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FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

The Africentric Cinema of Julie Dash

Of Homegirl Goddesses and Geechee Women 

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust has been described as the first translation of the sensibility found in contemporary Black women’s literature to the screen. Logocentrists and literary scholars beware: Dash’s achievement is not simply a matter of grafting the thematic concerns of Hurston, Morrison, Walker, and Naylor to the screen. The filmmaking magic and craft of Dash and her cinema­tographer, Arthur Jafa, shows through most brilliantly in the film’s comprehensive Afrocentric visual aesthetic and richness of period detail. Daughters evokes the spirituality and emotional depths of those writer’s mytho­poeic prose styles. It is a film of visionary power conceived with a passion for pure research.

Ostensibly about a Gullah fam­ily whose younger generation are making plans to leave their ances­tral islands for mainland U.S.A. at the crest of the 20th century, Daughters is also an interrogation of Black America’s cleft soul, split between the quest for modernity and a hunger for the replenish­ment of roots. Zeroing in on the family’s women, it captures the shifting faces of dignity, denial, yearning, and elegance that give shape and meaning to Black fe­male subjectivity. Daughters is an unparalleled and unprecedented achievement in terms of both world cinema and African aesthet­ics. In this it extends ten thou­sand-fold the canon of Black film to have emerged from the UCLA-based Black filmmakers Dash joined in the late ’70s — Charles Burnell, Haile Gerima, Larry Clarke, Alile Sharon Larkin, Billy Woddberry, Zeinabu Davis. Pending a distribution deal this summer, the film should be in a theater near you this fall, making it the first feature-length film di­rected by an African-American woman to gain a national theatri­cal release. Anybody in need of more encouragement than this to give Julie Dash her props is just wasting my breath. — Greg Tate

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Greg Tate: Did you feel you were engaged in a heroic, historic act while you were making the movie?

Julie Dash: Absolutely. Everyone involved in Daughters was aware that these were the islands where the slaves were quarantined and fattened up after the Middle Pas­sage and before being sent to the ports of Charleston. Since we were working with available light, we’d go out and wait every morning for the sunrise. When the sun would rise everyone in the crew would stop unless we were actually shooting. Often people would weep. Then there were things like the sandstorm that hit us all of a sudden on a clear day in the mid­dle of a heavy dramatic scene. It was like [whistles Twilight Zone theme]. We slopped shooting and ran for cover in the woods behind the beach. One of the actresses, Verta Mae Grosvenor, came up and told me, “You stirring too much stuff up girl.”

Tate: What do you use as a guide­post for translating African mysti­cism and spiritual experiences to the screen? How do you know you’re on the right track?

Dash: You don’t. Every morning I’d get up and say, please ances­tors help me. All the rituals are based on extensive research. But sometimes you have to trust your gut to do or not do something. For instance, we found an ancient African graveyard, and the first thought was, this is great, these are slave graves, the old souls are buried here, we can construct our Ki-Kongo graveyard on top of this. We’ll be on sacred ground. We got our props there and our production designer Kerry Mar­shall looked at me, and said, “This is not right.” And I said, “You’re right, let’s go find ground where people aren’t buried.”

Tate: Why a story about the Gul­lah at the turn of the century?

Dash: The Sea Islands are sacred ground. All our ancestors came through these islands. I wanted to do a story set at the turn of the century about the first generation of free Blacks, and a story about a pivotal moment in the lives of the women of the family. Also, be­cause my father’s family came from that area, I’ve heard Gee­chee and Gullah dialect, and eat­en the food all my life. I don’t remember much from my visits during the summer when I was a kid, but I was influenced by the Geechees I knew on 165th and Amsterdam Ave. There was a bar called The Office and mostly Gul­lah and Geechee would go there. Whenever we wanted to call my father, we’d call The Office. My mother will die to hear me say that. For me hearing heavy Gullah dialect is not strange. My grand­mother speaks that way.

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Tate: You made a decision to not do the film in a thick dialect with subtitles.

Dash: My original intention was to have thick Gullah language with subtitles and then segue into Gullah dialect. Some people seem to have problems with it, but to tell the truth, I had problems with Miller’s Crossing. It made me re­alize that I’ve done that all my life, pushed through on accents until I understood them. Why is it with Daughters of the Dust that people almost seem offended by it? When they bring it up, I tell them, “Release on it, you’ll under­stand it in a minute.” You may not understand every sentence but you’ll surely get the general idea, the sensibility of the whole thing. We’ve grown up translating. We have no other choice.

Tate: Does the whole question of whether you’re pushing an audi­ence too hard ever come into it for you? When do you release on that?

Dash: I think it’s on a project-by­-project basis. On Daughters it was about breaking through, doing something different. I mean, all the main characters are grounded in West African cosmology. The narrative is not driven by the Greek gods but Oshun, Oya­-Yansa, Yemoja, Eshu-Elegba. Then there’s a lot of subliminal stuff happening. We have a mas­ter talking drummer playing mes­sages very subtly throughout the film, saying in Yoruba, “Remem­ber me, remember my name, take me with you, take me where you go.” I know people can’t under­stand it, but I want it working on people’s subconscious. All the mu­sic by John Barnes was composed in certain astrological keys. We had Santeria high priestesses came in and sang secret songs to Oshun. There’s so much working in this film that has never been done be­fore. All the principal actors had worked in films by other Black independent directors. We worked with fine artists like Da­vid Hammons, Tyrone Mitchell, Kerry Marshall, Michael Kelly Williams, Martha Jackson-Jarvis. All these people coming together make it an exciting grand experiment.

