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Take the Money and Run: In his later years, Marlon Brando (pictured with Robert De Niro) grew frustrated with acting, though that didn't stop him from taking small parts in lesser pictures like the 2001 De Niro heist movie 'The Score,' which ended up being his final film.

Bigger Than Life

The career of Marlon Brando

By Richard von Busack

"Pound for pound, our finest actor," jibed Rodney Dangerfield in Meet Wally Sparks. This gag summed up the tone of most of the writing about Brando in the last 20 years of his life, though few of the commentators had Dangerfield's succinctness. In bloating up, Brando did the one thing no one can forgive in the movie industry. It was such an affront you can't believe he didn't do it deliberately, to piss off all the right people.

As a result of this poundage—and more implicitly, that contempt—Brando bypassed a generation's esteem. He became an actor's actor, appearing in movies no one saw, guest starring in parts Charles Laughton would have turned down as too flamboyant.

That's not to say he wasn't a reliable pleasure. For example, consider him slathered in clown-white-like layers of zinc oxide in the baroque recent version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, a part Laughton originated. Viewers balked, but probably what Brando was merely trying to suggest was that this mad doctor was sensitive to the tropical sun.

On the contrary, when he downshifted for a heist movie called The Score, he was tented in his clothes, exhausted, but relatively normal, defeated by his own bulk and the retreaded script. He supposedly needled the director, Frank Oz, late of the Muppets: "I bet you wish I was one of your puppets."

Other Metroactive articles about Brando

Little Deaths: Richard von Busack's 1997 review of 'The Godfather.'

Stickup in the Mud: Jimmy Aquino's 2001 review of 'The Score.'

War Story 2: von Busack's 2001 review of 'Apocalypse Now Redux.'

Brando loved comedy. He was weird and funny as a sex guru in 1968's Candy, a fraud whose joints creak when he enters the lotus position and who claims her can converse with vegetables. His guru, named Grindl, tells a story about a pig who fell in love with a flower. The flower told the pig he was dirty, unusually dirty even for a pig, and that if he washed, the flower might find some love in its heart. As the pig entered the river to bathe, he was devoured by an alligator.

This awful story is designed to mock the seeming pointlessness of Eastern lore. ("How should I know what it means?" mutters Grindl, in a New Jersey accent that keeps breaking through his Hindi dialect.) In relation to an actor like Brando, the meaning is fairly clear. As far as Brando was concerned, cleaning up his method, refining it for public consumption and popular appeal, prettifying it, was as good as instant death.

Critic Pauline Kael saw Brando on Broadway, during one of the 13 performances of a 1946 flop play titled Truckline Café. Brando played a soldier who has just murdered his wife out of jealousy. Kael wrote that she looked away—she thought this young actor was having a fit onstage.

By Christmas of the following year, Brando was in a hit—doing 851 performances as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. By 1954, he'd made On the Waterfront and The Wild One and played a phenomenally subtle Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar. The last role, acted against a cast of seasoned Shakespeareans like John Gielgud and James Mason, was a particular risk for Brando. He was subject to far more mockery about it than, say, Mel Gibson was when he played Hamlet.

Except for the three big roles after 1954—and what an exception they are, The Godfather, the self-loathing lover in Last Tango in Paris and Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now—Brando's most substantial work was done before he was 30. That explains something: Brando's bluntness, his cynicism, his truculence, his tendency to take the money and run.

His last really lovable part was in the film-schoolish 1990 comedy The Freshman, in which he did the most affectionate sendup of his Don Corleone. The Freshman was all about that ambiguity, with Matthew Broderick as a film student who can't resist the fatherly friendship of the importer "Jimmy the Toucan" (Brando).

Many actors try not to delve too far into what makes a character work, for fear of being like the centipede in the story that crippled himself by trying to figure out which foot goes first. But Brando understood that part of the dark magic of Corleone was that he was the kind of standup father that many in the audience would have wanted—that in longing such an old-world, loving father, they'd consent to having a ruthless murderer for a dad.

If you understood that dark longing, how could you have anything but the most suspicious relationship with movies in general and acting in particular? "There's no such thing as a great movie—a Rembrandt painting, a Mozart chamber music. These are great." Brando similarly summed up of the character of an actor—"an actor is someone, if you ain't talking about him, he ain't listening." Prodigally gifted as he was, Brando thought of his métier as a personal matter. The numerous takes he required, his selfish, neurotic fretting was the other half of his contempt.

In the movies, there's no such thing as post-Brando acting. That's the real size of Marlon Brando. In the newer crop of actors, we don't have Brando's insulting size and feline grace; his hooded, derisive eyes; his resistance to a sober mood; the comedy in his drunken thing about the Napoleonic Code in Streetcar; his immortal death scene in The Godfather, when he presumes to horse around with an orange peel to make monster teeth: still grandfatherly, and still killing, if only killing bugs on a tomato plants with DDT spray.

Last year, Sean Penn got the most praise of any actor in 2003 for doing in Mystic River, exactly what Brando would have done. There it was, the dry-crying on the porch in the scene with Tim Robbins, the shout to the heavens ("My daughter!" instead of "Stella!"). We still have the style of Brando—the human beast, those unwashed pigs in love with flowers. There are so many actors who remember and try to evoke how Brando channeled the anger of the postwar years to demolish primness—to make the acting style of legions of male and female Blanche Duboises obsolete, and to make the stage and the screen unsafe places.

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Web extra to the June 30-July 6, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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