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With Anne Beatts, The Joke Was Always on President Ford

[UPDATE, April 22, 2021: Back in 2019, when Donald Trump was still president, we resurfaced this 1974 page, written by Anne Beatts, from our archives. Beatts blazed a path through the boys’ club of comedy writing in the 1970s, most notoriously as the brains behind the 1973 fake Volkswagen Bug ad that ran in National Lampoon with the tagline, “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today.” If you don’t get the punchline we can only say that checking it out is one internet rabbit hole that is worth plunging into. You can start here. Beatts, who was born in 1947, passed away earlier this month. —R.C. Baker] 

On November 27, 1973, the U.S. Senate voted 92-3 to confirm Gerald R. Ford as Richard Nixon’s vice president after the elected veep, Spiro Agnew, had resigned due to a bribery scandal. Nine months later it was Nixon himself who stepped down to avoid impeachment for various high crimes and misdemeanors, and Ford, formerly a congressman from Michigan, became America’s first — and so far only — appointed president. 

Turns out, the joke was on him. 

Ford is probably best remembered for Chevy Chase’s merciless portrayal of the president as a bumbling buffoon on Saturday Night Live, as in this clip from the comedy hit’s first season, in 1975.

Anne Beatts was a writer for SNL in those early years, making her an anomaly in a field that was then a fairly impregnable boys’ club. But Beatts (pronounced “Beats”) had earlier battled her way into another bastion of postwar American humor, National Lampoon magazine, eventually becoming its first female contributing editor. Despite that success she was still struggling for recognition. In an interview in Vice’s Broadly, Beatts recounted a meal with the magazine’s co-founder, Henry Beard, in which she asked him why more of her work wasn’t getting into print. His reason was succinct: “I just don’t think chicks are funny.” Beatts went on to say, “I cried and lost a contact lens in my soup — instead of punching him in the nose, which is what he deserved. So I stopped writing for the magazine altogether.”

Perhaps that was a bit of luck for the Village Voice. In the December 30, 1974, issue of the paper, Beatts contributed “Gerald Ford’s Joke Book,” observing, “If there’s anything we as a nation need right now, it’s the ability to laugh at our troubles.” Ford was a promising target because he had already gained a reputation for his malapropisms and physical clumsiness, traits Chase would begin wildly exaggerating a year later. In the Voice, Beatts displayed her chops by taking Ford’s penchant for misdelivering punchlines to old jokes by bending their banality almost 360 degrees so that they became absurdly funny again:

“A man went to see a psychiatrist. ‘Doctor, I have a terrible problem,’ he confessed. ‘It’s my memory. I can’t remember anything for more than a few seconds.’”

“’How long have you had this problem?’ asked the doctor.”

“’I don’t remember how long I’ve had it,’ the man answered.”

Beatts runs through a repertoire of such off-kilter chestnuts until she twists her concept even a few more degrees to deliver a joke that is perhaps more current than ever:

“Do you know the country is going to the dogs?”

“Yes, and if you hum a few bars I’ll sing it for you.”    ❖

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FRINGE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Abbie Hoffman: God-fool of Conscience

On behalf of political poet Abbie Hoffman reported ar­rested with friends and a group of Government men over three pounds of cocaine, I wish to share my thoughts:

First I bear witness to his special experience in the hon­orable cause of Peace Protest in the face of violent denial of human civil rights to citizens in America and out of it, especially during course of In­dochinese War activity foisted on this nation by Government. Abbie Hoffman has already been jailed many times for seeking, with peaceful fire and good humored street theatre and astonishing public drama, redress of grievances for the bad luck of the Vietnam War.

Reviled and insulted at first for articulating a now commonly held opinion of that war, he defended himself and others against defeated Gov­ernment accusations of con­spiracy, illegal speech, ges­ture, and public assembly in urging the War end. In this sit­uation he became a hero in a nation engulfed with moral catastrophe, and no man of any generation in right mind can be but grateful for Abbie Hoffman’s inventive national communication of the War’s madness and folly. I remain gratetul for his righteous indignation over the Vietnam War, the moral power of his deeply felt resistance to the injustice of it, and his demon­stration of free Imagination against mass complacency at the mass murder in which we were all involved.

Abbie Hoffman was one of the first souls in the nation to make consciousness sensitive to the Eichmann-like nature of our public War-guilt. Thus any legal case in which he is involved is a matter of deep political consideration, requiring special attention, straight heart judgment, and exquisite moral care that public resentment against him as god-fool of Conscience not crush him in present legal difficulty.

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We are now in midst of national scandal of Government misbehavior called Water­gate. High politicians preaching law and order were themselves habitually breaking Bill-of-Rights laws in the interests of the creation of some sort of police state. Patriotism was as usual the refuge of these scoundrels, who wrapped themselves in the language of the flag, in order to trash the Constitu­tion. This is an age-old pattern. Unauthorized wiretap­ping, spying, use of agents­-provocateurs and double agents, spooks, burglaries, police set-ups, official perju­ry, in-government conspiracy to deprive citizens of protection against excess government snooping and illegal infra-war activity, domestic surveillance of political en­emies — this pattern of Watergate crooked-heartedness was precisely the government pat­tern denounced prophetically by Abbie Hoffman.

Some of these same Watergate actors defamed and prosecuted Abbie Hoffman precisely for his vocal and theatrical resistance to their war machine. He too wrapped himself in the flag, threw free money off the balconies of the stock market, wrote forbidden words on his brow, woke the young to national disaster, and practiced exorcism of a black magic operating in the highest reaches of respectable government — illusory statistics, lying, public decep­tion, conspiracy mania even assassination in Vietnam, Operation Phoenix, confessed in public before Congress. Constriction by Government on his own liberty, such as wiretapping, has I believe been proven in court in the course of numerous trials by which the government tried to knock Abbie Hoffman and his peace friends out of action against War and growth of police state.

So I bear witness that Abbie Hoffman is not an ordinary citizen, member of a silent majority of Citizens compli­ant with 1984-style Bureau­cracy and acquiescent to remote-control war. Hoffman is a patriot who has fought the Good Fight to waken his fellow Americans to the cor­ruption of their own tradi­tional ideals. Like Tom Paine, he is a classic example of philosophic and poetic drama­tist of public Ideals, a pamph­leteer and book man, seeking liberty for his country and sanity on its government. His just causes were questions illegal war and police stale, not touched deeply by the courts, till late — they were touched deeply by Abbie Hoffman.

Thus his social position as a leader or theorist of new sur­vival society credits him with deliberation and reason. His present involvement with agents of Drug Bureaucracy over cocaine sale may be questionable, but so may be their involvement with Abbie Hoffman.

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In time of communal Apathy synchronous with Abbie Hoffman’s recent disil­lusioned withdrawal to pri­vate life (after crises of his public efforts to confound Government police bureau­cracy and war led him to be attacked left and right), Hoffman is now to be congrat­ulated on an arrest which by its very surprise, its simulta­neous whimsicality and seriousness, re-unites many of his fellow workers once again to resist the steamroller of police state Power crushing another live citizen’s body.

Hoffman’s arrest for co­caine dealing does not bear toward resolution of the real “hard drug” problem in America, in any way shape or form.

Government’s visioned sen­tence of life for Abbie Hoffman resolves no whit the real tormenting drug problem in America, but only adds more pain and hysteria to the scene.

What is the actual “hard drug” mess in America? Poli­ticians, police, drug bureau­crats, and criminal syn­dicates run wild over the public, and over sick junkies, against professional medical­-scientific advisement — greed and money is their addiction and violence and hypocrisy their works.

The real drug problem in America is that government narcotics bureaucracies and organized crime have had a status quo working relationship for decades. This ar­rangement denies legitimate opiate addicts reasonable access to their specific medi­cines. The black market for opiates consequently created serves to increase the number of addicts, not decrease it, serves only to increase the social disorientation of addiction, not cure it, serves to discredit helpless sick citizens, not minister to them. This arrangement increases the pain of addiction.

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This ar­rangement profits only Nar­cotics Control Agencies and Organized Crime Networks. Both depend on continued criminalization of addicts to maintain their comple­mentary parasitic existences. Both groups have grown with the growth of the black market they have created. In this situation the medically sick junkie is a victim, treated like a Jew under Hitler driv­en mad in the streets to seek relief from unendurable pain and social degradation im­posed on him by police bu­reaucracy and organized crime.

This moral and political running sore, uncured by self-­righteous anger at heroin addicts, further infected with hysteria by current draconian law, is opened afresh in an operation in which agents of the drug bureaucracy reveal themselves dramatically buying pounds of old Bohemi­an cocaine from Abbie Hoffman and friends. Cocaine in my experience is a drug neither hard nor soft, offering too short a flash for common use, too expensive for psy­chological habit generally, traditionally the sport of self­-indulgent millionaires more recently gaga rock stars.

The seriousness of punish­ment promised by vengeful prosecutors — one of whom characterized Abbie Hoffman’s hapless dabbling in cocaine as “insidious and treacherous as homicide”­ — opens up the great Drug Question — not so much of Hoffman’s legal or moral guilt, which notion is consider­able whimsical in fact. His ar­rest raises the publicly sup­pressed Drug Question: how can we endure longer the total insanity sadism incoherence and incomprehensibility of past and fresh present narcot­ics law politics? Hoffman’s arrest, by its own built-in heaviness of consequence, raises challenge to the entire fabric of law that confuses foolish sensational cocaine or serious philosophic psyche­delics as “hard drugs”, with the strong-habit-forming opiates and over-plentiful brain-cooking amphetamines. How dare Government bu­reaucracy impose penalties on use and sale of hard drugs for the last half-century without providing (as do other countries successfully) reasonably satisfactory easily ac­cessible medical services for the majority of addicts who now outnumber and for 150,000 reasons don’t fit into recent but limited scope of monolithic police-­bureaucracy-supervised methadone maintenance services?

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Beyond this colossal inflic­tion of pain on heroin-addicted citizens, present law perpetu­ates discomforting sanctions against marijuana use, contrary to the best counsel of reason and science codified into innumerable public re­ports, and contrary to vast community experience. By what unconstitutional pro­scription of liberty and pur­suit of happiness must the Drug Bureaucracy maintain its heavy criminal penalties for securing gardening and distributing sociable noncommercial quantities of help weed? What state violence is used to suppress herbal cigarette smokes? The soft drug situation remains undefined except by official presumption and violence, confused and complicated by law and crime where it might be simply free of law and crime but regulated as in other societies by common sense of situation.

This ken on Abbie Hoffman’s arrest doesn’t propose encouragement of co­caine spread — it does propose shock dismay and mental re­jection of the idea that life imprisonment for cocaine sale (with no eligibility for parole for 15 to 25 years, depending on pronouncement of the judge) to police is a sane response to the fact of cocaine and its elitist use in USA. Mandatory life for cocaine is neurotic, irrational, a hys­terical swipe at people’s souls, a Polyphemus body crusher punishment, a killer idea — it is not sober social response to cocaine usage and special problems, it is no help to old ladies in the street mugged by ignorant junkies conditioned to depravation violence and pain with police bureaucracy and mafia fattening on the illegality of addiction.

Life in Jail for anti-War Hero Abbie Hoffman and friends is National Folly. Threat of life behind bars for Hoffman over cocaine sale is not an image of Law and Order, it is an image of bu­reaucratic dictatorship and confusion, it is misrule and chaos, National Folly.

I pray with body speech and mind OM AH HUM for courts and government and public to recognize the strange delica­cy and historical charm of the situation in which they are placed together with peace poet Abbie Hoffman. ❖

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Godfather, Part II: The Corleone Saga Sags

“THE GODFATHER PART II” continues the saga of the Corleone family. Now ensconced on an estate in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, near their gambling holdings. The year is 1958, Al Pacino has succeeded Brando as the Don, and there is rumbling in the ranks. While the sun is shining upon little Anthony Corleone’s confirma­tion celebration, storm signs darken the already dimly lit interior of Michael Corleone’s study. The wayward sister (Talia Shire) de­fects, disobeying her brother to run off with a fortune-hunting wastrel (Troy Donahue); Frankie Pentan­geli (Michael V. Gazzo), an old-time clan member into his cups, argues with Michael over his association with Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg); Fredo (John Cazale), the chicken-hearted elder brother, is publicly humiliated by his inability to control his floozy Las Vegas wife; and Diane Keaton, as the first lady, continues to smile bravely and swing her hair, but there will be trouble from her, too.

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An attempt on the Don’s life is followed up with an investigation, whose meandering path is intercut with flashbacks to the childhood (in Sicily) and youth (in Little Italy) of the Godfather, played by Robert de Niro. These sections, if all goes according to Paramount’s dreams of lucre, will eventually be joined to the Sicilian sections of the earlier picture to make a complete film — the first part of a trilogy to play, with chronology corrected, as a roadshow package. The Sicilian and Little Italy episodes are filmed in the faded­-browns-and-yellows, Immigrant Portrait style, and in the miniaturized perspective of a spectacle viewed from a great distance.

Brando’s absence hangs over the new picture as his presence — minimal in time but central in effect — hung over the previous one. Ties are disintegrating, the center no longer holds, and the narrative is correspondingly diffuse. In the new script by Coppola and Mario Puzo, the Corleones have brought their way into a respectability hardly more dubious than than of America’s other first families of finance. Gambling is the naughtiest enterprise alluded to, and Michael and brothers are given to quoting the Godfather’s maxims much as the young Kennedys must have treasured patriarch Joe’s pearls or Irish wisdom. The success­ive Corleone patriarchs are odd combinations of Robin Hood and Christ, whose only crimes are, re­spectively, to rid Little Italy of an extortionist bully, and to expunge from the bosom of the family those who would betray its ideals. When these happen to be blood members, well, that’s the way the pignole cru­mbles.

Coppola and Puzo, bowing no doubt to public pressure, have made “The Godfather Part II” consider­ably less violent than its predeces­sor. There are but five or six killings, and the corpses are removed with the efficiency of a Shakespeare his­tory play, as the Corleone saga moves on to another stage of world history: Cuba before, and during, the revolution: the Kefauver crime hearings; an F.B.I. prison; with a swelling Nino Rota score to provide emotional unity.

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It is describing physical locations themselves that Coppola’s imagination comes into play, but the human confrontations staged in those dazzling locales never fulfill their promise. As in “The Conversation,” Coppola opens on the world and closes on the tortured individual, in an image of despair a shade too sensitive and heroic for what has preceded it. Watching this largely non-violent sequel, I couldn’t help but be struck by how crucial violence was to the first film. Without it, the characters are not only not mythic­ — they are not even very interesting.

The pale cast of reflection hovers over “Part II” without ever harden­ing into active thought, much less verbiage. (The use of Italian dia­logue, with English subtitles, can’t quite conceal its inanity). Coppola and Puzo haven’t the curiosity of even a Galsworthy (forget Balzac and Tolstoy) that might lead them to investigate the various branches of the family, and discover a sense of the era through the words as well as the “looks” of its individuals. Even among the brothers, there is a lot or emotional display — hugging, kissing, caressing, eyes watering or smol­dering, but the actual dialogue could be contained on the back of a grocery list. It is — how you say — visual.

What about the women? From what we see of them, mostly their backs. Hyman Roth’s wife makes tuna fish sandwiches and the Mammas Corleone make babies. Mamma the Elder (Morgana King), unlike most Italian mothers of my acquaintance, retires gracefully to the the wings. Coppola makes a gesture to the “new consciousness” by im­plying a certain critical perspective on the patriarchy, when Michael asks his pregnant wife “Does it feel like a boy?” But by focusing audience interest so exclusively on Pa­cino, and by making his enemies either invisible or unattractive, he effectively neutralizes their subver­sive potential.

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It is difficult to discuss acting with performances that are allowed so little articulation of their own, that are controlled and positioned so carefully within an aesthetic scheme. The artiness of Coppola’s aesthetic ultimately becomes an ethic as Pacino, in somber profile, emerges more victim than villain, more a melancholy Dane than a bloody Macbeth.

“The Godfather Part II” is marked, more clearly than its pre­decessor, by a moral confusion at its core which is in sharp contrast to that sense of moral wholeness of the great storytellers of the past, an equilibrium working behind the affairs of men that gave an importance to their actions, and words, that lyrical long-shots and poignant close-ups alone cannot produce. ❖

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Anatomy of a Rumor

Canceling the ’72 Elections

The story has dropped out of sight and out of print for more than two months — the one about Nixon and the Rand Corporation planning the cancellation of the 1972 Presiden­tial election. The brief life and death of the tastiest rumor of the year leaves three questions still unanswered:

— Was there any truth to it?

— Was it a Paul Krassner hoax?

— Was it a hoax created by a mysterious third force playing its own game?

The story, in the form it first reached the press last April, had Nixon going to some top Rand strategists and asking them to game-plan, as he would say, his responses to expected radical vi­olence during the autumn 1972 campaign. One game Rand planned for Nixon was — and this was the chiller — postponement of the election until it could be con­ducted “safely.” The original newspaper story explained that Nixon was alarmed by the Bank of America burning, the 11th Street “bomb factory” explosion, the Weatherman blast at police department headquarters, and the sudden wave of bomb scares, and concerned about possible bombing of polling places and other left wing attempts to disrupt the Presidential cam­paign. But the rumor that preceded the story and mushroomed all over the country afterward had Nixon plotting to use election-eve violence as an excuse for massive repression of students and blacks, mass ar­rests, and suspension of Constitu­tional guarantees to keep the dis­senters behind bars. It was a rumor not so much about cancellation of elections as it was about cancellation of the left it­self.

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The corollary which most often accompanied the rumor was that the several spectacular acts of “left wing terrorism” in 1972 — the kind of acts that would force a reluctant President to postpone the election while he restored order — would be the work of FBI/CIA provocateurs: the rumor was really saying that a Reichstag fire was in the works.

It was a perfect rumor because, of course, it was a rumor about 1970 as much as it was about 1972. It was perfectly timed. Winter: the conspiracy trial, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, preventive detention, repression unlike anything seen before. Late winter and early Spring: the wave of bombings, the rise of Agnew as a vice-chan­cellor figure and the rumor’s first appearance in print. Then came spring — Cambodia, Kent State, Jackson State, the anti-dis­sent hard-hat riots, the sense of an uneven civil war, the feeling that They can do anything and get away with it — and, as if generated by spontaneous com­bustion within that particular compost heap of events, the rumor caught fire.

I believe that the Rand rumor is metaphorically and cosmically true, even if proven mundanely false. It’s a truth about the way the Nixon/Mitchell/Philips/Dent White House mind works. But I am the kind of person who still likes to know things, even if they’re unimportant in the long run — I want to see the entire in­tricate web of the Rand story, whether it is a real covert White House network or a complexly artificed hoax. I have sympathy for the devil who shouted out “who killed the Kennedys?” and wasn’t satisfied to hear platitudes like “after all it was you and me.” And since I was in­volved in spreading the story myself, I’d like to know if I was used and by whom, even if I was used by Our Side.

The story first appeared in print on April 5 in a four-paragraph story written by William Howard, a Washington reporter for the Newhouse chain. But it had been circulating by word-of-mouth at least as far back as September 1969. Paul Krassner says he learned about the 1972 scenarios months before Howard’s story was published. Krassner’s story of how he hap­pened to learn of the top secret study is a weird tale which begins with him acid-tripping with Herman Kahn and climaxes at some kind of elite multi-think tank saturnalia up at Kahn’s Hudson Institute retreat. There, the over-enthused wife of a high level Rand strategist confides to Paul, “… you think that’s something, you won’t believe what my husband’s working on now” —  or something like that — and pro­ceeds to describe the ’72 election study Nixon has just asked for.

The fact that it is Krassner telling this story is both (a) good reason to believe it, and (b) one reason to suspect it. Krassner and Kahn have similar systems — conscious minds, a similar inclination to think about the unthinkable in its many forms. And it’s not unlikely that some bored Rand wife would reveal (or perhaps fabricate?) some exciting secrets for him.

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But Krassner has a history of put-ons attached to his name, a history so well recognized that people now create put-on ver­sions of Krassner put-ons: a few months ago an “interview” with Bob Dylan was published in Good Times. The interview turned out never to have taken place … it  was a parody of the disastrous but real interview in Rolling Stone. Good Times subsequently announced that the Dylan inter­view was created by Paul Krassner. But then it was discov­ered that the real creator of the interview was not Krassner but someone who used Krassner’s name in order to get Good Times to run it, convinced they were printing a genuine Paul Krassner put-on. Most Krassner fantasies, including his most notorious, the grisly “Parts Left out of the Manchester Book,” are stabs at larger truths. The Rand rumor seems like a natural for this category — a rumor is an organic satire-in-motion.

But it’s too easy to dismiss the rumor as a satiric put-on just because Krassner was the first to talk about it. The important thing to remember about the story of the boy who cried “wolf” is that there really was a wolf there that last time.

The one key piece of informa­tion missing in tracing the source and authenticity of the Rand story is this: who or what was the source of Howard’s story, the source responsible for getting the rumor in print?

I have spoken with Howard twice — once a week after his April 5 story, and again two weeks after Scanlan’s published its notorious “Agnew memo.” Each time Howard declined to tell me anything specific about the person who gave him the Rand story. The second time I spoke to him, Howard said he believed he had been given either mistaken or false information back in April. He implied that he trusted his source, but that his source’s source, or perhaps his source’s source’s source, may have been playing a hoax. In our second talk, I asked Howard if he knew Paul Krassner. He said he did not. I believe him.

However, two interesting items have come up in connection with Howard’s story. First, in a Wash­ington Post story about the Rand story, Howard told the Post re­porter that he had gotten his story from another Newhouse reporter who had “picked up the story in New York City.” He didn’t name the other reporter. I have since learned the name of a Newhouse reporter who has said he has known Krassner in the past.

In retrospect one other detail in my original April conversation with Howard seems interesting. After Howard refused to reveal his primary source to me, he did mention “also hearing something about the wife of a Rand Cor­poration executive, some Martha Mitchell type, talking about this same thing.” Somehow then, Krassner’s story had reached Howard shortly before or shortly after his primary “source” tipped off the Newhouse reporter in New York. This implies that the New York source either had more solid evidence or told a more solid-sounding story.

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In my August conversation with Howard, I asked him about the Rand wife story, whom he’d heard it from. He didn’t remem­ber anything about the wife’s tale, didn’t remember mentioning it to me back in April, or know who might have told it to him. He asked me what the story was. As I began telling him some details about Krassner’s “source” he just groaned, “Oh, God, some woman on acid. That’s great. That’s a great source.”

Howard was not exactly pleased to hear from me that second time I called him. As soon as I reached him, identified myself, and asked if he remembered me, he groaned: “Remember you. You’re the one who’s made my life so miserable these past months.” He suggested strongly that my story in The Voice about his story had given too much weight to what he described as a “speculative item.” The unwanted prominence he had received when, with my help, the story had snowballed from his buried speculative item to a major scare story had put him in a harried, awkward posi­tion; he had often speculated, he laughed, about meeting me, he laughed, and punching me in the mouth. (Bill, I can’t promise you this is the last one, although I think it is; but I can promise that if it isn’t, there can only be one more after it.

I was led to the story in a rather interesting way. For five days after Howard’s story ap­peared in the back pages of Newhouse papers, no other media had picked up on it. (The story ran in New York City only in the Newhouse-owned Staten Island Advance.) On the fifth day a man — he did not give his name — called The Voice and said he had heard the Rand rumor third-hand — from his girl friend, he said, who had heard it from a Staten Island cab driver who had read it in the Staten Island Ad­vance — and wanted to know if we knew anything about it. Until that call, no one at The Voice had heard anything about the story. Nor was it likely we would have heard anything for a long time, were it not for that call.

A few days after the call, The Voice ran a short article I wrote about the rumor, which, did nothing but summarize the Newhouse story and report the results of three phone conversa­tions — a cryptic one with William Howard, and two absolute deni­als from Rand and a White House press officer. The piece revealed nothing more than the difficulty of learning about a top secret coup from official spokes­man if they don’t feel like talking about it. At the time I wrote the article, I think that deep down inside I believed the story.

A few days after The Voice piece was published I received a brief note from Paul Krassner. In it he told me he had known about the Rand report for a while and was glad it was out in the open so he could escape the burden of paranoia he had to bear while he was the only person telling the secret. I called him up and asked him what he knew and he told me the Herman Kahn-Rand wife saga. I asked him if he had any source other than the talkative Rand woman: I remember his answer being somewhat vague; he didn’t men­tion anything else specific.

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We spoke a little about How­ard’s story, where it came from. Krassner told me he didn’t know Howard and didn’t know how he got his information. He specu­lated that someone within Rand who knew about the project and opposed it in principle may have leaked it to Howard. Or, he speculated, the administration may have decided to leak word of the study as a kind of trial balloon to test public reaction to the possibility and law-and-order rationale for postponing elections. He speculated that maybe even he had become an unwitting conduit for a White House initiated leak. Krassner told me he was preparing a report on the whole thing for his much-postponed 10th anniversary issue of the Realist, and he asked me to keep track of the reaction — official and media — I received to my article.

Meanwhile, the story began to mushroom in that hothouse spring and new “sources” like satellite mushrooms began to spring up all over the place. The Nation picked up the story. The April 24 Wall Street Journal‘s “Washington Wire” published an item about it that appeared only in the Western editions. L.A. Free Press publisher and editor Art Kunkin read it and started an investigation of his own. Kunkin wrote a front page story­ — headlined across the page: “Will Nixon Cancel the Elections?”­ — which appeared in the Free Press one week after Cam­bodia/Kent State. Kunkin’s story made this statement: “Indepen­dent L.A. Free Press interviews with persons close to the Rand Corporation of Santa Monica, California indicate that the White House has indeed ordered such a study and has issued instructions that anyone connected with the project is not to discuss it.” Kunkin concludes his story by asking, “Do you think he is beyond cancelling the elections for the sake of instituting a dicta­torship and blaming it on radi­cals just as Hitler set the Reich­stag fire and blamed the Commu­nists, wrongly as we now know?”  ­

Kunkin has never been in when I’ve called the Free Press office and never returns any of my calls, so I haven’t been able to find out anything about those “persons close to the Rand Cor­poration of Santa Monica” or what they’ve said recently.

By the end of May almost all the underground press and a few straight dailies had picked up the story. In the underground papers the story was either based on The Voice and Free Press stories, or on an LNS dispatch taken largely from Boston’s Old Mole. Because of LNS, stories about Nixon plan­ning to cancel the ’72 election ap­peared in almost every un­derground and activist college paper in the country.

Most of these stories tended to treat the report as if it was based on solid evidence (“reporter William Howard revealed … a Village Voice writer then discov­ered … ” etc.) and gave the im­pression that the whole Rand study was by now an open secret in Washington, one more indica­tion the power structure no longer bothered to conceal its in­tentions. But most of the stories were written shortly after Cam­bodia, Kent, and Jackson State, when the truth of the rumor of the system’s intentions seemed to be acted out in front of every­one’s eyes.

The rumor, spread by word of mouth, campus and underground papers, mention at hundreds of rallies and demonstrations, became common knowledge, or at least popular folklore on cam­puses just as they blew up in anger that May.

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Krassner is said to have told his story at several speaking en­gagements. I remember someone asking Abbie Hoffman about it as he spoke to a crowd of students at Yale on Mayday weekend. “Oh, that’s been known for months,” Abbie said. (Hoffman has not talked to Krassner since the conspiracy trial, so it’s likely he heard it from Krassner at least as early as last fall.) But the crowd was fascinated and told the story people wanted to hear it again: “Run that down again.” “Tell it again,” they called out.

Anyway by the end of May when Nixon felt he had to take a concerned attitude toward our troubled campuses, he ordered every male under 30 on his staff who could read, write, and do sums to go to the campuses and find out just what was troubling them. In addition to finding the obvious answers, it is reported that everywhere they went, Nixon’s young men were bombarded by questions about the Rand Corporation and the 1972 elections. A delegation of Har­vard Law students brought the subject up at a Washington meet­ing with administration people. Suddenly stories about the Rand rumor began to appear in the straight press — only this time they were obviously planted by the administration. The stories were the first public acknowledgement by the administration that the rumor existed. Several times the White House press office had issued denials to indivi­dual reporters, but in the campus­ emissary stories, it seemed clear that some administration officials had brought the subject up with reporters to make sure it was handled properly.

So instead of writing about the rumor, investigating it, taking it seriously even if to disprove it, the straight press wrote stories such as “Nixon men find a rumor hard to scotch,” “Campus rumor plagues Nixon aides,” or “Plot story pops up on campuses.” All of these stories assume from the start that the rumor is a foolish preoccupation of paranoid col­lege students, or accept the flat denials by the White House and Rand at face value, and go on to describe White House aides’ unavailing efforts to clear up the unfortunate but persistent rumor which has been undermining students’ trust of the administra­tion and preventing discussion of serious issues. The straight press reported with a straight face that administration denials did not seem to stop the rumor’s spread, but instead spread it further. The White House was reportedly as puzzled about why it spread as it was over how it was spread.

Then, in early June the ad­ministration went one step fur­ther. The administration’s house liberal was delegated, or opportunely chosen, to lead the offen­sive. Daniel Patrick Moynihan — ­President Nixon’s “counselor” — ­made a speech to a Fordham University commencement, at­tacking increasingly non-ra­tional, even irrational, fear and “growing distrust of all social in­stitutions” among students. The chief, in fact it appears the only, example of this irrationality cited by Moynihan, was a rumor which he said had spread to “just about every campus in the na­tion,” the rumor “that the administration, using radical stu­dent protest as a pretext, is plan­ning to cancel the 1972 election.” Moynihan — who is perhaps closer to Nixon’s counsels than Walter Hickel — denounced the report in no uncertain terms: “Now this is not so — or at least I think it is not so,” he said, reportedly getting a good laugh with that rather superfluous bit of self-deprecation. He went on to say, with a straight face this time, that “ev­eryone in a position to know” de­nied the rumor, that in fact the president of the Rand Corpora­tion himself had taken the trouble to deny it.

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A month later I had a strange phone conversation with Moynihan about the rumor. After the Scanlan‘s “Agnew memo” was released, I called Moynihan to ask for his comment and found him in a no-nonsense mood. It was an incredible, revealing per­formance. He denounced the rumor as “part of the psycho­pathology of the times.” He told anecdotes from Onvell which proved, he said, that leftists believe in conspiracy theories. He denounced conspiracy.

I asked him if a conspiracy theory was a priori false because it came from a “leftist,” or a priori false because there was no such thing as a real conspiracy.

He countered that objection by launching into a description of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (since they were so maliciously false, the ’72 rumor must therefore be false). I ques­tioned this rather flimsy logic, and in response he continued the pattern, dredging up other rumors which had been discre­dited in the past to heap discredit upon the present one.

