Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger in 'On the Waterfront.'
At the risk of sounding impossibly boring, Angie and I have been watching old movies lately. I've seen them, most of them anyway, and Angie has not. So it's fun to watch her enjoy them for the first time. Last night I watched her watch 'Topper' with Cary Grant and Constance Bennett for the first time. Grant was so, so far ahead of his time.
A couple years ago I discovered Angie hadn't seen many Brando films. Like most people, she knew other actors idolized his work but didn't really know why. So I decided to show her some films and give her a running commentary. Sounds terrifically pompous on my part but actually it was kinda fun. She'd seen 'The Godfather,' of course and probably a few others. I think she'd seen 'Streetcar' some years back, too. But she hadn't seen 'On the Waterfront' or 'Last Tango in Paris' or a few others I highly recommended. For the record, I still believe Brando's performance in 'Last Tango' is the finest I've ever seen on film.
So the Netflixing began. We watched 'Waterfront,' 'Viva, Zapata,' 'Sayanara,' 'The Young Lions,' 'One Eyed Jacks,' 'Mutiny on the Bounty,' 'Reflections in a Golden Eye,' 'Last Tango,' 'Missouri Breaks,' and finally 'The Island of Dr. Moreau,' and all the while I kept a running narrative going, trying (sometimes vainly) to describe to the non-actor why actors find his work the yardstick by which they measure their own. Angie's pretty darn sharp and she 'got' what I was saying very quickly. I figured if we were gonna get married it might be sort of important to show her what I was passionate about, and vice versa.
Anyway, as I said, she 'got' it. We watched the taxi scene in 'Waterfront' over and over. I told her I'd seen the scene done by maybe 100 actors over the years in classes. No one even comes close to the power of the Brando/Steiger scene. And why? Brando's eyes. It took me years to figure it out. Why was this scene so incredibly moving? The dialogue is good but not extraordinary. Steiger is certainly very good, but not amazing. It's shot well by Kazan with close, gobo stipes on their faces, the brilliant, jazzy Leonard Bernstein score comes in at exactly the right moment, but that's not it either. What is it? And then one day I was reading an interview with Sir John Gielgud. Sir John was talking about how he offered Brando the role of Hamlet on stage after working with him in the film version of Julius Caesar. Brando, of course, turned him down. But Gielgud went on to say something extraordinary about the famous taxi scene in 'Waterfront.' He said it was the only time in film, or anywhere else for that matter, he'd ever seen an actor call upon an "involuntary physical body function at will." That's the quote. He was talking about Brando's eyes as they seemingly involuntarily flitted back and forth as he admonished Steiger for his disloyalty. I went back and looked at the scene again. Yes. He's exactly right. That's what makes the scene pop. Those eyes, beyond realism and way, way into the realm of absolute naturalism, skittering from side to side like a panicked animal. It's a piece of genius from the young Brando and he probably didn't even know he was doing it. As usual, his instincts took over and his work towered above the actual scene. I've only seen two other film actors aside from Brando for whom I can say that, Merryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis.
So after 'Waterfront' I escorted Angie through his other films. She particularly liked his work in 'Sayanara,' a middling film but another wonderful Brando performance. Brando, by all accounts, was a very competitive actor when he was younger. In 'Sayanara' he is opposite the super naturalistic James Garner. Brando actually achieves a more 'aw, shucks' persona than Garner. In fact, if you go back and look at that film, Garner, amazingly, looks kind of wooden next to Brando. Angie found his 'Sayanara' performance very endearing.
When we got to 'Last Tango in Paris' a few weeks later, I told her how this was the first time in my life I realized someone was a better actor than I was. Now, don't judge. I was very young (a sophomore in college, in fact) and I was watching 'Tango' for the very first time. When I saw the casket scene (Brando's monologue over his dead wife) I distinctly remember thinking to myself, "I can't do that." Like most young actors, I was arrogant and truly believed I was all that and a bag of chips. Ah, youth. Wasted on the young. It never occured to me there was someone out there who could do things I couldn't do (later in life I had the same reaction to Olivier in 'Richard III' and Meryl Streep in 'Sophie's Choice'). But there it was in front of me: Brando was going so deep that it really ceased to be acting at all, but rather pure behavior. George C. Scott, no slouch himself, got it right when he said of Brando's 'Tango' performance, "He has gone beyond acting and into impressionism."
My wife 'got' it. Over the years I've discovered something constant; actors that understand the subtle genius of Brando's work are, generally speaking, very good actors themselves. Actors who don't absorb the brilliance of his work are, for the most part, not.
The last film in this peculiar canon was 'Missouri Breaks.' Certainly not a very good movie, but yet another fearless performance from Brando. Eccentric, but fearless. Bruce Dern, in his autobiography, tells of a letter he wrote to his friend, Jack Nicholson, after seeing the film. "It was like watching the best actor on the planet take on the second best actor on the planet. I'm sorry, Jack, but you got your ass kicked." In fact Nicholson himself went on to say in one of those Playboy Twenty Questions segments, "When Brando dies every other actor in the world moves up a notch."
I was in southwest Florida with a company called Florida Rep doing a play called 'Lost in Yonkers' the day Brando died. I was very sad. He was the most influental actor in my life with my old friend and teacher, Michael Moriarty, a close second. He may have had massive and inexplicable character flaws as a human being (like all of us), but the work itself was giant. Upon his death his old, old friend, Karl Malden, said of him, "It was as though he had an angel trapped inside him and he spent his entire life trying to push it out." Perfect.
See you tomorrow.