Monday, April 30, 2007
BRANDO—The Evening Class Interview With David Thomson
Monday and Tuesday evenings, May 1 and 2 respectively, Turner Classic Movies is premiering their fascinating two-part documentary on Marlon Brando, produced by the Grief Company and written by Mimi Freedman. The documentary in its entirety has already screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and will appear in sidebar at Cannes next month. David Hudson has gathered together a few reviews at The Greencine Daily, to which I'll add Brian Lowry's write-up for Variety.
One of the many talking heads approached to reminisce on Brando and to discuss the body of his work is Brando biographer David Thomson who agreed to meet with me to expand on the man, the actor, and his films. After acknowledging his fingerprints on the project (he put Mike Medavoy, one of the Brando executors of the will, in contact with TCM), Thomson conceded:
Thomson: That doesn't mean to say it couldn't have happened without me; it easily could. I think in fact I had a little role in it happening; but, I never dreamed it was going to turn out to be as big and as solid and as adventurous a piece of work. Once the Greif Company got on to it, it was clear they were going to do a tremendous research job with a lot of bits of footage of Brando that I'd never seen before. And, of course, they were able to go to Tetiaroa, which was very important to the film, and they got the children to talk. You really do get a more rounded feeling of Brando than I ever thought possible.
As we talked about it earlier, they asked, "How would we do it? What would it be? Would it be the whole life?" I said, "No, I think the whole life is probably too much." Although they really came close to doing it. I said, "Make it what he means to actors." That's there still because they have so many actors speaking very well about him. You really do get a sense of what he meant to a generation of American actors—not just American but particularly. They covered it pretty well. I'm very pleased with it.
Michael Guillén: I was too. When you wrote your lovely obituary piece for the Guardian, you ruminated, "Will there ever be a book that 'explains' the man? I doubt it." Has this documentary reversed your doubts? Do you think it has come close to explaining Brando?
Thomson: Well, I do. I don't know what the general public thinks about him now and what they care about; but, I suspect this film is going to deliver a lot more than most audiences are expecting. It's a deeper, richer portrait and certainly it's got the good and the bad. It's got the ambiguities in the man. It's got the self-destructiveness as well as the creativity. It really asks the questions about him, which I don't think anyone's ever going to answer. He was a phenomenon and sometimes not a very happy phenomenon, sometimes happy.
Guillén: In the pieces you have written about Brando that I was able to get my hands on, you seemed focused on his failed potential or what he could have done had he applied himself more consistently. Someone else might give one remarkable performance for which they're remembered for the rest of their lives and that's enough; but with Brando—despite his many remarkable performances—there's still a sense of how much more he could have and didn't achieve. That discrepancy in expectations on an actor made me consider that an actor as iconic as Brando becomes responsible not just for his craft, but for his public and what they expect from their icons. Where it might appear that he thwarted public expectations, I felt the documentary skillfully pointed out that—in fact—he reapplied his energies to veer away from acting towards social activism.
Thomson: Well, you know, that was a while ago. There's a younger generation that doesn't know about his activism. They covered the Oscar thing for Godfather very well. They set it up and as soon as you see Sacheen Littlefeather, you remember, "Oh right! I remember." And you remember it as a kind of absurd occasion.
Guillén: In your Guardian obit you wrote, "The maiden wore buckskins and false eyelashes." That made me laugh.
Thomson: But then, Russell Means comes on and very credibly and forcefully says just how much for the good it meant to the people at Wounded Knee and so on. You see it in a larger perspective. In a way, it's the Academy that looks a little bit silly.
Guillén: In retrospect, they do.
Thomson: It was a horrible outrage at the time—not outrage; that's not quite the word …
Guillén: It was uncomfortable.
Thomson: Yeah. And it was offensive to a lot of people obviously. But when you think about it deeply, the offense that Brando felt—and he's not the only actor who's ever said, "Don't give me prizes; it's silly"—but the offense he felt about the way Native Americans were treated is genuine. That's something that comes out of the film that I think is true of him. From the very beginning both politically, idealistically, sensually, and emotionally he was crazy about people of color. He really had this love of them. It actually looks more honorable now than perhaps it did at the time.
Guillén: At the time too he was, I believe, one of the first to use a gala event like the Academy Awards to make such a strong political statement. Now we're more used to that melding of stages. As someone who has covered Hollywood and its films for a while, do you remember how you felt about it at the time? Did you consider it a trick on the movie going public?