“You know,” he concluded, “the same kind of people who keep attacking the Warren Report,” he said with an air of elevated contempt.

“You actually believe the Warren Report?”

“Oh, come on. I don’t want to get into that. I have a very busy schedule. The President is leaving for the West Coast soon and we’re all very busy.”

We were both thoroughly dis­gusted with each other and hung up. Five minutes later he called back to tell me he didn’t mean to get overheated but that he was very busy around the White House preparing for the President’s summer vacation at San Clemente, and he might have seemed short-tempered. I sympathized and we started going over the same ground again. He assured me — condescendingly— that “anybody who’s a professional political scientist, as I am, notes that there’s always an element in the population which needs conspiratorial theories of behavior. You know, the John Birch Society believed Eisenhower was a Communist agent. That’s a paranoid invention … Protocols of the Elders of Zion … ” etc.

I asked him if something like this Rand study could be going on in the administration without anyone telling him. He assured me quite confidently: “I know as much about it as any man could know.” Then he started in on “the psychopathology of our times” and the “irrationality of students and leftists for believing the rumor” again.

“I guess I believe in more conspiracies than you,” I finally confessed.

“Maybe you know more than I do,” he said.

“Well, how much do you know?”

“Maybe less than you.”

Maybe. Finally I asked, “Don’t you think that one reason students tend to believe something as obviously untrue as you say this rumor is, and won’t accept your denial, is that your administration has lied so often about Vietnam and Cambodia?”

“Oh come on, this is nonsense. It’s just not true.”

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We hung up again shortly, this time for good. Moynihan probably still dismisses as a dumb conspiracy story the rumor that the Chicago police plotted to assassinate Fred Hampton, or the wild charge about the Mississippi police manufacturing an incident at Jackson State. In the pristine rationalist’s world nothing, absolutely nothing, can be explained by conspiracy. His near-hysterical antagonism to conspiracy theories reminded me of nothing less than a 40-year old Victorian virgin’s rejection of sex: if she gives in just once to its vileness, she’ll start being vile all the time.

Meanwhile, there were at least two other “sources” at work rescuing the rumor from the prema­ture burial Moynihan had attempted.

First, there was that famous Scanlan’s “Agnew memorandum.” Sidney Zion, at Scanlan’s, says that early this summer an old “source” who had proved “extremely reliable” during  Zion’s years at the Times passed on to him a one-page document which identified itself as “page 2 of 4 pages” of a memorandum on stationery headed “The Vice President.”

Zion states that when he first saw the document he thought it was a hoax. But he checked back with his source and made his own investigation, which assured him the document was authentic. Zion says he still does not know who his source’s source is. Scanlan’s has published put-on “documents” before, with a straight face, but Zion continues to insist that this one is authentic.

I talked to Zion in mid-August after the furor had died down, and he said he remains “absolutely sure it’s true … we even have a little more fact now.” He would not identify his ex-Times source further, but denied that he would have hoaxed him. “He wouldn’t do it to me. Someone could have somehow done it to him … but I don’t think so … we hired a private investigator who checked out part of it … if it’s a hoax it’s a right wing hoax.”

Krassner’s name came up. I forget if I brought it up or Zion did, but Zion told me that when they first received the document and thought it might be a hoax, they called up Krassner to ask him if he had done it. “He read the thing,” Zion recalls, “and told us ‘I’m the only one who could have made that up and I didn’t.’ ”

That’s not what Krassner told me he said. I called him up shortly after Agnew himself denounced the Scanlan’s docu­ment as a “complete fraud,” just to find out what he thought was going on. Krassner told me that Zion had shown him a copy of the document and he told them he thought it was a hoax, and not a very well-crafted one at that. But he was no longer quite as sure it was fake, he said, after Zion in­sisted to him again his source was good, and he looked the doc­ument over again.

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The Agnew memorandum seemed so phony to me when I first read it that it made me think seriously, for the first time, that the whole Rand rumor was a hoax from beginning to end. (An interesting reaction, because that’s exactly what a putative right wing or even administra­tion author of the memo might want me to think.) The memo­randum, dated “11 March 1970,” seems phony from its first words, which are a continuation from the missing first page:

” … and the Rand team agree that a judicious leak of a general nature concerning segment alpha of their study for the C/E, that relative to holding no national elections in ’72, to the media (selected, of course) at the right time to test the water so to speak is a vital step in the eventuation or their scheme. However, under no, repeat no, circumstances is any information regarding seg­ment beta of their study, the Bill of Rights repeal, to be made public.”

It reads like either a fairly clumsy left wing attempt at imi­tating Kevin Phillips/Harry Dent’s right wing technocratese (“eventuation of their scheme”, “test the water so to speak”, “segment alpha”), or a mildly clever right wing effort to parody a left wing fantasy of a Nixon­-White House conspiracy. But look how frantically that one paragraph tries to reveal as much as possible to you, while still pretending it is written for someone high up and in the know. Whoever it was written for probably didn’t have to be reminded about top, top secret “segment beta:” “segment beta, you know, the Bill of Rights repeal” or about segment alpha: “that relative to holding no na­tional elections in ’72.”

The rest of the memo, dated March 11, seems to go out of its way to prove itself prophetic. It links segments alpha and beta with another scheme to bring about “in late April or early May (1970) a series of ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations by labor groups publicizing their support of this administration’s Indo-China poli­cy,” and their “discontinuances of any silent indulgences of the excess of peace groups … ” Note the use of “Indo-China” before Cambodia, the precision of the target date, and the hint that the Cambodian adventure had already been given a definite date back in early March.

The memo goes on to name one Vic Borella, Rockefeller’s labor consultant, as a coordinator of the hard hat spontaneity, and to cite an assurance that the opera­tion could be funded with CIA money from their “Rufus Taylor’s mandated ‘internal se­curity’ fund.”

When I spoke to Zion, he went to great lengths to point out to me how prophetic the memoran­dum had been, particularly all the details about the hard hat demonstrations. “If someone had told you that back then, that these  guys were going to beat up kids in the streets, and that the next day Nixon would have his arms around them, thanking them at the White House, you wouldn’t believe it, right? It would have been too impossible. But … it happened.”

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If the memo was written on March 11, it would be a very prophetic document, hard evidence of a conspiracy. If the documents were created some time in June, however, and then dated 11 March, it would not be quite as prophetic.

But the validity of the Scanlan’s document has nothing to do with the validity of the whole Nixon/Rand rumor­ — unless you think that because the Scanlan’s memo sounds false the whole story must be false. It seems likely to me that some free lance operator seized upon the pervasiveness of the Rand rumor and decided to do up a “confidential memorandum,” ei­ther to help along the cause, or as a clever political satire, or perhaps as a device to discredit the Rand rumor by planting an easily discreditable hoax upon it. In any case I am reasonably sure the Scanlan’s document was not Krassner’s work. It seems below his usual standards.

It took Attorney General John Mitchell to give the document at least an extrinsic authenticity: on July 29 he announced to the press an investigation of the whole rumor, an investigation which seemed to be prompted by Agnew and linked to his outrage at the Scanlan’s memo. Mitchell told reporters that the purpose of the investigation was to stop the spread of the story — which he called “an example of Hitler’s big lie technique” — to stop it by publicly identifying the person or persons who originated it. “We think we know where it started, There’s an investigation going on and we want to trace it more distinctly.”

He seemed to imply that the Justice Department has now as­sumed the right to investigate people who spread stories the Administration denies. One unique virtue of the Rand rumor is that it apparently has the power to bring out the latent fas­cism in any administrator who deals with it, even in those who have not been very latent in the past.

I called the Justice Depart­ment shortly after the story to find out how their investigation was proceeding. I was put in touch with a Bill King (they couldn’t put me in touch with Mitchell personally, I was told) who tried to play the whole thing down.

“It’s nothing official, really. We’re just informally, you know, trying to find out how the rumor started.”

“Under what statute could you prosecute someone for this, or what statute gives you the right to even investigate?”

“Well, I don’t know if there are any statutes until you found out who it was, and then, well, there are probably no statutes … ”

“Unless the Vice President wants to sue, right?”

“Well, I guess so. It’s really not an official thing over here. It’s just that we noticed that the thing was unknown one day and common knowledge the next.”

“Who’s doing the inves­tigating?”

“Well, it’s really not an investigation, just everybody was chatting about it. I guess the Vice President’s office would know more.”

The Vice President’s office said they weren’t doing anything, call the Justice Department. Which means that something probably was going on.

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It was about this time (late July) that still another “source” began circulating. I learned about it in August when I heard Felipe Luciano of the Young Lords Party give a talk in which he mentioned the Rand story with some new details I had never heard before. Afterward he showed me a photocopy of a memorandum on National Urban Coalition stationery which some­one unidentified had sent to the Young Lords headquarters. This memorandum was dated 9 June and marked “Confidential.” An introduction cited “a variety of extremely disturbing rumors from highly reliable sources so recurrent they deserve immediate attention.” The memorandum then listed three new sources in addition to the Newhouse story:

1) “a former State Department employee — now president of a consultant firm” — who reports that the White House “commis­sioned MIT to test voter reaction to cancellation of the election;”

2) a “well known lobbyist on Capitol Hill who knows a right wing general” who has been saying that within 18 months the administration will declare martial law, suspend constitutional guarantees, and round up and de­tain thousands of dissenters;

3) “a Vice President of the New York Bar Association” who told a class he taught that the ‘White House had asked the Bar Association to study the constitutionality of martial law.

I couldn’t find anyone at the Urban Coalition’s Washington of­fice who knew anything about the memorandum. If the document is genuine and the Urban Coalition believes its sources, why have they been so silent about it? If the document is a fake, someone sent it to the Young Lords at­tempting to deceive. Unlike the Scanlan’s memo — which can be accepted as a good piece of satire — the Urban Coalition memo is meant to be taken seriously. If the source were left wing, it reflects a rather arro­gant attempt at manipulation for reasons hard to figure out. A right wing hoax upon the left seems more likely, if the docu­ment is, in fact, not genuine.

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What’s going on?

— The rumor is true and word leaked out against the Adminis­tration’s will.

— The rumor was a White House trial balloon testing public reaction before giving the real balloon a go-ahead order.

— The rumor was a “judicious leak” about a project already going ahead, to gauge reaction and to prepare the country for later, fuller disclosure.

— The rumor was a White House inspired hoax designed to put the left in the position of the little boy who cried wolf when they finally go ahead and do it.

— The rumor was a right wing put-on, to make fun of student Movement paranoia.

— Paul Krassner did hear the story from a Rand executive’s wife, planted it in the Newhouse papers and watched it grow, while other “sources” helped nurture it.

— Paul Krassner made the whole thing up as a warning, a device to reveal more clearly the real character of the Nixon Administration and of its think-tank counselors.

— Herman Kahn planted the rumor on Krassner not as a weapon for either side (Kahn would not be automatically for or against the plan, but would find its dazzling maze of implications very interesting) but as another probe into “the unthinkable,” a test to discover more about what America is like, or perhaps whether he ought to take on the ’72 contract himself.

One evening while trying to fig­ure out, from the little I knew what was going on. I decided to visit Krassner and ask him to tell me what was going on. Simple, right? When we met he told me that he had been just about to call me up when I had called.

I told him I had been won­dering about the Rand thing for a long time and wanted to know whether he …

You know, with something like that, if it didn’t exist we’d have to invent it right, he said. It’s the kind of thing that’s really true whether or not the …

I know that, I told him, I know it’s cosmically true. I still like to know how things work.

Really, your wanting to know has nothing to do with the truth, it has more to do with me wanting to know where Angela Davis is — it’s curiosity, but it’s not important. I mean, I don’t even know if someone is using me for their own game the way it happened with that Dylan inter­view.

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I still want to know, not for a story but just for myself.

Anyway, how will you know, if I tell you something; what’s to prevent you or someone else from thinking I’m just playing another game with you with what I say?

Well, I could look into your eyes while you were saying it.

He laughed, said something about acid heads, giving me the feeling that he agreed. Then he started telling me about how he had just come back from speaking at Oswego State College in upstate New York, where he had talked with students victimized by police super-under­cover man Tommy the Traveler. It has long been a rule in the movement that undercover cops would smoke grass with the peo­ple they were trying to fool, but never take acid, because the act could not go on with everyone as they say, grokking it. The Os­wego students had taken acid with Tommy, had “seen him put it on his tongue and swallow it,” and had not figured him out. The same thing reportedly happened with the FBI informer who infil­trated Weatherman, passed sev­eral marathon acid tests, and turned in Linda Evans.

I’m sure Krassner did not mean this as a warning; I think he tells the truth. But I became less confident about finding anything out — I shudder at the idea of staring into Herman Kahn’s face and asking him the truth about himself. We talked about some other matters which made me feel I could trust him not to lie to me (or that, if he were lying, he was perhaps more amoral than Kahn, which I don’t believe).

We came to a street crossing where we noticed a nearly fist-­sized insect wandering aimlessly around the center of the intersec­tion. It was so large some drivers could see it yards ahead and swerved to avoid it. Others didn’t see it and drove on through, always coming very close but never quite running it over. The beetle never gave any indication he was aware that four-ton vehicles were whizzing by inches away, and never reacted to near misses or changed his course from the random circlings which somehow kept him safe. It went on for about 10 minutes before Paul guided it into the safety of a drain sewer.

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What can I do? It happened, and it’s taken me until now to figure out what it meant. If someone were to tell the beetle (Japanese beetle, Paul said) that there was a rumor around that a four-ton blue-green mechanical vehicle 1000 times its own size, was on its way to crush it to death, the beetle would probably call his informant a paranoia freak. And the informant might be wrong. The blue-green one might miss like the others had. But unless this was a very together beetle, he was going to be crushed to death by a car and the particular color of the one that got him wouldn’t mailer. We walked on, the subject kept changing, and Krassner seemed content to leave 1972 behind for good. Finally,

“Paul…  ”

Yeah.”

“You know … I mean? you know.”

“Okay, as soon as I get back I’ll tell you.”

“Well, if I could just ask you now and… ”

“I’ll tell you when I get back.” I decided to let it go at that. Not knowing can be as interest­ing as knowing, because when you know you can no longer be surprised, and surprise is a unique pleasure — unless, perhaps, you are that Japanese beetle.

One more thing happened that night. We were watching televi­sion on Krassner’s TV set when I discovered, or thought I did, a subtle new form of subliminal ad­vertising. I know I just lost a lot of people on that one — oh shit, they’re saying, another head who’s been staring too long at the electrons on Channel 6. But it was there. Paul saw it too. Oh shit, the rest of you are saying, another poor naif taken in by a Krassner put-on.

We were watching the begin­ning of a movie on Channel 4 when it happened. (“Crazy Desire,” starring Catherine Spaak and someone who looked just like Clark Gable.) The movie opened upon a scene in ancient Rome, which turned out to be from a play which the modern Italian characters were watching. Suddenly I was pointing at the TV screen and yelling. Because on the screen three shadowy words had emerged and remained: “Tora! Tora! Tora!” The words were not superimposed but appeared as if they were shadows cast on the film, or translucent after-images stencilled on the screen. All the images of the movie could be seen moving through the words.

The three words were ar­ranged in the receding pattern and letter-style of the 20th Centu­ry Fox movie’s billboard ads. And sure enough, after the words floated through the movie for 15 minutes, a commercial came on for “Tora! Tora! Tora!” It opened with a fleet of Japanese planes buzzing ominously on their way to surprise sleeping Americans, who had ignored all the rumors, signals, and warnings which had slipped out about the planned Japanese attack.

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“All the lies, the deceptions, the intrigue,” the announcer promises. The shadowy words seem to have disappeared from the screen. Then the commercial ends with the announcer intoning “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and Wham! Wham! Wham! the words rush up onto the screen exactly where the shadows were, filling up the shadows with big black letters — ­very fulfilling and effective. When the commercial ends the letters disappear, and the shad­ows are gone as other commer­cials appear. Then they start the movie again and the shadow-­words return until the next com­mercial.

I was amazed. Was it possible we had stumbled on the first late-­night experiment with total commercial TV? Was it possible that the message was designed to be even more subliminal, perhaps even unnoticeable to the conscious mind on an average set, but that the peculiar reception fuck-ups of this set had revealed it more clearly than it was supposed to be revealed? Krassner said he wasn’t particularly surprised: “The more you know about these people, the less any­thing they try surprises you.”

However, he called Channel 4 to ask them about it. He reached an operator who was watching Channel 2 at the time and who didn’t quite understand what he was talking about but who said yes, she had heard of “Tora! Tora! Tora !” He asked her if anyone else had called up to complain about it and she told him no, he was the only one who had called.

Back on the TV set we noticed that “Tora! Tora! Tora!” had disappeared and that in its place was a new shadow-and-light pat­tern, this time a small circle with a star inside it and a word flickering below it that I gave myself a headache trying to deci­pher, but couldn’t. We noticed that in general the pattern disap­peared during other commercials and appeared again when the movie went on. It seemed to dis­count the possibility that we were merely seeing an image that had been burned into Krassner’s tv screen earlier.

I called Channel 4 and asked to speak to the station manager. The operator said he could not come to the phone, but after I explained my question to her, she put me on “Hold,” and returned to tell me she had spoken with the man in charge of broadcast operations, a Mr. Walter Ehr­gott, who said he had been moni­toring the program all evening and had noticed nothing at all un­usual, and saw nothing like the image I described. She said I could talk to him about it the next afternoon. I asked, then, al­most as an afterthought, how many other people had called the station.

“No one,” she said.

“No one called earlier?”

“You’re the first.”

“Has there been another oper­ator taking calls?”

“Not for the last two hours. Just me.”

“And I’m the only person who’s called about this?”

“That’s right”

“No one else.”

“Yes.”

I hung up, finding this almost stranger than the advertising on the screen. Is there an NBC poli­cy which deals with complaints by telling people who call with complaints that they’re alone? If so, it’s an effective way of turning anger at the networks back upon one’s own mistuned set or, worse, upon a possibly mistuned head.

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Taking a cab back that night I couldn’t get over how outrageous  it was if the network or 20th Century Fox actually was experimenting with total-advertising TV. Of course I told the cab driver about it, and of course he turned out to be an ex-advertising man with J. Walter Thompson, who told me he quit advertising because “it was so immoral, you wouldn’t believe how immoral it is.”

“I think I saw something pretty fucking immoral tonight.”

“Oh, that’s nothing, you won’t believe some of the things they’ve got in store.”

“Like what?”

“Just wait, you won’t believe it until you see it.”

The next afternoon I spoke with the daytime chief of broad­cast operations at NBC. He told me in effect that I probably didn’t see what I had seen, but if I had seen it, it was merely an easily explainable technical mistake at the studio, not a sneak attempt at undercover advertising or a trial balloon to test viewers’ reaction.

He said the shadow images could have been caused either by “studio leakage” or by “burn through.” The latter occurs when a camera focuses too long on one image and retains an imprint which shows up when it focuses on other things. It sounded like the most logical explana­tion for “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” but it failed to explain why the words, burned through only during the feature film and not during other commercials, why the image disappeared so suddenly, and why a second image (which, unlike “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” was never shown overtly) replaced it. And, of course, there is also the possibility that burn-throughs could be created intentionally by someone in the studio who was properly motivated by, say, 20th Century Fox.

The NBC man told me that  what I saw — or the mistake I didn’t really see — was not exactly subliminal advertising. Subliminal advertising had been outlawed for TV by the FCC, he explained, after the original testing of it at drive-in movies in the ’50s had created such a backlash. (Since it was outlawed it certainly could not exist.) There was nothing subliminal on today’s TV except, he said, a cer­tain meaningless visual signal at the beginning and end of most commercials, put there to trigger unmanned videotape machines at the ad agency which produced the commercial. The signals turn the machines on and off so that the agency won’t have to hire a man to watch TV all the time or tape everything merely to catch its own commercials.

I found this interesting, but the NBC man assured me that he personally, and everyone he knew at the studio, was against any kind of advertising during regular programs. “We just don’t want to get into that,” he said.

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I think what I saw probably was a studio mistake (keep an eye on your screen anyway). But the point of this, the point of the whole ’72 rumor, is that there’s no way of knowing. You just can’t find out. If like the beetle you dismiss all rumors as para­noid fantasies, your only reward will be the ability to be surprised when one of them materializes and runs you over. Remember, two years before 1972 the At­torney General is wandering drunkenly around cocktail parties declaring with satisfac­tion, “This country is going so far to the right you aren’t going to recognize it.”

I would suggest that the 1972 rumor, true or false, now belongs to an earlier, more optimistic season. The thought that Nixon has something to fear from hold­ing elections is hard to take seriously any longer. A more demoralizing rumor than the Rand report certainly devised by someone far more paranoid than Krassner or more amoral than Kahn, is that the ’72 elections will be held and that the candidates will be Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace. ❖

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The Right Stuff: Spaced Out

There’s nothing in this world that certain white, small-town, God-fearing, airplane-flying boys hanker af­ter so much as the right stuff. The right stuff cannot be described or explained. Anyone crass enough to try and put it into words ipso facto probably doesn’t have it. Tom Wolfe is crass enough to try and put the right stuff into words, which ipso facto probably means he doesn’t have it. The right stuff is a man’s “ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment — and then go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite — and ul­timately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.”

Like Predestination, there’s no earthly, definitive way of knowing for sure if you’ve got the right stuff, which is no doubt why so many Protestant boys, accustomed to looking for signs of election, spend their lives trying to prove they’ve got it. According to Wolfe, you can even be fairly certain you’ve got the right stuff and then fuck up — at any time — and find out after all that you didn’t have it — usually at about the same moment you are dying, except you’re not caring about dying so much as discover­ing that you probably didn’t have the right stuff and eating your heart out thinking now everyone is going to know.

This business about the right stuff and death is where things get a little mysterious and paradoxical, although people with the right stuff, Wolfe says, usually don’t dwell much on mysteries and paradoxes because thinking like this can foul up the reflexes, the coolness, etc. While a good sign that you’ve got the right stuff is caring more about having it than dying, it is also true that anyone trying to prove he’s got the right stuff has a very good chance (one in four) of dying while doing it, and dying — ­almost more than anything — probably means that you didn’t have it (the moxie, the reflexes, etc. to pull it out, etc.). You fucked up.

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There’s something about thinking about the right stuff and writing about the right stuff that makes you talk like this, like a drawlin’, Appalachia-raised, country-boy — ­like Chuck Yeager, to be precise, the most righteous possessor of the right stuff who ever lived, according to Wolfe, the hottest of the hot-shot test and fighter pilot jocks. Nerveless, rocket-testing Chuck was the first man to fly past Mach 1, the man whose cooler than cool, aw shucks manner — “now folks, we’re just goin’ through a little tiny mite of turbulence” (the plane has just dropped 1000 feet, your heart is in your mouth) — was imitated by every post war pilot until it became standard pilotese: The voice of God, if God were good. But though writing about the right stuff and thinking about the right stuff from the point of view of the men who have the right stuff makes the white-knuckled jet-rider in you especially grateful for the captain-virtues that time and again have put your heart back in your chest, it tends to make you forget for a while that even though these men with the right stuff are brave and capable, they are also colossally infantile chumps. It’s a scary combination.

The reader might lose this complexity from time to time, but Wolfe never lets go of it — it’s his foremost achievement in this long-awaited book — although there are good things and bad things about his method. Wolfe describes the many parts of right stuffness by never allowing the reader to know what, precisely, he thinks of it. He steers our sympathies toward the pilots who seek the right stuff, and then abruptly cuts our feelings off. He writes from everyone’s imagined perspective — even that of rocket-riding chimpanzees — but because Wolfe is ev­erywhere, be is also nowhere. Wolfe does all perspectives in the same, “I am my subject and therefore you (reader) are my subject” style, sometimes using the same phrases to describe very different things; and eventually he winds up counterfeiting his own language.

While writing from the point of view of the first astronaut-contenders who endured grueling, sadistic tests at Lovelace Clinic, Wolfe coins the, phrase “White Smocks.” White Smocks are the cold, clinical, note-­taking dehumanisers. White smocks specialize in humiliating procedures, like giving barium enemas and then making the men walk two flights to a toilet. They “teach” chimps to be “astronauts” by zapping electric current through’ the soles of their feet when they fail to perform correctly. But later in the book, while writing from the perspective of Scott Carpenter — the only one of the seven Mercury astronauts who was at all interested in ex­perimental science — the term White Smocks is as­sociated with an enlightened, humanistic purpose which is foiled by NASA engineers, by pro-operational, anti­-science types whose champion is Wally Schirra.

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The effect is dizzying, and issues get clouded, not clarified. Wolfe’s “stuff” becomes very repetitious — lots of dummy-heads but one ventriloquist. Instead of high­-lighting the nuances of the events and personalities he is chronicling, too often Wolfe’s style homogenizes them, and by making all “the dramas” he writes about sound equally charged, Wolfe sometimes neutralizes rather than heightens their impact.

The essence for Wolfe is not the content of disputes but their disputeness. A particular controversy becomes Any Controversy, with absurdly reductive results. He writes with identical irony, identical identi­fication/alienation, often identical pitch when describing controversies as different in degree (and significance) as Kennedy versus Khrushchev in Cold War strategy, the astronauts’ self-concept as jock pilots versus NASA’s idea of them as “lab rats,” and Alan Shepherd’s “astronauts can fuck around discretely” line versus John Glenn’s “astronauts shouldn’t fuck anyone.” By the end of the book, Wolfe’s “politics” (what are they?) and sense of proportion about events are so askew that, explaining the  public’s diminished interest in the astronauts after 1963, he attributes this to the installation of telephone hot lines and the ban on weapons in orbit. Then the Cold War ended, he says; nowhere in The Right Stuff are Vietnam, the assassinations, or various civil rights movements ever mentioned with relationship to the space program, or American focus on it.

This is dumb. Throughout The Right Stuff, too, the press is “the Victorian Gentlemen,” a herd of toadying mush-peddlers, hawking pure-boy astronauts in the ’60s, possible Watergates-under-every-politician in the ’70s. But the important thing for Wolfe (even assuming he were entirely right about the press as “herd”) is not that these phenomena have had entirely different effects on society, but that journalists hawk. What a piddly thing to get huffy about considering all the shit — like the racism in the space program (let me not mention the sexism) — that Wolfe allows to go flying by.

Well, enough about the good stuff, now for some criticism. Despite the thwack this book ultimately delivers to the soul, a lot is very interesting, a good deal is funny, much is exciting, and there are some Wolfian set-piece gems.

The Right Stuff, a history of the pioneering Mercury missions, was expected about five years ago, but Wolfe’s delay probably benefits the book. Ten years after the American moon landing — 20 since Sputnik 1 — astronauts and space-race lore have receded enough into the past to warrant rethinking. Wolfe tells the early space story as if it were myth, and it is.

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, there was a Russian Menace who made a bid for possession of the heavens. American presidents, senators who appropriated billions to put a man in space, citizens who wept when freckled-face John Glenn talked about the flag — all looked to the astronauts to “represent” them in the sky. During the Cold War, the astronauts were invented to serve as “single combat warriors,” soldiers symbolic of the nation, or, to be more exact, as human sacrifices — since most American rocket-launchings up to this point had ended in ludicrous fizzle-outs or horrific fire storms. Everyone expected that the astronauts would die. Only one incen­tive could make otherwise ordinary American boys will­ing to sit on top of a rocket that was probably going to blow up: the lure of the right stuff, the military ideal of masculine virtue (rockets are dangerous, but we’re used to danger), the scent of glory to “the boys,” the ring in the bull’s nose to Kennedy.

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Wolfe’s descriptions of the evolution of the fighter jock ego are superbly on target, its source in the World War II fighters, its nurturance in the jet and rocket testing programs at Muroc (later Edwards Air Force Base). Wolfe also dramatizes  exceedingly well the way the right stuff mystique trapped the Mercury astronauts in a Catch-22 maze: The testing process was designed to select the most gullible, most serviceable (I would rather die than fuck up), least introspective, least curious pilots; but to the astronauts, their ability to play NASA’s game (there is no shit I will not eat) and get selected was evidence of their possession of “the stuff.”

And what was (is) the kick? First, the life: never growing up, fraternity days forever, living away from the wife and children, flying all day, then drinking, then driving fast cars while drunk (more pilots die in cars than in planes, Wolfe says), and screwing around — although women seem to be very, very low on the pleasure totem pole, and right-stuff women are, as described by Wolfe, “moist labial piping little birds.” (Who’s talking here? Pilots say “labial”?) Second, the glory: ticker-tape pa­rades, moms on national TV. Third, the “goodies,” every military man’s due, but extra for astronauts: money, meeting presidents and rich people, book contracts, etc.

As is probably clear, when they aren’t flying planes or rockets, the astronauts Wolfe writes about are not what could easily be called fun people. Alan Shephard liked to do Jose Jimenez routines, Wally Schirra was a “gotcha” kidder. After Wolfe’s splendid opening chapters on avia­tion history and the birth of the space program, where he freely exercises his eye for grisly detail, the middle of the book sags dully as Wolfe “becomes” each astronaut — Gus Grissom and Deke Slayton being pits in the valley. Their lives all seem pathetically bleak and circumscribed by callow needs. The lives of their wives and children seem bleaker still. Little wonder that “the wives” seldom looked enraptured to see their husbands returned from space. From the stories Wolfe tells, it might even have given a few of the wives some pleasure to see “the bastards,” their husbands, catapulted into the great blue beyond.

But the saga picks up momentum again as Wolfe describes how “the valiant lads” altered the Mercury program, little-by-little turning themselves from ex­perimental subjects into jock pilots who could, and in certain cases had to, control their space vehicles. The descriptions of the space shots themselves are ex­traordinarily exciting, Wolfe showing his journalistic “right stuff” each time, taking the story to “the edge” and pulling it out “with moxie, experience,” the works. It’s amazing, really. We know the outcomes — although not all the details, actual risks, human and mechanical foul ups — and still Wolfe makes the reader wonder, “Yeah, yeah, and then what happened? Did he crash?”

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At several other points along the way, Wolfe is in top form, summarizing and satirizing with wild Rabelaisian excess and grotesque Brueghelesque detail: The scene in which John Glenn, first man to orbit the earth, addresses the Senate, introduces his wife Annie as “the rock,” and the old curmudgeons stand up and shout “Amen.” The scene in which poststroke Joe Kennedy meets Glenn and starts crying, but only half his face can move. The scene of the astronauts’ welcome to Houston amid an indoor barbecue; whole steers are being roasted, and enormous greasy joints are served to the stunned pilots and their families who can barely keep the meat from slipping off the paper plates onto their laps. The scene of Alan Shephard in the first Mercury space capsule after a four­-hour delay in his launch, horrified that his unstaunchable need to urinate, for which no provision has been made, will be broadcast across the wires of the world.

