Marlon Brando: Forever In Transit
We will not have another Brando. Ever. We got terrifically lucky in having the one Brando, when we had him. Everything requires luck, and a talent only thrives if it arrives at the right time and is met with the right requirements: Brando had both the timing and the people to test his gifts, and he overwhelmed and rose above both. The arrival of Marlon Brando was a theatrically historic moment, and his era was phenomenal. There should be celebrations, commemorations, stamps, buildings, whatever. If we lived in a country, in a time, that gave a shit for the arts and the role they play in reflecting and shaping our lives, this would happen. Those who care must remember and tell the tales.
God makes an artist. Face this now and hold the fact dear. There is nothing else to do about the equipment you had installed celestially, and there is absolutely not one single thing you can do about the equipment that your family, your place of birth and culturation, your surroundings, your history implants in you. You can tweak and lie and warp and weave, but you've got what you've got. You will be lied to repeatedly by those who need a meal or some attention or a moment of consummation or some attention, but these are the facts. Your canvas has been stretched and primed long before you even know you can paint upon it. Go ahead and paint and paint well, but realize that your medium has been established. God makes the right artist at the right time, with the right equipment, and God, I believe, delivers this artist to those people who can use him, learn from him, wonder over him. In my lifetime this artist--within the art of acting--was Marlon Brando. Even I--this verbose, old satyr--cannot find the words to tell you about him sufficiently, but I'll try.
Marlon Brando called me in June of 1990, to ask how he might be of some help in the planning of a memorial service for Barbara Baxley, who had recently died. Marlon had been given my name months earlier by Baxley, and she had prevailed upon him to speak to me about Tennessee, but he had shown no interest until his friend was dead, and he was overwhelmed with grief and guilt. I had spoken once to Marlon's sister Jocelyn, a call that was conducted as her brother was in the background, installing a VCR he had just bought for her. Marlon confessed that he had eavesdropped on parts of the conversation. "Now," he told me, "I'm ready to talk."
Here are some of the things he said, and some things others said about him.
He was the most exquisite man I think I've ever seen. When I first met him, he was sweaty and sand stuck to him as if an artist had painstakingly applied each grain. He smelled of activity and musk and wheat fields. His body was perfectly and powerfully developed, a specimen not often seen in those post-War years. He was built like a stevedore, but he had the most beautiful and fragile of faces--smooth, flawless skin; a full and sensuous mouth; luxuriant eyelashes; a sweet smile. I thought of murky fairy tales my mother had read to me as a child, in which unwary people wandered into forests and discovered magical creatures who combined human traits with animal, with flora, with elements. Marlon had this quality, and yet none of the preening vanity such beauty normally presents. Jean Cocteau said to me that if he had created something like Marlon Brando in his studio, he would have been forced to retire or commit suicide, because never again could he rise to such an occasion. One talks of Marlon and it becomes a wet dream of adjectives and exhalations, but there is simply no other way to convey the man.
He kept journals and always made notes. He read voraciously and despised his lack of education, but he knew more than I did, despite my years in college. Although there was about him a sense of catching up, of getting ahead, of doing all he could, there was no impatience about him--he was gentle in the application of his genius, at least initially.
He had the most exquisite manners, and he treated me like a delicate piece of crystal or china--off the stage. Onstage he was ravenous and impossible to track, so intent was he on discovering his character. I learned more about acting being with him than with anyone else. Marlon is not really like a human being: I mean you can't discuss him as you would other people--he's more like a train or a nation.
Marlon: No one taught me to act, but Stella [Adler] taught me how to apply what I had. That's all a teacher can do: no one can teach acting, but the myth, the con, the lure endures, and people hurl themselves into that dark tunnel over and over again. Canaries dying in the toxic gases!
If Tenn said that God makes an artist, the canvas, then my canvas was stretched and put on a rack in my childhood. I had a father who always wanted to know when I would get a job, amount to something, get a bigger dick, help out around the house. My mother was the one who read to me and told me there was life out there, this magical kingdom somewhere beyond the city limits. She was beautiful and sweet and a drunk. We cleaned her up a lot and sobered her up, so my father wouldn't hit her or us, so we all were acting, pretending, lying at an early age. Is that where it started? Maybe. I don't know. I don't really want to know. I just want to get up and make something and share something and forget about now. You know, even after you have money and space and live in a better city with better things, you wonder about out there. I met Pablo Picasso, knew him a bit, and he felt the same way--get me out of the here and now and help me make something that will last out there, in the future, in the dreams of other people who've had their canvas stretched and are wondering what to put on it.
