How Marlon Brando Invented Rock'n'Roll

On the afternoon of July 2nd 2004 I was, like everyone else, absorbing the news that Marlon Brando had passed away the previous day. Then the phone went.
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On the afternoon of July 2nd 2004 I was, like everyone else, absorbing the news that Marlon Brando had passed away the previous day. Then the phone went.

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To begin with, the conversation was much what you’d expect from two people who’d heard unwelcome news that left them with too much to say and no earthly idea where to begin.

“You heard?”

“I heard.”

“Fuck.”

“Yeah, fuck.”

“Jesus. He’s gone.”

“Fuck. He’s gone.”

For ten minutes or so, that’s about as articulate as it went. Until the friend said something that, in lending the news about Brando a range and a certain dimension, suggested a way forward for the conversation that was ultimately to last deep into the early hours of the following day. It was a conversation mostly about great men who make the impossible seem inevitable, then somehow come undone.

This is what the friend said to kick it all off.

“Y’know what? This is like when Elvis died. It’s that big.”

You might figure roughly where I’m going with this when I remind you that the week of Brando’s death coincided with the 50th anniversary of the suddenly miraculous moment that is widely, almost universally accepted as the moment that gave birth to what we know as rock’n’roll. The moment when Sam Phillips heard Elvis Presley and his two sidemen “goosing up” an Arthur Crudup number called That’s All Right in the Sun Studio and had the good sense to know that what he was hearing was what he’d been looking for all along.

There are those who argue that Elvis gets too much credit for pulling the pin on the cultural grenade that was to detonate in the Fifties and continue blowing a hole through time right up to the present; and that the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and a long roll-call of others receive too little in the way of historical recognition. Maybe so. But, if you’re looking for a single figure who both symbolized the insurgent urges of that time and who was possessed of the devastating charisma to impress himself on the consciousness of a whole generation, then Elvis is surely your man. Unless, this is, you’re prepared to look back a little further and consider the catalytic, combustible force that was the young Brando.

As Brando exploded onto the screen in 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire, he did so with the force of pre-history. When he stood at the foot of that winding staircase in a sweat-drenched tee-shirt and yelled, “Stell-aaaah”, with such beautiful storm-tossed anguish, it was a moment as imperatively rock’n’roll as “Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom.” To start making sense of such a revelatory moment (and Brando in Streetcar is nothing if not one long revelatory moment), we might start with his acting performance in that movie which, by universal assent, redefined the approach to and the meaning of screen acting. By the time Streetcar came to the screen, he’d spent nearly three years honing the role of Stanley Kowalski on the New York stage where his performances would famously earn ovations lasting as long as 30 minutes. By common consent, what was witnessed on that stage was the beginning of something for which there was no known precedent.

"The week of Brando’s death coincided with the 50th anniversary of the suddenly miraculous moment that is widely accepted as the moment that gave birth to what we know as rock’n’roll."

Let it be said that Brando was not the first actor to bring to the screen the style known as The Method, the internalised acting technique developed by Stanislavsky in the 1920s and popularised in New York in the 1940s. Montgomery Clift, for one, had got there before. But Brando was the first to mine the Method’s furthermost possibilities and, if anything, transcend them. Some of the best actors of the time were known to go and see Streetcar on stage in an attempt to figure out exactly how Brando did it – as if what Brando did could be learned just by looking at him long enough. Every last one of them went away scratching their heads, none the wiser. Meaning that, sometime before Streetcar transferred from stage to screen, The Method had become Brando’s method and that Brando’s method was such a radical break with tradition that it made most actors that had come before him look as though they were doing little more than reciting lines whilst trying not to bump into the scenery.

Just as nobody had seen anything like Brando on a stage before, then sure as hell nobody had ever seen anything like him up there on the screen. Previous screen stars had been, as the late Anthony Quinn once pointed out, “proper, clearcut and unambiguous, almost without exception.” Those exceptions including Bogart, Cagney and Welles we can safely presume. As the director Tony Kaye remarked after Brando’s death, “I think he invented reality on film.” What Brando brought to the role of Stanley Kowalski was a brutal authenticity that was fixed entirely in the white heat of the moment. Something as realistic as life. The shocking behavioural truth of his performance, drawn from the actor’s own Byzantine emotional pit, created an instant screen icon in Stanley and made a new kind of movie hero out of Brando.