Here is Wolfe on the first assemblage of potential astronauts: “Conrad … flies into a room with thirty-four other young men, most of them with crew cuts … and the unmistakable cocky rolling gait of fighter jocks, not to mention the pathetic-looking civilian suits and the enormous wristwatches. The wristwatches had about two thousand calibrations on them and dials for recording everything short of the sound of enemy guns. These terrific wristwatches were practically fraternal insignia among the pilots. Thirty-odd young souls wearing Robert Hall clothes that cost about a fourth as much as their watches: in the year 1959 this had to be a bunch of military pilots trying to disguise themselves as civilians.”

Here is Wolfe’s description of one of the fiascos at Cape Canaveral: “The mighty white shaft rumbles and seems to bestir itself — and then seems to change its mind … because the flames suddenly cut off … and there’s a little pop. A cap on the tip of the rocket comes off. It goes shooting up in the air, a tiny little thing with a needle nose. In fact, it’s the capsule’s escape tower. As the crowd watches, stone silent and befuddled, it goes up about 12,000 feet and descends under a parachute. It looks like a little party favor. It lands about three hundred feet away from the rocket on the torpid banks of the Banana River. Five hundred VIPs had come all the way to Florida, to this goddamned Low Rent sandpit, where bugs you couldn’t even see invaded your motel room and bit your ankles until they ran red onto the acrylic shag carpet — all the way to this rockbeach boondock they had come, to see the fires of Armageddon and hear the earth shake with the thunder — and instead they get this … this pop … and a cork pops out of a bottle of Spumante.”

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And here is Wolfe describing the grim staging setup by Life photographers when the first three Mercury astronauts were announced: “To show three astronauts having an outing with their families at the same time, even in different locations, would have been stretching the truth considerably. To present such a spectacle at the Cape — which was, in effect, off limits to wives — was an absolute howler. On top of that, if you were going to put astronaut families together for a frolic on the beach, you ­could scarcely come up with a less likely combination than the Glenns, the Grissoms, and the Shephards — the clans of the Deacon, the Hoosier Grit, and the Icy Commander … In fact, they looked like three families from warring parts of our restless globe who had never laid eyes on each other until they were washed up upon this godforsaken shore together after a shipwreck, shivering morosely in their leisure togs, staring off into the distance, desperately scanning the horizon for rescue vessels, preferably three of them, flying different flags.

“As for the Other Four, they might as well have dropped through a crack in the earth.”

There is much, finally, that is touching about the alienation of these men from one another, from their families, and from the images America had of them. There is also something extraordinarily moving about what the astronauts did, regardless of their personal motivations and the politics behind the money that financed their undertaking. I remember watching the launchings on TV (sometimes at school), absolutely spell­-bound by the whole thing, unperturbed by the tech­nolingo of “rogers ” and “a-okays.” I always appreciated the the sensation of speed under control, and I admired and still admire physical courage. I didn’t want the astronauts to die, and l don’t think this feeling had anything to do with Russia. I thought even the most clonelike astronauts were exceedingly brave. Some had more than bravery. Whether this sort of courage and the cool daring the astronauts and test pilots manifested is ever separable from the blockheaded nonsense of right stuffness isn’t answered by Wolfe, and it isn’t asked. For him, they are ineluctably of a piece.

The book ends with a harrowing account of Chuck Yeager’s escape from a careening NF-104 rocket in 1963. He had tried and failed to take it faster and higher than the Russians. He finally ejects. While sailing through the air, a piece of metal from the seat mechanism hits him. His eye is cut; it starts to bleed, then, suddenly, his face begins to burn under his helmet. His eye is bleeding, his face is burning, one finger catches fire as he tries to rip his helmet off, and all of this is happening as he’s parachuting toward earth. He lands, remains cool, and lives to tell about it. Just before this flight, Wolfe tells us Yeager was feeling particularly pissed off about Kennedy’s insistence that a black astronaut be trained. Yeager goes up and comes down, and the Russian record is never broken. And does Wolfe admire the right stuff and what it can get men to do more than he mocks them? I honestly couldn’t tell. ❖

THE RIGHT STUFF. By Tom Wolfe. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $12.95.

Categories
FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

On Marlon Brando: An Essay in Nine Parts

Part 1: A Myth Steps Down to a Soapbox

March 27, 1973. The clock is approaching the witching hour. Heads are nodding. The Academy Awards ceremony has been dron­ing on with stupefying monotony, giving no indication, except for the awkwardness and ineptitude of its improvised moments, that it is a live show. It is a toss-up as to which is worse — the rehearsed “repartee” or the unrehearsed reflections on the unreadability of the Cue Cards. To the cue cards has been added another luckless prop, a letter opener brought by Cloris Leachman, that fosters much merriment — and more wasted energy, since the enve­lopes provided by Price, Waterhouse are barely sealed to begin with. But those of us who are left by now are hooked. We watch as we watch every year, hoping against hope that something unexpected will happen — not a scandal, a mere Freudian slip will do — so that Hollywood and televi­sion will redeem themselves with something worthy of the name of one of the last “live” shows on tv. And then it happens — the no­minees for Best Actor award are read, and Marlon Brando is pro­nounced winner!

The camera pans down to the audience where moments before, in the focus-on-the-nervous-­nominee warm-up, Brando had been conspicuously absent. A pig­tailed maiden in buckskin rises and makes the long trek up onto the stage. You can almost hear the whispers and speculations. “Is this Brando’s latest girlfriend?” (After all, we know his taste runs to dusky, non­-American slave-damsels.) “Is she going to accept the award for him?” Or … is it possible … ? It is. Identifying herself as Prin­cess Sacheen Littlefeather from some improbably-named group called the Something Something Affirmative Image Committee, she reads part of a statement pre­pared by Brando (who is reportedly on his way to Wounded Knee) in which he refuses his Oscar in protest over Hollywood’s “degrading” treatment of the Indians. Gasp. Scattered boos, followed by half-hearted ap­plause, probably in deference to Miss Littlefeather who is not to be penalized for Brando’s effrontery.

It is a historical moment — the first outright rejection of an Oscar by a star, by anyone. (George C. Scott simply didn’t “show” to pick up his for “Patton.”) The waves are still re­verberating — through the halls of the Music Center, down Hollywood and Vine, over the vacant back lots of the studios, and on the editorial pages of the Eastern press. To that series of mini climaxes — Brando’s on-and-off, love-hate relationship with Hollywood, and Hollywood’s hot-and­-cold, love-hate relationship with him — this at last was the orgasm. It was a moment that captured many of the contradictions of that relationship, and of the respective partners. Back in 1951, Hollywood, with sublime contrariness, had denied Brando the Oscar for his performance in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” giving one to every other member of the cast. In 1954, he won his first and, until 1973, last, Best Actor Award for his performance in “On the Waterfront,” one of those conjunctions of merit and reward so rare in the Academy’s history. Then in 1973 he wins for his portrayal of the Mafia patriarch of “The God­father” — a role that is one-third as long as that of his son, played by Al Pacino, who is nominated for Supporting Actor! A typical Hollywood-hindsight move: the redressing of wrongs wrongly. And Brando, with typical nose­-thumbing bravura, refuses it.

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Why did he do it? There are not many subjects on which every­one’s a spokesman, but one of them is Brando. “It’s stupid.” “It’s terrific.” “It’s harmful to the Indian cause.” “It’s harmful to Brando’s career.” “It’s hypo­critical — why didn’t he give his percentage of ‘The Godfather’ to the Indians?”  “It’s insincere — ­why didn’t he come himself?”

To this last question, one an­swer is that he couldn’t bear the embarrassment of coming and not winning the award — no small consideration for an actor of Brando’s stature, who has made a career out of thumbing his nose at Hollywood.

“He didn’t want the award,” goes another argument. “He much prefers his performance in ‘The Last Tango in Paris,’ and wanted to wait and try to win for that next year.” This theory would make more sense if Brando had announced he would reject the award before the voting rather than afterward.

Whatever one thinks of his methods, Brando’s commitment to the Indians can hardly be ques­tioned. It is a continuation of those political causes that Brando has embraced throughout, and sometimes in preference to, his career and by which he has asked to be taken “seriously” — as if his talent were not as great and serious a thing as a man could hope for.

1 of 9-part Village Voice profile of Marlon Brando from 1973 by Molly Haskell

In 1946, while still in the theatre, Brando left “Candida” where he was playing Marchbanks for $300 a week, to take a $48-a-week part in Ben Hecht ‘s pro-Zionist play, “A Flag Is Born,” because he wanted to lend his support to Pal­estine. He marched on San Quentin the night Caryl Chessman was gassed. He was at Gadsden and Birmingham for the civil-­rights protests. He took part, in Tacoma, Washington, in a “fish-­in” for some Indians whose fish­ing rights were in jeopardy. He had scuffles with the law in California — where he was pick­eting with CORE — and in Cam­bridge, Maryland. He participated in a Black Panther rally after the killing of Bobby Hutton. He has always been on the right side, doing all the right things for people that, in good radical fash­ion, are as far as possible from his own self-image and thus infinitely susceptible to romantic idealiza­tion. He gets points from the poli­ticos, but loses them with any­body who gives a damn about movies, those of us who realize in­stinctively that his political man­euvers are not just a blow for civil rights, but a blow against the (implied) triviality of his art, just as the elaborate make-up jobs and caricatures of some of his roles are a rejection of the naked, emo­tionally-expressive man he once so consummately projected. And, ironically, that contempt for his craft (or for self-in-craft) places him squarely in the tradition of philistinism at the heart of the America whose politics he des­pises. For the man who left “Candida” for “A Flag Is Born” was not just leaving a non-political play for a polemical one, a higher salary for a lower one, but a better plan for an inferior one.

Nobody, not even those of us who are pejoratively labeled “aestheticians” by our enemies, would presume to say that actors should be categorically excluded from politics. Okay, let them lend their name to a worthy cause, but please pass the ear-plugs when the peroration begins. Because the very faculties that make an actor great — intuition, instinct — ­equip him poorly for his role as pundit. Unleavened by wit or orig­inality, earnestness begins to sound like sanctimoniousness. Brando’s feelings about the Indi­an situation, like Jane Fonda’s on Vietnam — which at least she had the grace not to inflict on the Academy Awards — are less than earthshaking. There is nothing wrong with that, except that we expect magic from our heroes and heroines, and when they utter banalities we are outraged. What others can get away with, they can’t. When Brando betrays complete ignorance of recent movie history and its revisionist stance toward Indians (“Little Big Man,” “Journey through Rosebud,” “Cheyenne Autumn”) or even John Ford’s cavalry west­erns which, if ideologically retro­grade were an economic boon to the Apaches; or when he re­proaches Hollywood for neg­lecting the cause of a minority group that he himself did nothing to advance when he had the opportunity, it casts doubt, rightly or wrongly, on his sincerity.

An actor capable of the most exquisite nuance in a perform­ance becomes a sloganeering im­becile on the soapbox, and if we mistake his ineptitude for insin­cerity, it is not unlike those oc­casions when a non-actor is brought in to do an actor’s work. How many times have non-profes­sionals, or “real people” in docu­mentaries, conveyed a monolithic stupidity and insensitivity simply because they lacked the histrionic tools, the artistry, to express other dimensions.

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Brando and Fonda are more intuitively savvy in a single gesture of “On the Waterfront” or “Klute” than in all their liberal polemics. Indeed, it was Jane Fonda who, during the shooting of “The Chase,” gave what is perhaps the neatest summation of Brando on record. In the middle of a scene she was doing with him, she suddenly stopped short, according to Arthur Penn and just stared at him. “God!” she finally said in amazement, as the cam­eras continued to roll, “You’re just the best fucking actor in the whole world.”

If as a political action Brando’s gesture misfired, as theatre it scored. Just as he illuminated so many bad pictures over the years — some of them as execrable as any Academy production — so he strikes sparks in an otherwise hopeless evening. And he does it, as he has in the past — sometimes hokily, sometimes authentically — using as his emissary Princess Sacheen Littlefeather (herself with one foot in showbiz, having once entered a contest for the title of Queen Vampire in a movie publicity stunt), with an in­stinct for theatre as sure today as it was when, in 1947, he lurched onto the stage as Stanley Kowalski and threatened, for a moment, to make all his contem­poraries obsolete, and all actors and playwrights look like fustian, phrase-making fools.

But if his show-stopping theat­rical instinct — operable on Aca­demy night by remote control — is Brando’s genius, it is one he has made money off of, big money, and for that he must atone. Partly in passion, partly in penance, he champions the little men, the peasants, the proletariat, the disenfranchised. In his imagina­tion, he comes from them, he is Zapata. If he can’t throw the money back in the moguls’ faces (he is reported to have gotten $1.5 million for “The Godfather”), he can throw mud in their eye. He’s not as free as he once was: it is two wives, at least two mis­tresses, and four children later, plus inflationary real estate taxes in Tahiti — but the rejection of the Oscar is a declaration of Indepen­dence. ”F— you and your payoffs,” it says, “and you too” to the audience.

If we occasionally wish Brando would get off his minority-group hobbyhorse, we may have to recognize the other side of the coin: that this compulsion to do something is one of the sources of his fascination as an actor, the ambition of Terry Malloy and Johnny, to be something more. He may, like Zapata, be that ultimate contradiction — a man “of the peo­ple” who towers above them, a man in constant tension with his own myth.

And Brando’s hatred for the au­dience, for any kind of dependency, is felt so strongly and pal­pably that night that he is much closer to us, to them, than all these parading stiffs, exposing their teeth and their breasts but none of their feelings, faking generosity and seething between the lines. The enmities that are in the air, are everywhere in the air these days, the hostility of what is left out rather than what is said, is finally crystallized in Brando’s grandiose snub, and it is a relief.

2 of 9-part Village Voice profile of Marlon Brando from 1973 by Molly Haskell

Part 2: The Woman in the ‘All-Man’ Legend
June 21, 1973

Spoiled by a rapid celebrity turnover, a fickle public must be reminded of its prior loyalties, and besides, who among us can resist forever the lure of publici­ty? This is the season for cinema’s most fashionable re­cluses to come down from their eyries and renew their lifeline with the public. After Ingmar Bergman at Cannes, and Brando on the Dick Cavett Show, it only remains for Garbo to choose her time and place — a guest appearance, say, on “Not for Women Only.”

But Brando had never been one for talk shows and, unlike Bergman, is not — as far as we know — planning to make a movie with Barbra Streisand (although he was seen lunching with her in some desert oasis). Brando’s first television appearance was to have been, according to an an­nouncement he himself made back in 1955, on the Edward R. Murrow show, an honorable inten­tion that somehow went agley. In­stead it was as a guest of Faye Emerson on that pioneering, monumentally but endearingly in­consequential talk show that he made his debut, and it was, ac­cording to one eyewitness ob­server, a charming encounter. Brando was attired, charac­teristically, in Stanley Kowalski sloppy shirt and jeans, and Faye was attired, also characteristically, in an exceedingly low-cut gown. As she was talking, a slip of paper fell from her lap to the floor.

“Oh, Marlon,” she said plead­ingly, turning to her guest. “I daren’t.”

“Daren’t you?” Brando replied, smiling, as he leaned over and re­trieved the paper. This was a side of Marlon, urbane and quick-­witted, that was rarely allowed to surface and finally seems to have been permanently squashed under the combined weight of stardom and the white man’s burden.

Why, after so successfully avoiding the limelight, should Brando decide to go on the Cavett show and promote the Indian cause? No doubt to restore his missionary credibility, the credibility that Sasheen, with a flap of her Little Feathers, had reduced to the ashes of her own meteoric rise and brief stint in celebrity heaven.

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Brando, competing with Water­gate, went on the Cavett show to explain that he hadn’t gone to Wounded Knee because it would have looked like a “plot” to grab headlines. To remove the tincture of ego-tripping, Brando brings with him three Indians and a quote unquote non-Indian eco­nomic adviser to the Lumi tribe from Washington. The Brando delegation reminds me of the way Godard used to drag Gorin every­where in the early days of their al­liance, a symbol of that collective entity into which Godard had sup­posedly submerged his own de­spised Individuality. And indeed, this dual front did have the effect of politicalizing, and depersonalizing, every exchange.

Brando belittles acting with a choice of expression — “a craft, like plumbing” — that reduces it, typically, to the elemental­-physiological level. And he babbles on about Indian rights, supported by “facts and figures,” with the kind of hard sell — leaving out such ticklish subjects as the rights of the original inhabitants of Wounded Knee, or the conflict between different Indian factions  — that detergent and drug adver­tisers might find a little too one­-sided.

He concedes that movies have given him a “good living.” But it is not the good living or the plumber-like execution of his craft that enables him to com­mand the attention of television land for an hour-and-a-half lec­ture on the Indians, and a few in­sults besides. (In referring sneeringly to “beer-drinkers” Brando instinctively avoids in­sulting his true followers who are more likely to be on wine, whiskey, or hash.) It is, rather, the legend.

What is the legend, and how has it managed to stay alive through all these years of dubious achieve­ments? It is written in a word. BRANDO. Like Garbo. Or Fido. An animal, a force of nature, an element; not a human being who must as a member of society distinguish himself from other members with a Christian name and an initial as well as a sur­name. There is only one Brando the actor, even as he plays his fa­vorite role, that of serious, socially-conscious anti-star. One of the five or six greatest actors — some would say the greatest — the cinema has yet produced. And yet how few great films have gone into the formation of that reputation!

He exploded onto the screen, after he had made a name for himself in the theatre, in the early ’50s: “The Men” (1950), “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), “Viva Zapata!” (1952), “The Wild One” (1954), and “On the Waterfront” (1954).

The superlatives flew. Pauline Kael called his performance in “On the Waterfront” “the finest we have had in American films since Vivien Leigh’s Blanche duBois,” saying he “makes con­tact with previously untapped areas in American social and psy­chological experience.”

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Stanley Kauffmann said of him, “His future has the farthest artistic horizon of any American film actor — indeed of any English speaking actor … except Chris­topher Plummer and Colleen Dewhurst.”

But hardly had the ink dried on the favorable reviews than the critics were complaining of the waste of a great talent, of the sub­version of genius by American­ Hollywood commercialism. This was the period of scandal and setbacks, of poor decisions, alterca­tions with directors, of walking off sets and being walked over by the press. The films ranged from commercial hits (“The Teahouse of the August Moon,” 1956; “Sayonara,” 1957; “The Young Lions” 1958; “Mutiny on the Bounty,” 1962), to moderate criti­cal hits (“Guys and Dolls,” 1955; “Julius Caesar,” 1953; “One­ Eyed Jacks,” 1961; “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” (1967), to a great many near- and total-disasters, including “The Fugitive Kind,” 1960; “The Ugly American,” 1963; “Bedtime Story,” 1964; “Mori­turi,” 1965; “The Chase,” 1966; “The Appaloosa,” 1966; “Candy,” (1968); “The Night of the Follow­ing Day,” 1969; “The Night Comers,” (1971). Two, “The Countess from Hong Kong” (1967) and “Burn!” (1970 ), though not hits, had their followers. But for the most part it was a period of unfulfillment, and the mystery is not how Brando fell so low, but how he fell so low and remained so high! For all the while the man was dividing his time between politics and Tahiti, and the actor was squandering his creative resources on unworthy projects, the legend was alive and blazing. Whatever Marlon Brando might be doing or not doing, Brando was still a name whose potency was undiminished, a name to excite, to ignite, to conjure with.

As with Garbo’s career, you can count on one hand the great mov­ies, and yet you wouldn’t miss one if your life depended on it, if you had to see it in Spanish on a double bill, or miss dinner, or spend your last dollar. And no matter how bad it was (and every one of them has its champions), you’d wait breathlessly for the next one. Indeed, the similarities between the careers, and the myths, of the two stars are too striking to overlook. First, as you bemoan the scarcity of good films, you begin to wonder if there wasn’t something in each of them that kept them from achieving a great, rounded oeuvre on the scale of the work produced by great artists in other fields — or even other film personalities who were perhaps more modest in their ambitions and/or talent. The actor is dependent on others for the realization of his potential, and yet, if he is a genius or feels “complete” in his own right, he has trouble submitting to a higher authority. Brando’s difficulties with directors attest to this, and neither he nor Garbo worked often, or repeatedly, with film-makers of the first order. Brando did his best work — understandably — for Elia Kazan, an “actor’s director” who, especially in his early work, was more inclined to accommodate the actor as a cre­ative force on his own, rather than a director-surrogate or one element in a grand, directorial design. (Kazan’s films became in­creasingly autobiographical, and it is interesting to note that Brando bowed out of “The Arrangement” for “political reasons,” and the part of the pro­tagonist, a Kazan-surrogate, was played by Kirk Douglas.)

In addition to their problems with directors, neither Brando nor Garbo ever seemed adequate­ly matched in their co-stars and surrounding players. Their leading ladies and leading men were almost never remarkable or vivid in their own right, but were generally torch-bearers at the altar of the idol. Was this sheer coincidence, or was there something in the Brando-Garbo consti­tution, in their peculiar incandes­cence, that filled the space and left little room for other sources of light in the same sphere? Was it, perhaps, not just that they dominated members of the opposite sex, but that they contained ingredients of the other sex within them; was it not their androgyny, as much as their brilliance, that made their partners super­fluous?

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This is not unusual. Certain stars, like certain people, seem to reconcile sexual opposites. Chaplin and Mae West, Dietrich and Mick Jagger, are only the most obvious ones. And Garbo and Brando. They understand, intui­tively, what it is to be “feminine” and “masculine,” and they explore these qualities while re­maining just within the bounda­ries of their sex, i. e., without being “gay” or “butch.” Chaplin can be delicate, flirtatious, and coy, while Mae West is never less than forthright. Garbo is fearless in the transactions of love, while Brando hesitates in vulnerable self-defense. He is more sensitive than the women he loves, while Garbo makes the men to whom she devotes herself look indecisive and weak. Physically, too, they unite or borrow opposite sexual characteristics. Garbo and West are large-boned and lanky, while Chaplin and Brando are small and agile. Mae West’s voice, stride, and lechery are masculine, while Brando’s high-pitched “feminine” voice has been a determining factor in his career, preventing him from playing straight ro­ mantic leads in conventional love stories.

In movies as in real life, Brando’s female opposites have never been his “equals” — active or emancipated women with some claim to autonomy outside their Brando-bound destiny. Nor have they been, except for Magnani, full-bodied, sensual women with an appetite for life, (and even Magnani, in “The Fugitive Kind,” was the Older Woman, more to be pitied than feared for her sexual appetite). Rather, Brando’s partners have been virgins or romantic slaves who, from the pedestal or the ground, focused attention on him and happily ac­cepted his dominance.

In both personal and fictional romances, an unusually large number were foreign or foreign­ type women: Lotus Blossom (Machiko Kyo) in “Teahouse”; Hana-Ogi (Miiko Taka) in “Sayonara”; Josefa (Jean Peters) in “Viva Zapata!”; Louisa (Pina Pellicer) in “One-Eyed Jacks”‘: Trini (Anjanette Comer) in “The Appaloosa'”; the blonde (Rila Moreno) in “The Night of the Following Day”; and, in real life: Anna Kashfi, to whom he was married from 1957-59; Movila, his wife from 1960-61; Rita Moreno as friend and oc­casional girlfriend; Josiane­-Mariani Berenger, his one-time fi­ancee; and Tarita, whom he met during the shooting of “Mutiny on the Bounty.”

Then there were the films with no women (“The Young Lions,” “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “The Ugly American,” “Morituri,” “Julius Caesar,” “Burn!”) or films with women he wasn’t inter­ested in: Teresa Wright as the wife, in an eviscerated part, in “The Men”; Vivien Leigh in “Streetcar”; Joanne Woodward in “The Fugitive Kind”; Eliza­beth Taylor in “Reflections in a Golden Eye.”

And finally, the pure, undefiled virgins, the princesses on the pedestals who could never fully appreciate the intricate agonies of their all-too-human lover. Mary Murphy in “The Wild One,” Eva Marie Saint in “On the Wa­terfront,” and Jean Simmons in “Guys and Dolls” are all dolls, china dolls, who are even more remote from “life” than their dark-skinned counterparts. Just as his chattel-mistresses are dependent on Brando to bear the burden of life, they are dependent on him to initiate them into its mysteries. They are buds who will blossom at his touch, or (in Mag­nani’s case, a withered husk who can be revitalized. But Brando is always the center of gravity, a man that is more “man” than any of his women will ever know and yet, in his sensitivity, more “woman” than they are.

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For Brando fans, the absence of a strong or interesting woman op­posite him works to his, and their, advantage. Because his leading ladies are weak, transparent, unobtrusive, audiences can re­spond to him directly. Just as the male spectators of soft-core porn movies preferred all-female love-making scenes, where they could enter directly into the fantasy without the obstacle of a (com­peting) male figure, Brandolaters would prefer to have their sight­line unobstructed. As he unites the characteristics of both sexes, he also appeals to both men and women. He is at once tough and vulnerable, the former a poor attempt to conceal the latter. He sees through the sham of sexual role-playing — particularly pernicious in the ’50s —but seems powerless to change it. Protecting himself on one side while ex­posing the other, he dances around like a prize-fighter, tries to break through, to reach the other person on a deeper, true level of communication, but he is usually blocked by the forces of convention. Eventually, he is sorry: the person turns out to be not unlike the rest, a little better, perhaps, but unwilling to take the risk to stand against society. And so he, Brando, is generally left alone, the rebel, the outsider, the outlaw, the artist, man against society, man-woman against men and women, actor-genius against the Hollywood film.

Everything contributes to the legend; even the failures of his career feed the idea of an actor too “large” for any one role. There is more of him than can be contained or expressed in one part, and consequently when he is bad or outrageous, it is somehow the film’s fault for trying to reduce him to the lineaments of a mere mortal. Like the wheelchair paraplegic in Fred Zinnemann’s “The Men” — an unfortunate metaphor for Brando’s whole career -he is a dynamo being restrained by forces outside his control. Because all but the best roles are too confining, he is constantly bursting their seams, exciting our imagination but throwing the movie out of line.

His essence is contradiction, conflicts, that can never come to rest in resolution. and he will therefore frustrate and disappoint all those who travel society’s single tracks. His course lan­guage and brute force are not the impulses of a boor but the masque of a poet, the cry of rage against the imprisoning niceties of civili­zation. And because of this side, he doesn’t belong with the pure roughnecks either, the toughs and delinquents who are genuinely coarse and unfeeling.

“You’re a fake,” Mary Murphy tells Johnny of “The Wild One.” Meaning you don’t belong with these hyenas and apes who run around scaring old men anymore than you belong to the straights, the parents and sheriffs and “squares.” But in her heart, like a good, sweet, obnoxious ’50s girl, she hopes she can reconcile him to that world. In making the effort she betrays the integrity of their love, and loses it. By this time, the motorcycle gang is long gone, and so Johnny rides off alone, hallway between gangster and straight society. And Brando, the man-myth who has not yet found his Indian delegation, is a rebel in search of a cause, but one who is destined never to unite successfully with a revolution because it is all within him, because the moment he thinks he is lighting shoulder-­to-shoulder with the underdog he will find himself on opposite shores of his own inner self.

3 of 9-part Village Voice profile of Marlon Brando from 1973 by Molly Haskell

Part 3: Parable and Hopeless Paradox
June 28, 1973

Brando refused to play the game, the Hollywood Swimming Pool Brown Derby Pecking Order Be-Nice-to-Louella-Parsons Bev­erly Hills Limousine game. His great appeal — crystallized in the parts with which we most closely identify him — was to stand out against the materialistic bullshit of ’50s America, epitomized in the trappings of Stardom. It was all a waste of time. The mansions and conspicuous possessions were symbols of success rather than achievement, hallmarks of people who were, in his words, “failures as human beings,” Brando spoke — by barely speaking — for the in­stinctual man against the civilized phony. He was un-­ceremonial, a nonconformist, “real.” And yet, we must be­ware of the word real, for he was in many ways as unreal, as mythic a personality as Dietrich, or Mae West, who were also anti-­sham. With all his causes and po­litical activities and socially-im­portant films, he couldn’t erase that overriding sense of personal destiny. His ego, like his magnet­ism, was ineffaceable, and every attempt to bury it became a new harmony, or trick, or wrinkle worked upon it.

To the arrant materialism in Hollywood and the compromises of the studio system, he opposed his own arrogant purity — but not by simply walking away. The stage was set for a parable, an historic confrontation. Like Christ and the moneychangers, Like Joan and the Church fathers, they needed each other. “They’ve never made an honest picture in their lives, and they probably never will,” he told Lorenzo Semple, Jr., in an interview in 1948 which led the author to conclude, “His disenchantment with the West Coast has become progressively aggravated, until it is unlikely that he would at present consider any offer what­ever.” At this point, two years before he actually went out, he was fighting it tooth and nail, like a hopeless attraction.

When he finally did accept an offer — to do Fred Zinnemann’s “The Men” — it was from the whore’s plain but honest sister, but once there, he was, within range of her seductive wiles. The struggle, though, was not just between the romantic and the whore. Brando was a romantic ego storming and thrashing at the battlements of one of the last strongholds of classicism, film. Technically and aesthetically, film was still a classical enterprise long after modernism had enveloped the other arts in self-conscious angst. Opposing his own genius to the “system” — and providing as martyr a too-con­venient reference point, with Hollywood as Bad Guy, for the permanently disillusioned — Brando was one of the first modernists in film, the Orson Welles of actors. Both asked for com­plete autonomy, pitting their ex­travagant talents against the petty bureaucracy and collective­ mediocrity of Hollywood decision-­making. But as usual, the ele­ments of good and evil were more mixed: there was as much chutzpah as hubris in the rebels. And the Hollywood process was one that, for all its legendary ills, had nourished as many geniuses as it had starved or simply misplaced.

