‘On the Waterfront’: When Film Meets Life (III)

May 15, 2013 1:38 pm

When Marlon Brando told his father, Marlon Snr., he was going to make his first movie the older man told his son: ‘Take a look in the mirror, and tell me who’s going to want to look at your ugly mug on the screen.’

Brando’s relationship with his father, and indeed father figures of authority, was always fraught with tension that stayed with him throughout most of his life. He was born into a fractured, dysfunctional family. His father was a travelling salesman for pesticides and chemical fertilisers, a chronic alcoholic and abusive to his wife, Dorothy. During his father’s lengthy absences, Brando doted on his mother, herself an alcoholic. But she was the centre of his world. She was heavily into community theatre in Libertyville, Illinois, and encouraged him to join. She thought it may help calm him down, given his rebellious nature and lack of self-discipline. Marlon Brando

His school work went down the drain and he was pushed into the Shattucks Military Academy. He rebelled even more. He was insubordinate to a senior officer. He buried the clapper from the bell that marked each phase of the day. He was expelled because he lit a waste paper basket outside a colleague’s door using after shave lotion as a fuse. The burnt trail led to Brando’s door and he was kicked out. In 1944, he attempted to enlist but he was deemed physically unfit due to a knee injury from a football game. Professional sports and chiropractic experts did their best to increase his overall performance. But he didn’t recover completely. His father found him a job digging drainage ditches. Before long, he followed his sister Jocelyn to New York where she was pursuing an acting career.

He enrolled for classes at the Actor’s Studio which was run by Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, exponents of the Stanislavskian style of ‘Method’ acting where actors use memory recall to build ‘character’ and search inwardly for ‘motivation’, a continuation of the Group Theatre of the 1930s. In the meantime, he tried out for a variety of unsuitable acting parts. At one audition, he was asked to read from a script. Brando could not infuse the reading with any feeling and stood there on the stage and recited: ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ and walked out.

Hollywood comes knocking

It was inevitable his path would cross with Elia Kazan, who had links with the Actors’ Studio. He was an ex-member of the Group Theatre now a rising film-maker and theatre director of ‘social realist’ style story-telling that was beginning to gain ground in post-war America. Kazan had the role that would be the making of Brando – Stanley Kowalski, the animalistic, thuggish husband of a down-at-heel ‘Southern belle’ living in a rundown apartment. They are visited by her prententious, hypercritical sister Blanche and, while his wife Stella is in hospital having their baby, the sexual tension between Kowalski and sister-in-law erupts. The part won him accolades and the play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by Tennessee Williams, ran nearly two years.

But the thought of playing the same character day in and day out palled with Brando. He began to lose concentration. To relieve the boredom, he would go off script and throw his fellow actors. In the summer heat, cast members, when not required on stage, would take the air out on the roof of the theatre. In revenge for an earlier prank, fellow actor Karl Malden called to Brando on the roof that he had missed his cue. He ran onto the stage straight into the middle of a scene that didn’t call for his presence and the actors had to improvise to get him off stage.

Once, while playing Kowalski in a rage, he walked to the edge of the stage when two female audience members were giggling too loud and, in character, yelled: ‘Will you shut the fuck up?’ Without so much as a blink of the eye, he continued with his scene.

Brando’s eccentricity – he could be seen riding around the streets of New York on his motorcycle with his pet raccoon, Russell, on his shoulder – singled him out and it wasn’t long before Hollywood came knocking. He shunned any traditional parts and bided his time until a role he believed in came his way. He had little respect for standard Hollywood fare, where the hero always shines through in the end and has no flaws, no vulnerability. He was an admirer of the ‘social realism’ of European cinema. He took the role of a war veteran paraplegic, directed by German emigre, Fred Zinneman. It had Brando’s character initially refusing to come to terms with his life-changing injuries until he finally has to accept his lot.

To research his role, he stayed for a period with real paraplegics in a local hospital. He lived with them, ate with them, went drinking with them, in his own wheelchair. In a bar, a drunken lady came up to them and called on them ‘not to despair’, to give themselves up unto God and Jesus Christ. Brando yelled ‘Hallelujah!’ and jumped out of his chair and danced a jig: ‘I’m cured, goddammit!’ to the mirth of his wheelchair bound colleagues.

Although he acquitted himself well in the film ‘The Men’ (1950), the film wasn’t a box office draw perhaps due to the close proximity of war and its grim subject matter, and America was already in the midst of another bloody conflict in Korea. But his brooding performance had made its mark with the critics.

