In Hollywood, urban legends flourish about as strong and fast as bad publicity. In fact, sometimes they become so strong or widely believed that they actually become bad publicity. Such is the case where Richard Gere even has to address anything involving a gerbil. But the "legend" aspect often can take the form of fortifying a movie star or icon's reputation into the realm of myth. Such is the case with Dustin Hoffman and Lawrence Olivier. When Hoffman arrived on the set of Marathon Man exhausted from sleep deprivation in order to play a scene honestly, Olivier leveled him with his eyes and decried, "Why don’t you try acting."
Whether that story is true or not, I don't know: I have never heard Dustin Hoffman confirm or deny it, and quite frankly, I don't want to. The point of these stories is to create some myth and mystery in an industry so permeated with observance and video invasion that we can believe there still is a "private Hollywood" and a layer of truth and secrets so deep they are only told in stories. It's no coincidence that old Hollywood has many more icons with mythologizing anecdotes than now. One has to wonder if Mae West or Lana Turner would have done half the things that are talked about had they thought someone was recording them with a digital phone only to download it to the Internet minutes later.
While I am sure Courtney Love could give Mae a run for her money and Colin Farrell is jousting his way towards some of Errol Flynn's markers, it seems with the advent of modern cinema and video we are losing a bit of our myth-making Hollywood. Perhaps the personalities were grander, the times more desperate, or quite simply, perhaps "things were better in the old days." Or, maybe, those old stars and directors had the benefit of an oral tradition that gained the momentum of years and the propulsion of the desire of the teller and listener to believe in giants and their great feats of audacity.
Today, mythological Hollywood has lost its greatest legend.
Marlon Brando has died.
To be honest, even seeing those words typed on my computer screen seem like an awkward and unlikely truth. Marlon Brando was iconic not just to me but to my parents and my parents' parents. One of the few surviving household names from the fifties who could still drop names like Dean and Marilyn without a wisp of reverence or awe. Marlon was the guy that when De Niro entered a room he wondered if he had a right to be there.
While I am sure that the Internet, television, and radio will be overstimulated by recounting Marlon's many film credits, Academy Award antics, and the regretful incident involving his son shooting Dag Drollet, it all seems a bit redundant. Marlon's life read as a constant news scroll of public consumption. His weight gain, his island, his friendship with Michael Jackson, and every role he even bothered to breathe on gathered a newsworthy fever. Ironic for a man who coveted his privacy so fiercely.
Yet, in the realm of cinema mythology no one will ever come close to Marlon for sheer volume of inside stories. A simple dinner with Marlon could produce an anecdote that would trail on for an hour. You never knew what was true but you simply couldn't rule out any absurdity because the man simply was capable of anything. In his own memoir Songs My Mother Taught Me the actor was attempting to be discreet and yet even at a pared-down volume the tales that would emerge would seem unfathomable.
I'm sure in days and years from his passing, stories will continually emerge to feed the mythos of Marlon. As Jack Nicholson once said (who worked with him on Missouri Breaks) it almost seems a competition to come up with the best Brando story. An activity that will only grow to the point where I'm sure he'll be spotted in Kalamazoo years from now buying a box of cookies in a supermarket.
My interest in Marlon first began when I was doing a production of The Sound of Music in a small regional theater in northern Michigan. I made the regrettable decision to bleach my hair in order to play the role of Rolf, the young Nazi sympathizer. With my hair dried to the point of hay, I was miserable and embarrassed arriving on set the next day. There were laughs and jabs, and I sulked quietly in my chair. When the note session came about from the director, a sixty-year-old theater veteran, he looked at me and commented. "You know who you look like to me? A young Marlon Brando." I rolled my eyes and scoffed the way you perfect when you are seventeen and get compared to some old dried-up movie star.
To me, when you said Marlon Brando all I could think of was that old, fat guy from old movies. To be honest, had he compared me to Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart the reaction would have been the same. I was young and dumb, and anything old was just uncool.
As I entered the university the next year to start my (as I would learn later) superfluous theater degree, I saw that they were doing A Streetcar Named Desire. It sounded like something I didn't want to do. "A Streetcar Named Desire? What is that? Like, Herbie the Lovebug?" But all I could hear was that it was the role Marlon played in the movie and on Broadway. As is typical in the entertainment world, the role of Stanley was precast, given to a graduate student in his final year who was promised the role a year in advance. I went to the audition anyway and thought maybe I could get cast as Mitch. If only I could have seen myself then... eighteen, going on 12, in a tank top and thinking I could play the predatory Stanley or even the world-weary Mitch. The latter role went to another graduate student who had spent his years in New York acting on a soap opera. I didn't even bag the role of the the kid whom Blanche kisses in some misattempt to recapture her youth. No. I was to play Pablo, the Hispanic friend at the poker party. Odd in its own right, yet, perhaps more fitting to the memory of Brando.
