Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Brando Revisited

They don't make like them like they used to. No more is this cliché applicable than to Hollywood men. Not to hate on the array of contemporary talent, but can we seriously compare Orlando Bloom to Montgomery Clift? Can you look me in the eye and say Russell Crowe for all his potency as a male lead, has the same masculine gravitas as John Wayne?

Movies have always been vulnerable to the accusation of perpetuating unhealthy stereotypes. And these attacks are not the prerogative of the feminist. From good guys and bad guys, father figures to hopeless bachelors, the film industry has a lot to answer for when it comes to it's formulaic portrayal of men.

There seems to be a resurgence of the action hero and comic book narratives in modern movies. The fact that the likes of Sylvester Stallone are so keen to return to the screens and assume the Reaganite characters of their former glory suggests a dearth of masculine heroes.

Things were not always so hopeless. In the 1950's something happened to American cinema that would change what it meant to be a man. A post-war world demanded a post-war male, a man whose heroic grace was mirrored in his insecurity and his emotive sensuality.

Just as the pill liberated women from their sexual paralysis, the Second World War put to rest the idolatry surrounding masculine archetypes such as the loyal soldier or civic leader. Such ideals were no longer so noble or so sweet.

We've already mentioned Montgomery Clift, a now sadly neglected talent, who mastered a conflict of vulnerabilities that allowed him to be at once acutely sensitive and charmingly aggressive on screen.

And don't forget this was also the age of James Dean, the original damaged pretty boy. Neurotic, skinny, narcissistic, tender and loving, all in one ball of confusing prowess. He could go from a pathetic bleating to a screeching violence in one breath, and in those moments he was not so much acting as using his profession for psychotherapy.

However, if this generation of emotionally articulate rebels had a leader it was in Marlon Brando. Even pronouncing the name evokes a cultural pathos. The son of drunken parents, his mother a wounded actress, and his father an abusive salesman, Brando inherited a feminine talent and a masculine temperament. The combination would be lethal not only to his competitors on screen, but to the very ideas of what it meant to be male in a century of humanitarian disasters.

It would also be his destruction as much as it was his making as an actor.

But too much has been said about this man's failings. They are many, and they shocking. A tragically bad father, and a pathological womaniser, it's not difficult to take a dig at Brando for demonstrating the very archaic behaviours he hated his own father for embodying.

On screen it is a different story. It is simplistic to condemn his later work. Those who do are setting out to criticise. Shakespeare himself lost his mojo in the autumn of his career. Brando died basically a laughing stock, fat and isolated from, and contemptuous of, the industry that had once worshiped him.

However, there is a clear legacy, and it goes beyond memorable performances. Name any male from the spectrum of celebrity, from Russell Brand to Bob Dylan, and they have been affected by what Brando did for the modern man.

Brando always tried to establish some kind of understanding of the male villain/hero. Implicit in all of his performances is a deeply human conflict of emotions. Three random examples from his career serve to illustrate this.

Perhaps his greatest acting achievement is as Stanley Kowlaski in the screen adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Kowalski is the perfect example of archaic masculinity. He enforces his own twisted code upon a household of women, sweating, roaring and drinking as he pleases. However, Brando gives this man a curiously attractive streak. Not just in his beauty, but in his vibrant presence, his layered sensuality. There is as much desperation, terror and neediness in Brando's Kowalski as there is violence and ignorance.

His most iconic role is as Johnny Strabler in The Wild One (1953). 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 an emotional delinquent, and therefore an outcast.

There are moments, in his scenes with Mary Murphy, 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. We contrast this with the sincerity and openness of the boyish smile he gives her at the end of the film, even after all that he has done to her. The darkness and the coldness, the willful and pervasive anger within him, are part and parcel of the character's childish vulnerability.

In his portrayal of Christian Diestl in the 1958 classic The Young Lions, Brando gives what had already become Nazi stereotypes a fresh three dimensionality. he set out to show the loyalty and the pride that allowed so many to endorse such devastating evil. There have been great performances in Nazi roles since, but none have been so sympathetic and so intimate. The moral line of what Diestl is doing is never clear, and yet Brando's emotional range means you can't help but root for his redemption.

What Brando does is imbue 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. What Brando achieved, and which no male actor seems capable of doing now, was 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 legacies as a man, as well as an actor.

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