The Madness of King Marlon

Acting talents don't come bigger than Marlon Brando's. Nor do egos. For his latest £2m role, he refused to act while the director was on set, wouldn't wear trousers, and delegated his publicity to his dog. The result? A few minutes of usable film. David Thomson laments a tragicomic decline

Wednesday 18 July 2001 00:00 BST

Marlon Brando is 77 years old, and somewhere close to 350 pounds (that is, 25 stone). This is not a healthy or productive combination of numbers, and to judge from his few minutes of screen time in his new film, The Score, there is not much of energy or enthusiasm (let alone hope) left in the carcass of a once remarkable actor. There have been fat film people in the past – Sydney Greenstreet, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock – in whom weight never felt like a burden. Instead, it held the promise of repertoire, of variety – of cunning, menace, humour and experience all mixed together. In Brando, the sheer bulk is more than impediment; it is one more way in which he can feel the unfair world has victimised him. He sighs at having to carry himself, and the sigh slides him deeper into self-pity, the emotional abyss that always waited for him as an actor.

In America, however, it is not Brando's on-screen performance in The Score that has been attracting notice – after all, most of that was edited out, leaving the actor with only a brief cameo (for which he is reported to have been paid £2m). Instead, the papers have been making great mischief with tales of his extraordinary (even by Hollywood standards) behaviour around the set: gleefully reporting how he would arrive for work undressed below the waist, in order that the film-makers should shoot him only in close-up (and thus avoid revealing his true bulk). How he would humiliate the director, Frank Oz, known for his work on The Muppet Show, by addressing him as "Miss Piggy" and worse. (One witness has Brando taunting the hapless Oz with the words: "I bet you wish I was a puppet so you could stick your hand up my ass and make me do what you want.")

In the end, matters got so bad that Robert De Niro, playing the lead, was said to be directing the action, too – while Oz himself remained off set, issuing his own instructions via an intermediary. Requests for interviews with Brando have been directed to his dog, Doctor Tim, who replies to them by fax.

All of which has led us to ask the question again: whatever happened to the Marlon Brando of On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire and The Godfather, the actor called the greatest of his generation? And for some reason, this time, I thought of John Gielgud.

On long car drives recently, our family happens to have been listening to Gielgud reading from his memoir An Actor and His Time, written and recorded when he was about the age that Brando is now. His silver voice and ingénu enthusiasm sped the miles away. Gielgud chuckled at his own jokes, rejoiced in his good luck and – even on sound alone – he shone with the joy of acting. Of course, he had decades left yet, and he was working right up until his death, at the age of 96, happy to be asked, ready to try a new play, a classic, or even Lear on radio.

Hearing the tape, and having to see The Score, reminded me of a crucial moment when the careers of Gielgud and Brando met. It was 1953 (Gielgud was 49, Brando 29), and Gielgud was invited to Hollywood to play Cassius in a movie of Julius Caesar, to be directed by Joseph L Mankiewicz. The producer, John Houseman, had the bright idea of casting Brando as Mark Antony – Brando then was a stage sensation as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, and a burgeoning movie star in The Men, the film of Streetcar and Viva Zapata!

He took the challenge (having never played anything like classical theatre before), and had the great good fortune of falling into the friendly care and advice of Gielgud.

The English actor was generous with all the cast on how to speak the verse (let alone with tales of Shakespeare as done in London and Stratford). But he was especially open to Brando – because he saw the talent, the force and the potential. Brando made an impressive Mark Antony on film, and as the shooting ended, Gielgud proposed to the young American that they go back to London and make a trio (with Paul Scofield) in a season of classical plays. Brando begged off: he wanted to go scuba diving.

And this Brando, one of the most gifted actors of our time, has delivered in the past 20 years: The Formula, A Dry White Season, The Freshman, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, Don Juan DeMarco, The Island of Dr Moreau and, now, a few scenes in The Score. In the same age-span (approximately 1960-80) Gielgud's crammed record included David Storey's Home and Harold Pinter's No Man's Land on stage, a stunning performance as the dying novelist in Alain Resnais's film Providence, the lead in Peter Brook's production of Seneca's Oedipus, a supporting Oscar as the butler in Arthur, as well as dozens of other roles, some large, some modest, and his own boyish but absolute dedication to the craft, tradition and duty of acting.