To judge Brando purely in terms of his acting would be akin to sizing up Elvis only in terms of a chord progression and a vocal inflection. To understand the revolutionary impact of Brando in Streetcar, we are obliged to look beyond the performance itself and accept the fact that Brando, on the back of Streetcar, became a kind of centripetal force, drawing towards him the restless energies and inarticulate, unfocussed yearnings of the time and giving them suck and shape; all of it as instinctive as the radioactive waves of a cell gravitating to its nucleus. Simply, Brando became the Fifties’ first icon of social rebellion and he became so three years before Sam Phillips enjoyed his wild “Eureka!” moment in the Sun Studio. Brando was the Fifties first fantasy figure and what he promised was something far more potent than freedom itself - the fantasy, the illusion of freedom.

Consider the famous moment in 1953’s The Wild One when Brando, as the leather-clad motorcycle gang leader, brute coolness personified, is asked, “What’re you rebelling against, Johnny?” and replies with the surly open-endedness of the prototypical streetcorner upstart, “Whattya got?” Back in the early Fifties, there was plenty for a would-be rebel to pick from. Everything that Kerouac had in mind when he wrote about, “everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time,” in On The Road. Everything that was smug, narrow, moderate, ordered, restrained, temperate. Everything contained within a suburban picket fence existence, everything that suggested a flat, eventless horizon. Everything grey and boring and carefully buttoned down. Everything that unremittingly conformed. Everything that suggested limits imposed by convention. In that indelible “Whattya got?” moment, Brando managed to articulate the most pressing need of an entire generation. A need to kick against everything that Holden Caulfield meant by “phoney” in The Catcher In The Rye. Along with a need to obliterate all the fear that was in the air.

Because there was genuine fear in the air back then. There was the kind of fear inspired by Commie witch-hunts, the Cold War and The Bomb, engendering a faintly comical post-war mania for security and suspicion. But that fear was more like a paranoid shadow, thickly gathering but still at a distance. Up closer, the most fearful outside enemy was difference – anything different, anything too ambiguous, anything too impatient for change. And it was Brando who brought that promise of how different things could be to the very centre of the culture. When he ripped into the Fifties with Streetcar and then raised the bar on his talent even further with On The Waterfront, he emblematised everything – raw honesty, nonconformity, a limitless sense of liberation – that society did not.

Elvis would follow him and would fuse similar sensibilities on an even grander scale. But, even at his most creatively eruptive (his Sun period from 1954-1955), Elvis never succeeded in totally convincing as an authentic rebel. That’s not to say he was not a transcendent figure; he was. It’s just that, with Elvis, you could never quite lose sight of the good ol’ boy with the perfect manners who loved Jesus and worshipped his mom and who would almost certainly liked to have had his rebellion without ever leaving home. One look at Brando in any of his early movies and you were left in no doubt that he was the real deal – that there was no manufacture in that convulsive rage, that primeval sexuality and that swaggering rebellion which more often than not looked as if it had no cause except itself though anything else that cared to stick to it could do as it damn well liked. In Streetcar, Waterfront and even The Wild One (a lightweight movie packed with so many potent images that instantly took on the power of myth), Brando symbolized the very qualities that Greil Marcus once identified as those which define America best although not necessarily America at its best. Complicated and dangerous and alive.

"When he stood at the foot of that winding staircase in a sweat-drenched tee-shirt and yelled, “Stell-aaaah”, it was a moment as imperatively rock’n’roll as 'Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom'."

Even when he was playing essentially brutish characters, Brando invested them with precisely the right amount of wounded sensitivity and therefore made them both wholly believable and intrinsically poetic. Without doubt, he was always in his element when called upon to brood. Of course, he brooded with magnificent introspection in all his most legendary roles (in Streetcar, Waterfront, Godfather, Last Tango and Apocalypse Now). Maybe it’s just that Brando looked tormented even when he was not, just as Dean Martin always looked pie-eyed even when he was stone cold sober.

Even if we knew precisely nothing about Brando’s life, it’s a fair bet that the torment he exuded on screen would strike us as an authentic emotion, that’s to say an emotion drawn directly from his own experience. Perhaps that’s what made him seem so compellingly edgy in the best of his work. The torment was a chief part of the spell that he cast. And, such was the power of that spell that it succeeded in working its strange magic even when Brando was between scenes. Think of how the atmosphere in the Kowalski apartment crackles with his seductive menace all the way through Streetcar, even though Brando is absent for long stretches. Or how the sweet and monstrous presence of Vito Corleone appears to haunt just about every frame of The Godfather, as if in league with the ominous play of shadows and the funereal cadences of the soundtrack music. Hell, there’s even times during The Godfather 11 when it’s like you can feel Brando hovering phantom-like behind the action and have to pause to remind yourself that he’s not actually in the movie. Then there’s Apocalypse Now (Redux) where every moment of the first 170 minutes trembles in near-unbearable anticipation of Willow reaching the end of the river to find Kurtz’s tormented face looming out of the Cambodian gloam.

