The Branding of Brando

As Marlon Brando makes his entrance to the strains of a cheesy, showtime band one’s first impression is of the man’s girth, his heavy, lumbering gait, and one can almost feel the plywood platform sag and creak as he strides towards the presenter. He still has the swagger, but his limbs lack the electricity that made him such a huge sex symbol in the 50s and 60s, and as he shakes Cavett’s hand (who, seasoned pro that he is, refrains from wincing) he turns his back to the camera, his first and only mistake (though doubtless a significant one) since by so doing he draws the world’s attention to a broad and massy backside which is perhaps not displayed to it best advantage in the black, amorphous pants he chose for the occasion.

But once he is seated, soaking up the applause, he is every inch the star, (raising a defiant fist for his Indian friends in the studio audience) the monstre sacré as the French would put it. Here we have Brando in all his magnificence, an emperor, now, with all his clothes on. (His wardrobe choices are worth a brief aside. Not least the XXXL jean jacket which would look just right on a retired, if somewhat dandified, dock worker some 20 years after On The Waterfront).

Did he ever look more handsome? the modelling of his head like a bronze by Rodin, the styling of his hair suggestive equally of rakishness and strength, midway, one might say, between Fletcher Christian and Don Corleone.

Slouched, even hunched, though he is, there is a monumentality to his seated posture, and I am not the first to comment on the way he has of occupying space, of taking possession, as it were, and accruing physical presence. Only his head moves much, and his immobility is such it is all the more gripping when he actually does something: threatens to slug Cavett with his shoe, or mangles the squidgy armrest of his chair with a paw-like hand, or pretends to knead a ball of horse manure and take aim at passers-by.

He could pass for one of the prophets on the Sistine cieling, or a Zeus depicted by Ingres or David. Not the lascivious Zeus with his sights on a comely nymph at her morning bath, but enthroned on Mount Olympus with storm clouds gathering, the wrathful god about to hurl his thunderbolts – or his balls of manure2–  at the mortals below.

This, it goes without saying, is his show, not Cavett’s, and Brando dominates throughout. It lasts a few seconds, but take the moment when, having drunk some water, he visibly ponders where to set down his glass on the small and somewhat cluttered side table, and clearly expects Cavett, apparently cast as his valet some three minutes into the show, to wait upon him, signifying with lordly disdain that his host should clear him some space.3

In all fairness to him, Cavett does not come off too badly, and his role, after all, is to act as a foil for his guest, but he fails, perhaps, in his true raison d’être, which is to steer the conversation in those directions that interest his viewers the most. Alluding obliquely to a deal the two struck beforehand, Brando describes the difficult balancing act the presenter has to achieve between gravity and levity, but doesn’t always honour his side of the bargain by ensuring that Cavett’s audience is kept entertained.

Not only does he resist all inducements to discuss his private life or his acting career, dismissing the modern cult of celebrity, and denouncing the hollowness of mass culture (tv and film), but like a modern-day Diogenes (though without the latter’s contempt for the trappings of wealth) derides society in general which, as he sees it, is addicted to false representations, and founded on posturing and lies.

This is Brando’s other theme alongside the Indian cause, and is announced from the very beginning when, with almost preternatural timing, he parries Cavett’s first question about the movies and swoops down on the “Super-Rich Shadow,” a happy find so strikingly a propos one wonders if it hadn’t been rehearsed ahead of time. We are all but painted players appears to be the implication, and “(all) of life’s a stage” – or a talk-show appearance.

This is not to cast doubt on his sincerity. He is stubbornly true to himself throughout the interview, and obviously cares about the issues addressed,4 but he understands better than anyone that sincerity too is a pose. It is not enough for him to be sincere, he must show that he is. There’s no doubting, to illustrate my point, that he is tired, but he plays tiredness too, and, as a graduate of Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio, he surely uses his travel weariness to lend weight to his words, and when he audibly and visibly sighs he appears to bear the cause on his shoulders.