Thomson: I'm trying to remember—did this not come very soon after George C. Scott refused the award for Patton?
Guillén: I think Scott was first, yes.
Thomson: But Scott didn't send somebody to make a gesture of it. He simply—as I remember it—said, "I don't think it's decent to give prizes to actors because we're not in a competition. One man plays one part as a rule and that's what it's about." My feeling at the time was that—while I felt Sacheen Littlefeather looked fake—the notion that an actor might say to the Academy, "Well thank you, but no thank you and I'd just like you to know why I'm saying no" was totally legitimate. I just wish that Brando had said that himself. If Brando would have come on quietly and said, "I really appreciate this and your kindness but I've decided I'm not running for awards anymore" and just walked off, I think he would have had more strength and dignity. Sending the girl up was the mistaken part of it. That made it look like a circus event. He had an absolute right and some reason to say, "Thank you but no, I don't want the award" but he should have said that himself.
Guillén: So going back a bit more towards the early part of his career, from a British perspective where there has been such a vaunted tradition of treading the boards, how did you first hear of and how was Brando being regarded for his electric theatrical performance in A Streetcar Named Desire?
Thomson: It's very funny, it's just flooded into my head, there was a radio show in Britain at the time in which two Canadian actors who had gone to live in London—Bernard Brayton and Barbara Kelley—did a comedy show. Bernard Brayton loved to impersonate Brando. The first time I ever sniffed Brando on the wind—because I was really too young to go to see the films when they first came out; I didn't start to see them when they were coming until maybe Viva Zapata—on this radio show Brayton did this character called, as I remember, Brandy Marlow, who mumbled all the time. I'm sure it was crude and vulgar.
I was very interested in acting and, as you say, if you're English you're brought up to have a great admiration for the English acting tradition. I remember the impact of Julius Ceaser, which probably opened when I was about 12. I remember my father saying to me, "Oh, this Brando won't be able to do that. He's really going too far this time." I knew the play because I was reading it at school. I knew the speeches. I was learning them, maybe about the same time he was. And of course, he was able to do it and did a great job in it. That was the moment in which it became clear that the man was a very sophisticated and cultivated actor and that this extraordinary, early naturalism, the psychological hesitation was almost the smoke screen under which Brando came in on. He was, in fact, a very clever actor with accents. He could do Shakespeare. He could do whatever he wanted to do. Whatever really interested him. For me, growing up, it was Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean—who seemed almost to come along at the same time—and were just emotionally so much more credible. Acting had seemed to me until that time to be people who put on make-up and costume and learned the lines and did it as a recitation. It's something said in the film, with that generation, people just started behaving.
Guillén: Are you using the term "behaving" as shorthand for method acting?
Thomson: Well, yeah. I mean, I was interested enough to read about it at the time and I realized that the Actors Studio was sort of behind it all. I appreciated that someone like Kazan—who was not only directing many of these films and shows—was also a cofounder of the Actors Studio. He was very important to it. It taught me that there was a kind of acting where people just went deeper into the truth and had found it in a search through themselves, whereas English acting was much more formal, much more a deliberate pretense. This was rawer. Because I was that age and what you're going through at those ages, it meant a lot to me. I certainly for a time fell very much in love with American acting.
Guillén: Has method acting influenced British theatrical acting at all? Has the approach transferred over?
Thomson: Oh, yeah. A lot. That generation had their impact all over the world. People like Depardieu, Delon, even someone like Mifune, would probably all say that it affected them. English actors before the Second World War tended to sound upper class; after the War they became working class and then classless. They became more real people.
Guillén: I like something you wrote about Brando early in his career, that from the outset he had "a rebelliousness, an ego and an intricate self-pity determined to be wronged." Are you saying he's self-destructive?
Thomson: My reading of Brando is that he sort of organized his life so that he ended up being or feeling wronged. I'll give you an example of that, which was not quite as firmly pushed in the documentary as it might have been. He clearly had a pretty bad time with his father.
Guillén: You suggested he'd been physically beaten?
Thomson: I think so and I think that in many conventional ways he and his father did not get on. There was this huge impulse in his life to be free of his father but then when he begins to become famous and so on, he hires his father as his business manager. A terribly revealing thing.