There was never any getting away from Brando. Like in the way that it was damn near impossible to have any halfway intelligent discussion about the movies of the past fifty years without finding yourself talking about him and then finding that, as soon as you started talking about him, there was so much to say about him that it was impossible to talk about anything or anyone else.

OK, straight up, his reputation rests on only a handful of movies and he made an awful lot of shit. But not nearly as much shit as we’ve been led to believe by the recent obituarists. Sure, there’s out-and-out turkeys like Candy, Morituri, The Appaloosa, A Countess From Hong Kong, The Nightcomers and everything he made after Apocalypse Now except for The Freshman and Don Juan De Marco; any of which you’d be insane to even think about retrieving from the bin of memory. At the other end of the pole, there’s the five certifiable works of genius (Streetcar, Waterfront, Godfather, Tango, Apocalypse). Then, between those extremes, there’s an entire raft of movies up for serious reconsideration. I’ll bet we can all argue the case for at least one Brando movie that rightfully deserves a place in the first-rank alongside the acknowledged top-drawer classics. When did any of us last check Viva Zapata!, The Chase or The Fugitive Kind? Reflections In A Golden Eye, Julius Caesar or The Young Lions? Or why not go out on a limb and buy up a bargain basement video of The Missouri Breaks where, for the price of a pint, you’ll get to see Brando juggle a variety of accents, dress up as Old Mother Hubbard, swallow a live fish and still manage to steal the show from under the nose of Jack Nicholson. That’s value for money, right there.

The actress Julie Harris, who starred with him in Reflections In A Golden Eye, once said, “Marlon was innately brilliant but it was all scattered, almost as if he’d been told early on that he was nothing and worthless. Yet his work was so beautiful and so pure there was no explaining where it came from. Maybe he didn’t love acting, but his gift was so great he could never completely destroy it.” Which leads you to think that there’s always at least one good reason to watch even a second-string Brando movie. Because, even when he’s sleepwalking through a part or when he’s acting to an unsalvageable script in a formulaic movie, there’ll be at least one moment, even the tiniest of epiphanies, played out with a teasing turn of phrase or a barely imperceptible gesture, when he’ll reveal some startling truth about the character he’s playing and you’ll be reminded of the mysterious thing that made his genius reputation in the first place.

The commonly perceived tragedy is that Brando made not enough movies commensurate with his enormous talent. OK, no prizes for spotting that. The popular wisdom is that Brando simply stopped caring. And, as his friend Billy Redfield once remarked, “To stop caring is the last stop on the streetcar.” On the face of it, he stopped caring almost as soon as he’d begun. As early as 1947, shortly after Streetcar hit the stage, he could be found expressing his contempt for the craft that he would single-handedly alchemize into an art form worth taking seriously as any other. “Acting is like slicing baloney,” he remarked to one interviewer. It was the first of many such comments and success only appeared to heighten that legendary contempt. By the mid-Fifties, with his first Oscar already in the bag, he declared, “the only reason I’m making movies is that I don’t have the moral courage to turn the money down.” It was a theme he’d happily return to again and again, describing acting as a con, a lie, a bunch of bullshit, just another way of making dough.

It’s been argued that once he’d developed such contempt for acting, that contempt robbed him of the will to excel. Only Brando never seemed to know or care when he’d excelled or when he’d delivered a dud. Perhaps the reason he never felt any obligation to transcendence in his work was that he never believed he’d ever achieved it. Plaudits meant nothing to him. Winning an Oscar might be the Holy Grail for most actors. But Brando regarded the hullabaloo around the annual ceremony with open bemusement. For his first Oscar (for Waterfront), director Elia Kazan had to practically keep him locked up in the weeks leading to the nominations to safeguard against him publically denigrating the awards and fucking with his chances. By the time of his second Oscar (for The Godfather), his bemusement had coalesced into total indifference and, when not bothering to turn up, he couldn’t even bring himself to try on a variation on Woody Allen’s “I’m busy playing my clarinet” excuse.

Without the faintest suggestion of disingenuousness, Brando would casually denigrate his finest performances. Some of his great movies he very nearly never made at all. He’d repeatedly turned down the role of Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront, for instance, and the part almost went to Sinatra until Brando relented, having realised that he’d need the loot to pay for his four weekly sessions of psychoanalysis. Then, “I was so depressed by my performance that I got up and left the screening-room.” On the other hand, he’d regularly laud an inconsequential movie like Queimada! (AKA Burn!) as the best work he ever did.