Acting should be terminal. That's what Stella told me; that's what Kazan also believed. If something big isn't at stake--if everything isn't at stake--why bother? Why show up? Why apply anything to it at all? Someone is out there dreaming and asking questions and wondering why he was born. Some guy is out there with a father who beats him and tells him he's a loser with a lousy dick and no chance in hell of amounting to anything. Well, what do I tell him? How do I reach out to him and tell him a story? There's a girl out there who doesn't have a mother to teach her how to take care of a house or a man or herself, and what do I tell her? What's the story for her? It's in the text somewhere; it's in my heart and my mind somewhere, and I spend all my time and energy and love trying to find it, trying to transmit it. That's what I think acting should be. You honor the playwright's words, and you find a character out of those words, and you marry the director in your heart and you follow him and pray he follows you. Does this make any sense?
If you can't share yourself, you can't act. You can't live either, and the world is full of people who aren't really living: they move and they breathe and they show up in certain places, but they aren't really living. I feel I'm forever in transit, forever trying to understand people, myself, the world. The best actors, the best artists, are always looking at things and at people and asking questions and trying to figure out how they did what they did. When I was at my best, you saw a man working hard and curiously, trying to figure out the character and the characters around him.
I was always trying to figure out Jessica [Tandy] and Vivien [Leigh]: not only as Blanche, but as themselves. Why did they move as they did? Who made them? You know, who pulled their canvas? Jessica did the most remarkable things with her hands--she would cover her mouth when she laughed, as if she were embarrassed to make a sound that might disturb someone, or the world, or a sleeping child. It turns out that Jessica grew up, like me, feeling unwanted and out of place, and even though she puts on makeup and plays out characters on the stage, she tries to disappear and not be a burden in life. That's part of her canvas.
Vivien felt that time was always running out, so she ran all the time: in her mind, with her words, with her feet. I wonder now if she knew she would only be here a short time. Did she know where her fuse was and kept looking at it, all lit up and growing smaller all the time? You wonder about God and his creation of her: this beautiful, bright woman quickly wasting away. Lost energy, lost time, and then just horribly lost. Gone. Was her canvas tiny and stretched too tight? Or too loosely? Did it snap or just drop away?
I like how Tennessee's mind works.
I didn't get big for the acting: I got big for the world. I was puny and sick and hated the way I looked. Whatever I wound up doing, I wanted to be strong and I wanted to be the one they would pick--for whatever they had. People think I got big for Stanley, but I didn't. You never know: I might have worked in a shipyard or something, and the big, strong guy gets the job, takes care of himself, moves up.
Stanley reminded me of my father: mean, dumb, angry, limited. Stanley is a cabinet of appetites, and you keep opening the drawers and they contain things like food and booze and pussy and cock and massage and cool air and oil rubs--he wants to feel things and eat things and be left alone. His world is simple and small, and everything was working out just fine until this crazy lady with ideas and manners and dreams and a past shows up. Blanche has a cabinet too, and there are appetites in her drawers too, but there are also qualities: kindness, patience, generosity. Her drawers also have room for culture and curiosity. This only makes Stanley realize how small he his, how short his journey is going to be. It also reminds Stella of the short, nasty journey for which she has bought a ticket. The ticket came with a big cock and an endless appetite for its uses, but little else. Stella has had her fill of culture and drama and dreams--she's ready for the rutting and the sweating, but her awakening is coming, and it's going to be harsh. The arrival of Blanche makes both Stella and Stanley see this eventuality, and it unhinges them.
That's how I saw the play, and Tennessee and Kazan backed me up, and they allowed me to apply my own past, and my own fears, and they would trim and edit and expand and amplify what I did. That's when the work can be great, when everyone decides to show up and operate at the same level of curiosity; to never tire; to never ask why you're questioning and changing and altering. That's rare.
You don't get your questions answered: You just learn a bit more and fall deeper into the act of living. I think we die with a long list of questions and a bit more knowledge. I'm okay with this. I don't believe in finality anymore. Every fact that enters a person leads them to a new question, a new book, a new teacher, a new friend, a new feeling.
Read all that you can. Go to all the churches, temples, mosques. Exhaust yourself and everyone around you with questions. The greatest questions are Why and Where questions. Why is it this way, and where can I go to learn more and put it to use.
I want to go back and do all the parts again, because I've learned so much and become such a better person. I could put better paint, in a better design, on the canvas. But I can't, so I move on, try again, try better.
It becomes harder and harder to care, to be curious, as you live longer. There's so much pulling at you--time and gravity and care and wear--but it's valiant and necessary. It's why we stay forever in transit.
TO BE CONTINUED