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 Brando and His Imitators 

July 6, 2004 
Marlon Brando, dead at 80, was the most amazing entertainer of his time. Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.He is of course best known for playing Don Corleone, the most mimicked role in movie history, but that came late in a career he had already done his best to ruin.

If you don’t remember Snooky Lanson, you may find it hard to understand Brando’s impact on pop culture in the Fifties. Snooky, the poor man’s Perry Como, was a minor pop singer who starred on a weekly TV show called Your Hit Parade. He sang every hit song with a smile, eager to please. Wasn’t that what entertainment was all about?

Into the land of the Lansons burst Marlon Brando, unsmiling, brooding, mumbling, scratching — and fascinating. Few geniuses in any art have ever been so instantly transforming. Film acting, something of an anachronism in the age of Spiderman, changed overnight. Every young actor wanted to be the next Brando. Today, even his imitators have imitators.

But there can never be a next Brando. The kind of change he wrought, for better or worse, can happen only once. His influence will long survive the many wretched movies he made after his astounding early success.

The would-be Brandos copy his obvious mannerisms. They can do the slurred speech, seething silence, explosive rage, and the now-routine rebellious attitude. But they can never make it new, as he did. There are no Snooky Lansons left to play off. Brando destroyed the bland pop culture he was rebelling against.

Beyond that, Brando at his best had a subtlety, even a lyricism, his imitators lack. He added wondrous little touches to his best roles, as in the oddly delicate love scenes of On the Waterfront, where his cynical ex-boxer Terry Malloy falls in love with a girl in a Hoboken park, Terry’s shy shrugs belying his attempted bravado. Even as Don Corleone, Brando leaves the violence of the character implicit, stressing tenderness and even pathos. He conveys the Don’s power with cunning obliqueness, by showing his efforts to restrain it and regret at having to use it. The least bit of swagger — the very thing generations of movie audiences had expected of movie mobsters — would have ruined the effect.

[Breaker quote: Great actor, bad influence]Like Laurence Olivier, Brando was a master of the unexpected detail of character. For all his disparagement of acting, he respected it and mastered it. He admired two of the best in the business: Spencer Tracy and Cary Grant. Grant may seem Brando’s polar opposite, but Brando honored him with a simple and shrewd observation: “That guy really knows what he’s doing.” So did the apparently spontaneous Brando, when he bothered to use his gifts.

Brando could also be explosively funny, in his deadpan way. In the only film he directed, One-Eyed Jacks, he plays a cynical gunfighter who tries to seduce a beautiful woman with a sob story and a ring he has just acquired in a bank robbery (he shamelessly tells her he got it from his dying grandmother). The seduction is aborted when he learns of an approaching posse. He violently yanks the ring from her finger and runs for his life. It’s a hilarious moment because it’s so perfectly in character, illustrating a principle of comedy Charlie Chaplin once explained: “When you’re doing something funny, you don’t have to act funny doing it.”

Brando was even funnier in one of his late films, The Freshman, a spoof of the Godfather cult in which he plays a benign mobster who just happens to be a dead ringer for Don Corleone. Addressing an awed film student in his gently husky voice, he pointedly crushes two walnuts in his massive fist. The gesture proves as persuasive as, say, a severed horse’s head.

If Peter Manso’s huge biography is to be trusted, Brando’s personal life was as sordid as that of a Roman emperor, leaving a long trail of abortions, suicides, and troubled children (one daughter hanged herself after her brother killed her lover). He lived eight long decades without growing up; a couple of years ago he railed obscenely to an interviewer against his long-dead father. Naturally, he compensated for his private chaos with a hyperactive social conscience, eccentrically espousing causes that might have been better served by his silence.

The wonder is that so cruel and crass a man could show such sensitive human insight in his work.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2004 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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