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Tate: In terms of Black female ico­nography and beauty, Daughters is a breakthrough.

Dash: We brought in Pamela Fer­rell of Cornrows Incorporated from D.C. This woman is a mas­ter cornrower and hairstylist who studied in Africa. We have hair­styles representing people from Senegal, the Ivory Coast, and Madagascar. We didn’t take any­thing lightly. I remember many years ago I was doing an intern­ship on Roots when I was al the AFI, and of course all the hair-dressers were white. Being my young naïve self I asked them what gave them the idea for giving these slave women pressed hair. One said to me, “Oh yes, we re­searched this, and they were try­ing to emulate their masters.” I thought, wait a minute. Would the people in Dachau, if they could, try to dress, or even act, like their German captors? It made no sense. It was ridiculous. Not to mention that you’ve never seen that hairstyle in any drawings or photographs from the period.

Tate: The film is praise-song to the beauty of dark-skinned Black women. But, I heard, that after the screening a few weeks back, one black woman critic reduced Daughters to being a film that was “about hair.”

Dash: I guess it’s all about what your nervous system can stand. As a Black woman you’re constantly being bombarded by all these oth­er images like the Revlon woman pulling out her blow dryer like a gunfighter. Those things affect your concept of what you have to do to be a “real woman.” There’s a lot of drama around Black hair. Teachers treating girls with soft straight hair nicer than those with short nappy hair. I could try and be a filmmaker who was myopic about it, like this really isn’t an issue, but it would be untrue. The other thing is, in all other types of films, you see women with all kinds of hairstyles and no one no­tices. You have Black women wearing something other than a doo-rag, and all of a sudden, you’re self-conscious in the follicle area. I wanted these women to look like nothing you’ve ever seen on the screen before, and I wanted them to have ancient hairstyles.

Tate: Body language is more im­portant than dialogue in Daugh­ters, and a lot of other Black wom­en’s films, as a way of communicating.

Dash: Body language was impor­tant in West Africa. Women standing arms akimbo, hands on hips — was first seen in this country through slave women doing that. The young child straddling the mother’s hip is another exam­ple. Averting the eyes, turning your face away from someone you respect, like a grandparent, is a West African sign of respect that still persists in the Black commu­nity. Those motor habits persist.

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Tate: In terms of world cinema, how do you see Daughters?

Dash: I think it’s a timeless piece, not something that’s trendy for right now. It’s a huge photograph that whoever sees it could take and put in their mind’s eye, and walk around to the end of their days and feel better about a whole lot of things. It’s like a balm. I think people will look at it 10, 20 years from now and discover new things and new emotions in it. You won’t be able to do that with a whole lot of other films.

Tate: You think there’s a popular audience out there for it?

Dash: I think the audience we get will suprise some people. It clearly frightens most white males and they are the ones who get to say what kind of audience is out there for a Daughters of the Dust. They don’t understand it for the most part and don’t want to say that they don’t, so they say it’s not good, or it’s not well crafted or the dramatic themes were spotty. Daughters should be promoted as a woman’s film, as an art film. It’s not a homeboy film, it’s not even a homegirl film. It’s interesting that most of the people doing the homeboy/homegirl films didn’t grow up in that section [of the city]. I grew up in the projects so I’m not doing those types of films.

Tate: Could you ever see yourself making a film about growing up in the projects?

Dash: Yes, I could, but it would be very different from what we have out there now. Those are coming-of-age films for males and I’m not gonna do that.

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Tate: How has Black women’s literature affected your work?

Dash: That’s the reason I’m doing it. I stopped making documenta­ries after discovering Toni Morri­son, Toni Cade Bambara, and Alice Walker in high school. I’d wondered, why can’t we see mov­ies like this? I realized I needed to learn how to make narrative mov­ies. I couldn’t believe it when I first read books like Toni Morri­son’s Sula and Toni Cade Bamba­ra’s Gorilla, My Love, I’d put the books down and say, I know these people. I’ll never forget reading about “the Deweys” in Sula, and thinking that the lady who took care of me would do this. Name all three of her kids Dewey, like it didn’t matter. Miz Edwards. As I think back on it, she had a pro­found effect on me, because she would comb my hair and burn it so no one could get hold of it. And talk about hiding your pictures so no one could put gopher dust on them and drive you crazy. All this kind of stuff became normal to me, not something you have to point out. So when I have stuff like that in my films, it’s not like, look, we’re about to pour on this ritual now. I see these things as a part of our everyday life. It’s our culture and tradition. ❖

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FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