Mercilessly lampooned

His arrival in Hollywood itself was fully anticipated by the studios and the business press. He was met by his agent who brought with him Hedda Hopper, one of the doyens of film criticism and showbiz gossip, whose articles could make or break a career. Traditionally, ambitious actors were expected to lay on the charm with a trowel when meeting such luminaries, cultivate them, flatter them. When his agent made the introductions – “Marlon, I’d like to introduce you to -‘

‘Your mother?’ he said. It wasn’t the best of beginnings.

On being asked by a studio flunky if there was anything he could get him. Brando replied: ‘Sure. Where can I get my raccoon fucked?’

He would not play ball with the expectation to be compliant and give open access to the press. ‘I refuse to spread the peanut butter of my personality on the mouldy bread of the press,’ he once said. He warned off his friends not to share stories about him. The press decided that, if his friends wouldn’t talk, then his enemies would.

Marlon Brando StreetcarFollowing the success of his second film role, the filming of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (1951), he was mercilessly lampooned and clearly associated with the brutish, neanderthal character of Kowalski. The film rested on the acclaim of the theatrical version. Kazan himself felt it was little more than the filmed version of the play itself, hardly the kind of cinema he wanted to make. Nevertheless, Brando received his first Oscar nomination for ‘Streetcar’. His next film with Kazan – ‘Viva Zapata’ (1952) – likewise earned him another nomination. Playing the Mexican revolutionary did no harm to his image as the ‘rebel’. His role as ‘Johnnie‘,  the leader of a biker gang that takes over a small town in ‘The Wild One’ (1953) won fans in the growing ‘teenager’ market. In the same year, his Mark Anthony in ‘Julius Caesar’ helped silence those critics who sneered at his alleged inability to play a more ‘respectable’, mature role without his now much maligned ‘mumbling’.

But it was in Kazan’s ‘On the Waterfront’ where Brando came into his own. He and the role of the punch drunk ex- boxer Terry Malloty were made for each other.

Brando explored the vulnerability and complexity of a man torn between loyalty to his brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) who was mixed up in the rackets that ran the docks and the growing emotional attachment Terry was feeling for Edie (Eva Marie-Saint) the sister of the man he (Brando) had been tricked into luring to his death for threatening to give state evidence against the mob.

‘I coulda had class’

Terry is an uneducated man, inarticulate and used to putting on a tough front in the world he lives in. But Edie puts him in touch with his morals again. He struggles with his conscience and admits it was he who led her brother to his death. Kazan cleverly used the sound of a factory siren to drown out the words as Brando plays the scene, you only see their faces – Brando pleading, Marie-Saint in shock. Brando, as Terry, decides to do the right thing – talk to the Crime Commission about the corruption.

In an all time classic scene in the back of a taxi, on behalf of the local mobster, his brother Charlie confronts him, first with appeals to his loyalty.

Terry reminds Charlie about what ‘being loyal’ had done for him. He had taken a dive in a boxing match so the mobsters could make money for themselves. ”Oh, Charlie,’ says Terry, in that classic scene, ‘It was you, Charlie. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am.’

Charlie pulls a gun on him . Terry looks at the weapon and slowly shakes his head and simply says ‘Wow.’

It’s a simple scene and simply electric.

Brando won his first Oscar. The film won eight in all.

A new realism had entered the glitzy world of Hollywood and it spawned many an imitator, a new school of film, a new kind of acting. Without Brando, there would have been no James Dean, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Mickey Rourke, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro or Dustin Hoffman. He blazed the trail for realistic screen characters.

From then on, for Brando, it was all downhill. It seemed, once he had acceptance in Hollywood, he had little to strive for. His business interests with his father lost millions and he had to accept bad roles simply for the money, AND to fund his pet political and environmental projects – not to mention his divorce payments to ex-wives. Not until his comeback as Don Corleone in ‘The Godfather’ (1972) did he reclaim his crown.

But the’ Method’ style of acting had also become mainstream, and yet still, to some, anathema.

In the mid-Seventies, during the making of ‘The Marathon Man’, Dustin Hoffman starred with Sir Laurence Olivier, master of British Shakespearean theatre and screen. Hoffman returned to the set after running for five miles to feel the ‘pain’ of the long distance runner, so he could ’emote’ and find ‘motivation’ for character, as he explained to the actor-knight.

Olivier replied, returning to his newspaper: ‘Try acting, old boy.’

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