Focus: American beauty

He made too many bad films. He got fat and wasted his talent. But Marlon Brando was also the greatest screen actor of the cinema age, a peerless blend of toughness, beauty and vulnerability. Here the world's best film writer evaluates an actor whose best performances spoke for his nation
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Marlon Brando came of age in the great surge of optimism that followed the Second World War. He was the actor most identified with the new psychological naturalism, the thing called Actors Studio acting, or the Method. At the same time, he was driven by the rhythms in the new bebop music of such people as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis - and Brando fell in love with women of colour as a matter of civil duty.

He was the prince of the new theatre flourishing under Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. He was as hip and cool as the great popular music of Cole Porter and Harold Arlen, and he was as dynamic as the abstract expressionist paintings of De Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. Part of what made him sensational in 1947 was this glorious embodiment of the moment. He was also the most tough/beautiful guy anyone had ever seen, an unruly kid from the Midwest who carried his problems with his own parents on to the stage and screen and found that millions shared his pain.

At the end, 57 years later, he was a stranded hulk of a man, nearly alone, his funds drained by the needs of a mounting band of unhappy children. (No one is quite sure how many there were.) In his last days, there were stories that he was hopelessly broke. The situation sounds bad enough to deserve some relief: being Marlon Brando had stopped being fun some long time ago, though everyone who ever knew him would tell you that fun, mischief, practical jokes, earthy humour and raw spontaneity were his delight.

The obituaries make Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now seem like a rehearsal for the final isolation of our greatest actor, and there were ways, I suspect, in which this was a contrived and even an engineered role. For there was self-pity and self-destructiveness in Brando that could not endure the compromises in straight American success.

His enormous appetites - for food, for sex and for money - were all pursued to prove how free he was, and yet finally they simply exposed his childishness, or his refusal to take on self-discipline. Emotionally, he reckoned himself always a misfit, and in real terms he was surely destined to be an outcast giant whose every sigh added to his own legend.

Acting dates, of course, and film is a cruel medium in that it lets us laugh at things that once moved people to the depth of their being. The Brando who became a model for the Actors Studio style already looks like a figure from history. Even Terry Malloy, in On the Waterfront (for which he won his first Oscar), now seems a very angelic, poetical ex-boxer. But Brando was always as much a romantic as he was a brute: there was no kind of moment in which he was more magical than when a plain man was suddenly pierced by a fine thought.

On the other hand, his Vito Corleone strikes us still as a decent, rather humble man, a family man and a businessman, blessed to be in America, but led astray and terribly pained to think that his best beloved son, Michael, might have to follow his own dark steps. The Godfather is a very complex parable - it has lasted so more richly than On the Waterfront - and that is because Vito is so ordinary and natural a man, and because the film knows the ease with which American idealism can become dreadfully compromised. Brando's Colonel Kurtz had gone "up the river" in Vietnam for similar reasons - because the best soldier of his time had seen how macabre the American armed forces had become. Brando's Kurtz had seen Abu Ghraib. Look at Apocalypse again, and you cannot miss the dismay at where America was headed - more than 30 years ago.

And that is a vital part of Marlon Brando's importance. He made too many very bad films, but four or five times in his life he found himself cast in roles that were emblematic of the inner confusions of his nation.

The first such role, of course, was Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Read that play on the page and it is unmistakably about Blanche Du Bois. Stanley is away a lot of the time. But in our culture now it is a play about the two of them, in large part because the director, Elia Kazan, had to have a male figure with whom he could identify. And so a weird chemistry took effect: for Kazan's heterosexual thrust animated the gay metaphor in Tennessee Williams' play.

The sensation of that production of Streetcar - the 30-minute ovation - was never just for Blanche. (Who played Blanche? It was Jessica Tandy.) It was for this new male figure on stage, so close you could smell the sweat, a brute and a beauty at the same time - and Brando the kid had such beauty it may have nearly overwhelmed the actor sometimes. But the notion that turbulence and incoherence had poetry and passion within was not just the engine to the Method, and all the naturalistic acting that came from it - it was the script that James Dean, Elvis Presley and every teen icon ever since would act out. It is also a horribly American type: so strong, so anxious to be thought powerful, yet so desperate for tenderness.

The other great role that those words could describe is his American in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, made at a moment when the movies were so intoxicated by their own advances into sexual behaviour that they needed a big star to really, truly "do it" on screen. Only an outsider would have taken that part. Only our generosity lets the history pass that Brando was never as naked or vulnerable in the film as the woman, Maria Schneider. But then you have to consider the quality of personal pain that Brando brought to the film's situation, and the astonishing way in which it established sexuality as the template of existence.

Of course, he lived in an age when actors gained immense power and glamour. Just as they took more of a picture's money, so they came, in the eyes of the public, to be responsible for those films. Such myths are seldom accurate, however. Most actors depend on material, on directors and writers, and on the circumstances of a production. More and more in modern times they have had to become businessmen, prepared to produce their own films, and hopeful that the inspiration will not clash with the constant managerial work.

Brando had never had much education, and he rarely mustered the stamina to be a businessman. So his choice fluctuated, and far too many of his movie projects lost his own interest and attention long before they were concluded. The worst instance of that was One-Eyed Jacks, the Western he set out to direct. The story of vengeance and of a man's unhealed relationship with a father is compelling. But Brando walked away from the unedited material in despair. He never tried directing again.

In politics, there was the same mixture of whim and wistfulness. He was deeply moved, from time to time, by the plight of Native Americans, by the wrongs done to black people and by the life of Pacific islanders. (He owned a small island.) But his commitment faltered and was often seen as feeble self-promotion, such as when he sent an alleged Indian maiden to decline his Oscar for The Godfather.

Of course, we wanted so much more - his Lear, his Hamlet, his Uncle Vanya, his Willy Loman. We wanted the plays that might have been inspired by him if he had stayed loyal to the theatre. Imagine Mamet or Shepard writing for Brando. Suppose he had accepted the invitation, in the early Fifties, to join a stage company with John Gielgud and Paul Scofield. But instead he went to a Los Angeles he never liked and a business that he despised. In truth, he handled the money like a kid in a candy store, but then he would rebuke the American system for its irresponsibility and its greed. He wanted everything, and he wanted to be the hero. Though he grew vast and decrepit, he may never have grown up.

It is an ending that reminds one of Orson Welles, another great American artist who could hardly live in his own country. It is striking, and not entirely beyond the bounds of great dramatic timing, that Brando's death comes at a moment when maturity seems tragically necessary for America yet tormentingly distant.

In that sense, his death seems more eloquent and moving than the recent demise of Ronald Reagan, a fellow actor who never shared Brando's tragic vision. The hulk is at rest now; but we begin the grimmer life that can no longer anticipate another 10 minutes of startling insight, murmured, muttered and, yes, sometimes mumbled. Why not? He made the speeches of dramatic characters seem like something a unique human being was struggling to utter.