Julie Dash Films Gullah Country

FAVORITE DAUGHTERS

Gullah country, more commonly known as the Georgia Sea Islands, starts off the coastline of Beaufort County, South Carolina, and stretches south into Georgia. The islands are connected to the mainland by bridges of recent vintage; locals refer to the whole region as the Low Country. To get there from here you must be driven 50 miles from the Savannah airport, perhaps by a retired gentleman from Buffalo who affably shares news of his upcom­ing trip to Minneapolis for cancer treatment. So much for smalltalk. Kick back, enjoy the ride and the countryside: winding blacktop flanked by high-rise forests, ranch houses, trailer homes, and the occasional dog or possum come out from under some semi’s wheels to lump up the road, organic sculpture from the Francis Bacon school. Peculiar to the region’s foliage are nifty, atmo­spheric ornaments: drooping spools of Spanish moss and spiky palmettos. Half­way to our destination, the Royal Frog­more Inn, my compañera asks me what I notice first when I visit a new place and I say the houses. Beulah Joe says she looks at the dirt and wonders what the differ­ence between us means. I tell her it means I’m a house Negro and she’s a field Negro and she laughs, well, we already knew that.

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The Royal Frogmore is a motel on the island of St. Helena. The black people who populate St. Helena and most of the other islands off the Georgia and South Carolina coasts are known as Gullah or Geechees. People who don’t know any better think Gullah people talk funny. Those in the know realize that Gullah is a bona fide dialect and are confident in the scholarly thesis that ‘Gullah’ is a contrac­tion of ‘Angola.’

But me and Beulah Joe aren’t here to gaze upon the Gullah. We’re here to see black independent filmmaker Julie Dash go into intensive labor on her feature-in­-utero, Daughters of the Dust, a turn-of­-the-century tale about a fictional Gullah family. Dash has three other films to her credit: Four Women, a choreopoem based on the Nina Simone song of the same name; Diary of an African Nun, from the Alice Walker short story; and Illusions, a 34-minute original starring Lonette McKee as a black woman exec passing for white at a Hollywood studio during the wartime ’40s. The latter has received standing ovations from Amy Taubin, J. Hoberman, and the dean of black inde­pendent film crits, Clyde Taylor.

Daughters is Dash’s most ambitious project to date on several counts, not least for being shot on 35mm color stock, which costs $365 per two-minute reel. Dash’s financing for the two-week shoot comes from several grants — $25,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts, $5000 from the Appleshop Southeast Re­gional Fellowship, $9000 from the Geor­gia Endowment for the Humanities, $16,000 from the Fulton County Arts Council. By the end of her Beaufort stay, Dash says, she’ll be worrying over how she and husband/cinematographer A. J. Fielder are going to pay their rent and phone bills. Dash’s plan after initial shooting is to edit a trailer on video then seek out investors and more grants. As independent film financing schemes go, it’s as sound as any.

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Dash’s personal demeanor suggests both dreamy-eyed fabulist and fo­cused professional. Her attitude on the set is casual but only be­cause her preproduction work is meticulous, worked out in fine detail on the Toshiba PC she’s installed in her Royal Frogmore office. Day charts detail­ing the entire two-week shoot drape the walls with information on costume changes, locations, camera angles, and special effects. She considers herself more a technical director than an actor’s director, and very little dialogue goes on between her and the actors on the set. Dialogue with the crew is also at a minimum. Once Dash sets up her shots and sound and camera get rolling, the action plays until the takes sync with her vision. Her mood on the shoot is chill maximus.

Dash’s eyes, spunky and alert eyes, per­petually gleam. They are set in a doeish face that maternal weight-gain has left somewhat stout. On location the director wears pearl-drop earrings and coral lip­stick, jeans, a fisherman’s cap decorated by a Palestinian Film Institute pin, and a Venezia sweatshirt. The island’s kamika­ze gnats and mosquitoes dive over her Reebok hightops, leaving her legs and ankles a spotted red.

The production’s budget crunch will have Dash pull triple-duty as wardrobe mistress, makeup artist, and director. In this she’s not alone: Her coproducer Ber­nard Nicolas functions as troubleshooter, fogmachine operator, and soundman. Art director Kerry Marshall will take time away from building a graveyard, Eli’s blacksmith shop, and an indigo process­ing plant to play a bit part as a Muslim bowing toward Mecca from the beach. First assistant cameraman Will Hudson will step from behind the camera to por­tray a slave in a flashback scene.

Set in 1902, Daughters focuses on a Gullah family whose young adults are preparing for a mass exodus north and a junking of their Gullah heritage in their diaspora to industrialized America. An acknowledged point of departure for Dash’s script is the work of Toni Morri­son, particularly evident in Dash’s han­dling of Gullah women’s communal infrastructure. The leading characters are, with one exception, female. There is the wizened, snuff-chomping matriarch Great Mother Palmer, an African born in captivity who fears the young people’s connection to the ancestors will be severed by urbanization and Christian con­version. Opposing her is Hagar — an edu­cated convert, brashly sarcastic toward Great Mother Palmer’s “hoodoo” reli­gion. Yella Mary has recently returned from a life of surrogate mothering and prostitution in Cuba. Eula is young, preg­nant, and victim of a rape by a white man. Her husband Eli, the community blacksmith, suspects the baby ain’t his. Dash’s personal favorite among her dra­matis personae is The Unborn Child, a spritely five-year-old vision of Eula and Eli’s progeny who romps unseen on the margins of key scenes.

