TV Review: Marlon Brando Actor and cynic

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Brando: The Wild One
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday on TCM
Starring: Marlon Brando
   

Marlon Brando made two movies in 1972 -- "The Godfather" and "Last Tango in Paris."

These two films couldn't be more different, yet they showcased Brando's conflicted relationship with himself and the acting craft in sharp focus. "The Godfather" was a costly studio production with a heavyweight cast based on a best-selling novel. Italian independent filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci wrote and directed "Last Tango" on location in Paris with a smaller budget and an unknown actress, Maria Schneider, as Brando's co-star.

As Don Corleone, Brando is a polished conventional Hollywood actor, helped along by makeup and whatever he stuffed in his cheeks.

As Paul, a middle-aged American expatriate, Brando is, actually, naked, without artifice and forced to create a character from within himself.

It was that impressive creative talent that distinguished Brando when he captured Broadway audiences in the late 1940s.

The "Godfather" performance was just another piece of Hollywood shtick, a clown act he did to make money.

"I'm in the Marlon Brando business" was how he described the course of his film career.

TCM's two-part biography, "Brando" (8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday), as serious and wide-ranging as it is, fails to appreciate that juxtaposition effectively.

The two-part designation is more apt than the producers intended. Part One is the young Brando, an instinctive actor on stage, a charming joker and rou???ff, his charisma leading to strong friendships and frequent fun with women.

Asked why he studied acting with Stella Adler and her students, he answered, "To get laid."

The biographers don't believe him and with good reason. Interviews with his contemporaries from the post-war Broadway scene such as Kevin McCarthy, actress Gloria Strook, girlfriend (and Stella Adler's daughter) Ellen Adler, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach and archival material by director Elia Kazan describe Brando as a consummate professional who poured the contents of his troubled life into gripping performances.

Part One also offers insightful and soulful endorsements of the Brando style from actors John Turturro, Edward Norton, Dennis Hopper and Johnny Depp, who called Brando a "revolutionary." Several suggested that Brando exuded a kind of dual sexuality that attracted both women and men, an ambivalence that no other actor possessed.

That intensity is evident from too-brief clips of that movie as well as "Julius Caesar" and "On the Waterfront."

A seriously aging Budd Schulberg, who wrote the screenplay for that film, truly ripped from the headlines about mob rule on the New York docks, confirms Brando's immersion in the part of Terry Malloy.

Martin Scorsese, a guy who knew that rough-and-tumble world, claims that Brando was indistinguishable from the dock workers he knew as a child.

But what happened?

Two reasons appear to be lack of suitable material and direction. Brando's finest moments came in works by Tennessee Williams, Shakespeare and Schulberg. Two of those performances came under Kazan's direction.

They would not be repeated.

Part Two traces Brando's quick fall from America's best actor to a jaded cynic who grabbed all the cash he could from indifferent performances to finance a life that was both self-indulgent and involved in social causes. That ambivalence again.

In '73, Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather to the Academy Awards to reject the prize in his place if he won for "The Godfather" as a protest of American Indian conditions. He did win and she renounced the Oscar in full native dress, touching off a big stink .

Brando's continued free-fall into a bloated self-indulgence could only be viewed as self-loathing, a theory that is carefully laid out here by friends and family member. He died in 2004 after several years of family tragedies.

Despite its length, "Brando" is stymied by the actor's determined elusive and singular personality. Unlike most actors, he seemed to require no applause, no awards, no attention.

The answers, if there are any, would be found in "Last Tango," perhaps the only time he played himself, as portrayed by Bertolucci's screenplay. It deserves more probing here.

"Brando" is, as they say in Hollywood, a star-studded production of great ambition that shines when it describes Brando the actor but hunts in the dark for Brando the human being.


Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634. Ask TV questions at www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.


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