Marlon Brando sleeps with the fishes. CNN says it’s from “unknown causes,” but anyone who has watched his weight balloon over the past few decades knows better. The legitimate news outlets can do Brando a proper obit better than I ever could, so I will leave it to them to do the chronologies, rave about his career, and wonder at his eccentric behavior. I have some thoughts of my own.
Of all the actors of his generation, Brando understood the power of raw physicality better than anyone; he used his entire body as an expressive instrument. His first roles capitalized on his ability to project untamed raw violence and sexuality with an undercurrent of confusion and rage. His best early work, “The Wild One,” “On The Waterfront,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” all benefit from this talent. Entire books have been written on John Wayne’s physical vocabulary, and his conscious nods to classical statuary. But where Wayne, for all his grit, could throw a hint of effeteness into the mix when required (don’t believe me? Look at how he stood! Hip to the side!), Brando was never less than a bull. Even in their prime, noted overactors like heirs Al Pacino and Robert De Niro could more than echo the ferocity of Brando’s rages.
But the bull learned to be subtle too. Building on his Method roots acting on the stage, Brando came to understand that the camera sees everything. A mere twitch of Brando’s massive eyebrow could reveal entire universes below the surface, and the hunch of his shoulders could connote rage, confusion, self-loathing, defensiveness, or weariness. The same man who played Stanley Kowalski as an inferno played Vito Corleone as a smolder.
For a striking example of his versatility in this regard, compare Corleone to Colonel Kurtz. With nothing more than some cotton in his cheeks, Brando played Vito Corleone as a hunched old man who, though once physically powerful, was now terribly weak. Kurtz, on the other hand, emanated sheer black menace. Using the same set of postures—even sitting the same way—Brando managed to convey two completely opposite characters. Many under-actors, Ed Harris, Kevin Costner, David Duchovny, sometimes act entirely with their faces, and sometimes only with their eyes. Brando could act with his scalp— “Apocalypse Now” proves it.
It is ironic that the greatest body actor ever to walk a silver screen got larger as his talent waned, as if he was cloaking his talent in fat and ego until he was a waddling joke in a muu-muu, grunting his way through embarrassments like “The Island of Dr. Moreau” as if his mere presence was enough to lent gravity to the silliness. And now, fittingly, his body is all that’s left.Powered by Sidelines