It was through the system, and through conventions at once as fixed and flexible as the diatonic scale, that such directors as Lubitsch, Ford, Lang, Hitchcock, Hawks, Cukor, et al. were able to express themselves, and such diverse act — artists as Chaplin, Keaton, Gish, Grant, Cagney, Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Garbo, Astaire, Bogart had left their imprint, through the exer­cise m various talents, but never without that mystical and cul­turally mistrusted quality called screen presence. This was some­thing Brando had in spades, but he wouldn’t let it alone  — not, how­ever, because of some contempt for cinema in preference to the theatre and “real acting.” For whatever reason — perhaps an in­stinct for self-preservation — he never fell prey to the argument of the cultural superiority of theatre to film, although it was used, and continues to be used, against him. It is revived periodically in the New York Times by Brando’s “friends” like William Redfield. It was the ploy used by the druids of the Group Theatre to intimi­date John Garfield into leaving the medium he was made for. No, with Brando it was something even more illusory — real life — ­that he held over cinema, and that was really a cloak for his own ego. By setting himself up as an individualist against the industry, Brando would become, like Welles, a wrench in the machin­ery he needed to survive. The role of the misunderstood genius has its practical drawbacks, one being that it is more effective at a distance than up close among those who are doing the misunder­standing. And the hiring and firing. Brando was probably last, popular with producers, whose purpose it was to get a film shot on schedule and within budget, but even directors who are now, in interviews, hotly defending Brando and their “marvelous” working relationships, were giving out different stories at the time. To the extent that film­making is a power struggle be­tween contending (Oedipal) auth­orities — a hypothesis for which the lack of women directors is a kind of negative proof — Brando is a natural threat to any director.

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He may challenge them direct­ly: “What makes you think you know what actors are all about?” he is reported to have said to one neophyte. But what he is really asking for is his freedom, and probably no actor can do as much with it. Eliza Kazan and John Huston have both confessed, perhaps with unconscious ambivalence, to the experience of giving Brando a suggestion and having him come back with something far better.

“He would constantly come up with ideas that were better than the ones I had,” Kazan has said, calling Brando, in an interview with Stuart Byron and Martin Rubin in Movie, “the only genius I’ve ever met in the field of acting. All he’d do was nod,” Kazan continued. “I’d tell him what I wanted, he’d nod, and then he’d go out and do it better than I could have hoped it would be. To my way of thinking, his perform­ance in ‘On the Waterfront’ is the best male performance I’ve ever seen in my life.”

But not all directors were quite so pleased with Brando’s inven­tiveness. When he won artistic control of his projects he began losing directors. Both Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah worked on “One-Eyed Jacks” before Brando took over, Lewis Milestone replaced Carol Reed on “Mutiny on the Bounty,” a culmination of stories of tan­trums, clashes, and delays in the most expensive, and expansively covered, project of them all. Fact and fiction have never been clearly separated in the log of a production that came close to drowning in a sea of real  and make-believe tempests.  But Brando somehow wound up with the brunt of the blame, although from other reports — that Metro copped out on an agreement to devote some of the film to treating racial conflicts in Pitcairn Island — M-G-M would seem to deserve at least a lion’s share.

Brando, particularly in his later career, often altered his parts and had them rewritten — not to con­form to a conventional good-guy image, or even a conventional bad-guy one, but in accordance with some idea of his own that was never wholly obvious and never quite the same. He was hard to handicap — sometimes he would enlist, sometimes lose audi­ence sympathy, sometimes veer toward humor, sometimes toward greed and venality; sometimes he would suggest more than one emotion at a time, and often he would lapse into self-parody. And yet the image we retain of him is drawn almost entirely from his earlier roles, not just, I think, for his acting, but for his vulnera­bility. Although he exercised even more conceptual control over the later ones, we prefer the earlier Brando — the martyr, the pure counterculture rebel (before the term was even invented) to the querulous or ruthless authority figures of the later films. As Stanley, Terry, and Johnny, he was the forerunner of the ’60s rebel-hero, the archetypal Son. Being sensitive, anti-establish­ment, anti-patriarchal, he embod­ied certain “feminine” qualities that would prevail over the phallic, “masculine” side in the ascendancy of James Dean and his longhair epigones. But in Brando the war was still being waged, and the drive to succeed the thrust was there. That he wanted the less ingratiating “au­thority” roles is a sign not only of the seriousness of his ambition, but of an awareness of that other side of himself-the winner, the capitalist, the “contender” — that Terry Malloy yearned for and Brando won for him.

That is the final paradox. His career would be less impressive without what many consider his lesser roles, the Christian Diestls and Fletcher Christians and Weldon Pendertons (note the re­curring Master Race nomencla­ture) by which Brando acknowl­edged the establishment side of himself and suggested that the threads of youth and age, love and self-love, idealism and corrup­tion, are hopelessly intertwined, and that the rebel’s claim to puri­ty and the officer’s to right­eousness are branches of the same tree. The tree, like Brando as the sum of all his roles. is a single thing and yet infinitely varies, its trunk massive, its leaves fragile and dancing, its roots stretching into the eth­nically rich, melting pot soil of the American experience, its branches reacting upward for an Answer and receiving only air.

4 of 9-part Village Voice profile of Marlon Brando from 1973 by Molly Haskell

Part 4: Tall Oedipal Tales from Omaha
July 19, 1973

Brando has never been the most reliable source of information about himself. In his sudden per­sonality shifts — from Kowalski to gentleman, from urban sophis­ticate to antediluvian slob — and in the exotic half-truths with which he studded his autobiography, he has given his chroniclers a slip­pery time. Like Norman Mailer, another restless chameleon ego of our age, he was in the business of coming to terms with his multiple selves in a way that would put him one step ahead of the media while playing to their hunger for novelty and outrage. He was making himself more alluring acting a little crazy to compen­sate for an ordinary middle-class upbringing. For to have been born in Nebraska and raised in finan­cial ease by two loving, relatively normal parents is, for the mid-20th century artist, the gravest of handicaps, and he is not to be blamed if he adds a few curls and flourishes lo the mundane truth.

His biographical note in the program of “I Remember Mama” (1944), in which he made his Broadway debut as the young Nels, reads:

“Born in Calcutta, India, but left there when six months old. Educated in several California schools and Shattuck Military Academy at Fairboll, Minnesota.” Actually he was born April 3, 1924 , in Omaha and went to school in Illinois where his family moved when he was five. Only the reference to Shattuck Military Academy is authentic, and the following information that “he enlivened the military atmosphere by so many pranks that he was kicked out of the school.”

The Playbill for “Truckline Cafe” (1946) listed him as having originated in Bangkok (his father had gone there on a zoological ex­pedition), and subsequent pro­gram notes and interviews gave such wild, but not unrelated, birthplaces as Bombay, Min­danao, and Rangoon. As usual, it is not the pathology of fibbing but the particular course it takes that is most interesting. Like Barney, “he knew even then” the locus of his spiritual home, the Shangri-la of the unconscious. When recognition and celebrity no longer permitted him to take refuge in these third-world fantasies. the part of the dark-skinned alien was as­signed to the women in his life, many of whose Asian origin seemed to be as fictitious as Brando’s own. Movita, Anna Kashfi, Rita Moreno, France Nuyen, Tarita, and finally, as his latest surrogate, Princess Sa­sheen Littlefeather, whose claims to Apache aristocracy seem to have about as much validity as those of Anna Kashfi (nee Joan Mary O’Callaghan) to her Indian origins.

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Whether out of an instinct for story telling. contempt for the in­terviewer, or for his own emblematically American background, Brando amplified his Oedipal conflicts and complexes into tall tales of a backwoods brute of a father (whose shadow hangs over Paul in “The Last Tango in Paris”) and a beautiful, alcoholic mother. From the accounts he gave to Truman Capote (the New Yorker, 1957) and other interviewers of having to pick up his mother at bars in the middle of the afternoon and of finally abandoning her to her misery, there is little record of the talented, force­ful woman (and indeed, a great beauty) who found a partial if not ultimate outlet for her acting tal­ent in community theatricals, and who encouraged artistic expression in her children. Nor would one know, from his agonized ref­erences to his father, that Brando, Sr., a successful manufacturer of insecticides, actually subsidized his son’s theatrical training, and became his business manager when he went to Hollywood — a position he still holds. As Jerry Tallmer pointed out in a recent article in the Post, the roughneck reprobate that Paul (in “The Last Tango”) describes as his father, is a more accurate portrait of Brando’s grandfather. Even the cow described by Paul as the bete noire of his adolescence — the one his father forced him to milk before allowing him to go out on a date — has its origin in fact. But it was hardly the sole means of sus­tenance of a poor farm family as the anecdote suggests, but rather one of many pets of a comfortable suburban one. It was actually Marlon’s own pet, and one can almost imagine the scene as it really took place: Brando, Sr., exas­perated by his son’s irrespon­sibility, saying, “You made us get that cow, now you take care of it!”

It is more likely that the Oedipal conflict, which Brando obviously feels and has been deeply influenced by, took place in a far more subterranean manner. Although the marriage was by all accounts a congenial one, the polarization of values be­tween the sensitive, “artistic” mother and the efficient, stoical father probably affected him more than his two sisters. In the Brando marriage we see the archetypal division of sex roles that so defines the antagonisms of Amer­ican culture. However harmoni­ously the parents live together, the physical separation of “male” and “female” values is bound to set up a conflict within the son who, if he is at all “artistic,” is torn by contrary pulls. The “masculine” side is constantly vi­tiated by feeling and impulse, the “feminine” resents the unreason­able expectations of the super ego.

The father’s ambition and success-drive can never be wholly ignored — or satisfied. Hence the industry. Yet the mother’s spiritual hunger and contempt for ma­terial things demand equal space (At one point Brando had ambitions to become a Protestant minister, and such readings as have occupied him between and during assignments have almost always been in religion and philosophy.) It is as if Mother and Father Ideals set up shop on op­posite shores of the son’s stream of consciousness; for a while they compete, then gradually they establish some working arrange­ment, without ever quite merging. The fact that husband and wife were congenial, and the mother was able lo exercise a strong influence on Brando, may explain the son ‘s relative case with the “feminine” side of bis na­ture: and the father’s less-than-overbearing masculinity, the equilibrium that was precariously maintained. After the brief stint at Shattuck Military Academy — ­which seems to have been his fa­ther’s last hope of instilling virtue in his son — Brando was off to New York with his father’s blessing and enough money to get started.

He went first to the Actors Stu­dio which under Lee and Paula Strasberg was the American temple and training ground of Method Acting. He also studied at different times under Stella Adler and Erwin Piscator, both of whom subsequently — and no doubt truth­fully — claimed to have recognized his genius at once. His first play was a children’s play by Stanley Kauffmann. It was called “Bo­bino” and some years later in a career piece on Brando, Kauff­mann would write. “His role consisted of being hit on the head and falling down; but he managed to find a way of falling down that, without being obtrusive, was individual.”

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John Van Drulen’s “I Remember Mama” was followed by Maxwell Anderson’s “Truckline Cafe” in which he had his first real success. He turned a relatively small, difficult part — he had to come onstage crying — into a personal triumph. His performance in “Candida,” playing Marchbanks to Katherine Cornell’s Candida, received mixed notices. Richard Watts. Jr., re­cently called it one of the worst Marchbanks ever, but Stanley Kauffmann recalls that Brando “sounded like a cab driver and moved like a third baseman but still had some touching moments.”

Even at this stage of his career, he had enough ego — or insecurity — to clash with such theatrical sacred cows as Noel Coward and Tallulah Bankhead. Witnesses of the rehearsals of Bankhead and Brando in “The Eagle Has Two Heads,” which Brando never opened in, must have seen the feathers flying. This doomed pairing was no doubt far more interesting than the official and unchallenged. Tallulah vehicle which actually opened. In this classic confrontation between the Grand Manner and the Method, there must have been a germ of truth in the complaint attributed to Tallulah that Brando drove her to distraction picking his nose, pausing too long, and scratching himself.”

In 1947 the stage production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” catapulted Brando to fame. It was one of those stunning conjunctions of actor and role that seem to change the very air we breathe, particularly the theatrical atmosphere in which it transpired. Whatever the reservations critics had about the play that Mary McCarthy called “A Streetcar Named Success,” no one had any about Brando. But the moment of his greatest triumph on the stage was also his last. Why did he never return? Perhaps it was an instinctive acceptance of his own limitations, particularly his vocal handicap in a medium dedicated to the Word. Perhaps it was the reason he gave in an interview years later when he said that one night, for one split second he had forgotten his lines, and that moment of terror had stayed with him forever. Perhaps it was the prospect of being paired with an actress like Magnani (efforts to unite them in a stage production of “The Fugitive Kind” failed) and the fear he expressed to Capotte that “She would wipe me off the stage.”

Maybe. Maybe not but for whatever reason. Brando left the theatre and went into film, and film is no worse for that. And probably — soothsayers conspiracy-theorists, and culture snobs to the contrary — Brando was no worse for that either. At any rate what we make of him now has less to do with a single Faustian choice of film over theatre than with individual choices of films, and what he made of them.

5 of 9-part Village Voice profile of Marlon Brando from 1973 by Molly Haskell

Part 5: Submerged in the Stanley Persona
July 26, 1973

It’s a toss-up as to whether Brando brought more of himself to his roles, or vice versa. The role of Stanley was like an emo­tional bank account: what he in­vested nightly in terms of intu­ition, feeling, personality traits, he drew on daily as a dungaree-­wearing bohemian living in New York. He rode a motorcycle, played the bongos, and was a friend of waifs and winos — out­casts he would find on the street and bring back to the apartment he shared with his old school friend, Wally Cox. Tales told of these early years, Brando’s freest in terms of the relative anonymity he enjoyed at the threshold of his movie career, all contain a note of self-dramatization, of a man playing out a part, or practicing for a new one. The friend of the people was perhaps rehearsing for “Viva Zapata!” The guy who went to pick up a blind date on a motorcycle (and, according to Maurice Zolotow, told her, as they were whipping around Central Park, that he could do even better if he had his glasses I was revving up for “The Wild One.” As the years went on, lines from scripts, which he had no doubt inspired if not actually written, turned up in interviews. But can a man plagia­rize himself?

He was completely submerged in the Stanley persona when he first went to Hollywood, no doubt as a safeguard against any claims it might try to make on him. The film he had chosen for his debut was Fred Zinnemann’s “The Men” (1950), study of the problems of adjustment of para­plegic veterans after World War II, and the furthest thing from Hollywood fluff. With one suit and tie in his suitcase, and wearing jeans and a T-shirt, he went to live with his aunt and uncle in a two-room bungalow where, coming and going at odd hours, he tried to maintain the low standard of living to which he was accus­tomed.

The “problem film” was the justification for going to Holly­wood, a category in which “The Men” slipped more easily than some of Brando’s other films. These could be justified as socially conscious only by stretching the definition of the term — or the message of the film. “The Wild One” was a study of the delinquent mentality; “Tea­house of the August Moon” a dis­section of Sino-American rela­tions; “The Godfather” a parable of American capitalism.

But for being the most osten­sibly high-minded of them all, “The Men” made greater compromises. A Stanley Kramer production, with a screenplay by Carl Foreman and a subject that would make up in heavenly rewards what it lost in mere com­mercial ones, it was drowning in good intentions. After a brief battle-scene prologue (the only “action” in the film), the rest of the picture dealt with the return home of a group of wounded GI’s. They try to pick up the pieces — Brando his life with his fiancee played by Teresa Wright, Jack Webb the girl he meets in the army hospital — only to have the pieces break into smaller pieces.

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In preparation for his role as a paralytic (his first, but not his last), Brando went to live at the veteran’s hospital where the film would be shot. (This was the oc­casion of some relief to his aunt and uncle who, as much as they loved him, were beginning to feel cramped in their shared quarters and disconcerted by nephew’s lifestyle.)

Brando caught, with tense elo­quence, the sudden change of moods, the raging bitterness, despair, and hope, of the disabled man. He rages inwardly and out­wardly at his impotence, and his oscillations from boyish helplessness to demonic fury key the film’s emotional temperature. But the other half of his “problem” — the effect of his dis­ability on his wife, and her conflicting reactions, are barely considered. The only other performance of any significance is that of Jack Webb in the subplot.

In Miss Wright’s reduced role lies a story, a parable that illumi­nates our own morality tale con­cerning the real or imagined battle between Art and Com­merce. Miss Wright, according to a confession she made several years ago, was tired of the way her career was going at Para­mount, and agreed to take a sala­ry cut to do “The Men” because it promised to be a worthwhile proj­ect. After shooting several scenes in which she is courted by a man in love with her and tempted to divorce her difficult husband, she complained to the director and producer that the actor was utterly untalented and impossible to work with. They more or less agreed, but informed her that he was the son of the man who was financing the picture and there­fore a non-negotiable condition of the picture. Filming continued with the newcomer and the picture was completed, but he made such a poor showing that all of his scenes had to be cut in order to release the film, with the result that Teresa Wright’s part was vir­tually cut in half. In the name of art, she became a reflector of Brando’s misery rather than a human being with decisions to make, and a life and alternatives or her own.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” came out in 1951, with the same director (Elia Kazan) and the same cast — Brando, Karl Malden, Kim Hunter — as the Broadway play, except with Vivien Leigh playing the Jessica Tandy part. The only important change — an unfortunate but no doubt neces­sary concession to Production Code morality — was the punitive unhappy ending in which Stella and Stanley are forced to sepa­rate.

Blanche and Stanley, the perfervid creations of a homosexual playwright writing in a period of repression, look outrageous today — several successful productions of the play notwithstanding. Sex­ually speaking the ’50s were a time of too much and too little, homosexuals halfway out of the closet, baroque fantasies masquerading as realism. Even then, the realism of “Streetcar” did not lie in the sex or psychology of the characters but in a basic tribal struggle, a competition among in-laws, as Mary McCarthy sug­gested when she dubbed the play, which she called a comic epic, “The Struggle for the Bathroom.” (Not that the humor was uninten­tional, and this is what we give Williams too little credit for, perhaps because he himself has denied it in his Neil Simonish de­termination to be profound.) The idea governing the in-law in­terpretation is to concentrate on the domestic territorial imperative — to see Blanche as the Older Sister (or, metaphorically, the Widowed Mother) who disap­proves of her relative’s marriage and at the same time resents her happiness. She is the archetypal threat to marriage (a role that can also encompass the “homo­sexual experience from Stanley’s past”), and as instinctively as she is bent on destroying Stanley (and as instinctively as Stella is intimi­dated into deferring to her own blood) Stanley is bent on saving himself — hence the justification of his cruelty to Blanche.

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But just as Blanche’s plantation fantasies keep intruding on the senses like cheap incense, so Williams’s homosexual distor­tions keep impinging on the au­thenticity of the domestic melo­drama. They are all close to caricature: Stanley, an “ethnic” before his time who doesn’t really belong in this environment to begin with and is obviously a homosexual pin-up, a male sex object, while Blanche’s pinched-­but-sensitive spinster is the traditional cover for the aging homo­sexual. The endlessly-glorified “animal” relationship of Stanley and Stella is the ideal of a homosexual view of the world in which sex occupies the supreme, central place. The difference between Henry James and Ten­nessee Williams, two writers with a “feminine sensibility” who identify with women  (aside, but ­ perhaps not separate, from the difference between a greater and a lesser talent), is that for James the mind and spirit are supreme (and in this he is truer to the na­ture of women) while for Wil­liams, sex is uppermost and thus he is untrue to the women with whom he identifies.

Williams pours himself indis­criminately into all the charac­ters, and contradictions naturally arise: Blanche is a self-deluded, thoroughly disruptive force (cut off from her “animal nature”) until suddenly she redeems her­self by becoming the votary of art. Stanley is a slob, and yet he has a feminine intelligence, nerve ends that are as delicate and acute as Blanche’s own.

And yet, Brando and Leigh manage to bring it off. They make us accept these characters, be­come involved with them, even as we realize their essential ho­kiness. They deemphasize the contradictions by establishing a magic circle of their own, an equi. librium created not out of the nat­uralism, the “reality” they bring to the parts but, on the contrary, out of the equal degrees of unreality they both possess. To a far greater degree than Magnani (which may have been one reason why he didn’t want to play with her), Brando and Leigh are creatures of fantasy. Kazan knew in­stinctively how to deal with this, how to channel their larger-than-­life voltage into something at once mystical and pseudo-real, and to turn contradictions into paradox. Who else could get away with the scene in which Brando, as elemental beer-drinking male, wails for his woman at the bottom of the stairs as Kim Hunter descends!

As Stanley, Brando was the American counterpart of the pro­letarian Angry Young Man in British kitchen-sink drama. His violence and destructiveness are ­both terrifying and curiously liberating. If he is cruel to Blanche, it is because the only way he can preserve his integrity in an emasculating situation is by never conceding an inch to her, by never participating, with so much as a gallant gesture, in the rituals of a social code by which she will always retain the upper hand. And reciprocally, as the angel of sensibility, she “gets to” him, shakes his male complacency and brings out the feminine side of his nature.

6 of 9-part Village Voice profile of Marlon Brando from 1973 by Molly Haskell

Part 6: Martyr and Primal Antagonist
August 9, 1973

As a brute male, the virtue Brando made of his vocal limita­tion was to make his voice vir­tually disappear. Until “The Last Tango,” or unless cloaked in the disguise of period, rank, or na­tionality, Brando never played a normal, articulate, educated American male. In “Viva Za­pata!” (1952), the Elia Kazan­-John Steinbeck version of the Mexican Indian who led the revolts of 1910-1919. Brando sim­ply epitomized Zapata’s legen­dary charisma with his own. To Brando’s natural magnetism Kazan added his own inventive touches, giving Zapata a behav­ioral immediacy that had its elec­trifying moments but was no sub­stitute for characterization, and only further confused the political issues involved.

Howard Hawks, who had treated Zapata’s northern coun­terpart in “Viva Villa!” (which he partially directed before Jack Conway took over), complained that Kazan’s film sentimentalized the leader of the people who was, in fact, a ruthless killer. In the socially-conscious, romantic lib­eral tradition, Kazan and Stein­beck exploit the legend of Zapata to make their own Stalin-Trotsky parable about the corruption of the revolutionary ideal, according to which the leader turns into a tyrant and thus into the very thing he is lighting against. The refusal to see the corruption as inherent in the very nature of the ideal, is underscored in having Brando­ — the ultimate romantic ego — play him. The parallel contradictions are striking; as the star, the supreme existential hero, carves out his own destiny, so the charis­matic revolutionary leader — the “man on the while horse” — is elevated by his exceptional qua­lities into a denial of that collec­tive identity to which he claims anonymous part. Zapata, like Brando, is a man above men. Each dies (Zapata as a martyr. Brando as an actor) so the myth may live and because, his moment of glory gained, he has no place to go.

Here we have the opportunity to see Brando with two different kinds of actors, Anthony Quinn and Joseph Wiseman. Quinn, who won a Best Supporting Actor award as Zapata’s older brother, struck many observers at the time as a subtler actor than Brando. Wiseman who, like Quinn and Brando, had made his reputation in the theatre, gave the most unusual performance as the intellectual revolutionary which he played with a relentless hys­teria. Jean Peters, giving to Zapata’s sweetheart-turned-wife a cool, repressed dignity that was a change from the usual south-of­-the-border spitfire types, got perhaps less credit than she deserved.

On the whole, the production suffered from the patronizing air of good intentions, and even Pauline Kael, Brando’s supporter in some of his more questionable projects, wrote of his perform­ance: “in the timeworn actor-­peasant tradition, he screws up his face when he has to think — as if thinking were heavy labor, like hod-carrying,” and ridiculed “the famous, supposedly terribly touching wedding night scene in which Zapata asks Josepha to teach him to read. (To deflower his virgin mind?)”

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Brando was still better off in movies, where he could work around his voice, than in the theatre where his defect would eventually have caught up with him, as he himself obviously realized. The proof is not in the poor Hollywood films he did (as who didn’t?) but in the relatively good ones that should have been better, like the two he did for Joseph Mankiewicz. “Julius Caesar” and “Guys and Dolls” being heavily verbal as befits the films of a director coming out of a screenwriting tradition, reveal his shortcomings. Being no De­mosthenes, Brando could hardly turn himself into the eloquent Anthony or the glib Sky Mas­terson, and not all the Brando charm, concealing a multitude of evils, could create the illusion of tongue-tripping eloquence.

Not that Brando couldn’t hold one’s attention along with the best of them. Alongside John Gielgud’s excellently cunning Cassius and James Mason’s probing Brutus, Edmond O’Brien’s oily Casca and Louis Calhern’s unctuous Caesar, Brando was a taut, athle­tic Anthony. Indeed, Roland Barthes found him the only i­conographically plausible member of the cast. In one of his famous “Mythologies,” ignoring the British provenance of much of the cast, he wrote that a French audience found ludicrous the “combination of the morphologies of these gangster-sheriffs with the little Roman fringe.” Except for Brando’s Anthony, where the fringe was “combed on the only naturally Latin forehead in the film,” it was a clear case of sign falling into that condemned no­-man’s land of myth (in the pejora­tive sense in which Barthes uses the term) between the abstract and the authentically-created of-­the-moment.

Mankiewicz encouraged Brando to develop physical ges­tures — the hand covering the face, the eyes peering between the fingers — that would suggest duplicity in an almost stylized way. But the rabble-rousing speech over Caesar’s body lacked the oratorical fire to bring people to their feel. At least, so most crit­ics felt. Others, like Bosley Crowther, found that his diction “which has been guttural and slurred in previous films, is clear and precise in this instance. In him a major talent has emerged.” If they could have seen into the fu­ture, critics might have said that a great talent had already emerged and was about to go under.

Brando’s projects were often paved with good intentions that, for better or worse (probably the former), under pressure of common- or dollars-and-cents, would evaporate. Of “The Wild One” (1954), the story, based on a true account in Life Magazine of a gang or motorcyclists who terrorize a small Midwestern town. Brando would later state: “That film was a failure. We started out to do something very worthwhile, to explain the psychology of the hipster. But somewhere along the way we went off the track. The result was that instead of finding why young people tend to bunch into groups that seek expression in violence, all that we did was show the violence.”

Whether or not any redeeming social or artistic value can be claimed for Laslo Benedek’s film, it remains one of the three or four landmarks of Brando’s career and contains his most mythic per­formance. In Johnny, the original rebel without a cause, everything comes together — the boy and the man, the stud and the poet, the lion and the lamb. In this comical, touching and unconsciously sexy performance, Brando initialed more nice little high school girls of the ’50s into the mystery of the “turn-on” than such overtly erot­ic successors, Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger.

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It is ironic to think that “The Wild One” was considered a dan­gerously violent film when it ap­peared. Compared to later motor­cycle films, and in the context of the escalated violence of the Hell’s Angels at Altamont, Brando and his fire-breathing, zoom-zooming cronies look like Archie and Jughead and Reggie at the corner drugstore. The real violence in “The Wild One” is not in the prankster antics of the gang, but in Brando, in the wrench of established social val­ues that occurs when, from the noise and smoke, there suddenly emerges this Orphic presence.

Made in 1954, the film epito­mizes that screeching neuro­ticism beneath the placid ’50s surface that convulsed the films of Aldrich and Ray. It begins with the ear-splitting noise of motors and mufflers on the soundtrack. Over the highway, a “warning” appears (thus justifying the violence in advance) that the incidents depicted are based on a true story and represent imminent danger to all communities of right-thinking Americans.

Then Brando’s voice comes on — soft, high, young slightly tru­culent — setting the scene in a pro­logue that is really an epilogue, a retrospective glance. “This is where it begins for me, right on this road … ”

The pack comes into view with Johnny in the lead. They stop, alight, and walk across the highway in the middle of a race. Brando saunters while the others (the distinction is important) swagger. He looks younger than we remember him, yet never as young as he ought to look: he has sideburns; he is wearing the leather jacket that will become emblematic in “The Fugitive Kind”; his cap is cocked, his mouth slightly open in a smile. Having disrupted the race, he im­mediately gets into an altercation with a cop. We feel here a primal antagonism, a fight that has been fought before and will be fought ­again. The cop is on his way to becoming a “pig.” As the semi-outlaw Johnny, at odds with conventional society yet not quite in stride with the macho bluff of the gang, Brando is the true anti-hero (that is, the protagonist who makes the word “anti” heroic), the spirit of the ’60s ahead of his time.

He is intensely physical, strong, sensual. and yet there is, in his stillness, the hesitation of a troubled soul. He watches like no-body else watches, and behind the glare is a mind that knows more than it will ever, can ever utter. This is a man who will never articulate the right, and gripes of a man because he is too busy embodying them, the way he twists a chair playfully or holds a coffee cup by the bowl instead of the handle — at his (and the Method’s) best, inventing the sign, in a manner Barthes would approve, as a unique, organic, once-only expression of a composite emotion.

Where the wounds of an actor like James Dean are open and gaping, Brando’s are hidden — ­only not so deep that he ever for a moment forgets them: “My old man could hit harder than that,” he says, providing Johnny’s (or ­his ?) psycho-history in a nutshell. The wounds lie beneath several fairly transparent layers of defenses. In “The Wild One” the facade is composed of ’50s jive parlance, hipster swagger, cool cover, the contempt for the ­square. But with Brando-Johnny, this is more than just a defense mechanism — he is rebelling against both the constraints and the Mickey Mouse pleasures teenagers (how quaint the word sounds) in straight society. When Mary Murphy asks him where they are going on their date, if he is going to take her on a picnic, he scoffs at so tame and limiting an idea.

“Man, we just gonna go,” he says. “You don’t go any one special place, you just go!”

And later, when one of the girls in the bar asks him what he’s rebelling against. as a “Black Rebel.” he replies with the memo­rable, all-embracing question, “Whaddya got?”

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The hoodlum stands as a threat to the ideals of normal society. When Johnny gets in a fight with his rival buddy, played with grand exuberance by Lee Marvin, their only casualty is  the plate glass window of a bridal shop — and the bride and groom mannequins standing in it.

“I don’t get you,” says the state patrolman who has been summoned after a death with which Johnny has been framed, to prevent a lynching, “I don’t get your act at all.”

He makes the man nervous, while he in turn, just wishes they would get off his back. He expresses the reasonless rebellion of adolescence, the irritation you used to reel as a teenager, when your mother called and intermediately you in the midst of some activity, for it quickly shook you from your illusion of omnipotence with a reminder of your dependency.

Emotionally, the cards are stacked in Johnny’s favor. The people of the town — a kind of allegorical Everytown USA, like the one in “High Noon” — are such an unprepossessing assortment of irascible old men, idiots, antiques, and rigid law-and-order men (with Robert Keith as the torn-down-the-middle lily-livered liberal), that no one would be blamed for taking the first bus, bicycle, stagecoach, car or sea­plane out of there, how ever many bodies were strewn in one’s wake.

Most insidious is the girl, whose apparent sweetness masks the prim, possessive morality of a social decoy. If he stuck around, she would make every effort to remodel him. Just as he prefigures the anti-heroes on the run of the ’60s, she, being in league with society and the “older gener­ation,” is the ’60s woman as arch-enemy. In the tradition of the American action film, the Brando genre film (and apparently the continuing tradition of the intellectual-macho novel), the rela­tionships between the men­ — Brando and Quinn in “Viva Zapata!” Brando and Marvin in “The Wild One,” even Brando and Steiger in “On the Waterfront” — are more vivid and important than the relationships with the women Bosley Crowther could complain, with some justice, that both “Viva Zapata!” and “The Wild One” go soft when love interest enters the picture. A revealing double-entendre, that, when a phrase signifying a tendency towards the feminine, emotional side also means to go mushy, weak in the head, inferior.

7 of 9-part Village Voice profile of Marlon Brando from 1973 by Molly Haskell

Part 7: Striking Out From Hoboken
August 30, 1973

Outside of Stanley Kowalski, the two roles that we now think of as “pure Brando” are Johnny in “The Wild One” and Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront.” Both cap­italize on that contradiction — between the prize fighter’s body and the face of the poet — that is Brando’s greatest fascination. The two extremes, animal and saint, co-exist, in tension and in resolution, one tran­substantiated into the other without losing its original iden­tity. As a magical eucharistic fig­ure, Brando also performs that essential function of all theatrical art (not just the Hollywood variety) of allowing us to have our cake and eat it too. (This is theatre’s seductive property, the false and “corrupting” influence that moralists such as Rousseau have traditionally inveighed against.) Through the social and intellectual extremes that Brando holds in equipoise, we experience, vicariously, and simultaneously, aspects of personality that gener­ally present themselves as sequential, or mutually exclusive, in life.

Terry Malloy, the would-be con­tender, a battlefield of suffering and aspiration, enables us to ex­perience inarticulateness as poetry, to live the history of the human race in transition from primeval slime to pure aware­ness, without the intermediate price of alienation. In reality, a longshoreman with Terry’s sensi­tivity would most likely get edu­cated, write poetry or polemics, espouse the cause of his people, while trying to recall the taste of poverty and the feel of rough edges which vanish forever in the act of trying. Terry/Brando allows us to regain our lost para­dise, to indulge the nostalgia for the mud of our undifferentiated innocence, without paying the price of experience: fragmenta­tion and self-consciousness.

But of course, the price must be paid, and it is Brando who will pay it. The searing emotional nakedness he gives us is as depen­dent upon youth as a sex kitten’s appeal is upon her not turning into a cat. Brando’s vulnerability is as mutable a commodity as a sex star’s figure and a model’s smooth skin. “On the Waterfront,” in 1954, was the last film to contain, undiluted, this particular essence of Brando.

Directed by Kazan from a Budd Schulberg screenplay, the film, in its use of real locations and in the proletarian concerns of its story, was as much a reaction against traditional (i.e., Hollywood) cin­ema as Brando’s dredged-from­-the-depths performance was against classical acting. But realism being the most relative and value-loaded of terms, the fact that Brando’s performance stands up so much better than the film suggests how much artifice, or at least art (with its hidden preservatives), went into it. The use of real locations in Hoboken and along the Jersey dock only points up the theatricality of the script and its view of labor relations that even critics of the time who welcomed socially-conscious subjects found too superficial. We are in the land of the Mani­chaeans, with the bad guys — Lee J. Cobb’s venal labor leader, in a role similar to the one Brando would be playing 20 years later in “The Godfather” (a connection Andrew Sarris made in reviewing the latter film when he said it was a role that Lee J. Cobb could play with his eyes closed), and Rod Steiger’s crooked older brother; and the good guys: the union members, Karl Maiden’s mau­dlin priest, and Eva Marie Saint’s virgin princess. Terry Malloy, a more complex charac­ter than his good and bad angels, is nevertheless more victim than agent in the tug-o-war between conscience and expediency. Having already lost the initiative (“I coulda been somebody”), his destiny is to suffer, and suffer he does, voluptuously. His tendency to martyrdom (what one critic called a Saint Sebastian complex) is most lavishly gratified in this film, from his childhood story of being slapped by the sisters, to actual and emotional beatings he takes. to his spiritual identification with Edie Doyle’s saintli­ness. But the masochism is kept in check by the pugilism of the punk. He is still a fighter, and if he can turn a rooftop, a table in a bar, the corner of a vacant lot, into an altar of communion, he can turn a bar or a domestic sanctuary into a bloody battleground.

The film is memorable not just for Brando’s performance, but for those of Steiger and Saint, both of whom were making their film debuts. As the older brother, Steiger gave what may well be the performance of his career, culminating in the justly-famous taxi scene with Brando. Here, in a remarkable display of mutuality, the two actors convey the ambiguous rapport of brothers; the margin between them narrows, in the thickness of blood: there is a mingling and then a divergence as their distinctly different na­tures reassert themselves.

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The relationship with Saint is one of those incredible fragile-yet­-physical encounters that Kazan does so well-a rapport that derives its beauty from what is not. done, rather than what is done, just as the power of the in­timacy between Barbara bel Geddes and Richard Widmark in “Panic in the Streets” comes from their not touching.

In retrospect, 1954 seems to have been a turning point in Brando’s career. He suffered privately (it was the year of his mother’s death) as he enjoyed his greatest public triumphs. He dropped the Stanley pose and became a nice guy long enough to win — and pick up — the Oscar for “On the Waterfront.” He and the industry were on speaking terms, but only briefly, for they were out to get him now. He got caught in an old-fashioned contract bind (he fled the set of “The Egyptian” and had to agree to do “Desiree” to fulfill his contract with Fox), and took the hard line that was to characterize his attitude from then on. In an eat-or-be-eaten situ­ation, it was probably his only al­ternative, but the timing was bad. because the industry was losing its teeth. Stranglehold contracts and even those historical dinosaur epics were on their way out.

The role of Napoleon in the lav­ish Cinemascope joke directed by Henry Koster (from a screenplay by Daniel Tarradash) was proba­bly the all-time low of Brando’s career. But if this sentimental but sentiment-less reconstruction of the Napoleon-Desiree romance did little for either Brando or Jean Simmons, there may be some consolation in knowing it did even less for Merle Oberon as the Empress Josephine.

Brando’s Napoleon, a kind of dry run for Fletcher Christian, was followed a year later by an unexpectedly charming Sky Mas­terson in “Guys and Dolls.” There was much excitement and breath­holding over the announcement that Brando would sing his own songs. If the voice that emerged was not quite the Met tenor promised by Sam Goldwyn, it was quite endearingly Brando’s own —  high-pitched, unmellifluous, and enchanting. He had more trouble with the shooting-from-the-hip di­alogue of the Damon Runyan character, to which Mankiewicz had inexplicably added additional dialogue. It was a part that Rob­ert Alda had filled effortlessly on the stage. But if Brando was not quite the glib Lindy’s night-owl born (and if he was the antithesis of the addictive gambler type), he brought something else to the role: a kind of sweet, heavy comic seriousness (particularly in his scenes with Jean Simmons as the Salvation Army muse) and a selflessness that make it a favor­ite among many (largely, I think, among those who are not regular Brando admirers).

If the role of Sky Masterson was a change of pace, the role of Sakini, the Japanese interpreter in “Teahouse of the August Moon,” was a veritable disap­pearing act. With a set of false teeth, darkened skin, and squinty, darting eyes, he created a broadly artificial impersonation and set the style of his character portray­als for the years to come. Where the more nondescript David Wayne had slipped (in the stage version) into the skin of Sakini with little ado, and from this base, developed a reserve of feeling, Brando had a longer distance to cover to get to Sakini (and to suppress his own ego), and had concomitantly less energy left over, when he got there, to express feeling. He used his ex­pert mimic’s voice to catch the tonalities timbre of Sakini, but he could never efface himself, Japa­nese style. You couldn’t take your eyes on Brando, it was as if you were wailing for a time bomb to explode, and the contrast between Brando’s exoticism and Glenn Ford’s naturalism made them seem like characters from two different movies.

This sudden attack on his roles from the outside, the stylized artificiality, may have been an at­tempt to get away from the strain and drain of the Method, and an unconscious admission that one could not go on “using” one’s interior forever. Although the role of Major Gruver in ”Sayonara” (1957) was a relatively straight, leading-actor part, Brando devel­oped a Southern accent for the oc­casion, thereby creating an emo­tional distance between him and the character. Audiences laughed when they first heard the sound of it, but presumably they adjusted soon enough because this film, directed by Joshua Logan from the Michener novel, was a huge commercial success. Red Buttons and Miyshi Umeki won Supporting Actor Oscars for their perfor­mances, and as the Air Force officer in Japan, Brando has one moment that would have to be included in any compilation of Brando scenes: it occurs when he walks in and discovers Buttons and Miyoshi dead as the result of a double suicide, and he merely stands there and then kneels slowly, expressionless. Instead of reacting or crying out, he simply looks at his buddy, allotting the emotion to well up and overtake him before he acts it out.

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Although none of these roles was in any way damaging to his career, Brando could hardly take personal credit for the success of the films themselves. They were audience “naturals” — big, blowsy, panoramic spectacles — a category into which “The Young Lions,” despite the literary pre­tensions of its source (the Irwin Shaw novel), squeezed without much trouble.

As Christian Diestl, the Nazi, of­ficer disillusioned by war, Brando caught the external attributes and aura to perfection: from the blond hair and stiff formality to the resigned Weltschmerz. But once again he extended himself so far in establishing the “Germanness” of the character (the kind of character that Maximillian Schell could, and almost did, play in his sleep) that there was little time left for emotional coloration. And yet the very hamminess of the performance makes it one of those near-camp gems beloved of Brandomanes. Who can resist the strutting star, struggling unsuccessfully to disguise himself; or the pleasure of seeing him play with, and against, the inimitably relaxed Dean Martin, and the fascinatingly impenetrable Montgomery Clift?

“The Fugitive Kind” (1960) was based on Tennessee Williams’s “Orpheus Descending.” which was written — or re-written (it was an expansion of “Battle of August,” Williams’s first full-­length play) — for Brando and Magnani, but was done on the stage by Cliff Robertson and Maureen Stapleton.

In the movie directed by Sidney Lumet, Brando plays a wandering minstrel, an itinerant guitar-player (the movie’s best scene is the first, in which in a halting, dreamy monologue. he explains his way of life to a judge) who arrives in a small town and catalyzes it into sexual chaos. The setting is even more symbolical than usual for a Williams work. Between the moment the fire is lit and the actual conflagration (when Magnani’s finally realized dream. the wine garden, burns down with her in it), Brando causes the regeneration of one woman (Magnani’s storekeeper) and the initiation into love of another (Joanne Woodward as the town wild girl).

If we feel a clash between two modes of realism, Magnani’s and Brando’s, it is a reflection not just of the two actors’ differences, but of the dialectic within Williams’s work, a redeeming (if also realistically damaging) tendency to donate the pomposity of his own conceits. On the one hand. Brando is the mythic stud; on the other, his innocence, his putative ignorance of the effect he causes, is a pose. Though she is no better able to resist him as a consequence, Magnani sees through it. She gives him and his snakeskin jacket such a look (the same look she gave Lancaster when he showed up with his tattoo; the same look she gave Fellini before she disappeared into the privacy of her home in “Fellini-Roma”) that says, Oh come off it, who are you trying to kid? With Brando, whose game is sincerity, this ap­proach is particularly dangerous. But he survives, as he survives other assaults of realism or comedy or his illusion, possibly because, in always withholding something (unlike Magnani, who gives everything) he suggests that he already knows your objections, has anticipated them himself, even regards himself with some detachment. Even in his early, genuinely youthful roles, where there was little of this detach­ment, there was always some­thing held in reserve. Brando may tie himself in knots for a role, but he will never beg for love. He will never grovel, not for a woman, not for a man, not for an audience; and so we usually come crawling to him.

8 of 9-part Village Voice profile of Marlon Brando from 1973 by Molly Haskell

Part 8: Bandit, Mutineer, and “Prevert”
September 6, 1973

For anyone who still had the illusion that Brando was either a realistic actor or a committed ideologue, “One-Eyed Jack,” which he both starred in and directed, came along in 1961 to dispel both ideas. One of the most romantic and un-western west­erns ever made, it was shot against the sea and was studiedly picturesque in its ef feels. As an American bandit in Mexico, out to avenge his buddy (Karl Malden) who has betrayed him, Brando has the fastest draw and the slowest drawl in the West. One has only to try and imagine him fulfilling the most routine func­tions in a Ford or Hawks western to sense the gap between him and the orthodox action hero, or un­derstand why he never worked under those directors. Nor is Rio Kid a relative under the skin of the Third World heroes Brando played elsewhere, and despite the presence of a South-of-the-border heroine (Pina Pellicer) and the usual assortment of Mexican extras “One-Eyed Jacks” is about as political as “West Side Story.” But if it was neither a western nor an anti-western, it was an interesting in-between,  and the high level of ensemble  acting suggests that Brando would have been better off directing his own movies.

The over-publicized “Mutiny on the Bounty” seemed in 1962 to be the last heave of a sinking ship that threatened to bring everyone down with it. Although, as it turned out, there were more last gasps to come from Hollywood in the years ahead than spasms in an Elizabethan death scene, this one really was the most damaging  in terms of a single career — Brando’s. He was blamed for every delay and misdemeanor in a project that had never been thought through to begin with; that was launched on the high seas without a shooting script; that went through two official directors (Milestone and Reed) and god knows how many unof­ficial ones; that brought together, in a demonic stroke of casting, the three biggest hell-raisers of the English stage as ship’s officers: Trevor Howard, Hugh Griffith, and Richard Harris.

Despite the rumors and reports, nothing quite prepared us for Brando’s Fletcher Christian, the dandified English officer, first mate of the ship and leader of the mutineers. With his whiny pseudo-upper-class accent and foppish gestures, he seemed more the stuff of sabotage than sedi­tion. On one take, he got into a brawl with Richard Harris and lashed out at him with a hand as limp as a fly-swatter. And yet he is never less than compelling through three turbulent hours of screen time, from pre-mutiny orgies in Tahiti to the post-mutiny “crucifixion” of Fletcher Chris­tian-Saint Sebastian or Pitcairn Island. But for the difficulties he undoubtedly caused on the set, coupled with the consequences of certain side trips to Tahiti, he was branded from then on as “un­touchable.”

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Extending by the length of a pipe his repertory of upper-class exotics, in “The Ugly American” (1963) Brando played the Ameri­can ambassador to an unspecified Southeast-Asian country who nai­vely precipitates a revolution. Emerging as a cross between Fletcher Cbristian and Major Gruver, Harrison Carter MacWhite is “ugly” through the dis­colorations of prolonged in­nocence rather than any vicious design. Stewart Stern’s screen­play fudges over most of the issues of the Burdick and Lederer novel, and George Englund’s di­rection does little to sharpen them. Indeed, the only real inter­est in the film is the politics of what Andrew Sarris called “Lower Brandovia.” The entire production, Sarris maintained, was “designed to make Brando the center of attention of all times. Sandra Church (“Gypsy”) comes out on the screen in the col­orless tradition of Julie Adams  and Virginia Leith. Brando could steal a scene from her by simply breathing, but no, he has to practice a few additional gestures to render her more invisible.” Finding that Arthur Hill and Eiji Okada were also inordinately overshadowed by Brando, Sarris wondered why Brando never played with people who were his equals, either in talent or (to in­sure his investment) box-office appeal. This, of course, is the typi­cal but misguided instinct of the insecure person, to surround him­self with his inferiors. like two girl roommates (in the old days when women did such things) inviting only men to their parties. It didn’t work, in either case. Probably one reason Brando looked even better than he deserved in “The God­father” was that he was set off by a brilliant cast.

“Bedtime Story” (1964) was Brando’s first, and only, attempt at farce. There were some loyal Brandophiles like Stanley Kauffmann who made noble efforts to defend it, and Bosley Crowther called Brando a “first-rate far­ceur,” but the consensus was that light comedy was not Brando’s hidden talent. As a con-man recently arrived on the Riviera, Brando challenges the current reigning ladies man, a bogus prince played by David Niven. Their running battle issues in one funny and rather significant scene, in the midst of a skirmish over the hand and fortune of the American “soap queen” played by Shirley Jones. Having won her sympathy with the story that he is paralyzed from the waist down. Brando and Miss Jones are sitting in her suite when David Niven enters. Upon hearing the story his rival is peddling, he takes his cane and whacks him one on the legs. There is a resounding crash, but not a muscle twitches in the broad smile on Brando’s face. Perhaps (for here is the screen’s great masochist) it even deepens — inwardly. Brando’s unflinching submission to physical assault is the comic equivalent of the scene in “One-Eyed Jacks” where his hands are beaten and he refuses to cry out.

“Morituri” (1965) was one of those revisionist spy melodramas that came along in the ‘6os, reversing the usual good-guy/bad-guy roles, and blaming America for World War II. Nei­ther Brando nor a last-minute change of title from “Morituri” to “Saboteur-Code Name: Morituri” could save the film at the box office. The failures of “The Chase,” and they were monumental, were none of them Brando’ fault. It may have begun with a workable script by Lillian Hellman, but by the time she, Horton Foote, pro­ducer Sam Spiegel, and director Arthur Penn got through with it, this overstuffed anti-Southern al­legory was more bigoted than the people it satirized, for once. Brando, as the sheriff of a small Texas town, was surrounded by interesting actors, but little good it did him or the picture. A blend of “Peyton Place” and “High Noon,” the movie concerns the ef­forts of a liberal sheriff (and what’s an ACLU champion doing in a place like this, and how did he get elected?) to prevent the lynching of a fugitive convict (Robert Redford) on his way back to join his wife (Jane Fonda). Leading the bloodthirsty pack are E.G. Marshall as the local oil baron, James Fox as his son, and Janice Rule as the sexually­ insatiable and socially-ambitious wife. Once again, there is the mandatory beat-Brando scene, as the sheriff is assaulted, almost killed, by some of the men in the town.

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We’ve come a long way in the intervening how-many-New ­Yorkers-bus-their children-to-racially-mixed-schools? decade. And we can’t use the South as a whipping boy with quite the impu­nity we once did. Ironically, in recent movies set in the Southern backwoods, the only pure villain, the only guy we can hate with pure, delicious hate, is the red­neck sheriff — a stereotype that is confirmed with unsettling frequency on the evening news. Chastened, maybe we can enjoy  “The Chase” for Brando’s won­derful one-liners, but as a morali­ty tale that exploits its “white trash” for their sensa­tional elements, the film is not too far from the rubbish heap that is its proudest conceit.

While directing “The Appa­loosa” (1966), an arty western about a cowboy hunting down the ranchero (John Saxon) who has stolen tis treasured horse, Sidney J. Furie and Brando reportedly almost, came to blows. Furie yelled at Brando that he was “no­thing but a middle-aged character actor,” but it is to Brando we owe what life there is in a film that al­most suffocates in visual atmo­sphere. The journey to the moment of truth, where Good and Evil fight it out silhouetted against snow-capped mountains, is an actionless trek protracted through endless landscape shots and tortured camera angles. Brando finally retrieves his horse and, as second prize, gets Saxon’s wife, played by Anjanette Comer.

“The Countess from Hong Kong,” Chaplin’s 1967 comedy with Brando and Sophia Loren, was shot down by the critics as if it were a live rattlesnake, or an attack on their honor. Chaplin was 83, he belonged to another era, and he was making a film that was as alien to current fash­ion as a waltz or a valentine but one which will probably be revived and admired when the prize-winners of that year (“In the Heat of the Night” at least) have been forgotten. Loren, as Chaplin’s surrogate “tramp,” had the central role, but Brando, out of an admiration for the great man and a commendable desire to work with him, executed his part in as graceful and compliant a manner as he could.

“Reflections in a Golden Eye” was one of the more interesting not-quite-successes of Brando’s ­and John Huston’s career. As the homosexual officer in the film made from the Carson Mccullers novel, Brando’s haunting per­formance stays in the memory like the eerie just — before the ­storm color scheme of the film. Major Weldon Pendleton is but one “deviated prevert” in the quadrangle of misfits on an army in the ’50s. The others include Pendleton’s horse-and-sex loving wife (and you can guess which facet interests Huston most, played by Elizabeth Taylor, Brian Keith as her lover and the only  “straight,” Julie Harris as Alison, his fey neurotic wife, and Zorro David as her shrewd, devoted Fil­ipino houseboy. Robert Forster plays the young soldier who arouses the officer’s latent pas­sion and is finally murdered by him. Huston seems curiously at­tuned to the strangulated atmo­sphere of this world, an anti-romantic limbo to which he gives a refracted, faraway feeling. It is an island of lost souls, a colony within a colony (the army base) that is itself going through the motions of imperialist command with the futility that marks the all-American enterprises (burgla­ry and espionage) of Huston’s other films. Brando’s major is the perfect emblem of this world, a military man without imagination or tolerance who is suddenly rent by the forces of darkness and chaos for which his life made no allowance. Brando is brilliant, a figure of comic pathos, as he preens before the mirror and follows his love object, his dignity a ludicrous shell that can neither disguise, nor defend him against, the passion that must destroy him.

9 of 9-part Village Voice profile of Marlon Brando from 1973 by Molly Haskell

Part 9: Taking the Rap for the Rest of Us
September 26, 1973

Our popular gods and god­desses, like their Olympian forebears, are our link with eternity. But where they were immortal, ours are mortal, and are doomed to a meteorically short career by the very nature of their-function. They are founded on impossi­bilities, on mutually exclusive characteristics — Garbo on sex and romance; Monroe on sex and innocence; Jack Kennedy on ide­alism and power; Brando, the consummate expression of the failure to communicate — and they are not permitted to change or grow old. They are dead as soon as the jig is up, as soon as we have moved from one cycle to another. For they are often transitional fig­ures: Garbo bridging the explicit passion of silent film with the sublimated feeling of sound; Monroe displaying the burgeoning outline of sexual liberation in the puritanical ’50s. But they are poised precariously atop the bridge, their dual natures uncom­fortable with either extreme. It is others (LBJ as the executor of Kennedy’s testament) who, without ever attaining their magic, carry out the blueprint of their lives.

Other symbols died, got shot, or retired; Brando slipped into self-­parody, went the Tallulah route, crawled into a cocoon of camp, keeping in touch with his fans, until he could emerge reborn with a new persona — the Older Man in “The Godfather” and “The Last Tango in Paris.” There was hardly a role from Terry Malloy up to (some would say including) Don Corleone that couldn’t have been played by almost any other actor. Naturally, Brando gave them something they wouldn’t have had otherwise, a disturbing resonance, or perhaps only a memorable line reading; he was incapable of “walking through” a role. But, like a corpulent man in a frail wicker chair, the addi­tional psychological weight he . brought to bear often drew our at­tention to the thinness of the sur­rounding film

This was not precisely the problem with “Candy” (1968), Christian Marquand’s mis­begotten adaptation of the Terry Southern novel. As the Jewish guru, Brando was not uproari­ously funny, but then he expended the least energy in humor’s behalf. While all around him were flailing away, trying to be madcap in a satire that was more softheaded than soft-core, Brando maintained a lumpen Buddhist cool. He was exempted even from having to rise to the bait of Ewa Aulin’s danish pastry pseudo-innocent Barbie doll, an abstinence that did him no harm.

In “The Night of the Following Day” (1969), Hubert (brother of Bernie) Cornfield attempted, ap­parently, to create a visual at­mosphere analogous to the brooding Brando persona, but the movie was merely a pretentious Melodrama that made little of its plot and less of Brando. As a gangster­-chauffeur outfitted in black from head to gloves, Brando makes surprisingly few appearances, and these are mostly in long shot: silhouetted atop the hill of the seaside hideaway where a kid­napped girl (Pamela Franklin) is being held. There are occasional sparks in the relationship be­tween Brando and the jealous, pill-popping stewardess played by Rita Moreno, possibly because it draws on elements from their real-life association or, in the fight when Brando breaks a bottle and gives it to Moreno to hit him, on reported incidents in the bitter enmity between Brando and Anna Kashfi. And there are moments when we hear the sadder-but­-wiser voice of an older Terry or Johnny, as in his reply, in that whiny, familiar timbre, to Jess Hahn, “There aren’t going to be any rainbows, man.”

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In 1970, Brando got out of his commitment to do “The Arrange­ment” with Kazan on the grounds that he wanted to devote more time to political activities, which presumably covered the making of “Burn!” with Gilio Pontecorvo. Pontecorvo had been responsible, along with screenwriter Franco Solinas, for “The Battle of Al­giers,” the rousing reconstruction of the French-Algerian debacle that was being used as a “teaching tool” for Third World militants. But the much­-publicized conflicts between director and actor (the crew had to move from Cartagena, Co­lombia, to North Africa), sug­gested that perhaps neither was prepared to submerge his identity in the Cause.

Brando plays Sir William Walker, a 19th century British aristocrat and adventurer who is sent to the Portuguese colony of Queimada as an agent provoca­teur to incite what turns out to be a successful revolution against the mother country. This is in the interest of British trade, as the subsequent revolution which he is sent to quell 10 years later is not. He finds himself face to face with the native, Jose Dolores, whom he had trained as a revolutionary 10 years before. Their enmity culmi­nates in Sir William’s burning the lands in an insane, obsessive act of revenge. Once again, the political and collective message is un­dercut by the mythic, existential presence of Brando. He seems to subvert the cycle of historical necessity, or dialectical material­ism, with his own private madness and guilt. There is a double-edged irony in the confron­tation between Brando, the erst­while Zapata, and a real third-worlder, Evaristo Marquez, the Colombian native Pontecorvo “discovered” for the’ part; and conversely, between the real actor and the non-actor. In Marquiz’s failure to convince as an actor, he renders theatrically suspect his claims as a revolutionary leader — which is, ultimate irony, the ultimate “role,” and the manservant (Brando), lavishing a perverse attention on the latter as his evil is trans­ferred, pseudo-Gothic style, to the children. By “liberating” the characters from their repression, Winner destroys their ulterior meaning, their demonic hold on the unconscious. Incidentally, we see more of Brando nude than in “The Last Tango,” and, to fill the sado-masochist quotient, he is killed by the children with an arrow in his forehead.

“The Godfather,” for which Brando won the 1972 Best Actor award, set off a heated debate as to whether this role. which even the actor’s most ardent fans had a hard time fitting into the Leading Actor category, was a stunt or a fully-developed characterization. The rationale was that though Don Corleone occupies relatively little screen time, his presence “fills the film,” much as the influ­ence of the powerful patriarch reigns in the more moderate per­sonalities of the second genera­tion sons and henchmen. And indeed, by suggesting the sweetness as well as the ruth­lessness of the retiring Mafia chieftain, Brando keyed the tone, and the success, of this block- buster film which was to make it on the exploitation of nostalgia for family feeling as much as for its violence.

If there is something unintentionally comic in Brando’s first appearance in his office, with his jaws extended by the size and shape of a sourball, there is some­thing undeniably moving in the scene in the garden with the grandchild, where he reveals his abiding instinct for the inside emotional track (here, in a leap of generations). The ability to sub­merge himself in a child’s world was a quality that Truman Capote had remarked upon in his New Yorker interview years before, when he said that with children Brando completely lost the pa­tronizing air that he automati­cally assumed with adults.

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“The Last Tango in Paris” rep­resents in many ways the climax of Brando’s career — a film in which he seems to have had as large a creative hand as director Bernardo Bertolucci. It is the study of a man actor (Paul Brando) exposing himself and yet not exposing himself, undressing, literally and figura­tively, up to a certain point — and no further. It is the occasion on which the man and the myth come together in an expression of Brando’s true nature, which is the ultimate in concealment and in revelation. For those who held onto Brando as some beacon of emotional truth, some changeless pipeline of integrity, while all other actors were posturing, the film would be a disappointment. (In an aside in its drooling cover story, Time informed us that in the scene of lament over his dead wife’s body, Brando was not transported, but merely reading his lines off a high point on the walls.) It was possible to “see through” the routines of this ranting expatriate, this middle­ aged roue, this consummate actor, and still succumb to him.

Those who cried for more, more! bringing charges of calculation and faintheartedness be­ cause Brando had not removed his pants and entered the arena with Harry Reams, were general­ly the very people who had deplored the lack of imagination, even the erotic dead-end of hard­core pornography. Here, despite artistic lapses and pretensions, was a true turn-on. at least for my money. But my money, and my seeing of the film at its first showing at the New York Film Festival, was not quite the same thing as seeing it in the after­math, once it had become en­meshed in its own coils of publici­ty, a sideshow of hype that would impinge on the sightlines of all subsequent spectators, so that it was almost impossible to see it neutrally. Not that Bertolucci, or Brando, were blameless, for isn’t this sensationalism what both their careers were leading up to? How could the smoldering, sensi­tive Brando go out with less than a bang?

Hence if Brando’s martyrdom, killed by the girl he has initiated into the backwaters and byways of sex, is extreme, even unjustified, in the film’s terms, it is the apotheosis of his career, a convul­sion of all those moments when he was abused, beaten, and accused, unfairly, when he took the rap for the rest of us and loved doing so, because he did it so gracefully. Brando alias Stanley alias Johnny alias Terry alias Paul must be martyred. Brando the lover the idealist the madman the mimic must be polished off. He will be shot, will stagger with all the energy and flamboyance of the ham side of his nature and finally fall from the balcony, but not before sticking his chewing gum under the railing. A touch of corn? or class? You tell me.

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Last Tango in Paris: Redeeming the Sordid — Inevitably

Film being what it is, i. e., canned celluloid, it’s not often that a movie showing becomes an Event — a unique, don’t miss, tonight-only presentation on the order of the one-night stand of a theatrical performer or politician. But due to its prospective problems with Italian censorship, Bernardo Bertolucci’s “THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS,” shown closing night at the New York Film Festival, was just that, and runs the danger of becoming a collector’s item in the audience’s memory. The single just­-completed print was rushed in to the festival, and immediately withdrawn for submission to the Italian censorship board, whose approval it must have to qualify for funds as an Italian production. All very complicated, and whether this affects its release here by its distributor United Ar­tists, remains in some doubt. Even in the relatively lawless and licentious ambience of the New York meat market, where it could certainly open with an X rating, the spectacle of Marlon Brando performing acts that have hith­erto been restricted to the reper­tory of anonymous princes of porno in West Side grind houses, has the power to shock (Alice Tully’s marble pillars are still re­verberating). And the techniques used to lead the young French girl, played by Maria Schneider, from tearful objections to groaning surrender, prove there are still frontiers and inhibitions to conquer, and miles to go before we sleep the dreamless sleep of the totally released!

The combination or Brando, Bertolucci, the Subject and the circumstances of the showing created a natural stir beforehand. Variety reported the scalpers’ price for tickets was $150, but from the looks of the lonely enthu­siasts badgering, pleading for tickets in front of the Hall, I don’t think that kind of money was available on the open market. At any rate, nobody was selling (one-upmanship being priceless in these circles) and if the film had only been half as good, half as sensational or half as erotic, it would have stood the audience on its collective ear. In the lobby afterward there were rumors of walkouts by board members and vomiting by well-dressed wives. Audience reaction varied widely and very much according to gender — in those categories I keep trying to avoid, but which keep forcing themselves on our attention. The gays, as a group, were the most negative; men of heterosexual persuasion (check one to 10) either liked it with “strong reservations” or didn’t like it at all — one notorious ladies’-man-about-town and dabbler in decadence called it “childish” and “rubbish.” Women were either negative, with an undertone of disapproval, or wildly partisan — the group in which I find myself despite previous resistance to both Bertolucci and Brando. Here they conspire magnificently, some­times awkwardly, to create not just a film about an affair, but the affair itself — an affair which we have the option of resisting or ac­cepting on a gut level, and which like most affairs (and unlike most current films) is better experi­enced than written about.

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I don’t intend to speculate on the whys and wherefores of reactions other than my own (and my turned-on sisters’), except to say that in this case reactions by sex are probably justified. Because it is a film about sexual attraction, about an affair “for sex only” (which ultimately disproves its very possibility), about de-­repressing a woman, initiating her into all the low-down lusts and body needs in a relationship that, unlike those in Miller and Lawrence and most eroticists, does as much — perhaps more — ­for the woman as for the man.

Brando, a golden, brawny, will­fully seedy American in a camel-­hair coat with camel-hair hair, picks up — in a manner of not­-speaking — a young French girl, a frizzy haired doll-faced hippie, in an apartment for rent in Passy. They screw standing up as the sun streams onto the dirty rug of the empty apartment, to which they return in the following hours and days for more and different and better and worse of the same. Bertolucci manages the extraordinary feat of making Brando 20 years and many miles from the caricature stud of “A Streetcar Named Desire” seem strange to us. Although the vitality and humor of the Williams-Kazan cre­ation are still there, he seems to be working out his own destiny (and perhaps script) with, ironi­cally, less method virtuosity and more faith in character, in his own and in others. The veils of celebration are less obtrusive, the humor more mordant and spontaneous, the stillnesses more daring. He works with Schneider even when he is deliberately ig­noring her to bring her through the gutter of sexual loathing to the discovery — fatal to him — that the sex principle is as close to Thanatos as to Eros.

Meanwhile we see them, in their lives away from each other, involved in other forms of love and death and comic horror: he with the suicide of his French wife, proprietess of a fleabag hotel which harbors remnants of the Italian cinema like flies on flypaper; she with her boyfriend (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who is making a film of her, which includes a multitude of “hom­mages” to French and American cinema, and particularly re­sembles the way in “Le Petit Soldat” the hero (Michel Subor alias Jean-Luc Godard) circles his beloved, framing her into art, freezing her into the object of his love-creation.

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There is a fine reversal in the contrast between the two men: the paradox that from the country of puritans has come the ultimate lover, while the country of lovers has turned into aesthetes and ob­servers. Leaud idolizes the girl, framing her into an image for posterity; Brando degrades and abuses her, takes her, without a name or identity, in the here and now. Leaud ignores the underside of a woman, the change, and lust and “unspeakable” desires. Brando celebrates these, the en­trails, the viscera, the dark knowledge of human beings turned inside out, like the figures in the Francis Bacon paintings which form (a little too self-cons­ciously) the visual theme of the film. It is only when he has her pinned to the wall, screaming that she will do anything, anything, he asks her, that she realizes —­ perhaps — that he is the one man who hasn’t used her.

But then, one might object, Bertolucci never dares to be real­ly ugly. The romantic is always redeeming the sordid, not sani­tizing it so much as redeeming it. We are always turning from their bodies to look at their faces, to question their feelings. But this is the glory, and the defeat, of the erotic — that it is at its most exquisite just as it is turning into its opposite, the spiritual and romantic. That it happens at a dif­ferent time for these two people is their tragedy.

If we never quite believe the depth of passion called forth from her, Maria Schneider gives a remarkable performance as she moves from a bright, spoiled doll to a distraught woman.

Is it possible to have an affair “for sex only?” the film asks. I have asked it myself. Bertolucci finds, as I found, that the answer is No. It is necessary. But not pos­sible. The person who asks the question has already ack­nowledged that split between mind and body which aspires to a closing of the gap in the mind’s terms. ❖

 

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‘The Godfather’ Reviewed

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It seems that the first question everyone asks about “THE GODFATHER” is concerned with Marlon Brando’s interpretation of the title role. That is the way the movie has been programmed and promoted: Brando, Brando, Brando, and more Brando. The word from advance hush-hush screenings was wow all caps and exclamation point. More exclamation, in fact, than explanation. More than one whisperer intimated that Brando’s make-up (by Dick Smith, the auteur also of Dustin Hoffman’s Shangri-La face-furrows in “Little Big Man”) was so masterful that the Brando we all know and love had disappeared completely beneath it. I must admit that some of the advance hype had gotten to me by the time I sat braced in my seat for the screening of “The Godfather.” I was determined to discern Brando beneath any disguise mere humans could devise.

The picture opened with a face outlined against a splotched blue background with no spatial frame of reference, a background not so much abstract as optically mod with a slow zoom to take us into the milieu by degrees. But that face! I was stunned. How had Brando managed it? The eyes, the ears, the nose, the chin. It didn’t look anything at all like Brando. And the voice was equally shattering in it unfamiliar pitch. I began groping for adjectives like “eerie” and “unearthly.” Gradually the face began to recede into the background, and I heard a familiarly high-pitched voice somewhere in the foreground. I suddenly recalled the plot of the novel and thus I realized that the face looming in front of me did not resemble Brando’s simply because it wasn’t Brando’s. (I learned later that the face and voice in question for the role of Bonasera belonged to a 20th-billed actor named Salvatore Corsitto who gets no points for looking like himself.)

When Brando himself finally materialized on the screen as Don Vito Corleone, I could see it was Brando all the way. There was no mistaking the voice even with the slow-motion throaty whine Brando used to disguise it. Brando’s range has always been more limited by his voice than his Faustian admirers cared to admit. That is why his best roles have always played against the voice by negating it as a mechanism of direct communication. Brando’s greatest moments are thus always out of vocal synch with other performers. Even the famous taxicab scene with Rod Steiger in “On the Waterfront” operates vocally (though not physically or emotionally) as a syncopated Brando soliloquy, a riff on the upper registers of sensitivity and vulnerability resonating all the more in counterpoint to Steiger’s more evenly cadenced street glibness and shrillness. Curiously, Brando has come to embody, often brilliantly, a culturally fashionable mistrust of language as an end in itself. The very mystique of Method Acting presumes the existence of an emotional substratum swirling with fear and suspicion under every line of dialogue. Hence, it is surprising that Brando has not played gangsters more often. The Machiavellian bias of the Method is ideally suited to the ritualized conversations of organized criminals.

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So to answer belatedly the first question everyone asks about “The Godfather”: Brando gives an excellent performance as Don Vito Corleone, a role Lee J. Cobb could have played in his sleep without any special make-up. Brando’s triumph and fascination is less that of an actor of parts than of a star galaxy of myths. Which is to say that he does not so much lose himself in his part as lift his part to his own exalted level as a star personality. The fact remains, however, that though Brando’s star presence dominates every scene in which he appears, the part itself is relatively small, and there are other people who are equally good with considerably less strain, among them the extraordinarily versatile James Caan as the hot-headed, ill-fated Sonny Corleone, Richard Castellano as the jovially gruesome Clemenza, and Robert Duvall as Don Vito Corleone’s non-Italian consigliere, Tom Hagen. Al Pacino as Michael Corleone has much the biggest and most challenging role in the film, and gives the most problematical performance. It is with Pacino’s role that fact and fantasy come most discordantly into conflict. And it is with the characterization of Michael Corleone that both director-scenarist Francis Ford Coppola and novelist-scenarist Mario Puzo seem to drift away from the rigor of the crime genre into the lassitude of an intellectual’s daydream about revenge without remorse and power without accountability.

There were many ways to adapt Puzo’s novel to the screen. (There is no question here of fidelity to a text that was merely the first draft of a screen treatment.) Puzo quotes Balzac no less in a foreword conveying a Brechtian implication: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” Brando claims to have been representing a typically corporate personality from the ruthlessly American capitalistic system. But “The Godfather” as a whole does not sustain this particular interpretation as effectively as did Kurosawa’s “The Bad Sleep Well” some years ago. That is to say that Kurosawa and his scenarists came much closer to conjuring up the quasi-criminal ruthlessness of a conglomerate like ITT than do Coppola, Puzo, and Brando. Coppola’s approach tends to be humanistic, ethnic, and almost grotesquely nostalgic. There is more feeling in the film than we had any right to expect, but also more fuzziness in the development of the narrative. “The Godfather” happens to be one of those movies that can’t stay put on the screen. There are strange ghosts everywhere like Richard Conte’s authentically Italian gangster kingpin Barzini evoking memories of “House of Strangers” and “The Brothers Rico,” and Al Martino as Johnny Fontane (alias Frank Sinatra) reportedly walking off the stage of a New York supper club just before “The Godfather” opened and apparently disappearing into that thick mist of forbidden fictions.

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Part 2: March 23, 1972

“THE GODFATHER” is providing additional ammunition, if indeed any were still needed, for the kill-kill-bang-bang forces in the film industry. No, Virginia, this will not be still another article on violence in the movies. The lines forming for “The Godfather” can speak for themselves. What interests me at the moment is less the apparently insatiable hunger of the masses for homicide than the curiously disdainful attitude affected by the popgunnery purveyors toward their material. Gordon Parks, for example, refers derisively to “Shaft” (and, I suppose, the upcoming son of Shaft) as the kind of popular entertainment he must concoct in order to obtain the opportunity to do more serious work. Since Mr. Parks displays no discernible talent in private-eye melodrama, it is to be hoped that he obtains more “serious” assignments as quickly as possible. Similarly, Francis Ford Coppola has made it abundantly clear that “The Godfather” was undertaken quite consciously as a “compromise” with the commercial realities of the film industry. And now even Mario Puzo is making noises to the effect that “The Godfather” was written merely to provide the freedom and leisure necessary to turn out something comparable to “The Brothers Karamazov.” Tant pis and all that when we recall that there have been at least a score of gangster movies that have been artistically superior to any of the film versions of “Karamazov.”

Not that there is anything new about the Puzo-Coppola brand of voluptuous Faustianism, which might be subtitled: I sold my soul to the devil for filthy lucre and the roar of the crowd, but I still have my eye on the higher things. John Ford was eulogized through the thirties for turning out three commercial flicks like “Wee Willie Winkie” for the moguls in order to pay for any one serious film like “The Informer” for the mandarins. In retrospect, “Wee Willie Winkie” was never all that bad, and “The Informer” was never all that good. But Faustianism has continued to flourish even to this depressed day when Hollywood swimming pools are hard to come by for even the most corruptible radicals. No one seems to have learned the hard lesson of movie history that the throwaway pictures often become the enduring classics whereas the noble projects often survive only as sure-fire cures for insomnia. Not always, of course, but often enough to discourage the once fashionable game of kitsh-as-catch-can.

That “The Godfather” is almost fatally tainted with condescension follows almost logically from the revelation that the Coppola-Puzo second choice for the title role (after Brando) was none other than Sir Laurence Olivier. There’s nothing like a classy performer to get the public’s mind off the questionable cultural credentials of a popular subject. Still, publicity is publicity, and I have no desire to single out Coppola or Puzo for derision. Any artist is vulnerable enough in the journalistic jungle to claim the privilege of saying that he is saving his best for some later project still safely beyond the claws of the snarling critics. Coppola, particularly, has done good work in the past. His first film,”Dementia-13,” is unknown to all but the most dedicated archaeologists of American-International Corman horrifics. Coppola’s official first film, “You’re a Big Boy Now,” was completely eclipsed by Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate.” What I said at the time (in The American Cinema) is still pertinent: “Francis Ford Coppola is probably the first reasonably talented and sensibly adaptable directorial talent to emerge from a university curriculum in filmmaking. ‘You’re A Big Boy Now’ seemed remarkably eclectic even under the circumstances. If the direction of Nichols on ‘The Graduate’ has an edge on Coppola’s for ‘Big Boy,’ it is that Nichols borrows only from good movies whereas Coppola occasionally borrows from bad ones. Curiously, Coppola seems infinitely more merciful to his grotesques than does anything-for-an-effect Nichols. Coppola may be heard from more decisively in the future.”

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Since 1967 Coppola has been heard from with varying degrees of decisiveness in two commercial disasters — “Finian’s Rainbow” and “The Rain People.” Coppola had set up his own studio in the San Francisco area to revolutionize what was left of Hollywood. He sponsored George Lucas’s “THX-1138” and was informally associated with John Korty in what might be called the San Francisco School of lyrical realism and dissonant humanism. “Finian’s Rainbow” was a hopelessly anachronistic project to begin with, a moldy bone to the blacks tossed by self-satisfied liberals of the forties in the mistaken belief that bigotry was confined to that picturesque terrain South of Schubert Alley. Coppola did his best with Petula Clark and the badly miscast Fred Astaire, but the show simply sank into the realistic landscape. Another compromise perhaps? Certainly, Coppola’s heart was more completely committed to “The Rain People,” an itinerant production of uncommon emotional intensity.

I met Coppola at Bucknell when he was making “The Rain People” aboard a land yacht, traveling, as it were, across the real face of America in search of sociological truth with an improvised scenario. I remember being as impressed by Coppola’s intelligence as I was suspicious of his professed intentions. People who go out looking for America always seem to know in advance what they are going to find. Alienation and Anomie, Loneliness and Lethargy, Late Night Whining and Daily Paranoia. Coppola never succeeded in establishing the characterization of Shirley Knight’s wandering wife, and thus his narrative drifted without a psychological rudder. Still, the wife’s encounters with James Caan’s punchy jock and Robert Duvall’s sympathetically lecherous state trooper lifted the film to the behavioral heights (and fights) of “Petulia” and “Point Blank,” two of the more brilliant explosions of the San Francisco area, if not of the San Francisco school, the formal sublimity of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” representing, of course, a different tradition altogether.

The failure of “The Rain People” and “THX-1138” and the Korty films can be attributed partly to the inability of the traditional distribution and exhibition patterns to funnel a new kind of audience that is presumably panting for it. Or is there really that much of a new audience for movies? Whatever the explanation, Coppola had the satisfaction of having established his artistic identity as a director at the cost of his commercial solvency as a producer. He therefore approached “The Godfather” less as a creative opportunity than as a crutch for his stumbling career.

I am convinced that “The Godfather” could have been a more profound film if Coppola had shown more interest (and perhaps more courage) in those sections of the book which treated crime as an extension of capitalism and as the sine qua non of showbiz. Much of the time spent boringly in Sicily might have been devoted to the skimming operations in Las Vegas, and to the corporate skullduggery in Hollywood. A very little bit of the corrosively Odetsian wit of the fifties in “The Big Knife” and “Sweet Smell of Success” could have gone a long way here in relating the Mafia to our daily life. Instead, Coppola has taken great pains to make “The Godfather” seem like a period piece. Antique cars, ill-fitting clothes (especially for loose-framed Diane Keaton’s WASP wardrobe), floppy hats, vintage tabloid front pages featuring dead gangsters of a bygone era all contribute to Coppola’s deliberate distancing tactics. Worst of all is the sentimental distinction between the good-bad guys and the bad-bad guys on the pseudoprophetic issue of narcotics distribution.

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The production stories connected with “The Godfather” seem to take pride in the concessions granted to organized crime so that the film could be shot on New York locations without being shot up and shut down. Hence, there is no reference to the “Mafia” as such or to the “Cosa Nostra” as such, but merely to “The family.” It is as if producer Albert S. Ruddy were trying to enhance the diabolical reputation of his subject so that audiences would feel the chill of gossipy relevance. Since “The Godfather” is about as unkind to the Mafia as “Mein Kampf” is to Adolf Hitler, it is hard to understand why the local little Caesars didn’t pay Ruddy a commission for all the free publicity. However, even if Ruddy had not made all his noble sacrifices to the Mob for the sake of his muse, it is fairly certain that a realistic director like Coppola would have insisted on shooting his scenario on authentic locations. After all, wasn’t that the whole point of Coppola’s original safari from Hollywood to San Francisco: to escape from Hollywood’s synthetic sound stages and infinitely illusionist set designers?

And so we see Al Pacino and Diane Keaton walking out of the Radio City Music Hall ostensibly during the Christmas Season of 1945. How do we know it is 1945? The marquee has been made up to advertise Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman in “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” And here we have one of the paradoxes of plastic realism. It just so happens that I saw “The Bells of St. Mary’s” at the Music Hall in 1945, and the scene Pacino so painstakingly recreates before my eyes is false and strained in every way except the most literal. As the production notes tell us, “crowds gathered to stare at the old-time automobiles and ancient taxis with the legend ’15 cents for first 1/2 mile’ fare rates painted on the doors. Meanwhile, ushers ran up and down the street informing the public that the film playing was Elaine May and Walter Matthau in “A New Leaf” and the stage show was the 1971 Easter Show.”

Nonetheless, the plastic realism of the marquee and the old cabs cannot compensate for the sociological distortion of the empty sidewalks and the absent hustle and bustle. Around Christmas of 1945 at the Music Hall was a pre-television festive crowd tableau such as we shall never see again in our lifetime. An old-time Hollywood illusionist like Vincente Minnelli would have captured the populist lilt of that moment whereas Coppola has captured only the plastic lint. Minnelli’s vision would have been that of the warm animal kingdom whereas Coppola’s is merely that of the cold mineral.

Similarly, few of the “more than 120 locations around Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Richmond” justified the trouble they took with any special aura of authenticity. Indeed, too often the studied and constricted framing of the “real” location only emphasized the artifices of the scenario. So little of Mott Street is utilized for gunning down Brando that the entire effect could easily have been reconstructed on a back lot. Location shooting has always been more of a Pandora’s Box than realistic pundits have ever wanted to admit. If I see one more set of play-actors cruising around the canals of Venice with all the natives looking for the camera (or for Erich Segal on one of the gondolas), I shall sing “O Solo Mio” a cappella. To escape from the alleged tyranny of the set it is necessary to conceive a much looser scenario than any now envisaged for most movies.

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As it is, Coppola spends much too much time savoring each location as if he were afraid audiences might not sufficiently appreciate its authenticity. There is remarkably little elision of movement for a modern (or even a classical) movie. People walk through rooms, clump, clump, clump, as if they were measuring the floor for a rug. At times I would have welcomed even a wipe to jolly things along with page-turning dispatch.

Coppola’s treadmill technique is merely a symptom of his sense of priorities. The trouble began with the scenario’s lack of concern for the characters it could not wait to slaughter. The first murder is a genuine shocker, not simply because of its bizarre choreography (even more gruesome than in the book), but also because even after the unexplained first murder in “The French Connection,” we are still not accustomed to having people we barely know bumped off on the screen. Puzo always provided a background dossier on his victims in his novel, and some objective mechanism for doing these dossiers a la “The Battle of Algiers”might have been devised for the movie. Coppola prefers to skim the surface of the novel for violent highlights, and thus discard all the documentation. However, it has been my impression that the rumored involvement of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in the narrative was the big talking point of the novel. Who cares that much about Joe Profaci and his brood except on the mythic level of glorified gangsterdom? By contrast, Sinatra and his colleagues and conquests have always provided the stuff of forbidden fantasies for precisely the type of urban wage-slave that stands on line to see “The Godfather.” After Vegas and Hollywood, how can you keep ’em down on Long Beach?

Coppola does his best to narrow the focus of “The Godfather” to manageably monstrous proportions. His film is neither tragedy nor sociology, but a saga of monsters with occasionally human expressions. Even the irony of invoking the “family” as the basic social unit is not pursued beyond a desultory conversation between Michael (Al Pacino) and Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). The irony is not that the Corleone family is a microcosm of America, but rather that it is merely a typical American family beset by the destructively acquisitive individualism that is tearing American society apart. It is an idea that Chaplin developed so much more profoundly in “Monsieur Verdoux:” that if war, in Clausewitz’s phrase, is the logical extension of diplomacy, then murder is the logical extension of business. This notion is mentioned here and there in “The Godfather,” but never satisfactorily developed. There is simply no time. Another shot, another murder. And the crowds are keeping a box-score on every corpse. Let’s not disappoint them with a meditation on machismo and materialism. We can do that on the next picture, the “serious” one, the one the crowds will stay away from in droves. ❖

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Prison Memoirs: The New York Women’s House of Detention

On October 13, 1970, the FBI ar­rested Angela Davis on charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit murder stemming from her alleged role in the Mann County courthouse shootout. Before being extradited to California — where she was subsequently acquitted of all the charges — Ms. Davis was imprisoned for nine weeks in New York’s Women’s House of Detention. The following excerpts from her forth­coming autobiography describe some of her experiences in the city’s prison.

When the wailing of the sirens tapered off and the caravan began to slow down, I realized that I was somewhere in Greenwich Village. As the car turned into a dark driveway, a corrugated aluminum door began to rise and once again, crowds of photographers with flashing lights jumped out of the shadows. The red brick wall surrounding this tall ar­chaic structure looked very familiar, but it took me a few moments to locate in my memory. Of course; it was the mysterious place I had seen so often during the years I attended Elisabeth Irwin High School, not too far from there. It was the New York Women’s House of Detention, which stood there at the main intersection in the Village, at Greenwich and Sixth avenues.

While the car was rolling into the prisoners’ entrance, a flock of mem­ories fought for my attention. Walk­ing to the subway station after school, I used to look up at this building almost every day, trying not to listen to the terrible noises spilling from the windows. They were coming from the women locked behind bars, looking down on the people passing in the streets, and screaming incomprehensible words.

At age fifteen I accepted some of the myths surrounding prisoners. I did not see them as quite the crimi­nals society said they were, but they did seem aliens in the world I inha­bited. I never knew what to do when I saw the outlines of women’s heads through the almost opaque windows of the jail. I could never understand what they were saying — whether they were crying out for help, whether they were calling for some­one in particular, or whether they simply wanted to talk to anyone who was “free.” My mind was now filled with the specters of those faceless women whom I had not answered. Would I scream out at the people passing in the streets, only to have them pretend not to hear me as I once pretended not to hear those women?

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The women did not even notice that a new prisoner had been thrown in with them. Except for the woman who continued to pace, they each found places at the table in the day room and sat separate from one another, as if there were a mutual agreement that they would all re­frain from invading the others’ turf.

Later I learned that these women received Thorazine with their meals each day and, even if they were completely sane, the tranquilizers would always make them uncommu­nicative and detached from their surroundings. After a few hours of watching them gaze silently into space, I felt as though I had been thrown into a nightmare.

I had loudly protested being kept in 4b (the mental ward) from the very first day. I didn’t belong there — or had I been judged a mental case? The officer said I had been placed in 4b not because I was psychologically unsound, but for my own safety and to keep me from disrupting the life of the jail. I was not persuaded. At last the call came announcing the arrival of the lawyers. Going to meet them was my first opportunity to walk through any part of the jail at a normal hour — when the prisoners were not locked in or sleeping.

When the iron door was opened, sounds peculiar to jails and prisons poured into my ears — the screams, the metallic clanging, officers’ keys clinking. Some of the women noticed me and smiled warmly or threw up their fists in gestures of solidarity. The elevator stopped on the third floor, where the commissary was located. The women who were wait­ing for the elevator recognized me and told me in a cordial, sisterly way, their words sometimes reinforced with their fists, that they were on my side. These were the “dangerous women” who might attack me because they didn’t like “Communists,” had I not been hidden away in 4b.

Regardless of why the women in 4b had been placed there, they were all being horribly damaged. Whatever problems they had had initially were not solved, but rather systematically aggravated. I could see the erosion of their will taking place even during the short time I spent there.

In the cell next to me lived a white woman somewhere between thirty and forty-five years old who had lost all contact with reality. Each night before she fell asleep the cell-bloc shook with her screams. Sometimes her rantings and ravings filled the air long after midnight. Her vile language, her weird imagery be-speckled with the most vulgar kind or racial epithets made me so angry that it was all I could do to prevent myself from trying to break through the steel and concrete that separated her cell from mine. I was convinced that she had been placed there inten­tionally as a part of the jailers’ efforts to break me.

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When I saw this pitiful figure the next morning, it was clear that her sickness was so far advanced — some stage of schizophrenia — that she was beyond the reach of argument. Her illness had become a convenient ve­hicle for the expression of the racism which had grown like maggots in her unconscious. Each night, and even morning before breakfast came, she went through a prolonged ritual which took the form of a violent argument with some invisible figure in her cell. More often than not, this figure would be a Black man, and he would be attacking her with a kind of sexual perversity which would have been inconceivable had not her own verbal imagery been so vivid. She would purge this figure from her cell with a series of incantations. When her imagined attacker assumed some other position, it brought about a corresponding change in her incantations.

One morning in the day room, Barbara, the young Black woman from the cell directly across from mine, broke her habitual silence to tell me she had refused her daily dose of Thorazine. It was very sim­ple: she was tired of feeling like a vegetable all the time. She was going to resist the Thorazine and was going to get out of 4b. She knew about my own attempts to get out, and if we were both transferred she said she would like very much to be my “cellie” in the main population.

In the cell next to Barbara’s was a very young white woman who ap­peared to receive larger doses of Thorazine than any of the others. One day when she was not so spaced out, she wanted to know if I could help her with her case. (She was back from court and evidently had not been drugged so she would look more or less normal for the judge.) When I asked her about her charges, tears streamed down her face as she said repeatedly, “I could never do anything like that. I couldn’t kill my own baby.”

She didn’t understand where she was and had no comprehension whatever of the judicial system. Who were her friends, she wanted me to tell her, and who were the ones who wanted to put her away? She had been afraid to talk to her lawyer, for fear he would tell the judge. Now she was thoroughly crushed because a doctor who had sworn himself to secrecy had just taken the stand and divulged everything she had told him. All she wanted now was just a little Thorazine. She wanted to get away, forget, get high.

Perhaps the most tragic or them all was Sandra — the teenager charged with arson. She was one of the women who had been in the receiving room the night I was ar­rested. I had noticed then that her hair was coming out in patches and had assumed that she had ringworm. My first day in 4b, she came out of the cell for meals. The second day, she ignored the key unlocking her cell gate at mealtimes. She silently and systematically pulled her hair out by the roots. From that day on, whenever I saw her, she was sitting quietly on her bed, yanking her hair by the handful. By the time I left, she was as thin as a wishbone, and all that was left of her natural was a few clumps of hair on one side of her pitiful hairless head.

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A little more than a week had passed when the warden informed Margaret (Margaret Burnham, one of Ms. Davis’ lawyers) that I was to be moved. Sure enough, the very next day I was told that I was about to be transferred to another part of the jail. I protested being bounced back and forth like a Ping Pong ball; but actually I didn’t mind the move, thinking that I was going into the regular population. I had no idea that my longing for some degree of seclu­sion was about to be overfulfilled. The main population I thought I was ­about to enter turned out to be a hurriedly improvised special isolation room separated from all the corridors on the sixth floor.

I decided to dramatize the situation by declaring myself on a hunger ­strike for as long as I was kept in isolation — I would hold my own on this side of the walls while things got rolling on the other side. Through the grapevine I learned that there were women all over the jail who were carrying out a hunger strike in sympathy with mine.

On the tenth day of the hunger strike, at a time when I had per­suaded myself that I could continue indefinitely without eating, the Federal Court handed down a ruling enjoining the jail administration from holding me any longer in isolation and under maximum security conditions. They had decided — under pressure, of course — that this unwarranted punishment was meted out to me because of my political beliefs and affiliation.

There was little time to learn my way about (the main part of the prison) before all the cell gates were locked, but some of my neighbors gave me a guided tour of my 8 foot by 5 foot cell. Because mine was the corner cell — the one which could be easily spied on from the officer’s desk in the main hallway — it was also the smallest one on the corridor; the double bunk made it appear even smaller. The fixtures — the bed, the tiny sink, the toilet — were all ar­ranged in a straight line, leaving no more than a width of two feet of floor at any point in the cell.

The sisters helped me improvise a curtain in front of the toilet and sink so they could not be seen from the corridor. They showed me how to use newspaper wrapped in scrap cloth to make a seat cover so the toilet could be turned into a chair to be used at the iron table that folded down from the wall in front of it. I laughed out loud at the thought of doing all my writing while sitting on the toilet stool.

Lock-in time was approaching; a sister remembered that she had forgotten to warn me about one of the dangers of night life in the House of D. “‘Mickey’ will be trying to get into your cell tonight,” she said, and I would have to take precautionary steps to “keep him out.” “Mickey?” Was there some man­iac the jailers let loose at night to pester the women?

The sister laughingly told me she was referring to the mice which scampered about in the darkness of the corridors looking for cell doors not securely stuffed with newspa­pers.

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It became a nightly ritual: placing meticulously folded newspapers in the little space between the gate and the floor and halfway up the gate along the wall. Despite the preven­tive measures we took, Mickey could always chew through the barricade in at least one cell, and we were often awakened by the shouts of a woman calling the officer to get the mouse out. One night Mickey joined me in the top bunk. When I felt him crawling around my neck, I brushed him away thinking that it was roaches. When I finally realized what it was, I called for the broom — our only weapon against him. Apparently mousetraps were too expensive, and they were not going to exterminate.

Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo­ obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other. In response, imprisoned men and women will invent and continually invoke various and sundry defenses. Consequently, two layers of existence can be encountered within almost every jail or prison. The first layer consists of the routines and behavior prescribed by the governing penal hierarchy. The second layer is the prisoner culture itself: the rules and standards of behavior that come from and are defined by the captives in order to shield themselves from the open or covert terror designed to break their spirits.

In an elemental way, this culture is one of resistance, but a resistance of desperation. It is, therefore, incapable of striking a significant blow against the system. All its elements are based on an assumption that the prison system will continue to survive. Precisely for this reason, the system does not move to crush it. (In fact, it sometimes happens that there is an under-the-table encouragement of the prisoners’ subculture.) I was continually astonished by the infinite details of the social regions which the women in the House of Detention considered their exclusive domain. This culture was contemptuously closed to the keepers. I sometimes wandered innocently through the doors and found myself thoroughly disoriented. A telling example happened on my second day in population. A sister asked me, “What did you think of my grandfather? He said he saw you this morning.” I was sure I had misheard her question, but when she repeated it, I told her she must be mistaken, because I had no idea who her grandfather was. Besides, I hadn’t had any visitors that day. But the joke was on me. I was in a foreign country and hadn’t learned the language. I discovered from her that a woman prisoner who had come by my cell earlier in the day was the “grandfather” to whom she was referring. Because she didn’t seem eager to answer any questions, I contained my curiosity until I found someone who could explain to me what the hell was going on.

A woman a few cells down gave me a fascinating description of a whole system through which the women could adopt their jail friends as relatives. I was bewildered and awed by the way in which the vast majority of the jail population had neatly organized itself into genera­tions of families: mothers/wives, fathers/husbands, sons and daughters, even aunts, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers. The family sys­tem served as a defense against the fact of being no more than a number. It humanized the environment and allowed an identification with others within a familiar framework.

In spite of its strong element of escapism and fantasy, the family system could solve certain immedi­ate problems. Family duties and responsibilities were a way in which sharing was institutionalized. Pa­rents were expected to provide for their children, particularly the young ones, if they could not afford “luxury items” from commissary.

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Like filial relationships outside, some sons and daughters had, or developed, ulterior motives. Quite a few of them joined certain families because the material benefits were greater there.

What struck me most about this family system was the homosexua­lity at its core. But while there was certainly an overabundance of ho­mosexual relationships within this improvised kinship structure, it was nevertheless not closed to “straight” women. There were straight daugh­ters and husbandless, i.e., straight, mothers.

Since the majority of the prisoners seemed to be at least casually in­volved in the family structure, there had to be a great number of lesbians throughout the jail. Homosexuality is bound to occur on a relatively large scale in any place of sexually segregated confinement. I knew this before I was arrested. I was not prepared, however, for the shock of seeing it so thoroughly entrenched in jail life. There were the masculine and feminine role-playing women: the former, the butches, were called “he.” During the entire six weeks I spent on the seventh floor, I could not bring myself to refer to any woman with a masculine pronoun, although some of them, if they hadn’t been wearing the mandatory dresses, would never have been taken for women.

Many or them — both the butches and the femmes — had obviously decided to take up homosexuality during their jail terms in order to make that time a little more exciting, in order to forget the squalor and degradation around them. When they returned to the streets they would rejoin their men and quickly forget their jail husbands and wives.

An important part of the family system was the marriages. Some of them were extremely elaborate — with invitations, a formal ceremony, and some third person acting as the “minister.” The “bride” would prepare for the occasion as if for a real wedding.

With all the marriages, the seeking or trysting places, the scheming which went on by one woman to catch another, the conflicts and jea­lousies — with all this — homosexua­lity emerged as one of the centers around which life in the House of Detention revolved. Certainly, it was a way to counteract some of the pain of jail life; but objectively, it served to perpetuate all the bad things about the House of Detention. “The Gay Life” was all-consuming; it prevent­ed many of the women from devel­oping their personal dissatisfaction with the conditions around them into a political dissatisfaction, because the homosexual fantasy life provided an easy and attractive channel for escape.

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On a cold Sunday afternoon a massive demonstration took place down on Greenwich Avenue. It was spearheaded by the bail fund coali­tion and the New York Committee to Free Angela Davis. So enthusiastic was the crowd that we felt compelled to organize some kind of reciprocal display of strength. We got together in our corridor, deciding on the slogans we would shout and how to make them come out in unison — even though we were going to be spread down the corridor in different cells, screaming from different windows. I had never dreamed that such powerful feeling of pride and confidence could develop among the sisters in this jail.

Chants thundered on the outside: “One, two, three, four, the House of D. has got to go!” “Free our Sisters. Free Ourselves,” and other political chants that were popular at the time. After a while, we decided to try out our chants. It was far easier for us to be heard through the windows by the people outside than it was for us to be heard by ourselves, separated as we were by the thick concrete walls dividing the cells. Although our slogans may not have been transmitted in the most harmonious style, we managed to get our message across: “Free the Soledad Brothers,” “Free Erika,” “Free Bobby,” “Long Live Jonathan Jackson.”

While the chants of “Free Angela” filled me with excitement, I was concerned that an overabundance of such chants might set me apart from the rest or my sisters. I shouted one by one the names of all the sisters on the floor participating in the demon­stration. “Free Vernell! Free Helen! Free Amy! Free Joann! Free Laura! Free Minnie!” I was hoarse for the next week.

As the demonstration moved into full swing, an officer unlocked the gate to our corridor and shouted to us to stop all the noise. We refused. They sent a captain to try to halt the demonstration. She approached me in my cell to say there would be sanctions for all of us if we did not calm down. Our exchange was heat­ed. Within a matter of minutes, a confrontation had brewed. Shouts began to come from across the hall — the sisters in the next corridor had decided to join. There was noth­ing this captain could do to make us acquiesce; every word she uttered kindled our combativeness. The more militant we became, the less confident she became, and finally she left the corridor in defeat.

As long as there were demonstra­tors outside, we continued our chants. Even after they left, the floor was throbbing with excitement. We were proud of the staunch position we had taken vis-a-vis the bureau­cracy. In this atmosphere of triumph, it was a cruel letdown for us to discover that the Supreme Court in Washington had just denied our appeal, and that I would soon be extradited to California.

That night, still hot with the ardor of the demonstration, locked up in the darkness of their cells, the women staged a spontaneous de­monstration of support. “One, two, three, four. We won’t let Angela go!’ Five, six, seven, eight. We won’t let them through the gate!” Shoes were banging on the cell bars; chants grew louder. An officer tried meekly to calm them down but had no success. A very vocal sister who was in one of the adolescent corridors was told to keep it quiet, but when she refused and all the sisters came vociferously to her aid, the officers hit her, knowing that all we could do was scream. They dragged her away to 4a — the punitive isolation unit. Frustrated by our inability to help her, we called out threats and beat even more loudly on the bars of our cells.

Someone noticed a sympathetic-looking white couple on Greenwich Avenue staring up in wonderment at the building, which was shaking with the clamor of protests from our floor. We called down to them that a sister had just been beaten and was proba­bly being put through the third de­gree down in the hole. We were bold that evening. We shouted out loud and clear the names and ranks of the officers who had pulled her from her cell. We asked the couple to call the underground press and as many Left organizations as they could to let them know that we were expecting an even more severe crackdown. (I later discovered that they had spent the evening contacting everyone they felt could help us.)

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❙ ❙ ❙

With the receptionist on one side and the librarian on the other, I walked slowly through the prisoners’ gate onto the cold cobblestones of the courtyard. My anger gave way to pangs of regret at having to leave behind all my friends locked up in that filth. Vernell … Would they drop that phony murder charge? Helen … Would she go home? Amy … so old, so warm … What would happen to her? Pat … Would she write her book exposing the House of D.? And the organizing for the bail fund … Would it continue? Harriet … So committed to the struggle — would they continue to try to break her will?

The police van was waiting in the courtyard, the same van they had used to take me to court. Through the heavy grill on the windows, I could see nothing in the darkness. But suddenly, as the van rolled through the courtyard gates, I heard a thun­derous burst of shouts of support. I could not figure out how so many people had learned I was being taken away that night. Later I found out they had come in response to the calls made by the white couple on Greenwich Avenue. Not a single light illuminated the gigantic courtyard of the Tombs. All I could see was the outline of a collection of cars parked in the center, and the shadows of human figures moving back and forth between the vehicles. The atmosphere was reminiscent of postwar spy movies. A dozen white men swarming around their unmarked police cars, nervously awaiting the end of this transaction, this histrionic ceremony of repression unfolding under the dim glow of flashlights.

New York removed its handcuffs and California produced theirs and locked them around my wrists. ❖

Copyright 1974 by Angela Davis. From the book ANGELA DAVIS: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY Random House, Inc. A Bernard Geis Associates Book

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

Citizen Kael vs. ‘Citizen Kane’

“‘Voice in the Wind,’ a heartfelt shoestring quickie shot in 13 days, is a pretty awful moving picture, I realize, but I was touched by its sincerity and by a number of things in it, and was sympathe­tically interested in a good deal more. It is being advertised as ‘a strange new kind of moving picture,’ and that makes me realize, as the excitement over the ‘originality’ of ‘Citizen Kane’ used to, that already I belong to a grizzling generation.” 

James Agee, the Nation, March 18, 1944, reprinted in “Agee on Film”

Pauline Kael’s two-part article on “Citizen Kane” (“Raising Kane”The New Yorker, February 20 and 27, 197[1]) reportedly began as a brief introduction to the published screenplay, but, like Topsy, it just growed and growed into a 50,000-word digression from “Kane” itself into the life and times and loves and hates and love-hates of Pauline Kael.

My disagreement with her position begins with her very first sentence:

“‘Citizen Kane’ is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened.” I can think of hundreds of “American talking pictures” that seem as fresh now as the day they opened. Even fresher. “Citizen Kane” is certainly worthy of revival and reconsideration, but it hardly stands alone even among the directorial efforts of Orson Welles. To believe that “Citizen Kane” is a great American film in a morass of mediocre Hollywood movies is to misunderstand the transparent movieness of “Kane” itself from its Xanadu castle out of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”  to its menagerie out of “King Kong” to its mirrored reflections out of old German doppleganger spectacles. Not that Miss Kael makes any extravagant claims about the supposed greatness of the film on which she has devoted so much newsprint. “It is a shallow work,” she decides, “a shallow masterpiece.”

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One wonders what Miss Kael considers a deep masterpiece. “U-Boat 29” perhaps? Actually, the closest she comes to comparing “Kane” with the higher depths of cinema is in a parenthetical aside of dubious relevance: “Like most of the films of the sound era that are called masterpieces, ‘Citizen Kane’ has reached its audience gradually over the years rather than at the time of release. Yet, unlike the others, it is conceived and acted as entertainment in a popular style (unlike, say, ‘Rules of the Game’ or ‘Rashomon’ or ‘Man of Aran,’ which one does not think of in crowd-pleasing terms).”

“Man of Aran,” with its excessive sea-pounding on the soundtrack making it as falsely exotic in its own time as “Ramparts of Clay” is in ours, was certainly never conceived in crowd-pleasing terms. But “Rules of the Game” and “Rashomon” are something else again even in French and Japanese respectively. If anything, both films are more rousingly entertaining and more satisfyingly lucid than “Kane.” Their emotions are stronger, their gestures broader, their climaxes more violent, their narratives more vigorous, their visual styles less ostentatious, and, no small consideration, their women infinitely warmer and more sensual. Besides, the comparison is even factually questionable. “Rules of the Game” has never been too popular anywhere, but “Kane” and “Rashomon” were instant sensations when they reached the right audiences. It is no derogation to say that they were immediately impressive whereas “Rules of the Game” takes longer to appreciate because of the apparent artlessness of its ironies. Not that Miss Kael bothers to commit her own personal prestige to the greatness of any film. Note, for example, the cautiously impersonal construction of “films of the sound era that are called masterpieces.” Perhaps this tone of cold-fish objectivity is the price of a normally warm-blooded film critic must pay to climb Onward and Upward with the Arts at The New Yorker.

1971 4-part Village Voice essay in which Andrew Sarris challenged Pauline Kael's assessment of "Citizen Kane"

The plot thickens considerably when Miss Kael drifts away from a half-hearted analysis of “Kane” to the most lively gossip imaginable about the alleged birth-pangs and labor-pains of the script. Bit by bit, “Raising Kane” becomes an excuse to lower the boom on Orson Welles so as to resurrect the reputation of the late Herman J. Mankiewicz. By interviewing only the sworn enemies of Orson Welles, Miss Kael has made herself fair game for Mr. Welles and his more fervent admirers. At the very least, we may expect a reprise of the recriminations exchanged between Peter Bogdanovich and Charles Higham on the occasion of the publication of Mr. Higham’s “The Films of Orson Welles.”

How much of the final script of “Citizen Kane” was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and how much by Orson Welles? I don’t know, and I don’t think Miss Kael, Mr. Bogdanovich, and Mr. Higham do either. Undoubtedly, there will be affidavits aplenty from all sides, but literary collaboration, like marriage, is a largely unwitnessed interpenetration of psyches. Miss Kael demonstrates conclusively that Mankiewicz could have written the entire script unaided, but she cannot possibly know where and when and how and from whom and from what derived all his ideas. As it happens, RKO was successfully sued in 1950 for plagiarism on the officially credited Mankiewicz-Welles script of “Kane” by Ferdinand Lundborg, author of “Imperial Hearst.” Miss Kael tries to pooh-pooh Lundborg’s lawsuit because of the shadow it casts on her own one-sided lawyer’s brief for Mankiewicz. RKO might just as well have been sued, Miss Kael contends, by John Dos Passos for the passages on Hearst in “USA.” Precisely. Who among us can claim complete originality in anything? “Raising Kane” itself bears the by-line of Pauline Kael and of Pauline Kael alone. Yet thousands of words are directly quoted from other writers, and thousands more are paraphrased without credit. Miss Kael deserves her byline because she has shaped her material, much of it unoriginal, into an article with a polemical thrust all her own. Her selection and arrangement of material constitutes a very significant portion of her personal style.

Similarly, Orson Welles is not significantly diminished as the auteur of “Citizen Kane” by Miss Kael’s breathless revelations about Herman J. Mankiewicz any more than he is diminished as the auteur of “The Magnificent Ambersons” by the fact that all the best lines and scenes were written by Booth Tarkington. It is only by virtually ignoring what “Citizen Kane” became as a film that Miss Kael can construct her bizarre theory of film history, namely that “Citizen Kane” along with all the best moments in movies of the ’30s must be credited to a consortium of New Yorker writers gathered together by Harold Ross at Chasen’s, the West Coast auxiliary of the Algonquin. Indeed, Miss Kael writes of Harold Ross in “Raising Kane” with much the same awed tone employed by General Lew Wallace in writing of Christ in “Ben Hur.” Writing of a Ross visit to Hearst’s San Simeon, Miss Kael lacks only a divinely capitalized “H” (“He” for “he”) to achieve a completely Biblical tone: “Harold Ross must have wondered what drew his old friends there, for he came, too, escorted by Robert Benchley.”

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What is most startling about “Raising Kane” is how little it adds to old stories that have been circulating in film magazines with fewer readers than The New Yorker. For example, “Persistence of Vision,” edited by Joseph McBride and publish by the Wisconsin Film Society Press in 1968, contains not only McBride’s “Kane” analysis which Miss Kael snickers at in “Raising Kane” without bothering to identify the author, but also an extended quote from John Houseman to Penelope Houston out of the Sight and Sound of Autumn 1962: “… we had done some work together on ‘Heart of Darkness,’ which was to have been his first picture at RKO, and on something called ‘The Smiler with the Knife.’ After I’d gone back East, Orson continued trying to find a subject. We had a mutual and very brilliant friend, Herman Mankiewicz, a celebrated Hollywood figure, who had recently broken his leg under tragicomic circumstances that I haven’t time to go into. Having goaded each studio in turn into dismissing him, he had sunk to working on some of our radio shows. Orson arrived one night in New York, and over dinner told me that Mankiewicz had come up with an idea for a movie: a multi-faceted story about William Randolph Hearst in which [Welles] would play the title-part and direct. He asked me whether I would work with Mankiewicz as editor and collaborator on the script. I agreed and returned to Hollywood. After several conferences, at which Mankiewicz continued to develop his ideas, we moved him — nurse, plaster cast and all — up to a place in the mountains called Victorville, about a hundred miles from Los Angeles. There we installed ourselves on a guest ranch. Mankiewicz wrote, I mostly edited and the nurse was bored. Orson drove out once for dinner. At the end of three months we returned to Los Angeles with the 220-page script of ‘Kane,’ later called ‘Citizen Kane.’

“This is a delicate subject: I think Welles has always sincerely felt that he, single-handed, wrote ‘Kane’ and everything else that he has directed — except, possibly, the plays of Shakespeare. But the script of ‘Kane’ was especially Mankiewicz’s. The conception and the structure were his, all the dramatic Hearstian mythology and the journalistic and political wisdom which he had been carrying around with him for years which he now poured into the only serious job he ever did in a lifetime of film writing. But Orson turned ‘Kane’ into a film: the dynamics and the tensions are his and the brilliant cinematic effects — all those visual and aural inventions that add up to make ‘Citizen Kane’ one of the world’s great movies — those were pure Orson Welles.”

The Houseman-Houston interview reads like a digest of “Raising Kane,” and Joseph McBride was obviously aware of this interview when he analyzed “Kane” as “a tragedy in fugal form; thus … also the denial of tragedy.” Aside from cackling at still another film scholar for the benefit of the philistines, Miss Kael creates the impression that McBride and his ilk never had the foggiest notion that Herman J. Mankiewicz had written the screenplay. McBride’s greatest sin is apparently his willingness to consider “Citizen Kane” as a work of art rather than in Miss Kael’s terms as “kitsch redeemed,” a culturally defensive attitude for readers and editors who would be shocked to have any movie taken too seriously. Indeed, by the time Miss Kael is through taking “Kane” apart, it seems considerably more flawed than “The Owl and the Pussycat.” More important, “Kane” is viewed by Miss Kael almost exclusively as a product of the newspaper yarns that preceded it, and not at all as an influence on the inner space excursions of Fellini and Kubrick that followed it. McBride explicitly compares “Kane” to “8 1/2” and is not that comparison more apt than Miss Kael’s likening of “Kane” to “The Front Page,” for Pete’s sake. And what is the black slab in “2001,” but the burnt sled “Rosebud” of “Kane,” the black slab representing the memento of an old civilization, and “Rosebud” the memory of an old man.

1971 4-part Village Voice essay in which Andrew Sarris challenged Pauline Kael's assessment of "Citizen Kane"

Part 2, April 29, 1971

“‘Citizen Kane,’ The American Baroque” is the pretentious title of a solemn, pedantic, humorless re-evaluation of Kane on the occasion of its revival in 1956. The piece first appeared in the ninth issue of Film Culture (1956) and did not cause too much stir one way or another. The reviewer (or rather rereviewer) was a 28-year­-old New York free-lancer (more free than lance) with a severely limited education in film history. He had just started reviewing movies in the mid-’50s, first under the name of Andrew George Sarris and then merely Andrew Sarris, and by 1956 he had decided that the three greatest films of all times were “Odd Man Out,” “Citizen Kane,” and “Sullivan’s Travels.” Then from 1961 through 1969 he held that the three greatest films of all time were “Lola Montes,” “Ugetsu,” and “La Regle du jeu, ” and now in 1970 he has replaced “Lola Montes” at the top with “Madame de … ” He still likes “Citizen Kane,” “Odd Man Out,” and “Sullivan’s Travels,” but not as much these days as “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “The Third Man,” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” “Hail the Conquering Hero” and “The Palm Beach Story,” not to mention “Sunrise,” “Liebelei,” “La Ronde,” “Day of Wrath,” “Ordet,” “Flowers of St. Francis,” “French CanCan,” “The Golden Coach,” “Psycho,” “Vertigo,” “The Diary of a Country Priest,” “Au Has­ard Balthazar,” “Brink of Life,” “Oharu,” “Seven Chances,” “Sherlock, Jr.,” “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” and “Shop Around the Corner.” Also, the Russians deserved a look-in at least for auld lang syne since there were more personal styles in heaven and earth than were dreamt of even in Orson Welles’s eclectic philosophy. No matter. “Citizen Kane” seemed infinitely less original and revolutionary in 1971 than it had in 1941 or even 1946, and not only because time had passed but also because the past had become more timely. If “Kane” once seemed like a tree in a clearing, it now seemed like a tree in a very large forest, and not even the topmost tree at that.

Nonetheless, despite the current reservations of its author, “Citizen Kane, The American Baroque” has been well received by acade­micians in recent years and repeatedly anthologized, most recently in a fascinating compendium entitled “Focus on Kane” (edited by Ron­ald Gottesman) with contributions by Gottesman, Juan Cobos, Miguel Rubio, J. A. Pruenda, William Johnson, John O’Hara, Bosley Crowther, Otis Ferguson, Cedric Belfrage, Tangye Lean, Orson Welles, Bernard Herrmann, Gregg Toland, Roy A. Fowler, Peter Cowie, Arthur Knight, Jorge Luis Borges, Andre Bazin, Francois Truffaut, Michael Stephanick, and Charles Higham. Some of these pieces constitute the kind of “incense-burning” against which Pau­line Kael’s wise-guy criticism seems to be directed in her wild-swinging mayhem-causing “Raising Kane,” but most of the pieces raise formal and philosophical questions far beyond the dimensions of gossip culled from old newspapers.

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Borges (in 1945) interprets Kane, perhaps predictably, as that “centreless labyrinth” mentioned in Chesterton’s “The Head of Caesar.” But Borges is curiously dubious about the place of Kane in film history: “I dare predict, however, that ‘Citizen Kane’ will endure in the same way certain films of Griffith or of Pudovkin ‘endure’: no one denies their historic value but no one sees them again. It suffers from grossness, pedantry, dullness. It is not intelligent, it is genial in the sombrest and most germanic sense of the word.”

Truffaut makes a curious reference to The New Yorker (no per­son’s name is given) description of Welles as “a genius without tal­ent.” One might just as aptly describe The New Yorker as talent without genius, and Miss Kael’s approach to “Kane” and Welles as more intelligent than insightful. She spends infinitely more time on preliminary (and subsequently discarded) drafts of the script than on the final form of the movie as it materialized on the screen. Her bias is thus as always inescapably literary rather than visual. And it follows that she would be impatient with the visual, aural and emotional coup represented by “Rosebud.” “The mystery in Kane is largely fake,” Miss Kael contends, “and the Gothic-thriller atmosphere and the Rosebud gimmickry (though fun) are such obvious penny-dreadful popular theatrics that they’re not so very different from the fake mysteries that Hearst’s American Weekly used to whip up — the haunted castles and the curses fulfilled.”

The operative words in the preceding passage are “though fun,” a familiarly quaint Kaelian reconciliation of what she can enjoy viscer­ally with what she can endorse cerebrally. As it happens, Miss Kael is not alone in being ashamed of “Rosebud.” Orson Welles has long since repudiated “Rosebud,” or at least since a 1963 interview with Miss Dilys Powell of the Sunday Times (London) excerpted by Peter Cowie in his “The Study of a Colossus”: “It’s a gimmick, really,” said Welles, “and rather dollar-book Freud.”

I disagree with both Miss Kael and Mr. Welles on “Rosebud,” with Miss Kael for the anti-genre prejudice her repudiation of “Rosebud” confirms and with Welles for — who knows — his canny instinct for self-preservation in repudiating “Rosebud” before it came out of Herman J. Mankiewicz’s ghostly past to haunt him.

When I interviewed Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1970 for Show magazine, I had no idea that he would reveal to me the origin of “Rosebud” as a bike that Herman J. Mankiewicz once lost as a child in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Nor did I have any idea that there then was and always had been a bitter feud between the Herman J. and Joseph L. sides of the Mankiewicz family. All I knew was that I had forged a crucial link with the scenarist of a strangely compelling movie called “Ladies’ Man” and “Citizen Kane.” But my feeling of discovery was based first of all on my abiding attachment to “Rosebud,” as not only the key to but also the beating heart of “Citizen Kane” as a movie. It is “Rosebud” that structures Kane as a private-eye investi­gation of a citizen in the public eye, and thus brings us much closer to “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep” and the burning R’s on the pillowcases of “Rebecca.”

The problem with defending “Rosebud” as a narrative device is that its very vividness makes it a running gag in our satirically ori­ented culture. How can we possibly take “Rosebud” seriously, Miss Kael complains, after Snoopy has called Lucy’s sled “Rosebud?” The same way, I suppose, we can take Potemkin seriously after Woody Allen has sent a baby carriage rolling down the steps of a Latin American palace in “Bananas.” Both Snoopy and Allen are paying homage to bits of film language transformed by the magical contexts of their medium into poetic metaphors. But whereas Eisenstein’s baby carriage moves from prop to agitprop as it becomes an arche­typal conveyance of revolutionary fervor, “Rosebud” reverberates ­with psychological overtones as it passes through the snows of child­hood (les neiges d’antan) into the fire, ashes and smoke of death. Indeed, the burning of “Rosebud” in Xanadu’s furnace represents the only instance in which the character of Kane can be seen subjec­tively by the audience. It is as if his mind and memory were being cremated before our eyes and we were too helpless to intervene and too incompetent to judge. It is an act of symbolic summation and transfiguration worthy of Truffaut’s passionately paradoxical tribute to the film itself: It is a demonstration of the force of power and an attack on the force of power, it is a hymn to youth and a meditation on old age, an essay on the vanity of all material ambition and at the same time a poem on old age and the solitude of exceptional beings, genius or monster or monstrous genius.”

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The redeeming value of “Rosebud” is its suggestion that men of a certain size and scope and stature are not fully accountable even to history. This implied absence of accountability tends to slow the flow of moralistic molasses dumped over Kane on the most dubious pretexts. Through the years I have seen Kane about thirty times, but until very recently I never bothered to wonder what Kane’s side of the story might have been if there had been somewhat more of his story on the screen. What, for example, is Jed Leland so outraged about in his rambling reminiscences of a rich friend with feet of clay? That Kane’s two marriages failed? Leland’s apparently sexless existence hardly makes him more “human” on that score than Kane. Besides, Kane’s two wives never remotely suggest the stuff of which Rosebuds are made. Ruth Warwick’s Emily is frigid, prissy, conser­vative and, from her quietly hysterical aversion to the idea of Bern­stein in her son’s nursery, at least incipiently anti-Semitic. Dorothy Comingore’s Susan is harsh, raucous, vulgar and almost maniacally mediocre. Ray Collins’s embattled Tammany tiger seems every inch the thief and scoundrel Kane claimed him to be, and Leland himself seems to have no greater ambition in life than to be a drunken dilet­tante full of moral superiority. If Miss Kael had analyzed the Kane-­Leland relationship more fully on its own terms, she might have traced a parallel between Kane and Leland on one track and Hearst and Mankiewicz on the other. There is probably a great deal of Mankiewicz in Leland, and especially in that moment of alcoholic self-righteousness when Leland attacks Kane for not knowing how to get drunk. In vino veritas and all that. Hearst might even stand for all the Hollywood moguls in Mankiewicz moralistic rhetoric. But the Leland-Kane relationship doesn’t play so one-sidedly in the deli­cately pitched intimacy provided by Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles. Cotten is an actor who can swim under the surface of a characterization with less splash than Welles, and so when Cotten-­Leland talks about drinking with Welles-Kane, he could be talking also about acting. Welles can’t really lose himself in a part the way Cotten can, perhaps because Welles has so much more to lose. Even so, Welles and Cotten climb piggy-back on each other’s lines with such zestful expertness that there is less conflict than complicity in their big renunciation scene. Leland becomes Kane’s alter ego in the peculiarly Wellesian pattern which later couples Othello and Iago, Arkadin and Van Stratten, Falstaff and Hal, and Quinlan and Vargas, not to mention Welles and Cotten in repeat interperform­ances in “Journey into Fear” and Carol Reed’s “The Third Man.” Indeed when you add up everything Welles did after Kane and com­pare it with everything Mankiewicz did before and after “Kane,” the sour humor and intransigent ambiguity of “Citizen Kane” would seem to arise more from the personality of Welles than from that of Man­kiewicz. What Mankiewicz has provided is an apparently big subject with faint hints of scandal from one side and large helpings of social consciousness from the other. And “Rosebud,” a symbol that turned out to be more personal than social.

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Back in 1941, Bosley Crowther qualified his enthusiastic review of “Kane” with a complaint about “Rosebud” and the unsolved mystery of Kane: “And the final poignant identification of ‘Rosebud’ sheds little more than a vague, sentimental light upon his character. At the end Kubla Kane is still an enigma — a very confusing one.” Two days after his initial review, Crowther developed his reservations in a Sunday follow-up: “And when the significance of ‘Rosebud’ is made apparent in the final sequence of the film, it provides little more than a dramatic and poign­ant shock. It does not clarify, except by sentimental suggestion, the reason for Kane’s complexity. And so we are bound to conclude that this picture is not truly great, for its theme is basically vague and its significance depends upon circumstances. Unquestionably, Mr. Welles is the most dynamic newcomer in films and his talents are infinite. But the showman will have to acquire a good bit more discipline before he is thoroughly dependable.”

Crowther’s rejection of “Rosebud” as an explanation of Kane is consistent with his later pans of “Wild Strawberries” and “L’Avventura” for their apparent self-indulgence and obfuscation. Crowther’s most influential period in film criticism was the ’40s when his social approach to films coincided with the world-saving concerns of his readers. “Rosebud” is much closer to the arched fishing pole and line of the protagonist’s father in “Wild Strawberries” than to the out­stretched soldier’s hand crumpling up near a butterfly in “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

Few American films up to “Citizen Kane” had been grown up enough to suggest that we never really grow up, and a boy torn away from his mother at an early age, like Kane, like Welles, least of all. The grandeur of “Rosebud” as a memory is that it is meaningless and trivial to anyone but Kane. Its honor is its confirmation that we are isolated from each other by so much more than our politics and morals, by nothing less, in fact, than our very selves. The only way critics and audiences of the period could stomach the profound pes­simism of “Citizen Kane” was to misconstrue it as a detailed denunciation of a certain kind of American plutocrat. In this respect, the scenario is curiously sluggish and undeveloped next to a political hal­lucination like the Capra-Riskin “Meet John Doe,” which opened shortly before “Citizen Kane” and had about a million times more polemical Americana. Miss Kael never mentions “Meet John Doe” or “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or “The Grapes of Wrath” or “The Great Dictator.” Why Hearst should have been a more daring target in 1940 than Hitler I have no idea, and, even today, the California lettuce growers seem to have lost few of their fangs from “The Grapes of Wrath.” By any standard, the few minutes of political talk sprinkled in “Citizen Kane” would seem fairly superficial in a high-­school civics textbook. But the mystical process by which the Mer­cury Players parade across a haunted screen never seems to lose its power to fascinate us.

1971 4-part Village Voice essay in which Andrew Sarris challenged Pauline Kael's assessment of "Citizen Kane"

Part 3: May 27, 1971

Millions of viewers (including this reviewer) who watched the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science presentations of April 15, 1971, were given to understand that Orson Welles had accepted in advance an honorary award from John Huston via a piece of film from Spain where Welles was presumably working on some assign­ment or other. The scenario for this bit of remote-control contrivance had become familiar in recent years: Appreciative Artist Too Busy Abroad to Come to Hollywood but Honored Just the Same. Hus­ton concluded the charade by announcing that he would stop off in Spain (on his way to Ireland) to deliver the Oscar to Orson. But if Hollywood scuttlebutt is to be believed, not only was Welles in town all the time; he shot the “Spanish” footage in his own Los Angeles apartment the week before, and then capped the jest by receiving the statuette from Huston at a local restaurant immedi­ately after the Oscar ceremony. Thus while George C. Scott was attracting all the attention with his public defiance of convention, Welles and Huston, two merry pranksters of an earlier era, were slipping in their own private joke without ever letting their tongues out of their checks.

In their time Welles and Huston had been subjected to the same brand of Faustian rhetoric masquerading as criticism. Both direc­torial careers started out with a bang in 1941, Welles with “Kane,” Huston with “The Maltese Falcon.” Both found themselves a conti­nent away when an ambitious project was being butchered in the cutting room, Welles in South America during the martyrdom of “The Magnificent Ambersons” and Huston in Africa during the re­duction of “The Red Badge of Courage.” Both men had bummed around Europe in their youth, and never really lost their wanderlust sufficiently to settle down in Hollywood for the more tedious tasks of movie-making. Both men supplemented their directorial careers with acting, and both men ended up disillusioning their earliest ad­mirers. But there is really no need to shed crocodile tears over their alleged decline.

Cinema, like politics, is the art of the possible. There are too many conflicting temperaments and forces at work at every stage of production to achieve purity of creation. And not only in Holly­wood, as Pauline Kael seems to suggest in “Raising Kane.” It is only because she is so blissfully unaware of French and Japanese philisti­nism that she can treat Renoir and Kurosawa as miraculously unfet­tered creatures of inspiration in comparison with their Hollywood counterparts. Besides, most of her New Yorker readers salivate sym­pathetically to the mere mention of Renoir because the name re­minds them of the kind of paintings they would like to possess. After a disastrous screening of “The Rules of the Game” at the Har­vard Club in New York, I can assure Miss Kael that most of her readers would despise all but one or two of the master’s movies, painter father or no painter father. As for Kurosawa, his samurai epics are more or less imaginative imitations of the Hollywood westerns Miss Kael professes to despise on principle.

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And what of the many screenwriters associated with Renoir, Kuro­sawa, Antonioni, Fellini and on occasion, even Bergman? When shall we read their stories with any portion of the extended detail Miss Kael has devoted to the late Herman J. Mankiewicz? Indeed, if foreign directors had to satisfy the Screenwriters Guild requirement of writing at least 55 percent of the dialogue to qualify for a writing credit, very few of the art-house deities would qualify. It is therefore maliciously misleading of Miss Kael and her cohorts to argue that directors like Hitchcock, Ford, and Hawks had nothing to do with the preparation of their scripts when the astonishing stylistic continuity of their careers demonstrates the contrary. Only recently John Gielgud (no auteurist he) casually remarked on a talk show that Hitchcock had “written in” big parts for Peter Lorre and Robert Young to rival Gielgud’s original lead role in “Secret Agent.” Hollis Alpert has taken up the cudgels for Miss Kael in the Saturday Re­view as part of his long crusade for greater recognition of the screen­writer. (Ironically, Alpert once won an award for criticism from the Directors Guild, and I never.)

As much as I respect Alpert’s point of view, I must point out that auteurism was never intended to enthrone all directors above all writers but rather to identify the source of a style in movies worthy of memory. Often there is more than one source and it is up to the critic to track down every contribution whenever possible. What I find peculiar, however, is the malignant anti-auteurism in the writ­ings of Kael and Alpert as if auteurism were an established religion that had carried the day. As it happens, Sarris, Kael, Alpert, Kauff­mann and even noted “mass critics” King Weed and Gene Shallow are jammed in a phone booth far from the madding crowd. (I don’t even consider such voluntary exiles from the public pulse as John Simon, the greatest film critic of the 19th century, and Gene Youngblood, the greatest film critic of the 21st.) The point is that we are all splitting hairs over questions only vaguely understood and appreciated by the majority of our readers. Still, I must make every effort to keep the record as balanced as possible, and it is in this spirit of scholarly rectification that I am raising some “Kane” of my own.

As Miss Kael makes clear in her own article, it is not entirely the fault of Orson Welles that Herman J. Mankiewicz has tended to be the forgotten man of “Citizen Kane.” Indeed, nothing Miss Kael writes about Mankiewicz is inconsistent with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s cruel but candid write-off in a letter to Maxwell Perkins dated April 23, 1938 (from “The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” edited and with an introduction by Andrew Turnbull): “Hard times weed out many of the incompetents, but they swarm back — Herman Mankiewicz, a ruined man who hasn’t written ten feet of continuity in two years was finally dropped by Metro, but immediately picked up by Columbia! He is a nice fellow that everybody likes and has been bril­liant, but he is being hired because everyone is sorry for his wife­ — which I think would make him rather an obstacle in the way of making good pictures. Utter toughness toward the helpless, com­bined with super-sentimentality — Jesus, what a combination!”

Miss Kael digs into the dry rot that had set in almost thirteen years before Fitzgerald’s letter: “It was a lucky thing for Mankiewicz that he got the movie job when he did, because he would never have risen at the Times, and though he wrote regularly for The New Yorker (and remarked of those of the Algonquin group who didn’t, ‘The part-time help of wits is no better than the full-time of half­wits’), The New Yorker, despite his pleas for cash, was paying him partly in stock, which wasn’t worth much at the time. Mankiewicz drank heavily, and the drinking newspaperman was in the style of the World, but not in the style of the Times.”

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Miss Kael does manage to score a coup for Mankiewicz’s author­ship of “Kane” with an elaborate description of his misadventure in October 1925 with a review of Gladys Wallis (the wife of Samuel Insull) in “The School for Scandal.” Mankiewicz reportedly collapsed on his typewriter in a drunken stupor a la Jed Leland with his un­speakable (and unprintable) notice still in the carriage. By contrast, Miss Kael hastily downgrades the significance of the fact that the name Bernstein meant something in the early life of Welles. We must turn to Peter Cowie’s “The Study of a Colossus” for the informa­tion “that Welles’ own mentor in youth was a certain Doctor Bern­stein who presented him, among other things, with a puppet theatre when he was in his infancy.” Could this puppet theater have been the atrocity about which the first Mrs. Kane complains at the break­fast table? Fortunately Miss Kael’s is not likely to be the last word on such speculations.

Not that Miss Kael can be charged with excessive charity toward Mankiewicz’s weaknesses and afflictions. Especially memorable in a horrible way is her zestful retelling of an Ezra Goodman anecdote from “The 50 Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood” about an alleged gaffe perpetrated by Mankiewicz all over the dinner table of a fastid­ious Hollywood producer named Arthur Hornblow, Jr. According to members of the Mankiewicz family, the Goodman anecdote was heavily embroidered, and it does seem strange that a supposed champion of Mankiewicz should repeat such an unflattering account verbatim.

Even Mankiewicz’s looks at the time of Kane undergo a harsh surveillance by Miss Kael: “It would be hard to explain his sudden, early aging and the thickening of his features and the transparently cynical-look on his face in later photographs.” Miss Kael’s moraliz­ing extends to Mankiewicz’s modus operandi: “Mankiewicz had been hacking out popular comedies and melodramas for too long to write drama; one does not dictate tragedy to a stenotypist.” No, one presumably writes tragedy in a garret with a goosequill. Suddenly we perceive that “Raising Kane,” like Miss Kael’s previous production story on “The Group,” is a saga with no heroes or heroines apart from Miss Kael herself. Orson and Herman, the two protagonists and antagonists of “Raising Kane,” are reduced to the dimensions re­spectively of an exhibitionistic egomaniac and a self-destructive hack. Meanwhile, Miss Kael’s gyroscopic ego preserves her moral superiority over all semblances of otherness. She heaps her scorn promiscuously over radicals and reactionaries, swimming-pool Stalinists and movie-industry moguls, young right-on students and old silent-movie buffs, Bazinians and Kracauerites. And in the process of putting everyone else down, she replaces the scholarly oversimplifica­tions of the past with her own idiosyncratic oversimplifications. Hence, every movie made before 1929 is eradicated from the stream of film history through this curious tribute to the hitherto despised early talkies: “And the public responded, because it was eager for modern American subjects. Even those who were children at the time loved the fast-moving modern-city stories. The common-place­ness — even tawdriness — of the imagery was such a relief from all that silent ‘poetry.’ The talkies were a great step down. It’s hard to make clear to people who didn’t live through the transition how sickly and unpleasant many of those ‘artistic’ silent pictures were­ — how you wanted to scrape off all that mist and sentiment.”

By her own calculation, Miss Kael was about eight years old when talking pictures came in, and it is not surprising that an eight-year-old should prefer speech to titles. Even today children tend to reject foreign films with subtitles. Television, if nothing else, has conditioned young people to listen to language rather than read it. But a generation of immigrants, among whom were my father and mother, actually learned English by reading the intertitles of silent movies. The point of view of this generation would differ from Miss Kael’s, which is why a film historian cannot rely merely on childhood mem­ories. I was born in 1928 just about when sound was coming in, and I can’t depend on childhood memories at all for an appraisal of the silent era, but what little burrowing I have done has revealed a much greater diversity of style and content than Miss Kael’s sweeping gen­eralization would suggest. Twenties movies featured even more fun and knockabout humor than the ’30s, and not merely through their classic clowns — Chaplin,  Keaton, Lloyd, Langdon, Laurel and Hardy, et al., but also through all sorts of relatively straight comedy players, including Marion Davies, the hapless obsession of William Randolph Hearst and the subject of Dorothy Comingore’s shrill car­icature as Susan Alexander.

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Miss Kael is on even weaker ground when she credits all The New Yorker writers her stable of researchers could check out with effect­ing nothing less than a revolution in Hollywood tastes: “They changed movies by raking the old moralistic muck with derision. Those sickly Graustarkian romances with beautiful pure high-born girls and pathetic lame girls and dashing princes in love with commoners, and all the Dumas and Sabatini and Blasco-lbanez, now had to compete with the freedom and wildness of American comedy.” Aside from taking a poke at Stroheim and Ingram, this passage is notable only for the fatuous falseness of its generalization. “Docks of New York,” “Sunrise,” “The Crowd,” “The River,” “Lonesome,” “A Girl in Every Port,” “Beggars of Life,” “That Certain Thing,” “Show People,” “The Jack Knife Man,” to name but a small sampling of the silents, were far closer to a kind of grubby grandeur than to Grau­stark.

A false record of film history is relevant here only to the extent that it contributes to a spectacular misinterpretation of “Citizen Kane” itself. After thousands of words of interesting gossip, “Raising Kane” brings us up short with the terse bulletin: “Which takes us right up to ‘Citizen Kane,’ the biggest newspaper picture of them all — the picture that ends with the introduction of the cast and a reprise of the line ‘I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.’ ” Here at least Miss Kael can be credited with a certain degree of originality, however bizarre, in treating “Citizen Kane” as the last of the Stop-the-Presses movies instead of the first of the Stop-the-World-I-Want-To-Get-Off films. What most other critics take to be a coffin, the irrepressible Miss Kael takes to be a barrel of laughs. A man dies, his best friend spits on his memory, his second wife be­comes an alcoholic, a sled is burned, and everyone gets old in the process. Next Week, East Lynne.

But to support her oddly jocular reaction to “Kane,” Miss Kael is compelled to discount what Herman J. Mankiewicz actually did as a screenwriter for close to 30 years and try to place him as a person in the midst of the Algonquin Circle. Names are dropped with gay abandon, a Dorothy Parker here, a Nathanael West there. No need then to mention such relatively heroic Hollywood work-horses as Robert Riskin and Dudley Nichols. They never dined with Harold Ross, and hence they don’t count even though they wrote a hundred times as many funny lines as Parker and West put together. Besides, once you start mentioning genuine professionals like Riskin and Nichols, you have to start mentioning directors like Capra and Ford and McCarey, and they too had nothing to do with the Algonquin Circle. As for Herman J. Mankiewicz — that is, the real Herman J. Mankiewicz — his forte was never comedy at all but what Miss Kael would describe derisively as romantic melodrama. His most memo­rable movies before Kane are two interesting William Powell vehi­cles entitled “Man of the World” and “Ladies’ Man,” and after “Kane,” two oddly convoluted movies for, respectively, Robert Siodmak (“Christmas Holiday”) and Nicholas Ray (“A Woman’s Secret”), the latter movie strikingly anticipatory of brother Joe’s “All About Eve.”

A man’s life, as Kane suggests, is more than a jigsaw puzzle. Even when we have fitted all the pieces together, we may have difficulty understanding the completed portrait. It may be that Herman J. Mankiewicz’s troubles started long before he came to Hollywood, but once there he encountered a crisis in film history which should at least be considered as part of his malaise. Back in 1931, the plot of “Man of the World” did not cause too much excitement. According to the Harrison’s Reports of March 28, 1931, “The hero was a publisher of a scandal sheet. His system was to appear at the home of a wealthy person with an advance proof of some item that was to be printed about him. He would claim to be desirous of hav­ing this blackmailer prosecuted, but the person involved would never consent to do this as it would be embarrassing. Instead he would pay him hush money, which he thought would be turned over to the black­mailer, but which the hero would keep. At the home of one of his vic­tims he meets the heroine. They actually fall in love with each other. He tells her about his past, but she is willing to marry him. The hero later realizes the impossibility of this when his former sweetheart who was his blackmailing assistant tells him that he can never escape from the past. He prints an item about the heroine and himself and presents it to her uncle. In her presence he accepts a check for $10,000 as hush money, and she is completely disillusioned. The police force him to leave Paris and he goes to South Africa with his former sweetheart. The heroine leaves for America, glad to be rid of him.

“The story was written by Herman Mankiewicz. It was directed by Richard Wallace. In the cast are William Powell, Carole Lombard, Wynne Gibson, Guy Kibbee and others. The talk is very indistinct and at times even difficult to understand. Not suitable for children, or even for adults. Not a Sunday show. Not a substitution. Note: Two con­ceiled advertisements are used in this picture; mention is made of both Duns and Bradstreets.”

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The exhaustively censorious coverage of Harrison’s Reports neglects one slight plot detail. The hero tears up the check from his beloved’s uncle and lets the pieces flutter out to sea. This check­-tearing gesture is repeated more obliquely in “Kane” by Jed Leland via a letter to Kane with the torn pieces of a check inside.

“Ladies’ Man,” the next month, reflected more sordidness and self­ hatred than even “Man of the World.” Powell plays a self-mocking gigolo, almost redeemed from his shameful profession by the true love of Kay Francis, but finally destroyed by the unbridled passions of a mother (Olive Tell) and daughter (Carole Lombard) team in wicked high society. Powell’s actual Nemesis is an implacable banker­-father-husband (Gilbert Emery) who intervenes for the sake of his daughter after tolerating the indiscretions of his wife. It is the night of the masquerade ball. Powell is dressed in the grotesque costume of Potemkin to his elderly mistress’s Catherine. The dignified hus­band comes to Powell’s room and ends up hurling him from the balcony. He then goes downstairs and takes his place alongside his wife for the Grand March. She knows intuitively what has happened and walks beside him fearfully but proudly. The police are waiting. But the march continues round and round. William Everson has compared this extraordinary figure of style to the climactic moments of Jacques Prevert in “Lumiere d’Ete” (directed by Jean Gremillon) and “The Lovers of Verona” (directed by Henri Cayatte). They are, like the climactic moments in “Ladies’ Man,” more the moments of a writer than of a director. If Sternberg had directed “Ladies Man,” it might have been one of the great movies of the ’30s. Unfortu­nately, the director was Lothar Mendes, and the movie was con­signed to oblivion except for the assiduous research of old-movie buffs. Still, I could see at last on the screen some prior evidence of the feeling that went into Kane and suddenly Kane itself took on a new coloration in the frightful tension between an old writer loaded down with fables of shame and guilt and a young director loaded down with fantasies of power and glory. For Mankiewicz, “Kane” may have been the last stop on this earth, and for Welles the first step on the moon.

1971 4-part Village Voice essay in which Andrew Sarris challenged Pauline Kael's assessment of "Citizen Kane"

Part 4: June 3, 1971

The one expression critics invariably used to describe Herman Mankiewicz’s dialogue was “grown-up,” not witty or New Yorkerish or hilarious, but simply grown-up. And the dialogue in “Citizen Kane” is nothing if not grown-up. The trouble is that after 1933, serious grown-up screenwriters were increasingly plagued by a childish censorship, and only grown-up critics like Otis Ferguson and Meyer Levin even noticed the havoc that was being wrought. I suspect that Mankiewicz became more despondent and frustrated in this period, partly because his bitterness and cynicism could no longer find per­missible plots in which to function and partly because Paramount itself was on the downgrade with its arty, adult projects. In all the space she has devoted in “Raising Kane” to an analysis of the script, Pauline Kael never mentions the brothel scene with Kane and Le­land, a scene that the censors knocked out of Mankiewicz’s original script, one of many elisions that tended to tip the viewpoint of the film from the more sensual Mankiewicz to the more theatrical Welles. Curiously, the rigid censorship that was in force in 1941 worked to the advantage of Welles vis-a-vis other directors with fewer hang ups about women.

Why, then, has Welles virtually obliterated Mankiewicz from view over the years? For one thing, Welles has continued living and, by living, incarnating “Kane.” Pauline Kael, Hollis Alpert and even the usually perspicacious Richard Corliss are in error when they blame the auteurists and other director-cultists for glorifying the director. Welles happened to be everything on “Kane,” producer, director, star and unit publicist. It is as if Marlon Brando, Stanley Kubrick and Darryl F. Zanuck were the same person. And yet it is Welles, more than any director up to his time, who made directing fashionably conspicuous. As Frank S. Nugent noted in the New York Sunday Times of June 12, 1938: “Speaking of Frank Borzage and George Stevens, as we expect to, brings up the matter of the unsung motion picture director. We remember a poll conducted by one of the theatre circuits not so long ago in which the patrons were invited to name their favorite stars, pictures, stories and directors. John Public and his wife sprinted through the first three categories and bluffed or quit cold on the fourth. Adolph Zukor, of all people, was voted the favorite director by some; Sam Goldwyn was an­other contender. As we recall it, Ernst Lubitsch won in a walk. His name seemed to be easy to remember. Actually, it was no contest.

“Since this is a day of quizzes, spelling bees and all kinds of brain-teasers, we wonder how many persons could identify the following in terms of their recent, or their most outstanding pictures: Gregory La Cava, Leo McCarey, Wesley Ruggles, Clarence Brown, Fritz Lang, Al­fred Hitchcock, Robert Stevenson, Michael Curtiz, Norman Taurog and Victor Fleming. Or would you score better if the professor asked you to name the director of “The Informer,” of “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” of “Wells Fargo,” or “A Slight Case of Murder” and “The Good Earth”? (Don’t be upset if you wind up with a dunce cap: you could catch us just as easily.)

“The point, if any, is not merely that we are apt to forget the director after the fact — which would be at most a pardonable lapse of memory but that we frequently ignore him during it. In clearer words, most of us take a film’s direction for granted, whether it is good or bad, and toss the laurel wreath or the poison ivy sprig at the players. Quite possibly the oversight works as often as it does to his disadvantage. Still, we feel it’s high time to make the director come out from behind those false whiskers and take his place in the hot glare of the cinema spotlight.”

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Actually the auteurist are still fighting an uphill battle to make movie audiences conscious of style, despite all the apparent published evidence to the contrary. The player is still the thing, be he John Wayne or Dustin Hoffman or, to the immediate point, Orson Welles. Admittedly, Welles often shows a tendency to swallow up subordinate credits and thinner egos. For years he has been hinting broadly that he had everything to do with the carousel scene in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” and he has never gotten over the bad habit of directing other directors for whom he is ostensibly only act­ing, and sometimes barely that. This is the monstrous side of his personality, but since Kane he has displayed a great many more in­teresting and compassionate sides to this same personality, especially in movies like “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “Lady from Shanghai,” “Touch of Evil,” and “Falstaff.” Still, the plot line of “Mr. Arkadin” could be interpreted as a parable of an artist setting out to eliminate all his collaborators.

However, nothing is to be gained in the attempted resurrection of Herman J. Mankiewicz by painting him as something he is not, spe­cifically the comic muse of the Marx Brothers in “Duck Soup” and “A Night at the Opera,” movies from which Mankiewicz was fired very early in the proceedings. By crediting Mankiewicz with these movies on the flimsiest evidence, Miss Kael defrauds writers Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, director Leo McCarey (“Duck Soup”), writers George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind and director Sam Wood (“A Night at the Opera”) in much the same way that she claims Welles and the Wellesians have defrauded Herman J. Mankiewicz. Besides, the two funniest episodes in “Duck Soup” — the lemonade war between Harpo and Edgar Kennedy, the mirror sequence — are de­rived from old Charlie Chase and Laurel and Hardy farces, and Mc­Carey directed both Chase and Laurel and Hardy in the silent era. So much for the Algonquin Circle as the sole dispenser of ’30s movie comedy. Miss Kael probably felt that a relationship, however tenuous, with the Marx Brothers would strengthen her argument that Mankiewicz was a man of mirth. She seems unaware that “Duck Soup” was a flop at the time of its release; and the Marx Brothers were let go at Paramount, as was W. C. Fields a few years later. A great many of today’s comedy classics like “Bringing Up Baby” and “Holiday” were box-office failures in the ’30s. Paramount and RKO were two of the better studios of the ’30s and they paid the price by not harvesting the corn as assiduously as Metro did. When I look over the list of great films, here and abroad, that have failed to attract audiences in their own time, I find it difficult to endorse Miss Kael’s neat conspiracy theory to explain why “Kane” did not do better than it did. It was no fault of Hearst’s that “Kane” was a complete commercial flop in England, where Hearst had as little influence as Lord Beaverbrook had here. Also, the New York run began tapering off well before its tenth week, as if the word-of-mouth were getting around that Kane was a cold, gloomy movie at a time when cold, gloomy movies were not nearly as fashionable as they are today, and, even so, have you peeked at the grosses for “Persona” lately?

Nor do I agree that the Academy Awards might have turned the tide commercially. Miss Kael neglects to mention what actually did win the Oscar that year: “How Green Was My Valley,” a movie that, though it would not have gotten my vote over “Kane” at the time, is nonetheless the best movie, apart from “Sunrise,” ever to win an Oscar. (I think it is much more disgraceful that “Mrs. Miniver” won the 1942 Academy Award over “The Magnificent Ambersons.”) And even Welles could not quarrel with the choice of John Ford as best director in 1941 by both the New York Film Critics and the Acad­emy. After all, Welles did study for “Kane” under Ford, Frank Capra, King Vidor and Fritz Lang, and if Miss Kael would take another look at “Stagecoach” and “The Informer,” she would find more expres­sionism than she suspects.

Despite her blatant bias against Welles, Miss Kael is to be com­mended for providing as much information as she has on the life and background of Herman J. Mankiewicz. Since his death in 1953 he has indeed been a forgotten man, eclipsed not only by Welles but by his younger brother, Joe. Richard Griffith credits the script “Kane” to Joseph Mankiewicz in the once authoritative film history co­authored with Paul Rotha and entitled The Film Till Now. To this day the Film Daily Year Book records the name of the Oscar winner for best original screenplay in 1941 (along with Orson Welles) as “John Mankiewicz.” The late great French film critic Jean-Georges Auriol assumed that the Mankiewicz who had coauthored “Kane” (Herman) had also directed “Dragonwyck” (Joseph). Part of the problem is the anomalous position of the screenwriter in terms of autonomous creation, a position accurately described for all coun­tries and all times by Alberto Moravia in “Ghost at Noon”: “I want to say a few words about the job of a script-writer, if only to give a better understanding of my feelings at that time. As everyone knows, the script-writer is the one who — generally in collaboration with another script-writer and with the director — writes the script or scenario, that is, the canvas from which the film will later be taken. In this script, and according to the development of the action, the gestures and words of the actors and the various movements of the camera are minutely indicated, one by one. The script is, therefore, drama, mime, cinemato­graphic technique, mise-en-scene, and direction, all at the same time. Now, although the script-writer’s part in the film is of the first impor­tance and comes immediately below that of the director, it remains always, for reasons inherent in the fashion in which the art of the cinema has hitherto developed, hopelessly subordinate and obscure. If, in fact, the arts are to be judged from the point of view of direct expression­ — and one does not really see how else they can be judged — the script­writer is an artist who, although he gives his best to the film, never has the comfort of knowing that he has expressed himself. And so, with all his creative work, he can he be nothing more than a provider of suggestions and inventions, of tit is then the director’s task to nuke me of technical, psychological and literary ideas; it is then the director’s task to make the material according to his own genius and, in fact, to express himself.”

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The proof that Moravia’s maxims still pertain even after Miss Kael has reconsidered the roles of Welles and Mankiewicz lies in the fact that no one has proposed publishing the original first draft of the “Kane” script. What will appear in print (with “Raising Kane” as an added dividend prologue) is the final shooting script of the film now in the can. The published script of “Kane” will therefore not be an independent literary entity like a published play, but rather a printed reference to a can of film stored somewhere. If “Citizen Kane” had appeared as a Mercury Theatre production on stage before reaching the screen, there would be nothing to stop an enterprising producer from redoing it as a play or even making it as a film with, say, Mike Nichols directing Dustin Hoffman as Kane, Jon Voigt as Leland, Alan Arkin as Bernstein, Ali McGraw as the first Mrs. Kane and Barbra Streisand as Susan Alexander. That is why Don Man­kiewicz’s plaintive letter to the Voice associating his late father with Shakespeare, and Orson Welles with Franco Zeffirelli doesn’t really apply to the admittedly arbitrary situation of cinema. There is no ontological reason why screenplays cannot enjoy an independent lit­erary existence and be remade at will every season. It is just the way things are that Herman J. Mankiewicz must play second fiddle to Orson Welles all through eternity.

But if Welles has never been singularly generous to Herman J. Mankiewicz, he was always more than generous to Gregg Toland, and I would support the majority view on “Kane” (against Kael) that the movie looks more extraordinary than it sounds. Indeed, it is bewildering how Miss Kael can evade the responsibility of systematic visual analysis in the case of a cinematographic landmark like “Citizen­ Kane.” She refers to Otis Ferguson’s critique of “Kane” as the best review of the film without coming to grips with his denunciation of the film’s talky, showy theatricality. She never shows the slightest comprehension of the aesthetic issues raised by the film, issues that are unresolved to this day. Nor does she acknowledge the possibility that critics of good mind and good will may thoroughly dislike “Kane.” Instead, she employs “Kane” as a club to batter many of her pet targets all the more vulnerable for being so vague. One would never read Pauline Kael to find out why the camera moves mystically toward and into the mirror after Kane and his myriad reflections have filed past. This would take Miss Kael into those dangerously stylistic speculations that are the great glory of film. But if we are to believe Miss Kael’s protestations on the subject, she deplores any trace of mysticism or even mystery in the medium. The lights must be on at all times and the mind clear, and the intellect engaged.

Still, one must wonder why Miss Kael’s commercially  successful collections of movie reviews have all exploited a conspicuously carnal relationship with her subject at least in their titles — “I Lost It at the Movies,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” and “Going Steady.” Methinks the lady doth protest too much. The great appeal of movies is emotional rather than intellectual. To believe otherwise is to lie to yourself and to your readers. Worse still, you spend your whole life scolding your most charming seducers because they do not go out to seek honest work. I think it is a mistake for critics to scold artists, or even to bemoan their bad luck. Whereas Miss Kael tends to be Faustian in these matters, I tend to be Adlerian. It is better to accept and appre­ciate the supposed “disappointments” of our time — Welles, Mailer, Salinger — for what they’ve done rather than for what they might have have done if we had been able to crack the whip over them. They have all done as much as they were humanly capable of doing, and so did Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Dos Passos before them, and thank God for “The Great Gatsby,” “The Sun Also Rises” and “U.S.A.” and never mind the rude avoidance of encores.

I think Welles, Mankiewicz, Toland, Herrmann, Polglaise et al, did very well, all things considered. It wasn’t their fault that Welles longed to be RKO’s Max Reinhardt when all RKO could afford was Val Lewton. But if we shall always remember Welles from “Citizen Kane,” it is not so much because he created it as because it created him and because also, in some ineffable way, he has never been un­worthy of it. Indeed, “Citizen Kane” has been enriched in retrospect by Welles’s extraordinary tenacity in maintaining his personal vision in an often impersonal medium. To argue, as Miss Kael does, that the absolute freedom of the screen artist is the key to film art is to fly in the face of experience. Mike Nichols was as free on “Catch-22” as Welles ever was on “Kane,” and Miss Kael does not seem to have been enchanted. Bruce Baillie has always been free in his fashion, and he never ceases to bore me. Chaplin was economically free throughout his career, and he ended up driving away most of his audience. (And who remembers that Welles supplied Chaplin with the story for “Monsieur Verdoux?”)

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By denying the emotional, even romantic resonance of the movie­going experience, Miss Kael often reduces her admirable lucidity to the most addled literalism, as, for example, when she drags “Kane” down to the level of a newspaper yarn: “Among the minor absurdities of the script is that the ‘News on the March’ men never think of sending a cameraman along with the in­quiring reporter, though Gable had just played a newsreel cameraman in “Too Hot to Handle,” in 1938, and though in “The Philadelphia Story,” which had just opened on Broadway in 1939, and which Mankiewicz’s brother Joe produced for the screen in 1940, while ‘Kane’ was being shot, the magazine team, also obviously from Luce, includes a photographer. There’s something rather pathetic — almost as if ‘Kane’ were a Grade B movie that didn’t have a big enough budget for a few extra players — ­about that one lonely sleuthing reporter traveling around the country while a big organization delays the release of an important newsreel documentary on the head of a rival news chain.”

Miss Kael’s complaint is unique in the annals of “Kane” criticism. Most everyone else has always been comfortable with the notion that the shadowy reporter is at least partly a metaphorical means of prying the truth loose from the past. Besides, he’s not doing a pic­ture spread for Life but, rather, looking for the meaning of one word, a meaning moreover that can be voiced-over the otherwise completed newsreel. Finally, who needs Ruth Hussey trotting around with a camera when Gregg Toland is already staring at each set with his cruel lenses?

Elsewhere, Miss Kael suggests that Welles was tricked by both his script and his camera crew during the shooting. She can’t have it both ways, treating Welles like Machiavelli in one paragraph and like Mortimer Snerd in another. With all the power Welles pos­sessed on either side of the camera and in the cutting room, it is hard to see how he could be “tricked” without his knowledge, com­plicity and even industrious cooperation. Movie-making is more te­dious and complicated than the ordinary run of ego-game-playing can stand, and the memories of the underlings often sacrifice dull facts for demonic fantasies. As it stands, the best criticism of “Kane” (as of most films) has been written by people with little access to all the gossip. At the moment, I prefer to think of “Citizen Kane” as one of the many good movies turned out in Hollywood in the past half century. Even in 1941 there were other good movies to pass the time, and though there was something special about “Kane,” it was comprehensible in terms of a moviegoer’s total experience. The mo­ment someone tells me that “Citizen Kane” is the only good American film I immediately realize that that someone does not fully under­stand even “Kane.” ❖