Guillén: How so? How do you mean that? I found it disturbing but couldn't articulate why.
Thomson: It's almost as if he wants to provide another great test to see whether his father will let him down or betray him again. Because he does. His father lost a lot of money of his. That wasn't spelled out but it was a very nasty, awkward business. And yet, you know, Brando had no one to blame but himself. You don't normally hire your father as your business manager. That's asking for trouble and he did it. That moment when he and his father appear on the Edward Murrow show Face to Face, there's a real tension between [Brando and his father]. You could feel that Marlon should never have hired his father. It was a terrible thing to have done. Asking for trouble. But it cemented Marlon's feeling that his father was his worst enemy. As late as Last Tango In Paris, you remember, where he has these speeches about the father—which are clearly much drawn from Brando's own life—and in the book he wrote later, he feels this anger towards the father, even a need for vengeance, at an age when most people are giving it up and thinking, "Well, okay, my father was a shit. We didn't get on. But maybe I was as much to blame as he was." Brando didn't ever reach that point. He held him close to himself because it gave him energy; the feeling that his father had betrayed him. I think he did that with a lot of people. He was cunning and would sometimes maneuver people into backing out of relationships with him and then look at them and say, "You betrayed me. You let me down." Because he needed emotionally to feel that he was the victim.
Guillén: Was survival of that victimization an important motivation for him?
Thomson: Again, my reading of him is that he thinks as a young man that he wants to be an actor and he does everything to become an actor and he succeeds. By the time of On the Waterfront, I'd say, when he's still quite young, he's probably the outstanding actor in the world and the quality of the work begins to deteriorate. He would say that acting let him down; that he invested in it and then he found that it didn't really stand up under the pressure of time and repeat work—maybe he wasn't prepared to work hard enough? (And getting away to Tahiti was a big part of this, just being on the beach, the beach comber kind of meditation)—that acting had worked out the wrong thing for him. It had forced him to keep company with scoundrels, terrible business people, who had deceived him and betrayed him and swindled him whenever they could, although he was doing just as much to them, in fact. He was quite an unkind person to employ. He would take the money and run.
Guillén: Sounded like it in the documentary. I appreciated that, with regard to your participation in the documentary, you ended the first half and began the second half—every actor's dream!—with commentary on his tyranny and his on-set behavior.
Thomson: He really became monstrous. You have to say that he understands drama enough to know that—whatever the provocation you've had—that's a terrible thing to do to call down a curse on the whole enterprise. Okay. Anyone's going to make some bad films because, by the law of averages, you can't not. So you can't expect everything you do to be as good as everything else; but I don't think he always tried and I think he should [have tried]. I think you owe it to the other people in the enterprise. For instance, he treated Coppola on Apocalypse Now really badly and Coppola had recovered his career with The Godfather. Coppola had really stood out for him in that role and risked a lot. I think he earned better treatment than he got from Brando. But Brando was not generous in that way.
Guillén: In terms of the documentary coming out at this time, what is the value of Brando to contemporary audiences? Or to young actors? He affected me so much but I was at the tail end of his generation; but what about young people who don't know his performances?
Thomson: Every day these days I find myself marveling and horrified at how ignorant a lot of people are about stuff that I take for granted. It's proper and reasonable that a few years after a man's death someone should come along with an attempt at something thorough, carefully done, certainly goes to the people that you want to hear talk about him. What will the public think? I don't know. I don't think anybody who comes to the program with a fair mind will do anything other than be fascinated and impressed. The story of the man is so intriguing. He's clearly such a bundle of different energies and you see—even if you've never seen anything of Brando before—you see clip after clip that's good. They chose the clips well. I would have hoped that people would say, "Pretty interesting." We're still definitely in the age where a lot of American acting is very much affected by him. It's interesting to see people on this show like Sean Penn, Edward Norton, Johnny Depp, basically younger actors, and I think it's still the case probably in acting school in this country that there are kids watching Brando films, learning and absorbing. His example there is still as strong as ever. I hope it will do a lot of good in the sense that it will make people more aware of what it is to put your life into films and that kind of thing.
Guillén: I watched the documentary with my roommate who was relatively unfamiliar with Brando.
Guillén: Yeah, he's from Mexico and wasn't really brought up on American film or American pop culture.
Thomson: That's interesting.
