Friday, 21 January 2011

Hero # 2 - Marlon Brando

Brando always tried to establish some kind of understanding of the male villain/hero. Implicit in all of his performances is a human conflict of emotions. His greatest achievement as an actor, the one that paves the way for those critics to describe him as the best actor of all time, is that he harnessed a deep seated conflict within himself.

What ate at Brando all his life, what made him struggle with depression and neurosis, was also that which allowed to him to excel and become a pioneer. What made him a manipulative and insecure man in his daily life, was also the very thing that made him an incredibly sensitive and subtle masculine screen presence.

Think of Stanley. The classic brute. The perfect example of archaic masculinity. Also potentially Brando’s crowning achievement. Certainly one of the best MALE screen performances, if not THE best, to date. I emphasise the male, because there are countless examples of this kind of subtlety and sensitiveness in female actors, but it tends to get overlooked. It is more pronounced in men because it is not expected, and hardly exists. Cagney had it, even John Wayne at times. But none of them have it quite as powerfully and pervasively as Brando.

What Brando succeeds in doing then, is imbuing even the most abusive male stereotypes with a pathos, and a sensuality that redeems them. It exhibits an underbelly, a wound that is at the root of their brutality. And he does this through his use of the physique, through his own femininity. And he does it quite on his own, outwith any script or intellectualism.

The result is a freshness of presence on screen. A danger. There is no one like Brando. That brooding, that mumbling, that sweaty turmoil, are all iconic aspects of a deeper craft in his performances. What Brando manages to do is something more than even the greatest of his directors could hope for. He conjures from within him a damaged child, and imbues the two dimensionality of his male characters with this depth and human susceptibility.

When I say he redeems them, I do not mean he makes us like these characters, or that he makes them acceptable. In fact, he makes them all the more terrifying. He does this through making them real. There is nothing more terrifying than UNDERSTANDING a criminal or an abusive person. There is nothing more haunting than peeling back the defences of a psychopath and seeing the deep humanness of their situation.

Brando was able to understand the motivations of dark drives of the human mind. In Apocalypse Now, Brando did three 45 minute takes for the final scenes with Kurtz. Getting to this place was a natural step for him as an actor. He was involved with this emotional psychological breakdown because he was an emotionally engaged human being. Even when he was overweight, even when he was old and “passed it” he was a sensual actor, he felt his way through a part with quick witted and physical presence that betrayed instinct. That is, an instinct for the human existential condition. And he brought this to his portrayal of wounded men.

To effectively argue my point would take a long time. Just look at the examples of his best work. Even in The Wild One, or One Eyed Jacks - both films that fell short of their promise due to studio interference. Brando created characters that were more than just dramatis personae. They were children wrapped in men’s bodies and he himself was a neglected boy in the body of a man. Brando's physical beauty masked the ugliness of a rage and sadness that comes from the worst sort of child abuse – neglect. This where he gets his pathos.

Brando talks in this way about his portrayal of the Nazi hero in The Young Lions, in his book. He gives the guy a three dimensionality that is non-existent in other portrayals of the Nazi evil. All Brando’s characters, are who they are out of a perceived necessity within them. His sensitivity as an actor lies in his ability to transcend the social perceptions of a character and what he represents. He homes in on their own quest for survival.

I believe that this was Brando’s greatness. And I believe that it was no more important than in his portrayal of the many modern male stereotypes that he tackled.
There are so many to be studied and they all point towards what I am saying. But for the sake of brevity, take Johnny in The Wild One. Again, Brando talks about this in his book. This is one of the many films that never quite allowed Brando to achieve what he was shooting for, due to the pressures and demands of the cutting floor. But Johnny is a dark character. If we look beyond the dated and camp nature of the film, the superficiality of the way it was marketed and is still perceived, we can see Brando psychologically break down the concept of the rebel.

Brando understood the delinquent, because he was one. Not just in the socially received sense, but he was a spiritual delinquent, a poet, and therefore an outcast. His emotional make up, and his experiences in childhood created a deep understanding of the loneliness and terror that turn a man towards violence and aggressiveness.

There are moments, in the café bar, with the girl, where we can see darkness and despair overtake his eyes. Those eyes turn black like lava. He becomes the serpent in the Garden, a corrupting force. Contrast this with sincerity and openness of the boyish smile he gives her at the end, even after all that he has done to her. The darkness and the coldness, the wilful and pervasive anger within him, are not beyond the reach of his humanity. They are PART of it.

What Brando does, and which no male actor seems capable of doing now, is to present us with the humanity behind the wounded male. He gives a depth to the abuser, where we understand him, though we might not like him. We understand, EMPATHISE even, with the frustration, and it is this that is the most controversial, but also the most important, of Brando’s achievements as a man, as well as an actor.

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