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There are several dream sequences in the scenario. Ancestral spirits visit the living to chase away their inner de­mons — an Africanist switch on conven­tional film use of both phantasms and psychoanalysis. While the offscreen rape would play as melodramatic fodder in a David Wolper postbellum potboiler, Dash uses it symbolically to probe black wom­en’s wombs — investigating their powers of regeneration and the psychic scars left by forced miscegenation. Like Morrison’s novels, the script for Daughters is a testi­mony to the secret celebrations and packed-away sorrows of African-Ameri­can women.

Dash was raised in the Queensridge projects but her daddy was a Gee­chee. Dash’s mother used to tell her, if you think your father talks funny you should hear some of his backwoods cousins. Dash remembers her daddy as a fancy dan who loved ballroom dancing. One day he brought a bucket of crabs home and set them loose on the living room floor (the Gullah being re­nowned for their shrimp and crab fish­ing). Dash smiles at the memory of climbing over the furniture, screaming with delight.

Dash’s uncle Julien was a jazz saxo­phonist who wrote the swing hit “Tuxedo Junction” for Erskine Hawkins’s band and made Super-8 and 16mm films of his life on the road. Her uncle Roger, who resides in Los Angeles, has been an in­dustrial film producer for 15 years. Nei­ther of these relations, Dash says, played any role in her decision to become a film­maker 17 years ago. That she attributes to the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Dash went to meet a girlfriend and found herself seduced by the 16mm hardware floating around a cinematography class her homegirl was taking. The equipment had been donated after the riots, part of the era’s gliberal program to quell the rage of Harlem youth. A few years later the gear would be reclaimed by its do­-good donors. Dash recalls the teaching method as hands-on and the esthetic as verité.

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Dash remembers her childhood as one spent reading and daydreaming. Day­dreaming has always gotten her into trouble. In third grade she wrote a story about the sun and the moon which her teacher brandished before the class as an example of something called plagiarism. Dash’s mother straightened that teacher out, like she straightened out a meddle­some churchgoer who complained during a Bear Mountain voyage about Dash staring into the water on a cruise. Dash was daydreaming, a frequent pastime to spare herself from condescending adult conversation. The busybody advised psychiatric help for Dash. Dash’s mother told the woman who really needed help.

Mom could relate: she was a daydream­er too. She often told her daughters how as a child she believed she was a princess who’d been shanghaied to North Caroli­na. Dash recently had her astrologer do a reading for Mom. He divined she’d been a princess in a past life. Dash’s mother also used to drape shower curtains depicting a beach or Parisian cafe scene over a door and photograph herself and her daugh­ters playacting in bathing suits. Record­ing this material I glimmer the pleasures it might bring — for some Lacanian film theorist. Dash says she continues to day­dream and often returns to several that play in her mind like ongoing miniseries, some of which she hopes will one day become films.

The movies Dash remembers best from her youth are West Side Story and Gold­finger, but less as theatrical events than Hollywood product appropriated for neighborhood recreation. There were days when the basketball court would fill up with kids reenacting the Jets-Sharks opera. Dialogue from the Bond film became stock for oblique retorts to teachers and school administrators. “I want scenes like those in my films — the kind you never see in Hollywood movies about black urban youth.”

California dreaming brought Dash to Los Angeles upon her graduation from CCNY’s film program in 1974. One rea­son Dash headed West was to escape the tyranny of political documentary film­making then favored on the East Coast. The concept for her first film, Four Women, was rejected by the brothers at the Studio Museum for being irrelevant to the struggle. The project undertaken in its place would show righteous bloods providing victuals to the starving masses.

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In L.A., Dash became one of the youn­gest fellows in American Film Insti­tute history, a fact that provoked more trepidation than pride. “I was surrounded by all of these people who’d done features, had worked in the industry. I felt out of my depth.” In this period she was also introduced to black independents Larry Clarke and Charles Burnett, who’d been classmates at UCLA with Haile Gerima of Bush Mama fame. Clarke was working on his visionary jazz drama Passing Through; Dash helped with the sound. Burnett had by that time produced his short The Horse and the epochal Killer of Sheep — first-prize win­ner at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival­ — which filmmaker Reggie Hudlin rightly appraises as “black independent cinema’s Invisible Man.”

Dash’s first major project at UCLA was an adaptation of Alice Walker’s story “Diary of an African Nun,” a Bressonian exercise in angst and austerity with spooky black-and-white visuals. The au­thor’s response to the film still smarts for Dash. “I struck a print for her out of courtesy and she sent me a 10-page cri­tique. I wanted to tell her, lady don’t you know I’m only a student?”

Dash wound up making her AFI gradu­ate project, Illusions, at UCLA because the powers that be at Greystoke Mansion disapproved of a scene depicting film-recording technology not possible in the ’40s, when the film takes place. Once again Dash was daydreaming up against a brick wall. “They tell you film is a “fanta­sy medium where you can do anything you want and then say you can’t make a film because some technology wasn’t in­vented yet. They make films about black people that have nothing to do with reali­ty all the time.”