Guillén: It was interesting because he thought the first part of the documentary was entertaining—all the clips of Brando's early films—but he was especially fascinated with the second part of the documentary that highlighted Brando's later years and his increased engagement with political activism.
Thomson: He didn't know about that?
Guillén: No; but, for that matter, neither did I really. But my roommate found Brando's support of indigenous groups, the Black Panthers, and Martin Luther King's civil rights movement to be fascinating. That's what he walked away with from this documentary; not Brando as the actor but Brando as the activist and the notion that acting was used not for the power of the performance but for the platform it provided to achieve social change.
Thomson: Brando, for his time, was an unusual American. This was a kid of the late 30's and 40's and I think absolutely, genuinely—there wasn't anything contrived about it—he had this terrific response to people of color, Latin people, music, jazz, South American rhythms, the drumming, the people of the South Seas, the [Native Americans], the Blacks. For a Midwestern kid, he was ahead of his time. I think it came from a real feeling of their greater sexual honesty. It would be very interesting indeed if that's what comes out of this: the guy who really got sick of Hollywood, wanted to go live in the South Seas, wanted to do things for civil rights, [Native American] rights, that kind of thing. I grew up with that and I knew it; but, for someone who didn't really know that Brando did that, I could see that it would be very striking indeed.
Guillén: Branching away from profiling Brando as an individual, I'd like to talk about some of the films. One that you didn't get to comment upon in the documentary much but that elsewhere I've read your opinions about—which surprised me—is On The Waterfront. You don't seem to really like that movie much.
Thomson: I don't.
Guillén: Whereas myself—every time I watch that scene of Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in the car, the famous "I could have been a contender" speech—I get all choked up and am thrilled to the core. But you criticize that he exhibited his technique and that it interfered with your appreciation of his performance. Could you speak about that?
Thomson: I've never quite known what that film is about. There are an awful lot of private messages… For Kazan and Schulberg it meant something about informing. There's the part of the film that's about labor relations with the waterfront and then there's this very romantic vision of this ex-boxer and I would say that—compared with those early films (and I remember feeling this when I saw the film first and I saw this when it came out)—I didn't believe he was an ex-boxer. I believed he was an actor pretending to be an ex-boxer. I did believe that he was paraplegic in The Men and I did believe he was Zapata and I believed in Streetcar, but I felt there was a real gap of pretense in On the Waterfront. If you put that with the uncertainty about what the film was about, for me it's simply not as powerful a film as it is for many people I know.
Guillén: I did agree with your highlight of his performance in The Fugitive Kind, which is a film that I likewise agree is so overlooked and I think his performance is stunning in that film, as is Anna Magnani's; she's absolutely luminous. Magnani is an actress who requires someone of Brando's strength and virility for there to be a believable balance.
Thomson: They had real battles too.
Guillén: Did they? You got some gossip?
Thomson: Brando, who was—as you can imagine—a constant sexual aggressor with people he was working with, was a little sexually afraid of her. I don't think he'd ever met someone quite like her. He makes remarks about how she doesn't wash and she doesn't shave her armpits, which suddenly make him sound sort of prim. He found her hard to deal with; but, the challenge worked very well. It's a terrific film.
Guillén: I think so too. All the performances in The Fugitive Kind are outstanding. I find it interesting that Brando—alongside his performance of the thrillingly virile Stanley Kowalski—has performances in Reflections In A Golden Eye and The Missouri Breaks, which if they're not "gay"—such a nebulous term!—are certainly commenting upon gender variance, specifically the sinister aspects of gender variance. Can you comment on his performances in those two films?
Thomson: I've probed it further and it's something they didn't include at all in the documentary and I can see why because it needs time to get into. Streetcar meant different things to different people. For Tennessee Williams it was a veiled—necessarily veiled because censorship would not have allowed anything else—a veiled portrait of a refined sensitive spirit finding the pleasures in rough trade. I think when the play was written, that's what it was. The poetry in the play comes from Williams's own excitement at the prospect of the rough embrace. Now, that text in '47 could not be produced. Kazan, an intensely heterosexual director, who always had to identify with the character in his stories, comes along and turns it into a much more acceptable heterosexual story; but, again, one in which the brute will rape and conquer the sensitive spirit. The reason it worked so dramatically and so excitingly at the time was because there was that feeling of an unspoken message behind the play.