He is, needless to say, magnificently moody and, like all great artists, elicts endless questions in the mind of his audience: “Is he bored, is he offended?” to quote him quoting us (watching himself, as it were, from our point of view), and what exactly is he peering at so intensely at 10 minutes into part 2.

At times the sun comes through in the fullness of its strength, but watching Brando is like watching a changeable sky, and although what he has to say about Indians or the entertainment industry compels us to listen, we want Cavett to humour him, and root for him to smile, to brighten up and crack that carniverous grin.

Not that our interest is always so benign, but it is sometimes intermixed with cruelty (a cruelty Brando understood, of course, and knowingly provoked) and, voyeurs that we are, we rely on Cavett’s interviewing technique to catch a glimpse behind the mask.

We do so, for the most part, in vain, and if at times we do see some scaffolding around the monument this is only when he himself permits us to, and by revealing one or two of his tricks (as when, near the start of the interview, he squints at the ceiling in mocking self-parody, but all he really reveals is the degree of his mastery, and merely increases our fascination.

Brando, famously, was fiercely protective of his privacy, but this protectiveness was fraught with ambiguity. After all, as an actor you yourself are your material, and you give yourself literally to the roles that you play. As the actor himself once put it: “Intense emotions buried deep inside you come smoking out the back of your head.”

Brando might never have become Brando, might not have developped his gifts or been given the opportunity to transmute them into art, but he still would have felt a compulsion to act, – in both the narrow and the broader senses – an urge that sprang from a deep inner need and came down – more truly no doubt than for the rest of us – to “(saving) his own life.” But this dredging up of intense emotions, was physically and emotionally extenuating: “Try to imagine what it was like walking on stage at 8:30 every night having to yell, scream, cry, break dishes, kick the furniture, punch the walls and experience the same intense, wrenching emotions night after night, trying each time to evoke in audiences the same emotions I felt.

Brando being made up for his role in The Godfather

Few actors indeed have bared so much of their souls, and this vulnerability of Brando’s, – which, paradoxically enough, is what lends his acting so much power – obviously came at great personal cost, and perhaps explains his insistence that acting is not an art form but merely a craft, a statement that de-personnalizes his performances and deflects attention from their source, namely himself.

He achieved success early on, but, despite the critical accolades, he must have felt the sacrifices he made were too great; and these misgivings about his chosen career were undoubtedly deepened when, following his role in A Streetcar Named Desire, he was re-cast as a movie star – branded, if you will, as Brando – and sold his soul to the Hollywood dream machine. Groomed for the screen and objectified as a sex symbol, dispossessed of himself, he felt – as he did indeed say, despite his denials, and on several occasions – that he’d chosen a profession ‘unfit for a man’. Film-acting he implied was little more than whoring, and watching him here one feels that being Brando made him want to gag, to use his own expression. The actor’s self-loathing appears to have reached a peak at the time of Last Tango (1972) and in his next film, Missouri Breaks (1976), he would play the role of Robert Lee Clayton, a cross-dressing gunslinger, taking obvious pleasure in bucking the codes of the film industry (sexual and otherwise) and subverting his own screen image.

But in both of these films he had perhaps shown more of himself than ever before, revealing not just the shame he experienced, but also his addiction to acting, and exploring with masochistic relish his own narcissism and exhibitionism, the compulsion he felt to beguile or repel.

The revulsion he felt for the film industry and his own complicity in its corruption (as he saw it) were nonetheless genuine, and over the next quarter century he made less than a dozen films which, with the obvious exception of Apocalyse Now, were turkeys for the most part, made either for money or to serve a political point, but which fulfilled their purpose in burying his career as a great screen actor.

Aside from picking rotten movies Brando found 2 main solutions to break away from acting.

