In Memoriam: Marlon Brando
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JEFFREY BROWN: Laurence Olivier, who knew something about his craft, said that Marlon Brando acted with an instinctual understanding that not even the greatest technical performers could possibly match. Jack Nicholson said more simply, “With my generation, it was always Marlon Brando, and always will be Brando.” Joining me to talk about the actor and the man is Richard Schickel, film critic for Time magazine and author of a biography of Brando, called “A Life in Our Times.”
Mr. Schickel, welcome. What qualities most define Brando’s acting for you?
RICHARD SCHICKEL: Let me give you another quote from Olivier. He said, you know, “Theater doesn’t have room for geniuses,” and — by which he meant that theater, in the end, and movies, come down to craft and technology and technique. And I do think Marlon Brando was a genius, by which I mean what he did is inexplicable to outsiders, what he did when he was at his best. And I think, as is so often the case with geniuses, it makes a lot of trouble for the person possessing the genius.
JEFFREY BROWN: In your biography I know that you placed Brando in the context of the generation of actors right after War World II. Tell us how he helped define that era.
RICHARD SCHICKEL: Well, there had been in America since the Stanislawksy Company had come here in the ’20s, a passionate desire among actors to break out of the well-spoken English pip-pip kind of mode, and get into something much more behaviorally truthful. It was in the group theater, it was in the actor’s studio. And they were always looking for a champion. And here comes this gorgeous hunk who had all that ability to, you know, look at behavior and emulate it, and bring it to his performances. And he became their leader, except he didn’t want to be anybody’s leader. He just wanted to be an actor. And I think that was the most basic conflict he got into. He really didn’t want to be an articulate proponent of some acting style. He just wanted to act.
JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, he was regularly, as you say, held up as a method actor. What…
RICHARD SCHICKEL: I never thought he was. He didn’t really think he was.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, tell us what that means, though, and why you don’t think…
RICHARD SCHICKEL: Well, a method actor is an actor who, you know, delves deep into himself. They had a technique called “effective memory” that was — you know, you would remember something from your life and bring it to your performance. Brando was not like that. He was an observer. He was a guy who liked to hang out, literally, in phone booths when he was a young actor and watch the passing parade, imitate behavior, imitate language, and all that stuff. And his great discoverer, Elia Kazan, the director, was also of that school.
So when they started doing “Streetcar,” I mean, that was like two wonderful affectionate forces coming together to do this behavioral acting. I don’t think Brando ever, with one exception, of “Last Tango in Paris,” I don’t think he ever delved into deep autobiography. I mean, he could observe his own behavior and emulate it if he needed it for a role, but I never felt — and Stella Adler, who was his first and really only teacher, she never thought he was truly a method guy. It’s kind of a mistake to put him into that character. The effect, though, was the same. It was if he were a method guy because he was such a genius at behavioral emulation.
JEFFREY BROWN: You’ve mentioned this conflict he had, love-hate with acting. Tell me more what you mean by that.
RICHARD SCHICKEL: Well, you know, he was kind of like a juvenile delinquent when he came to New York. You know, he’s a feckless kid. Nobody knew what to do with him. He’d get fired from military school. And he comes to visit his sister Jocelyn, who is an actress, and suddenly he sees acting, and it’s something he can focus on and something he is really good at, which is something he hadn’t been before in life. And he became a truly devoted actor in that decade or so, from the middle of War World II until into the ’50s.
But what happened then was movies, which he became committed to, became something different. They weren’t little, nice black-and-white movies where a man could, you know, really make a character. They became cinemascope and historical, romantic claptrap, really. And he was kind of lost and cut off. And I think that was the beginning of his disaffection from acting. He, of course, never liked celebrity behavior or the celebrity life. But I think he could have lived with that if he could have found consistently the kind of roles that he wanted most to do. Instead, he is doing “Desiree” or “Teahouse of the August Moon,” or what have you.
The adjustment he tried to make was to be a character guy — you know, all kinds of make-up and accents and weird clothes, and stuff like that. He was trying to hide in plain sight and not be a conventional leading man, you know, playing in his own face and his own voice. But that only intermittently worked out for him.
So, you know, by the end of his career, he was — by the middle of his career he was openly contemptuous of acting: It’s not a serious thing, it was childlike, it was not something a serious human being who cared about the planet and the people thereon could take seriously. And that was his tragedy.
JEFFREY BROWN: Brando the man was larger than life just as on the screen.
RICHARD SCHICKEL: Literally. ( Laughs )
JEFFREY BROWN: The physical size, the love affair, the political causes, and on and on. Tell us about him as a man.
RICHARD SCHICKEL: You know, it’s funny. I don’t think anybody can tell you anything about Brando the man. I mean, I think he was always a man looking for something outside of himself to attach his psychological energy and his passions and his intellect and all of that stuff to. And the only thing he ever really found for a decade or so was acting. All the rest of it is kind of this weird groping. You know, there’s the island in Tahiti, there’s thousands, he said in his autobiography, thousands of women. There’s intermittent passionate and commitment to causes like that of the American Indian or the black civil rights movement, all of which he was completely sincere about, but couldn’t really sustain himself with.
So, you know, looking at his life, I say, “oh, if you had only just said, ‘okay, acting is what I can do.’ It’s not a bad thing to do. In fact it’s a good thing to do.” Good acting is useful to us. We learn things from it about ourselves, and our world, and all that stuff. If only if he could have kept focused, he could have been the greatest actor of the century.
JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you for a brief final comment on his legacy, the influence he’ll have on acting.
RICHARD SCHICKEL: I think, first of all, he did influence Nicholson’s generation and subsequent generations. I mean, they — he gave them permission to be the kind of actors they were. And I think if you look at “Streetcar,” or if you look at, notably, “On the Waterfront,” those are performances that we will look at as long as we’re looking at film. I mean, I think they are great performances. And I honor him for those, and I wish there had been more.
JEFFREY BROWN: Richard Schickel, thank you very much for joining us.
RICHARD SCHICKEL: Thank you.