There’s a possibility, of course, that his pronouncements about his work were so much bullshit. Or at least a neat way of deflecting attention away from himself. Brando was a proven master at that. Maybe he realised to the full the kind of myth he’d created and wanted no part of it. Maybe he realised how much of a trap that myth had become for him. And maybe he didn’t. What’s for sure is that he never made a secret of the fact of his own unhappiness and the fact that acting, the one route that might have offered a plausible lifeline, had a way of exacerbating that unhappiness. In 1957, in a famous profile (The Duke In His Domain) Truman Capote wrote for The New Yorker, Brando was quoted as saying that he was already considering retirement, “Because the last eight or nine years have been a mess. (When you’re an actor) the more sensitive you are, the more certain you are to be brutalized, develop scabs. So you must never evolve, never allow yourself to feel anything, because you always feel too much.”

"One look at Brando in any of his early movies and you were left in no doubt that he was the real deal – that there was no manufacture in that convulsive rage, that primeval sexuality and that swaggering rebellion."

He’d been in therapy since 1947, seeking to explore the root causes of his panic attacks and violent rages that led him all the way back to a childhood containing enough emotional abuse from his alcoholic parents to keep a team of shrinks in active service for at least a few lifetimes. In one of those rare moments of self-revelation he was given to in his rare interviews, he once admitted that it was the neglect he felt from his warring, alcoholic parents that drove him to pretend, to act, in the first place. What soon became apparent is that Brando emerged from his youth in a state of psychic turmoil that helped bring his performances alive, first on stage and then on screen.

It’s too easy to imagine the toll that took on his soul. Indeed, it was all up there on the screen if you cared to look closely enough. No more so than in 1972’s unsparing Last Tango In Paris where he exposed himself like never before. “From the beginning of that movie,” writer/director Bernando Bertolucci later said, “Brando was aware of the possibility of going beyond what is normally asked of him. I asked him to bring to the film all his experience as an actor and a man. He was asked to become the character in a way that was not synonymous with ceasing to be Brando.”

It was F Scott Fitzgerald who famously said that there are no second acts in American lives. Elvis had discredited that notion back in 1968 and Brando was to do so six years later, achieving the most unexpected of creative redemptions with first The Godfather and then Tango. “But I’m all washed up,” were his first words to author Mario Puzo when first sounded out about the role of Vito Corleone. And it’s worth remembering just how far he was considered to have sunk below the cultural horizon at that time. Both Godfather and Tango courted the risk of disaster. The role of Corleone was much coveted. Indeed, Orson Welles later remarked that he’d have happily sold his soul to have had a crack at it. Brando was hired by Coppola despite the studio’s deepest misgivings. Anything less than a magnificent performance in Godfather would have been viewed as abject failure. And, of course, he turned in one of the transcendent performances of American cinema, a study of power and impotence that once again reminded us that his gift was far richer and far-reaching than we thought.

Then came his performance in Tango. If anything, even more transcendent because it was a performance in which he finally cast off all disguises and, with what can only have been a supreme effort of will, reached far deeper than he’d ever previously dared. What Brando had to show us of his inner depths, what he effectively spewed up in Tango, was more anger, more bitterness, more self-loathing and more pain that we could possibly have imagined.

And more than he could possibly bear. “Last Tango In Paris required far too much emotional arm-wrestling with myself,” he would say. “When it was finished, I decided I wasn’t ever again going to destroy myself emotionally to make a movie. In doing that role, I felt I had violated my innermost self and didn’t want to suffer like that anymore.” There’s a world of pain right there and, of course, there was a great deal more pain to come his way through the Eighties and Nineties as his chaotic personal life appeared to dance with tragedy at every turn until, in 1994, the dance played out in a Shakespearean whirl of murder, suicide and a welter of grief and regret beyond imagining.

In the midst of his son’s murder trial (see panel), Brando stood on courtroom steps and spoke to reporters. This is what he said. “If you want to know what misery is, just come over to my house.” Then, as I recall, he wept. Perhaps for the first time, he gave us more truth than we wanted. Because the best of his work was always about the truth. In Streetcar and Waterfront, he showed us the truth and, once the truth was out, we wanted more of it and Brando couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver. That’s one way of describing the curve of his career.

As Jack Nicholson remarked after his death, “Just as there was painting before and after Picasso, there is acting before and after Brando.” He really was that pivotal a figure. And, as long as we can surely dwell on his various declines in the Sixties, Eighties and beyond, it’s worth remembering that he went unchallenged as the residing movie-acting genius until De Niro came along. Furthermore, it’s worth arguing whether anyone, De Niro included, ever accepted his unspoken challenge to pick up where he left off and lead screen acting into an expedition towards an even deeper purity, an even greater truth.

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