Leslie Greif, the filmmaker behind Brando, the two-part, four-hour documentary that aired last week on TNT, has taken on a truly brave and Herculean task, and thus she is bound to meet with mixed reactions. This is not a criticism, but rather a testament to the intense passion felt by the people who knew and admired Brando. So much has been written, said and conjectured about Brando, the greatest film actor of the twentieth century, so deeply embedded is Brando in the collective psyche of American culture, that it is impossible for even the most well-meaning of filmmakers not to, even if unconsciously, come to explicate him through hagiography rather than biography.
Brando does its best to explore the highlights of Brando’s career and investigate the root causes and effects of his tumultuous private (and not-so-private) life, while at the same time providing a more or less complete chronology of his 80 years. For a Brando fan, much of what Greif presented in the film was de rigueur Marlon, stuff that the faithful have known and debated for decades. For the uninitiated, if such a person actually exists, Brando is a fine introduction to the extraordinary life of an artist who was as revolutionary and groundbreaking in his field as Picasso and Miles Davis were in theirs. Despite a surprisingly small percentage of interviews with Marlon himself, Brando was full of wonderful insights and anecdotes from Brando’s family, friends and colleagues (the huge list includes Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese, James Caan, Arthur Penn, Quincy Jones, Johnny Depp, Cloris Leachman, etc.), all of whom shared the profound effect Brando had on their lives and work.
Many have tried to articulate and define what made Brando’s work so compelling. Brando was one of the first actors to understand that the words are the least important part of defining a character. He managed to resolve the actor’s eternal vexation: How to act freely and naturally in a context where everything from the lines to the outcome of the scene is already known. Brando’s solution derived from his brilliant instincts and his training at the hands of the legendary Stella Adler: Understand the character’s need in the scene, and be completely available to whatever action, emotion or external stimulation fires your imagination at the moment you are playing the scene. Brando’s genius also lay in his ability to find infinite variations on a scene or moment, never tethered to what he did before, or the need to “get it right.” Once Brando understood the essence of a scene, there was no end to the behavior and emotions at his disposal.
Much of what made Brando irresistible to women is also what made him so fascinating as an actor – the contradictions in his personality. An icon of masculine sexuality, Brando was also emotionally raw and vulnerable; he was playful yet intensely focused; funny and charming, but mercurial in his moods and prone to outbursts of rage. It was this unpredictability that ultimately made Brando such a riveting screen presence.
Brando’s ambivalence towards that craft of acting is well documented. However, when on-set, and especially when collaborating with creative equals such as Elia Kazan, he apparently loved the work itself, and by all accounts there was no aspect of filmmaking which he did not brilliantly grasp. Greif pays particular attention to the performances that shook the very foundations of acting. The film’s segments on A Streetcar Named Desire (both the Broadway play and the film), On The Waterfront, Last Tango In Paris, and, of course, The Godfather, provide fascinating insights into the depth of Brando’s talent, and via the commentary of people like Scorsese we understand just how influential his work was to three generations of actors and filmmakers. (Godfather Fun Facts: 1) Pacino originally suggested Brando for Don Corleone. 2) Paramount originally considered Anthony Quinn and Ernest Borgnine for Brando’s role.)
Scorsese referred to Brando as “the marker.” For him and so many others, the film and theatre world changed forever when Brando came on the scene. If nothing else, Brando was a study in courage, at least on-screen, for he raised the bar on his profession by his willingness to bring the intimacy of his own heart, and all the confusion and pain therein, into his work. That is called “art,” and despite his disdain for the trappings of his profession, he reminded us all that it is a most worthy calling in life.