Illusions stirs up a racial identity quag­mire by way of Lanette Mckee’s wanna­bee character, Mignon. The film also frames interlocking takes on racism, sex­ism, patriarchal warmongering, and the exploitation of black musical artists by the white entertainment industry. Illu­sions is unique in black independent cine­ma for its period setting, specially con­structed sets, film-within-film action, white chorus line and mostly white cast. First reactions to the film were disheartening for Dash. At a black film festival in London the pan-ethnic screening board thought it had been sent to them by mis­take. Until she met the festival’s director a year later, Dash couldn’t figure why the film was the only one in the festival not reviewed.

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The scenes shot for this round of pro­duction involve four of the principal characters in Daughters of the Dust­ — Eula, Yella Mary, Eli, and The Unborn Child. Alva Rogers, who has the Eula role, is a friend of mine from New York. She’s got a supporting role in Spike Lee’s School Daze and works with the black women’s performance cartel, Rodeo Cal­donia. Rogers is also a “new music” vo­calist who’s done work with Butch Morris and Elliot Sharp. She performs her own music at downtown spaces — sung incantations on race and gender derived from texts by black women writers. Alva is black like Miles Davis, as beautiful and photogenic as the maestro was at 26. Her skin is black in the way that made Bud Powell say to Miles, I wish I was as black as you.

Barbara-O was the lead in black director Haile Gerima’s gritty, epochal Bush Mama, but has also done episodic television — Lou Grant, Laverne and Shirley, and even Wonder Woman, where she played “high-queen of the interplanetary council.” She left acting in 1980 to study filmmaking; Daughters is one of only two roles she’s taken in seven years. Though her fallen-woman character is called Yella Mary, she’s more orange than ochre, with Cherokee high cheekbones, deep-set suc­cubus eyes, and a posture more erect than a Trump tower. She gets into character by leaving her door open at night draped with yellow mosquito netting, awaiting, says she, her lovers.

For this round of shooting Alva and Barbara-O will play their dialogue scenes at a location called Ibo Landing in the script. Slaveships anchored there, and legend has it that a chained group of Ibos once walked down the planks, surveyed the situation, and turned around to walk across the water. There are many St. Helena sites that will serve as “Ibo Landings” during the filming. This scene will take place on the Black People’s Beach, passed which common can property never be of sold St. but Helena’s only blacks, down generation to generation.

This Ibo Landing is a meadow whose centerpiece is a monstrous tree that looks like a thrashing giant buried upside down to the chest. Behind it is a sunken bayou with junked kitchen appliances the crew will have to move — stove, sink, and cabi­nets — followed by yellow marshes and then the shell-strewn beach. As water­front properties go, the Black People’s Beach isn’t much to look at, more Tarzanland than sunbather’s paradise for lack of landclearing funds.

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In character, Barbara-O mounts the tree to lay back on a sturdy limb in full lady-of-leisure regalia: a white waist­length coat, white high-heeled boots with hooksnaps, a gold nose-ring, green con­tacts, and a floor-length lace-shouldered number dripping with petticoats. Her shoulder bag is big and embroidered, her hat is a bonnet on its way to becoming a fedora with veil. For hours on end Barba­ra-O manages to maintain a stallion’s carriage in a chaise-longue recline. I surmise yoga has given this bush mama a truss-rod spine. At one point she leans forward from the waist like a lever topped by a wig and jaw definition Iman would die for. The surprise of the shoot is the debut of Alva’s and Barbara-O’s vari­ations on Gullah dialect. Alva’s is mutant mimicry: a soft singsong, via the moun­tains of Norway and the hills of Jamaica. Imagine Liv Ullman coming out of the mouth like a Rasta jah-jah girl. There’s a mocking stridency to Barbara-O’s accent that makes it less about music than a bitchin’ screen femme fatale attitude. The haughty lilt of the Caribbean is there, sure, but hers is really more like some Lauren Bacall-goes-to-the-Low­-Country stuff. Fierce. At this point I real­ize Daughters of the Dust has the poten­tial to be something we’ve never really seen on the screen before: a black “wom­en’s picture” — not quite in the grand George Cukor tradition, but close enough to be kin. There’s certainly enough atti­tude on the prowl up in here to give the comparison anchorage.

True to the pattern of Dash’s other projects, Daughters has already gone up against two funding agen­cies, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National En­dowment for the Humanities. At CPB the project ran afoul of a black woman exec who told Dash her script was too mystical and suggested she write some­thing geared toward white midwestern­ers. At NEH the project was rejected, says a letter from the powers that be, for not being written in the Gullah brogue on the one hand, and for being “an intellec­tual exercise” beyond primetime compre­hension on the other. Dash believes what’s really operating here is a fear of black people making political statements grounded in an autochthonous reading of black culture. “The image of the black revolutionary was neutralized through caricature during the blaxploitation era. He was made to seem weak and a phony. Now there exists a fear of black people using our culture to make statements in code. It’s the modern variation on the fear that led slaveholders to take our drums away.” Though the NEH letter applauds Dash’s research and the en­dorsements of her script by respected Gullah scholars, it tries to claim that the film’s symbolic elements are purely flights of her fancy. What Dash has come up against here is the arrogance of someone else’s ignorance — an arrogance forti­fied by what appears to be the common belief that blacks’ self-knowledge is like no knowledge at all.

