genius of Brando's improvisational work. It is the closest thing to actually getting Brando to talk about himself in depth, something not even his closest friends were privy to. This Bernardo Bertolucci film was extremely daring at the time and set the critics atwitter with praise and amazement. The presence of Brando kept Tango, Oscar nominated despite an NC 17 rating (for explicit sexual content) from being considered pornography. No other major star of Brando's caliber would have dared to so expose himself, not only physically, but psychically. His on-screen reminiscenses, in the character of expatriate Paul, are anecdotes from Brando's own unhappy childhood, and the dialog Paul speaks at the coffin of his dead wife, eerily expresses Brando's feelings at the passing of his beloved mother, Dorothy Pennebaker Brando.
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It doesn't seem that Brando had much happiness in his life, due to failed marriages, troubled children, and bad business judgment, and he might not have completely pleased colleagues who felt strongly that his gift should be honed on the stage, and that he had "sold out" to the big money studios. There is some truth to this, which fits his self-destructiveness. Unlike today's celebrities (a celeb being far different from a star) who are often dipsos and dopers, Brando, son of two alcoholics, chose food instead, like Elvis. He also got himself involved in some pretty awful movies in order to pay off debts of alimony, lawsuits and ecological research on his private island near Tahiti.

It's usually interesting and sometimes pleasurable to view and review current films; yet if I want to be surprised, stunned, and inspired, I return to the genius of Brando.
Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"
April 3, 2007Column

Brando, the Biography, by Peter Manso
A Life, by Elia Kazan An Open Book, by John Huston
Letters From an Actor, by William Redfield
Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, by Marlon Brando
Marlon Brando, by Patricia Bosworth
Brando for Breakfast, Anna Kashfi Personal recollections of conversation with John Huston.
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Marlon Brando, by Patricia Bosworth
Marlon Brondo DVDs - In association with Amazon.com
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