In those college years Marlon went from being "another old movie star" to "The Movie Star." His framed portrait was placed on the mantle of The Blue House, the common gathering ground for actors and musicians looking for something other than the weekly frat parties our school was known for. While Stanislavsky and "The Method" (a term Marlon much resented Strasberg for using) were prevalent acting tools and certainly Brando was their most influential messenger, to us he represented something else. He represented going against the system, technique, and the familiar. With all the pressure of studios, stardom, and worship, he refused to allow himself to become enslaved by the proper. You never knew what was going to tumble out of Brando's mouth, as I'm sure his directors didn't, but it was always interesting if perhaps not understood.
The iconography of Marlon to us was simply his ambivalence with all that we were told to care about. He was the King of the Grand and the Weird, and we were his fervent followers. One can see his influence on his younger admirers and their choices. I don't believe it's by coincidence that Sean Penn and Johnny Depp were both regular visitors at the Brando abode. Soon enough, in our crowd, there were variations on Brando, diverting versions of imitation pulled from various films. It was always conversational gold to land a pitch perfect Marlon seamlessly in a dialogue. One of my greatest memories of this period was showing up to a Halloween party with the gang and being silently and reverently guided to the backyard of the house where there was simply a fire burning. Our moderator and I were seated side by side late at night by the fire as a figure emerged from the darkness. Our colleage friend emerged dressed in a ragged black shirt, with his head shorn clean and a ladle in his hand. Cast in the flickering shadow of firelight he proceeded to re-enact Kurtz's speech from Apocolypse Now to the letter while drizzling water over his shorn pate. (We, of course, were right on cue with our lines from Mr. Sheen.) Needless to say, the bar had been raised.
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Lawrence Grobel, Conversations with Brando (1999 reprint)
Patricia Bosworth, Marlon Brando (Penguin Lives, 2001)
Carlo Fiore, Bud, the Brando I Knew (1974)
Soon research became obsession as I collected as many tomes as I could. I struggled through Peter Manso's exhaustive biography, his ex-wife Anna Kashfi's telling Brando for Breakfast (out of print), and Carlo Fiore's sad Bud, The Brando I Knew, among many others. My favorite was a short book titled Conversations with Brando by Lawrence Grobel. For once it was the cagey Brando talking with Grobel in his own words. Brando begins, as Grobel recounts, attempting nondisclosure and to "discuss the Indians again" but cannot restrain himself from going off on tangents about, well, everything. It has, since its publication, become one of the young actor's handbooks in Hollywood.
In the years since and during my research (there are no shortage of out-of-print findings and new biographies), I have made it my hobby to collect stories on Brando. If I am in a conversation, or even hear one nearby, that starts with "You know, Marlon Brando once..." or any derivation of such, I am all ears. I have met photographers, actors, and simple dinner guests of his whom I harangued with questions once they let slip they have met him. The one element that remains a constant through them all is the observation of what a nice man he was. While that contradicts many of the stories and accounts in his books, it does say that there was a great beauty and sensitivity in the man that perhaps was misguided over his long life and career. It's also a common denominator of many to add the postscript, "You do know he's crazy, don't you?" Yes, I always have.
I would be remiss in my hero-worship not to mention Marlon's darker aspects. Indeed, what mythos would there be without the cruelty and disdain he had for so much and many? It's what enabled him to cut so directly against the grain of expectation and make the choices to defy convention, regardless of who was on the other end of it. This streak was certainly not exclusive to his work but rather bled profusely through his personal life. Suffice it to say that his biographer, Manso, declared him a "louse of a man" and his own daughter, before her suicide, indicted him with the title of "the devil." As I said, nothing can be ruled out of the realm of possibility.
I have never sought out Marlon Brando publicly. I have also never used my research for any type of performance piece. Both have tempted me over the years, and yet, in all the exploration, the one thing that emerged was that the only thing Brando would want was for you to leave him alone.
Last night we drank to Marlon. Three friends gathered around a table in some Hollywood lounge pontificating about Stella Adler, Elia Kazan, the Actors Studio, and what Brando meant to us, the art, and even the universe. Three castoffs from his shadow creating a private funeral and just laughing at the absurdity of it all. Like him, love him or hate him, you just have to have an opinion about him. The very length of this post should demonstrate the effort of even attempting to encapsulate an aspect of Marlon's life. He was a humanitarian, upstart, oddity, inventor, father, husband, friend, and mentor to many... but I think it's his endless curiosity and desire that led him in so many directions.
To Hollywood... the death of an icon. The end of one of the greatest sources of mythos and mystery, never to be seen again. He was a living anecdote for uncharted ability and a disdain for the conventions that sought to restrain him. A God and a Monster.
To me, the loss of an ideal. The emblem of what could or should be accomplished in your art. Or maybe, more importantly, the loss of a friend, with whom I had spent so many hours, trying to empathize with and understand. A life that couldn't be measured by any one person but rather the many who will come forth in the years ahead with their own stories of absurdity and awe.
I know I'll have mine ready.
Thank you, Marlon. With love and respect,