Me and Marlon

It continues! At Kaput, Already, Renlau Outil considers Antonioni’s swan-song, BEYOND THE CLOUDS. Do check it out.

And here at Shadowplay, regular Shadowplayer Judy Dean addresses the career of Marlon Brando, recently summed up by a posthumous appearance in LISTEN TO ME, MARLON.

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ME AND MARLON

It’s hard to explain why Marlon Brando took so long to enter my consciousness.  I’m at primary school when that magnificent run of early films comes to a halt with Desiree. By the time I’m 15 I know that he once made a film so dangerous we’re not allowed to see it, but that doesn’t stop all the bad boys in town from dressing like him and wanting a Triumph like the one he rode. A couple of years later, when I join a group who spend every Sunday afternoon in the front row of the local ABC, regardless of what’s on, he’s become just another actor.  We are vaguely aware that he is troublesome, that he caused a lot of problems on Mutiny on The Bounty and wasted a lot of money on a western.  Did I see him during this period of indiscriminate filmgoing?  Bedtime StoryThe ChaseA Countess from Hong Kong?  I must have done, but I have no memory of it.

Come the seventies and life has taken a serious turn.  I’m married, working, and cinema has become an occasional indulgence but, like almost everybody of my generation, I see his great trilogy.

The Godfather is a major, much anticipated event. We drive home afterwards talking excitedly about the restaurant shootings and the horse’s head but I don’t remember our discussing Brando’s performance.

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Then Last Tango In Paris becomes a cause celebre.  We see it in London’s West End soon after it opens and find the cinema picketed by supporters of Mary Whitehouse, which only adds to the sense of occasion.  The film makes me feel queasy.  What exactly is it we are witnessing here?   But I am astonished by Brando’s physical appearance.  The Godfather has made me think of him as old, but here is this beautiful man in his forties with a blonde ponytail who can do a backflip.

Move on a few more years and we’re in the West End again for Apocalypse Now, a special journey made with friends in order to see it in 70mm and stereo.  A collective sigh of pleasure is heard as the sound of helicopter blades travels from one side of the auditorium to the other. There’s more than a whiff of pot in the air. Again, there is little talk afterwards of Brando; we think him weird.  It’s spectacle we’re after and we emerge high on images of air raids and napalm.

Now we’re into the eighties and everything goes quiet. Brando disappears from the screen and parenthood kicks our social life into touch.

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Move on another decade and I find myself, thanks largely to the arrival of Blockbuster video, starting to explore cinema’s back catalogue. Something in a Brando performance captures my imagination, some small gesture, some tiny detail.  What was it?  Putting on Eva Marie Saint’s glove in On the Waterfront?  Sliding a letter between his wife’s toes in The Ugly American?  Sharing a carrot with his horse in The Missouri Breaks?  I honestly can’t remember, but I know that I have never seen an actor do something like this before and I am entranced by it. Why this coup de foudre hasn’t happened sooner I’m not sure, but it leads me to start seeking out his films in a systematic kind of way and in so doing I discover Burn!  I am bowled over by this tale of colonialist meddling in the West Indian sugar trade, and ecstatic when I later discover that it’s his favourite role.

Overnight I become a Brando completist.   I watch every film, buy every biography and every coffee table book, hunt down every article and every review, correspond with every webmaster.  I am obsessed.  Eventually my passion is exhausted, the fever subsides and I return to the normality of just another fan. (That is, until the same thing happens with Buster Keaton; but that’s another story.)

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Jump to November 2015.  I decide to write about The Score for David’s blogathon.  Surely, with a cast like that, it can’t be as uninspiring as I remember it?  I buy the DVD to refresh my memory and find that it is.  I am depressed.  What a note to end a career on.  And what can I find to say about such a film?

Then a miracle occurs with the perfectly timed UK release of Listen to Me, MarlonThe Score proves not to be his final film after all.  Brando himself has the last word on his life and career.  And this moving documentary brings it all flooding back to me – his beauty, the damage caused by his unhappy childhood, the courage he showed in his political involvement, his failings as a husband and father, the blame for problems on set that were not of his making and, above all, the originality of his performances.  Forget all his feigned indifference to the art of acting.  Here he is talking about what lay behind the small gesture (whatever it was) that opened my eyes to his genius.

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“When an actor takes a little too long as he’s walking to the door, you know he’s going to stop and turn around and say ‘Quite frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’. Never let the audience know how it’s going to come out.  Get them on your time. And when that time comes and everything is right, you just fly.  Hit ‘em!  Knock ‘em over!  With an attitude, with a word, with a look.  Be surprising.  Figure out a way to do it that has never been done before.  You want to stop that movement from the popcorn to the mouth.  Get people to stop chewing.  The truth will do that.  Damn!  Damn!  Damn!  Damn! When it’s right, it’s right.  You can feel it in your bones. Then you feel whole.  Then you feel good.”

Let’s finish with a song.  Over to Dory Previn.

Judy Dean

Of course I’m liberated now

I see life as it is.

I call my soul my very own

and I no longer covet his.

 

No one else can get you through

I’ve learned with some regret.

I’ve outgrown all my heroes

I am cured of kings and yet…

 

And yet the other night

By chance, I saw him

There on the TV screen

Overbearing, arrogant

Marvellous, marvellous

And oh, so mean.

 

And that old addiction gripped me

You know how women get

I’ll bet I could have handled him

If only we had met.

 

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3 Responses to “Me and Marlon”

  1. Marlon’s best post-Tango film is The Freshman

  2. Judy Dean Says:

    I’d forgotten that conversation took place in front of a Keaton poster!

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