Knowing that racism is behind the in­stitutions’ failure to support her does nothing to insure that Dash will have dollar one to complete Daughters this spring. But Dash, a veteran of black inde­pendent film’s long march, doesn’t know how to be despondent. “I just read Spike’s book on the making of She’s Gotta Have It, and after all he went through to finish his film, I know we’re going to finish this one.” ❖

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UPLIFT THE RACE
Black Independents’ Coming Attractions 

Yes, Virginia, there is a black in­dependent cinema beyond the genius of Spike Lee and the pound-wise, penny-ante-foolishness and ingenuity of Robert Townsend. You want more dap on it, you are required to read Thomas Cripps’s informative if problematic Slow Fade to Black, wait for Clyde Taylor’s poststructuralist tome on the subject, and by all means to join the Black Filmmaker Foundation. The BFF — 80 Eighth Avenue, suite 1704, NYC, 10011, 924-1198 — has a rental archive of work by nearly 100 black independents, and screens films every month by up-and-coming directors. Had you, for example, been a member two years ago you could have seen She’s Gotta Have It damn near right out the lab.

Five black independent filmmakers were working on Daughters of the Dust. A. J. Fielder has produced a short experimental work, Super 8 transferred to video, and has plans to begin shooting this summer a feature of Joycean intertextuality about his Howard years called Jahamas on Su­per 8, to be transferred to video. First assistant Will Hudson has completed two short video features, Rootman and Winter, that have a gutbucket phan­tasmagoric look. Drama adviser Leroy McDonald, a colleague of Dash’s at AFI, has done a short feature based on the infamous Tuskegee experiments and has another in the works about Olympic gold medalist Tommy Smith, who, with John Carlos, gave the black power salute at the ’68 games and wrecked his sports career as a result. Barbara-O is editing a documentary about black homeless men, and pro­ducer Bernard Nicolas has completed a documentary on his Haitian emigré family. Other names to watch out for are Reggie Hudlin, whose The Kold Waves is on the boards for production by New World this summer; Ellen Sumter, another Howard grad, with two 16mm short features to her credit; Brooklyn’s own Ayoka Chenzira; and Neema Barnette, whose work you may have peeped on two early Frank’s Place episodes. All coming to a theater near you in your lifetime we desper­ately hope. ■

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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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The Trial of the Chicago 7: ‘The Seditious Movie’

films in focus

“LOVING” gets so much better as it goes along that it emerges almost in retrospect as that rarity of rarities: an intelligent and compassionate treatment of the New York-Westport merry-go-round. Throughout his career in films, Irvin Kershner has shown an unusual interest in eccentric losers stranded in natural locations. “The Luck of Ginger Coffee,” “A Fine Madness,” and “The Flim Flam Man” never quite bridged the chasm between surreal characterizations and too real backgrounds, but, with “Loving,” Kershner has found material that fully conforms to the contradictions of his style. George Segal’s commuting commercial illustrator is a kind of Charlie Bubbles character drowning in Bromo Seltzer, and at first it does not seem clear why he has begun to malfunction as a marital mechanism dedicated to making money as efficiently as possible, but suddenly the why seems less important than the how. Don Devlin’s adaptation of J. M. Ryan’s novel is deceptively elliptical in its exposition, and Kershner’s distant lensing of cramped streets creates a dangerous degree of anguished alienation in the audience, dangerous, that is, because many spectators may turn off from the protagonist before he begins making psychological contact with his predicament. Then suddenly there is one unexpected scene, and another, and still another, and, for a climax, a voyeuristic orgy of childish adultery, combining the possibilities of Marshall McLuhan, Sigmund Freud, and Lewis Carroll. Ultimately, husband and wife (Eva Marie Saint) come together with convulsive violence through mutual shame and humiliation and a shared complicity in the sweet life of suburbia. Segal and Saint are ably supported by Sterling Hayden’s Old Testament plutocrat and vulgarian, and Keenan, Wynn’s grubby agent.

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Not the least of the merits of “Loving” is its acknowledgement that a man’s job is of more than passing importance in the living of his life. Indeed, making a living is often the largest part of making a life. Not that the movie should have been called “Living.” “Loving” is about loving, and the energy it requires to keep relationships in focus. George Segal’s tiredness should make many members of his generation extremely uncomfortable if not utterly uptight. “Loving” strikes too close to home.

I strongly recommend Robert Bresoon’s “MOUCHETTE” at the New Yorker. Also, Maurice Pialat’s “ME,” a stirring testament to the irremediable loneliness and alienation of a child. The film manages the difficult task of expressing feelings without fantasy, and of evoking tears without sentimentality.

1970 Village Voice article by Andrew Sarris about a possible Chicago 7 movie

FOR THE BENEFIT of readers who wish to be kept informed on where it’s at, the following press release dated March 3, 1970 is reprinted in its entirety: “Abbie Hoffman announced this morning (March 3) that he and other defendants in the Chicago conspiracy trial will attempt to offset legal expenses by making their own feature film of the trial.

