Sunday, 6 May 2007
Brando (2007) dir. Mimi Freedman, Leslie Greif
Next week the three-hour documentary about the legendary actor, simply titled "Brando” will make its international premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Though it’s a straight forward documentary it’s a worthy tribute to the man who changed the world of acting forever. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies I had a chance to watch it as a television special event over the course of two nights.
“Brando” comprehensively summarizes the life and a career of Marlon Brando in traditional fashion. It’s not much more glossy or original than an extended episode of biography, but they do manage to round up an esteemed line up of celebrities and personal friends who knew the man intimately (though Francis Coppola is conspicuously missing). The three-hour running time also gives the film a chance to examine in greater depth the personality of the man other than the film-by-film highlights of an A&E Biography. The key beats in the film are his mid-western childhood; his rise to fame on the New York stage in the 1940’s, his enormously string of successful films in the 1950’s, his shift toward activism in the 1960’s, his career comeback in the 70’s, his departure from Hollywood to Tahiti in the 1980’s and finally the personal tragedies that plagued the final years of his life.
The mystique of Marlon Brando is so compelling, he’s like the Great Gatsby – a man who entered and shook up the high profile restricted area of Hollywood and then shunned it immediately after his arrival. A man of such immense and natural talent, who for the most part didn’t have to work at it to be good, and who caused much frustration for those who worked with him because of his aloofness towards his art. And yet, very few ever knew the man. Starting in the 60’s, when his interest in acting waned, he would continually denigrate his accomplishments and put-down the roles which bought him so much acclaim and which many others envied him for. We never really knew if this public subversion of his own work was a way of distancing himself from Hollywood, or whether it was a conscious effort to further the enigma of “Brando” the character. He was quoted as saying at one point that his best movie was “Burn!”, the little-known 1969 Gillo Pontecorvo film about imperialism, and at many times he disparaged his greatest roles including “On the Waterfront” and “The Godfather”.
Brando is a fascinating psychology case as well. And many of the answers to the questions above lie with his tenuous relationship with his alcoholic mother and domineering father. Brando’s good friend, George Englund, says in the film that Brando hated his father, from childhood even up to his adult life. His father rarely showed support or gave praise to the young Marlon. The constant put-downs created the contempt for authority Marlon would develop in his adulthood. This contempt spilled over into his film work and famously into his onset antics and belligerent behaviour to the majority of his directors. In addition, his relationship with his father informs his move toward activism in the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the Civil Rights Movement. The effect of the Sacheen Littlefeather affair at the 1973 Oscars on the “Wounded Knee” Revolt and the advancement of AIM are wonderfully expressed by Russell Means and Littlefeather herself. Despite his contempt for his directors, producers and Hollywood execs Brando had profound compassion and congenial relationships with his crew. Not included in the documentary is a little-known tidbit of his continued relationship after the making of the film “The Island of Dr. Moreau” with Nelson de la Rosa, the little person who had a memorable role as Moreau’s pint-sized piano partner. This caring for the under-privileged and contempt for authority is the core of Brando, the person.
The documentary is a little shy about connecting the tragedy of the imprisonment of his son Christian and the suicide of his daughter Cheyenne to Brando’s shortcomings as a father. If his detachment as a father and his detachment from his career are congruent, then this last chapter of his life is a painful lesson that despite his talent, charisma, charm and wealth, Brando was not immune to Karmic lessons of life. Enjoy.
This isn’t from the film, but is the same anecdote about Brando’s casting in The Godfather: