The Genius Of Marlon Brando

by John Steppling

July 5, 2004   


(Swans - July 5, 2004)  To call Brando the best actor of his generation is to miss the real significance of what he meant to 20th century art. Brando was always bigger than his films, and this dislocation of meaning, and the uncanny effect it created was, and still is, a part of what makes his acting so profound. I suspect Brando's own conflicted relationship with acting can be traced to an awareness of the distance between "character" and "performance" in his films. Perhaps the best example of this is the one film he directed, One Eyed Jacks. A film he turned into the studio with a seven hour running time. What remains (after the studio cut) is therefore a palimpset, a shadow of something that is, possibly, the better for being a shadow. In a conventional sense the film is pretty ordinary; and yet no conventional analysis can begin to show the mythic underpinnings of each frame, the auteur revelations that circle around the entire narrative, and the simple brooding beauty of the whole incoherent mess. This film in a sense is symbolic of Brando's art as a whole, a contradictory and self revelatory representation of a particularly American brand of alienation. None of Brando's performances are seamless or perfect; and none work in the way most performances should. As far back as A Streetcar Named Desire one can see the way Brando understood the camera. There are those who lament his leaving the stage...and yet I find it hard to imagine Brando as temperamentally able to deal with acting on nightly basis. He created a new way of acting for the camera, and to call it acting is probably wrong too. He created a way of "being" for the camera...and if this seems exaggerated just watch him in Viva Zapata, watch his first entrance and then tell me that this is simply acting. He was always too big for his films, by which I mean the films would often become mostly about what was going on with Brando, and what was going on with Brando was always more than what was going on with the character he portrayed. The inexplicable nature of what he did was part of his genius.

Coupled to this was the sexual ambiguity of Brando. As a teenage boy I would watch any Brando film that came on TV...and among my favorites was The Fugitive Kind with Anna Magnani. The sexual dimensions of this film helped explain to a thirteen-year-old boy what masculinity might really be. The masculine as depicted by most Hollywood action heroes or matinee idols always seemed suspect...but in Brando I sensed the deeper layers of our nightmare erotic lives. There were others who captured aspects of the sexual; Robert Mitchum or Yul Brynner for example, but none gave it the form or dimension that Brando did. In Brando, the masochistic was never denied -- nobody ever got beaten up on film quite the way Brando did (The Chase and One Eyed Jacks come to mind here). This masochism was, of course, connected to the alienation he embodied. This embodiment was a complicated thing, however. The method (Strassberg and Actors Studio) is really something of a distraction in a discussion of Brando; not that he wasn't shaped as an actor by his training, but that he so completely transcended that training almost immediately. From On the Waterfront to The Last Tango in Paris to a neglected comic performance in Bedtime Story, Brando was always in the process of suggesting something that was to come. It was never the naturalism he is often labeled with, but an almost hyper-artifice with a psychoanalytic backdrop. He was both honest emotionally and hidden metaphysically. He was a foreshadowing of artistic roads not taken, his narcissism a narcissism of a realm we don't yet know, or maybe a realm we refuse to acknowledge. It was not possible for Brando to act in studio films, and probably even less possible for him to act in indie art films. His genius may be that he was our greatest actor with nowhere to practice his art, and therefore an oracle who could only create riddles of failure, and hence, maybe, our last tragic artist.

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John Steppling is a LA playwright (Rockefeller fellow, NEA recipient, and PEN-West winner) and screenwriter (most recent was Animal Factory directed by Steve Buscemi). He is currently living in Poland where he teaches at the National Film School in Lodz.

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Published July 5, 2004
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