“Speaking on Alex Bennett’s WMCA radio show, Hoffman said the film will be called ‘The Seditious Movie’ (‘because we’re not allowed to make seditious speeches’). It will star all seven defendants, their lawyers, and a number of ‘sympathetic’ celebrities including Dustin Hoffman (no relation), he said.

“The Yippie leader revealed that he sent a telegram to Judge Julius Hoffman (also no relation) yesterday afternoon offering the judge $100,000 to play himself in the film. The prosecutor and assistant prosecutor have also been offered money to appear.

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“The picture will be directed by Nick Ray (‘Rebel Without a Cause’), Hoffman (Abbie, that is), and Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman said. It will be filmed this spring in New York on a studio set that will be an exact replica of the Chicago courtroom where the trial took place.”

The implications of such a press release strain the resources of the most speculative mind. The idea of re-enacting a judicial spectacle full of violent outbursts, poisonous prejudices, and the most lurid lapses of decorum would seem to be consistent with Abbie Hoffman’s strategy of making political realities seems as grotesquely contrived and as predictably theatrical as a Punch-and-Judy show. And who is to say that he is ill-advised to treat his predicament with such levity? Sacco and Vanzetti were much more lovable than Abbie Hoffman, but they were judicially crucified just the same. The fact is that Abbie Hoffman and his co-defendants should never have been brought to trial at all on such flimsy evidence and on such nebulous charges. And that they should be denied bail as dangerous criminals at a time when the alleged murderers of the Mississippi civil rights workers were roaming around on their own recognizance indicates the rampant hypocrisy of the American judicial system. But what galls many otherwise sympathetic souls about Hoffman is that he seems determined to exploit every misfortune to the greater glory of his own showbiz personality. Dear Abbie just won’t behave like a professional victim with sad, mournful, hangdog expressions. There is no stoicism, no proletarian nobility, no heroic dignity in this clown of a thousand costumes. There will be no revolutionary songs about Abbie Hoffman, perhaps because Abbie knows enough about history to realize that the subjects of revolutionary songs seldom live long enough to sing them.

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There is a great deal of talk these days about the proper tactics for reform and revolution as if the unarmed and the outnumbered can ever prevail even with magical verbal potions from Havana or Hanoi. More likely, the white middle class radicals will indeed cash in their ideological images for the rich rewards of cultural one-upmanship while the blacks of all classes bear the full brunt of the backlash. It is hard to forget that Abbie Hoffman is at least partly responsible for making Nixon, Agnew, Mitchell, and Carswell such household words, and so long as Nixon is allowed to campaign against Abbie Hoffman, so long will the Great Silent Majority continue to swell into terrifyingly Hitlerian hordes. As I have said, Abbie Hoffman doesn’t belong in a courtroom or on the political stump. He is a creature of the theatre, the cinema, the media. He should not be tried by judges, but rather reviewed by the gentlemen of the Fourth Estate. And was it so long ago that Eugene McCarthy’s crusading children cut their hair before canvassing the New Hampshire voters? If anyone has found a better way to change conditions in America except by winning election then let that inspired innovator step forward and explain how. Somehow, I don’t see that the antics of Abbie Hoffman are improving things, but I am talking as a citizen rather than as a critic. As a critic, I am sorry that Abbie Hoffman was unable to get Groucho Marx for the role of Judge Hoffman. With Nicholas Ray at the helm, and Groucho Marx in his judge’s robes, “The Seditious Seven” might well have emerged as a mordant version of “Duck Soup.” But as for changing people’s minds and souls with a movie, forget it! Reliable observers tell me that Southern audiences give the murderous rednecks in “Easy Rider” standing ovations for blowing up the noncomformist bikers. ❖

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1970 Village Voice article by Andrew Sarris about a possible Chicago 7 movie

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Who Am I to Doubt the Jedi? ‘Return of the Jedi’ Reviewed

Heaven knows I have fought the good fight against the Jedi — not in the name of evil, of course, but on behalf of a cranky adulthood hobbled by doubts and fears about the human condition and the social contract. The record speaks for itself: I was never stirred by Star Wars; I was never enthralled by The Empire Strikes Back. Thus it is perhaps fitting that Re­turn of the Jedi has arrived on the eve of 1984, and that, like Orwell’s battered hero, I have surrendered to the Force emanating from the myth-making factory of Big Brother George Lucas. The first sign that I was abandoning critical auton­omy in this matter came with my taking my young, intelligent, trend-setting god­son Ross to the ritualistic screening of Return of the Jedi. His critical verdict for which I waited with a pathetic mixture of humility and dependency was clear and lucid: Return of the Jedi was even better than Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Now that I have thought about it, I tend to agree. Lucas and his collaborators have managed to sustain the psychic ten­sions in their mythological world through three films over eight years, and by the time the final returns are in from around the world, the gross receipts for Return of the Jedi should exceed the national debt of Nigeria.

