Marlon Brando, who died last week, was a man-made Job. He was gifted with a rare talent, exotic good looks, the adoration of beautiful women and a vast audience of admirers who appreciated his acting ability. Yet he treated it all carelessly and appeared to believe in nothing but the transitory causes of a passing parade. Was there a lesson for our times?
Only days before he died, the New York Times examined the evolution of the Hollywood leading man under the headline, "Hollywood's He-Men Are Bumped by Sensitive Guys." The new crop of fresh-faced, dewy-eyed sensitive boys such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Jake Gyllenhaal, the Times pronounced, are "soft of cheek, with limpid stares and wiry frames," and have barely enough hair on their faces, let alone on their chests, to make it worth their while to buy a razor. They are the latest, it is said, in the tradition of Dustin Hoffman, James Dean and Marlon Brando.
Marlon Brando deserves to be odd man out in that group. Brando was pivotal. He mixed it up. He partook of the masculinity of the strong, sexually aggressive heavies from the 1940s, and he reinforced the new trend toward vulnerable and needy antiheroes, the types played by James Dean and Montgomery Clift. Brando was the actor who dished the dichotomy between virility and vulnerability as traits at war with each other. He epitomized the identity crisis the American male suffer for the next few decades.
The way Brando portrayed the tension between virility and vulnerability made him unique. We could never be quite sure which side would triumph. His genius was in the way he teetered between the two.
James Dean and Montgomery Clift, for all their talent, rejected everything macho and never rose above vulnerability. Brando, by contrast, wanted to indulge in the pursuits of the aggressive male while suggesting innocence and sensitivity. He wanted his cake with ice cream.
It was always impossible to separate the way Brando immersed himself in his characters from the way he lived his life. When he portrayed Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire," he studied the dress and habits of the construction worker in New York (close enough to a New Orleans dock worker), the quintessential macho male whom two decades later feminists would put down as a "male chauvinist pig."
He was the macho tough guy women of the time were supposed to love in spite of themselves. In "A Streetcar Named Desire" he is enraged that the character Blanche DuBois, his sister-in-law, wants to bring "high culture" to his home and intrude on the raw passion of his marriage. He yells crudely but seductively at his wife: "You showed me a snapshot of the place with the columns, and I pulled you down off them columns, and you loved it!"
But Brando also wanted to indulge his sensitive side. If James Dean was a rebel without a cause, Brando sought all the causes that defined the '60s. He moved on from the character of Johnny Strabbler in "The Wild One," who, when asked what he was rebelling against, famously replied, "What've you got?" In real life Brando championed the rights of the American Indian, the Black Panther Party and Soviet Jews.
Nothing was too small or too petty to anger him. I once went to dinner with Brando and a few friends at Yenching Palace, a Chinese restaurant in Washington. This was shortly after he had completed work on "Missouri Breaks," in which he was so fat he played the role of a gunslinger in a woman's housedress. All during the Yenching meal he thrived on complaints and contempt for the other diners.
"The shark's fin soup has no shark in it," he complained. He yammered away about it throughout the first course, letting us and others around us know that he knew something about sharks back in Tahiti. He grew increasingly annoyed at the other customers staring at him. "Why is everybody looking at me?" Why indeed?
We got not so much a small glimpse of a large legend, but an insight into an adolescent boy who never had to grow up. There may have been madness in his method (acting), but in it he found as well the perfect outlet for expressing his psychological flaws.
More than one critic describes Brando as suffering from the syndrome known as "Adult Child of Alcoholic Parents," for his insecurities, his scandals, his need to manipulate, connive and self-destruct. Bill Clinton's critics say that about him too, and he got himself elected president twice. Maybe Brando simply went into the wrong profession - or the right one at the wrong time.