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This time it was for real

Death was always impressive when Marlon Brando interpreted it, says J. Vasanthan

THE first Marlon Brando film we saw in Madurai was "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951). This was his second film. His first, titled "The Men" (1950) came here many years later.

Streetcar, based on a play by Tennessee Williams, presented Brando as Stanley Kowalski, an uncouth roughneck always lounging around in his vest and forever displaying bad manners and a sour temper, but exuding a strong masculine aura. After dinner one night his wife (Kim Hunter) starts clearing the table, and says, "You clear your end of the table." Brando knocks the crockery down to the floor with a swipe of his arm and says "I've cleared it." The film was the first in the genre that came to be known as kitchen-sink romances. An ageing Vivien Leigh (heroine of "Gone With the Wind") played a tragic role in the film.

The next film we saw was "Julius Caesar" (1953) in which Brando played Marc Antony. Julius Caesar was a text for us in the Intermediate course. The high point in the play of course was Antony's oration. In the classroom we had heard it delivered in measured professorial cadences. It went something like this: "Friends (pause), Romans (pause), Countrymen (long pause), Lend me your ears" and so on. So when we heard Brando shouting out the opening sentences hastily, the words coming tumbling over one another, we dismissed it as an American's ignorance of the Shakespearean style.

But later, after seeing it many times and reading about it, we realized that Brando's version was right. After all, he had been coached for the role by none other than Laurence Olivier, generally acknowledged to be the greatest Shakespearean actor of the Century. The Roman crowd is hostile and scattering off after Brutus' speech. Antony had to grab their attention by yelling and quickly telling them he had come only to bury Caesar, not to praise him. And grab them he certainly did. The film (and Brando's performance) grew on us as we saw it again and again.

Marlon Brando was trained in the Actor's Studio of Lee Strasberg in New York. His coach there was Stella Adler, a pupil of the great Stanislavski. The acting style taught by Adler was known as `method acting'. The method actor adds his own sub-text to the script, incorporating actual incidents from his life. When he speaks the lines in the script, he is actually thinking about the sub-text. Thus subtle feelings are displayed on screen. Method acting is an art that conceals art. The effect is there, but the technique is not seen.

Brando also took a lot of pains to prepare himself for every role. In "The Men", he had to play an army lieutenant whose spine had been smashed. Since he had no idea about what it felt like to be confined to a wheelchair, he asked to be admitted to a Veterans' Hospital in California as a paralysed veteran. He spent a few weeks there in a wheelchair until he felt he was ready for the role.

While acting in "On The Waterfront" (1954), he spent many days in a dockyard to get a feel of life there. The film was a landmark of sorts, and Brando won his first Oscar for it. "Roll up all the Oscars including mine and hand them over to Brando," said Humphrey Bogart. Brando's staggering, stumbling walk in the last scene is justly celebrated as a classic cinematic moment. And his scenes with another method actor, Rod Steiger, are frequently screened for acting students in film institutes all over the world.

Brando continued experimenting in acting styles throughout his career. In "The Godfather" (1972), he put tissue paper between his gums and cheeks, altering the shape of his face and slurring his speech. In "The Freshman" (1990), the main light was placed directly above his head, thereby placing most of his face in shadow. The full play of light was on his hands and he used them effectively to convey various shades of meaning.

This excessive concentration on his own acting sometimes created a confrontation with the director. He shaved his head for "Apocalypse Now" (1979) without informing the director, Francis Ford Coppola. The director was persuaded to accept Brando's new appearance. But in another film, "The Countess from Hong Kong" (1967), he clashed with the director, Charlie Chaplin. Both were highly individualistic personalities, and their discord reflected on the quality of the film. Both agreed that the film was a disaster.

Brando was ill-suited to play conventional roles. The less talented Clark Gable was a better Fletcher Christian in the original version of "Mutiny on the Bounty" than Brando in the remake. When Brando sang and danced in "Guys and Dolls" (1955) one was painfully aware of the fact that he wasn't a patch on Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly.

A great advantage that Brando had as an actor was the easy adaptability of his face to different roles. Make-up artists were surprised to find that they had very little to do for converting Marlon into Napoleon Bonaparte in the film "Desiree" (1954). In "The Teahouse of the August Moon" (1956), a little touching up of the eyes transformed him into a Japanese. The way he squatted and moved about mincingly made the illusion complete.

He was a master of the death scene, finding various methods of dying to create an awesome effect. In "Viva Zapata" (1952), a number of people shoot at him and he crumbles slowly, diminishing into a heap beneath his sombrero, which seems to conceal his whole body. In "The Young Lions" (1958) he plays a Nazi officer, and when he is shot he tumbles down a slope and comes to rest on the branch of a tree in a pose resembling a lion in repose.

In "Queimada" (1969) his leg buckles under him and he sinks to a prone position, and then we hear the gunshot, since light travels faster than sound. Death was always impressive when Marlon Brando interpreted it.

He died on the first of this month. This time it was for real.

(The author of this article can be contacted at the

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