The first solution was escape: Brando lived on an atoll in the South Pacific, as far removed from Hollywood and the trappings of fame as he could possibly get,5 seeking perhaps the same thing as Gauguin, a sense of newfound innocence through contact with its native people and escape from the corrupt, egoic culture of the West in general, and of Hollywood in particular.

The second solution was the one he found here, using his fame and charisma, and his remarkable skills as an actor, to serve a cause beyond self-promotion, and this, after all, is what actors are supposed to do, embody someone or something that isn’t themselves. More to the point, he could embody such a cause, one in which he passionately believed, without losing his moral and emotional integrity.

Which is why Cavett strikes such a raw nerve when he alludes to accusations of opportunism, and what follows next is subtle but unsettling. The actor’s face darkens, his breathing rate visibly increases, and for a second or two he looks like a wounded animal, hunted and dangerous.6 Such indeed, is the dramatic interest of this moment, and considering, once again, the kind of mastery that Brando commanded, one cannot help wondering if he didn’t know what he was showing and fully intend that we see it.

Having said that, Brando never really hid how damaged he was as a person. Nor was the anger merely an act. Just after taping this show on June 12th, 1973, Brando, who was accompanied by Cavett at the time, broke the jaw of paparazzo Ron Galella7 and knocked out 6 of his teeth.

Brando and Cavett moments before the clash with Galletta 
The paparazzo wearing a football helmet on a subsequent encounter with Brando

Galella was famously obnoxious in his hounding of the stars, and Brando was not the first, nor the last, to retaliate, but this ugly incident surely undermines much of what he stood for on the show, the calm, dignity, and maturity he sought to project, and, more disastrously still with respect to the Indian cause, the moral strength – as opposed to brute, physical strength – he had embodied so persuasively.

Don’t get me wrong. When I chose to write about Brando’s appearance on the Dick Cavett Show my intention was not to show up his flaws as a human being, but to take the measure of his power as a performer, and when I began this piece I knew nothing about the clash with Galella.

Once I did, however, it seemed to add a further dimension, and on subsequent viewings it was tempting to look for something ominous in the trademark silences or that predatory stare (deployed, though it might be, for humorous effect); for signs of tension in his neck and shoulders, of contained aggression in his mauling of the armrest, or in his second, sudden, and less good-humoured, grabbing for his shoe when Cavett probes the tender issue of acting versus manliness.8

Despite this interpretive bias, however, Brando worked the same spell as before, and came across, to me at least, as mellow and self-possessed; but perhaps this only goes to show that, of the two players here, Brando and Cavett, Brando, despite appearances, is by far the more “controlled person.”

But to put it that way is to diminish his mastery. He is relaxed as only a master can be, and he delivers a magnetic performance, full of subtle menace in its blending of comedy and moral seriousness, and this talk show appearance, that might seem at first glance to belong amid the dross of cultural history, surely stands as a high point for Brando, one at which, transcending his private demons, he carves out a new role for himself and hijacks the Dick Cavett Show to subvert the dominant discourse of his time and place.

 

FOOTNOTES

1) YouTube video ‘Marlon Brando Interview 1973 (1/6)’

2) YouTube video ‘Marlon Brando Interview 1973 Part (2/6),’ at 09:45

3) I replayed the interview a few times while writing this piece but did so mostly from memory, and on returning to this moment in the show I realize that he actually treats Cavett, for the most part, with courtesy and respect, but the bully in Brando is never too far from the surface.

4) He was prominent in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and in his discussion of the Indian cause he manages to be both commanding and self-effacing (which is no mean feat for Marlon Brando).

5) Approximately 4,000 miles according to the website howmanyhours.com

6) YouTube video ‘Marlon Brando Interview 1973 (2/6),’ 03:50-04:10

7) Andy Warhol had this to say about the paparazzo: “My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person doing something unfamous. It’s being in the right place at the wrong time. That’s why my favorite photographer is Ron Galella”

8) YouTube video ‘Marlon Brando Interview 1973 (3/6),’ 06:00-06:20
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MErL2jRJII&t