Now, I realise that not many actors would want to have to compete with Gielgud's record: he was a driven worker but a non-neurotic genius who found no other passion in life (even though his Cassius on film came in the year of his arrest in London for "indecent" behaviour). But much the same is true of Brando (and I suspect it applies to any actor worth watching). They do not cope well with "life", with marriages, relatives, offspring, domesticity, or involvement in the affairs of the world. They are blessed or cursed (you can view it either way) with a need to be other people in public, to pretend, to be part of a show and the staged brightness that's never challenged by the real light of life.

Brando has failed that calling, and he has somehow created the idea of the great actor as an exile, an outcast or a disaffected soul. There's no doubt but that any actor or star of Brando's level has seen enough to know that the noble impulses to speak the speech and put on a show are often undermined by the corruption and the caprice of show business. There are always those forces doing it all for the money. And Brando, as early as the 1950s, had a habit of stepping back from the make-believe of some films, as if to mock the fraud in the enterprise. But that never took away from his own mounting demands as a star. In the last great Hollywood venture of his career – his Colonel Kurtz in Coppola's Apocalypse Now – he had demanded an extortionate deal that nearly crippled that production, and he then turned up on set in the Philippines terribly unprepared: he was overweight, and he had not even read Conrad's Heart of Darkness, on which the story was based. The contempt he felt for Hollywood had its proper history and justification, but the actor could no longer see how much he had become as bad as the worst part of that system.

Nothing in these charges will ever detract from Brando's glory: his Stanley on stage in New York that is still widely regarded as the foundation-stone of modern American acting; his punch-drunk ex-boxer in On the Waterfront; the happy daring of his Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, discovering that he could sing well enough to get away with it; the gorgeous, detailed realisation of a Sicilian outlaw who has become an American institution in The Godfather; and the simple courage and self-revelation in Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris. There were other fine things, of course, just as – from early on – there were travesties andmisjudgements (Desirée, Sayonara, Mutiny on the Bounty, Morituri, The Countess from Hong Kong). But for 20 years at least, there was always the chance that Brando had found something, and found himself in it, in a way that would be electrifying.

Perhaps a part of his problem lay in that high possibility – the need to be astonishing. He never seemed to discover something vital to Gielgud, say: the level of ordinary work, the movement from lead to supporting roles, and the natural assumption that the show depends on so many elements that some things are bound to be failures. But, in turn, that owes something to the baleful climate of stardom in America, and the way in which, in the early 1950s (with James Dean and Montgomery Clift as fellow-saints), Brando was vital to the notion of acting having laid hands on a new kind of truth that could survive the neglect or disdain of the commercial system.

Indeed, it was one of the worst liabilities of the Method that acting was hailed as something very close to authorship or the renewal of spiritual integrity. In fact, that easily led to the encouragement of incoherence (because if the actor felt a thing, it must be so), self-pity (in which the text of a play or a film became increasingly the agonised hesitation in the acting) and the cult of the actor (so that stars can order rewrites and changes in direction on a project). Grant then that, as Dean died so young, while Clift deteriorated so rapidly, you can see Brando's unlucky exposure to that burden – one for which he lacked either the intellectual resources or the professional discipline.

Suppose that in 1954, say, he had come to London, and let that experience build up his versatility and his humility as an actor... In fact, Brando has not been back on stage seriously since he did Stanley Kowalski on Broadway in 1947-8. A Gielgud would have marvelled that any actor could survive, let alone grow, without returning to the stage – where certain realities of shared work and duty, the primacy of text, and the bare economic realities are not to be avoided. Those are some of the reasons why Kevin Spacey came to London recently to do The Iceman Cometh. And those are also reasons for turning to look at, say, Charlton Heston and the late Jack Lemmon as actors of Marlon Brando's generation.

Neither Lemmon nor Heston, I would suggest, had Brando's natural gifts. Yet neither of them, I believe, would have entertained the possibility of holing up on Mulholland Drive, or in Tahiti, and watching the world pass by. Lemmon worked constantly: a lot of what he did was poor (in terms of script), and he was always prone to mannerism as well as self-pity. Heston has been spared those faults, yet consider how the essential star of the 1950s (from The Ten Commandments to Ben-Hur) is now more than willing to do TV movies, stage shows in Los Angeles, or minor roles in movies.

It comes to this, I think: that Gielgud grew up in a tradition where even the greatest actors felt the universe of acting, and the honourable place of elderly men and women, alone in the world, doing their small part for £15 a week. But Marlon Brando was trapped and ruined by a tradition that allowed the actor to think that he was larger than the show. Today, that grisly reality has nearly overtaken the swollen Brando, and its price leaves us all worse off.

'The Score' opens here on 14 Sept

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