In 1954, a babe had a question for Johnny Strabler, who leans next to his gleaming hog, in a pathetic small town in the middle of nowhere.
"Johnny, what are you rebelling against?"
Johnny doesn't even have to think. Every line in his body expresses the answer, as does the contemptuous power of the machine, the beautiful sullenness of his face, the slouch of his heavily muscled body as it contorts the leathers that drape him like knight's armor, the rakish tilt of his cyclist's cap pulled across his broad forehead.
He replies, "Whatta ya got?"
Meaning: Everything. Always. Forever. And: Even himself.
That was Marlon Brando the actor, in "The Wild One," a pretty bad movie that became a cultural touchstone. And that was Marlon Brando the man, who was a great artist and a great pain in the butt. He rode his technique to the heights, artistically and commercially, but never seemed to enjoy the view from up there. In the end, he squabbled with everyone, ultimately exiling himself from a culture that adored him.
You might easily ask: What the hell is with that guy?
And you might easily answer: genius.
On Thursday, death finally found Brando at 80 and he went to it sublimely, having had much experience with the ends of things: He had murdered his own career years earlier.
But in the beginning, oh, boy, was he something.
Brando exploded on the American theatrical consciousness in 1947, in Elia Kazan's Broadway production of Tennessee Williams's emotionally incendiary "A Streetcar Named Desire." Brando was a jalopy named fury. He played the brooding Stanley Kowalski, his body bulging out of a tight white T-shirt, his arms like oak trunks, his hair matted with sweat, his face agleam with intensity; nobody had ever seen anything like it. The charisma, the heat, the anger, the sense of self, the animal power, the capacity to dazzle unfettered by vanity. He was able to transfer intact that creation to the screen in 1951, again under Kazan's skilled leadership, and the American filmgoing public took notice in a big way.
It's not that he was the first movie star to look "different." In truth, he didn't look that much different, with his aquiline nose and broad forehead. He was handsome is as handsome does. Others before had been much less conventional in appeal. Bogart was no Johnny Pretty, nor was Edward G. Robinson or Victor Mature. Cagney was a street pug; Raft had never been a doll.
But Brando had something even those formidable precursors lacked and the camera worshiped. It was the sense of working from the inside out, not the outside in. This was the expression in performance of a theory first propounded by the Russian Konstantin Stanislavsky, then picked up in smart New York artistic circles, where Brando, a student of both Stella Adler and Kazan's Actors Studio, connected with it.
It meant that to project an emotion, one first had to generate that emotion within. Performance wasn't a parlor trick, an imposition of ticks and tweaks, an accent, a disguise, a way of walking, a form of magic. It was something more primal, more real, more powerful. It had to come from the dank, fetid psychic jungle two inches behind the eyes to register, and the authenticity was more important than the precision of expression. Thus one could mumble, stammer, spit, hem, haw, as long as those behaviors were part of the psychological text of the character. The actor's belief in the emotion, based on memory, was what created the audience's belief in it, not his mastery of breathing technique and diaphragm-powered pipes.
Brando was the best of a generation of young actors so trained that was just breaking through at that time. Conveniently, the American theater was also redefining itself, with the help of Kazan and playwrights such as the formidable Williams. It was what might be called a titanic force of emotional realism, which grounded the work in pain and despair and usually played it out against squalid circumstances. It was a reaction against the prissy, effete poetic realism of the stage and the formal tricks of melodrama.
After the film version of "Streetcar," he had become something more complicated than a great actor: a star. Still, he never forgot the emotional fragility of his childhood, as the son of a drunken, abusive salesman and a delicate, artistic actress. (Salesman and actress: terrible combination from the start.) With his insecurities, scandals, self-destructive impulses, need to manipulate and connive, he epitomized the syndrome known as the Adult Child of Alcoholic Parents.
That pathology was evident in nearly everything he did. He refused to play the neat little 1950s game with the press, or to let studio publicity departments manage his life by pairing him with starlets and making appearances at previews or in gossip magazines. He hated the dowager empresses of the Hollywood gossip culture and had no truck with studio execs. He kept daring everybody to destroy him. This was radical behavior at a time when Tads and Rocks were being machine-milled to fit into the well-ordered hierarchy.
But at the same time, he never went back to the rigors of the stage, the pressures of live performance, the economic uncertainty of flop or hit. It was a peculiar pattern, possibly even classic passive-aggression, in which he tried to destroy by extending only halfhearted cooperation after his name was on the dotted line. Like a child trying to blast through a drunken parent's cocoon of self-absorption and slowed reflexes, he demanded attention.
The irony, of course, is that he founded a new style of movie stardom: rebellious, beyond narcissism, almost countercultural. He established a model of behavior that other actors, from Jack Nicholson to Robert De Niro to Johnny Depp to Sean Penn, would emulate, even as they replaced him. He insisted on the strange: At last granting a TV interview, he cranked into the absurd by kissing poor Larry King on the lips.
