the original kStyle blog.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Marlon Brando (1924-2004)

It seems that over the holiday weekend we'll be seeing quite a lot of clips from a few great movies. We'll see Vito Corleone, and Stanley
Kowalski, of course, and Terry Malloy from "On the Waterfront." And we'll hear about how Marlon Brando changed screen acting forever,
which he did, and we'll hear about how he became such a curious and eccentric figure, which he did.

What I hope we don't hear, though, is that the Method--the style of acting derived from Stanislavsky and popularized in the U.S. by Lee
Strasberg, and epitomized by Brando--somehow represents the pinnacle of the dramatic art.

Because, really, the Method is horseshit, and Marlon Brando was a genius who didn't need crackpot, cultish ideas for his genius to be
evident. The Method likes to point to him, and to DeNiro and a few others, as evidence of its superiority, but most of them would have been
fine without it, maybe better. The Method took credit for someone who succeeded not because of it, but despite it.

Brando was a creature of terrific skill and beauty, of mystery and talent that is rarer than most anything. But the idea that what a Real Actor
does is try to feel what the character is feeling, to immerse himself in a fictional experience in order to create "truth," is nonsense and always
has been. The purpose of the Method is primarily to allow self-indulgent actors the opportunity to call their self-indulgence Art, because
any attempt to feel an emotion other than what one really feels is doomed to failure. The Method ignored this reality, and it ignored the
greater truth that dramatic meaning is not the actor's responsibility but the writer's.

One cannot act what the story means. One can only act the story.

I don't know whether Brando knew that or not, but either way we are hardly the worse for it. We have "Streetcar" and "Waterfront" and
"The Godfather," as well as lesser films such as "Guys and Dolls" and "Julius Caesar," and the uneven "Apocalypse Now," and the actor's
later, idiosyncratic, often very funny work in movies such as "Don Juan DeMarco" and "The Score."

He looked like he was having a good time in that one, his last picture. And I admired him for refusing to take direction from Frank Oz, whom
he regarded as something of a hack. And I like what I read once about him, that in every film his first two takes of his first scene were
always a test of the director: in the first take, he would phone it in, and in the second, he would really act. If the director couldn't tell the
difference, Brando phoned it in the rest of the movie.

Part of the result of this is that we have only three, maybe four, great Brando movies, instead of the twenty or thirty we may feel we
deserved. But no matter. There is what is, and though Brando might perhaps not be as missed as he would have been, had he not declined
into self-indulgence and a wee bit of madness, we must still respect what there was of him. What he deigned to show us.

It might be more politic to say this after a few weeks have passed, but I don't think Brando was good for acting, or for movies. I think he
gave too many young actors tacit permission to think it was their job, their duty, their obligation to pretend they could do the impossible, at
the expense of the work. The result is that the screen and the stage today have too much preening, too much self-regard, and not enough

Of course this isn't Brando's fault really. But on a day when I've already heard three people on television talk about how much more "real"
acting is because of Brando, it's hard not to wonder what modern acting could have become if Marlon Brando had become a bricklayer.

To listen to these television folks, you would think that what actors do is Suffer, or Struggle, and that everything else is just the petty
basics. But the basics are acting.

Because actors--the ones who do want to act--read the script, they get the lines right, they hit their mark. They play their own fear rather
than the character's. They risk things, but they do it on the stage or in front of the camera, not in their living rooms under the pretense of
"rehearsal." They don't program themselves for the impossible. They do not think about a nonexistent "character arc" or "story arc," these
artifically imposed elements of dramaturgy. They do not think about what the character feels or thinks, because they realize there is no
character. There are only words on a page. Acting is the illusion of character. We will believe a man is a king if he wears a crown, talks like a
king, sits on a throne, and gives us no reason to doubt him. The actor does not need to "feel" anything, and why Brando convinced himself
otherwise, I can't say. I'll leave it to the biographers.

But none of this is to suggest that acting is easy or ignoble. Indeed there is likely nothing harder or more profound. But since Strasberg,
and since Brando, it all went a different way, and somewhere it became less about words on a page and more about "How would the guy
I'm playing drink a milkshake?"

If the answer is anything other than "He'd pick up the glass, bring it to his mouth, and tilt," then that's the unfortunate side of what Brando
did for acting.

But the fortunate side is all on DVD, and it's hard not to be in awe, even after everything. Awe is really the only proper response. Awe, and
then measured consideration. I can't imagine that Marlon Brando, with his fierce devotion to the integrity of the work, would expect from
us anything less.


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