Guillén: This tension between two different types of masculinity?
Thomson: Yes. But I think Brando was on to this. Brando understood it. I'm pretty sure from researching the life that Brando had several homosexual experiences as a young man. Not necessarily because he felt he might be gay, but because he was so interested in any sexuality that he thought, "I've got to try it. I've got to see." I think you've got an actor who had in his own nature, his own being, an unusual understanding and—again, think of it in terms of 1947—an unusual understanding of this issue and was unusually drawn to it and, yes, I agree. I love Missouri Breaks and one of the reasons I love Missouri Breaks is because it's a very witty sort of gay teasing, although a very standard heterosexual figure. I've talked to Arthur Penn about this and it's absolutely true that he encouraged Brando to put every character he could think of in the broad character of the part; but, there's a gayness there in the playfulness and everything. I think Brando was very interested in the relationships and—again, something left out of the film—he had many intense male friendships, often with people who you would not have guessed that, would not have been the most obvious. He was very interested in male friendship and I think he found it much easier to stay friends with men than with women.
Guillén: The home movie the documentary reveals of Brando, Montgomery Clift and Kevin McCarthy in drag and camping it up is priceless. These are three of the most beautiful men in Hollywood.
Thomson: Yeah. You feel it, don't you?
Guillén: How about Reflections In A Golden Eye?
Thomson: They gave it proper attention [in the documentary] and it's an extraordinary film. Again, it's one of those films [where] you just wonder how they made it at that time. It was sort of an "Elizabeth Taylor film." In those days an "Elizabeth Taylor film" was a beast of its own kind. But it's an amazing film and he's very good in it.
Guillén: I appreciated how his performance captured that militarized repressed homoeroticism. By contrast his playfulness in Missouri Breaks replicated for me the gay quest for identity, often pursued as shifting identity. He was so protean in Missouri Breaks and that, for me, speaks for the gay experience.
Thomson: It was a part of his life.
Guillén: I haven't asked the obvious question: did you ever get to meet him?
Thomson: Not at all, no.
Guillén: But you wrote the biography….
Thomson: Well, it's a short biography.
Guillén: …and then you had an editorial hand in bringing out Fan-Tan, this posthumous novel of his co-written with Donald Cammell? Cammell was responsible for Performance, right?
Thomson: That's right. I'll give you a copy of it. A very good example of just the kind of friendship I'm talking about. He met Cammell … Cammell was Scots living in Paris in the late 50's. Brando met Cammell in the late 50's in Paris when he was doing The Young Lions. They became terrific friends. It really lasted until Cammell's suicide. Cammell had wanted Brando and Mick Jagger in Performance but Brando let him down. He wouldn't do it. Much later on they tried to collaborate on a project which turned into this novel, which really Cammell did but Brando had a lot of input into it. It's all explained in the book; I'll give you a copy. Again, it was a friendship where both men sort of walked away thinking the other had betrayed them and I met people who wondered if there hadn't been a gay passage in that friendship too because Cammell was a famously omnivorous person sexually, loved orgies and multiple partners and that kind of thing.
Guillén: Well, I have an elderly friend here in the city who swears he slept with Brando, one of the Beat poets, but I've never been completely sure he was telling the truth.
Thomson: I would tend to believe it.
Guillén: I guess I'll have to re-evaluate that. Elsewhere you've written that among the actors who are out there now Jack Nicholson would probably come the closest to having the kind of iconic stature that Brando achieved. Do you still think that's true? Is there any other actor who you think has what Brando had?
Thomson: Well, there's a group of actors who clearly were very very much influenced by Brando. It would include Pacino, Beatty, DeNiro—they're all sort of "Actors Studio-ish" actors—and Nicholson. Nicholson and Brando were neighbors. They lived side by side on Mulholland Drive. Nicholson has the largeness of spirit that Brando had; the interest in everything. There are resemblances. But one of the things that came across in this documentary was just the range of actors in America who clearly felt Brando was their model person who inspired and, in a way, enabled them to be actors.
Guillén: Back to the strain of thought about his "gay" performances, The Wild One was a film whose leather wardrobe has had a direct and profound influence upon American gay subculture. One suggestion I wanted to propose to Turner Classics was to explore those four performances with a queer reading.
Thomson: I think that's a great idea.