There is another, deeper irony in Brando's career: His whole art was founded on telling the emotional truth, and yet he was insanely jealous of his private life. He would use his inner life for his work (when he ever so rarely chose to work), but he would live in something close to solitude. When he emerged, it was always in some form of grotesque circus, such as the trial of his son on manslaughter charges. He was born in Omaha but soon enough moved to Illinois, where his clearly instinctive aversion to authority got him in continual trouble in public schools. His father then sent him to a military academy in Minnesota, and before he dropped out, he was introduced to acting -- a teacher had noted his penchant for self-dramatization. He went immediately to New York and started to study at the New School for Social Research, where Adler, in residence, taught a technique that was succinctly expressed in the famous phrase: "Don't act. Behave."
He behaved his way to stardom, but within a decade, he started behaving badly. He made a series of artistically ambitious successes in the immediate aftermath of his breakthrough, such as "Viva Zapata!" and "Julius Caesar," and then, after slumming in "The Wild One," the great "On the Waterfront," as well as lighter fare, such as "Guys and Dolls" (Brando sings!) and "The Teahouse of the August Moon." But as a star, he began to feel the temptations of star power: In "The Young Lions," he subverted Irwin Shaw's brilliant World War II novel entirely by taking the young German soldier Christian Diestl, a good man corrupted by Nazism into a monster, and turning him into a good man uncorrupted by anything, whose death at the end isn't justice but tragedy. It was ridiculous.
Perhaps it was the anger he felt in 1961 when his first project as a director, the out-of-control six-hour western "One-Eyed Jacks," was taken from him and recut, but for the next 10 years his work became stranger and stranger, with negligible appearances in movies such as "Morituri" or "The Chase." His infamous conduct in the South Seas during the remake of "Mutiny on the Bounty" became legendary in the annals of big-star bad behavior.
Briefly he recaptured a sense of engagement in Gillo Pontecorvo's Vietnam allegory "Burn!" ("Queimada"), but by 1972, he had all but destroyed himself with a reputation for difficulty, inability to learn lines and the beginnings of a weight problem.
Then came "The Godfather."
The studio, Paramount, didn't want him in it, but somehow director Francis Ford Coppola and screenwriter (and original novelist) Mario Puzo prevailed. He got the title role of Vito Corleone. Opinions vary, but I think this has to be the single greatest American movie and his the single greatest film performance. But why quibble? It's enough to say that the rogue genius, coming off 10 years of failure, managed to tame his demons long enough to give himself up to the dark part of Don Corleone: father, husband, leader, visionary, diplomat, killer. Somehow he resolved these complexities into a single coherent being, and yet was secure enough to have no need to dominate; his willingness to fit into an ensemble of another new generation of actors was estimable. It remains a superb example of the from-within school: study his death scene, where he sports in the backyard garden with a child, a barefoot peasant on a hot day, playing a fabulous little game with an orange peel exactly as an old man would. And when the baby cries -- genuinely, as it was an improvisation -- the old man's reaction is a kind of embarrassed amusement, as he quickly tries to calm the weeping child. Then he wanders out of focus and dies in the weeds as Coppola's camera stays on the sniffling boy. It's an amazing moment, utterly small, utterly true, utterly memorable in a movie full of shootings, chokings and stabbings.
From that triumph -- his second Oscar, and we don't need to mention that he sent a supernumerary to turn it down in the name of American Indians -- he made his last great film, "Last Tango in Paris," where, liberated and encouraged by the writer-director Bernardo Bertolucci, he drew on his own complex childhood memories and sexual experiences to create a memorable portrait of an expat American named Paul, consumed with lust and memory in a Paris apartment on a single afternoon.
After Paul, the deluge of dreck. It's not that he was washed up, it's that he washed himself up, at only 48. Oh, please. "The Missouri Breaks," in a dress. Jor-El in "Superman." Stanley Kowalski, say it ain't so! "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery," "The Island of Dr. Moreau" ! It was as if having built something wondrous, he decided, with the contempt the great have for the merely good, to destroy it totally. And he nearly succeeded.
Even his last film, "The Score," is marked by his bizarreness. Clearly he hasn't bothered to learn any lines and much of his performance is improvised, when he's not reading lines off cue cards. You can see him invent a new plot twist at one point, and even his opposite number in the scene, De Niro, is subtly startled by the weird direction the movie has just taken.
And in his private life, more chaos and destruction: three marriages, possibly as many as a dozen illegitimate children, extreme difficulty with his own acknowledged children, a morbid obesity problem, a refusal to work, communicate or try.
No one can see inside these people. It's pointless to try. But one of his great lines echoes tragically now that he's gone. "I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody," he rages in "On the Waterfront." That was a performance. In life he had been somebody, he'd been a champion. But then he walked away and wouldn't play anymore. He probably thought he was saving his own life, and possibly he was. For whatever dark reasons, he felt he had to choose between his sanity and his art.