There is already some grumbling over this latest joust of the Jedi, to be sure. With the critical crime of sequelitis, one is presumed guilty until proven innovative. One of my cranky adult editors has been heard to complain that Return of the Jedi is cutesier and furrier than its predeces­sors. The Ewoks, a tribe of Teddy bears with traces of both jungle savage and third-world instincts, may seem a bit much at first glance, as if the Star Wars series had been gobbled up by the Mup­pets. Ultimately, however, Return of the Jedi is less callow than Star Wars and less turgid than The Empire Strikes Back. Part of the difference can be attributed to Lucas’s shifting of the directorial reins from anti-genre director Irvin Kershner, who strained to inject complexities into the simplicities of the Star Wars formula for The Empire Strikes Back, to very straight-faced genre director Richard Marquand, who had poured the lushest World War II romanticism through Eye of the Needle, and who has thus managed to blend the Oedipal stirrings of the charac­ters with the moral symmetry of their universe.

What is most remarkable about Re­turn of the Jedi, however, is the canny exploitation of the fact that Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher have aged eight years since Star Wars, and can thus no longer convincingly impersonate Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys in outer space. Rather than resort to the painful younger-than-I-really-am masquerade of Diana Ross in the unlamented The Wiz, Lucas, Kasdan, and Marquand unveil Princess Leia’s legs at long last for a nifty harem routine in the evil lair of a globular intergalactic gangster right out of Lewis Carroll. The spectacle of Princess Leia in the evil clutches of a libidinously mis­shapen monster struck even this gray­beard as more of an erotic shock than any of Nastassja Kinski’s ridiculous fashion mag poses in Exposed. This only goes to demonstrate that whereas Lucas and Company are always one step ahead of Leslie Fiedler, poor James Toback is always one step behind. My aforementioned godson Ross, for example, has grown up on the Star Wars trilogy. All the young fans of Star Wars are now eight years older, and thus are prepared to accept some of the pettier, subimperial forms of grossness to which the Princess Leias in their own midst may be exposed. What is important, however, is that Luke Sky­walker and Han Solo do not make any fuss over what has presumably occurred to Princess Leia. They are still the same people with the same feelings toward each other. Indeed, the revelations of hidden family ties in Return of the Jedi take on the incestuous amplitude of Shake­speare’s late novelistic plays. By the end, however, all the loose ends left dangling in the deliberately open-ended The Empire Strikes Back have been tied so firmly together that it seems impossible for Sky­walker, Solo, and Leia to reemerge in anything but a Proustian recollection of the Jedi trilogy.

It should be noted that Luke Sky­walker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia preexisted Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher in Star Wars. As is not the case with the big-star movies, the iconography of the players was completely subordinated to the mythology of the characters. When kids talked about the movie, they used the names of the charac­ters rather than the actors. By contrast, when pop theoretician Lawrence Alloway asked some years ago what was the name of the character Marilyn Monroe played in Niagara (or in Some Like It Hot or The Misfits, for that matter), his question was clearly rhetorical. One might ask to the same point the names of the characters Robert Redford and Paul Newman played in The Sting. On the other hand, we have the reverse iconography of Rocky and poor Sylvester Stallone, who will probably have to be buried in his boxing trunks after playing a geriatric Rocky IX for the senior citizens circuit. In Return of the Jedi, we are at an in-between phase in the relationship of icon to character. Hamill, Ford, and Fisher have not become big enough stars to transcend their roles, but they are more recognizable presences with the ability to modify the characters they play with behavioral accretions acquired from other films. They seem more com­fortable with each other, and with their increasingly bizarre environments. For the first time I was aware of three dis­tinctive personalities, not the most over­whelming I have ever encountered, to be sure, but likable withal.

This does not mean that I have sur­rendered unconditionally to the Force. Max Ophuls’s Liebelei at the Public The­ater (May 31–June 6) and Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums at the Film Forum re­main infinitely closer to my notions of grown-up sublimity than Return of the Jedi. Yet I must concede that Lucas and his associates deserve their huge success because they genuinely respect and understand the children in the audience, in themselves, and in all of us. As I watched Ross completely consumed by the absorb­ing spectacle of a son reaching out Christ­like for the mercy of his father, I was reminded of a time almost 46 years ago when my very little brother George screamed in terror at the sight of the evil witch in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The link jumped into my mind through the eerie resemblances of Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor to the animated witch. Lucas has learned his lessons well from old movies. Nonetheless, he has also covered the few vulnerable positions on his ideogrammatic flanks. To the imputations of racist and colonialist overtones in Star Wars, he has responded by bringing Billy Dee Williams aboard again from The Empire Strikes Back, and striking a chic Viet Cong-Sandinista pose with his outgunned but not outfought Teddy Bear brigades. All in all, the com­mercial colossus strikes again, and this time it can claim me as one of its prison­ers, that is, if it even bothers to take prisoners.

As to where the Jedi are going from here, all I can think of is a growing ideo­logical rupture between the collectively­-oriented conscience of One-Worlder Luke Skywalker and the rugged individualism of confirmed Reaganaut Han Solo. Prin­cess Leia would find herself torn between these two divergent ideologies and manifestations of manhood. I’ll tell you what, George. Mail me a little front money so that I can take a leave of absence from the Voice to bat out a treatment. Say a cool million or so. After all, when I surrender, I like to surrender in style. ■

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Robert Mitchum, A Seasoned Champion

Trouble waits in sullen pools along the way l’ve taken.
Silent windows stare the empty street.
No love beckons me save that which I’ve forsaken.

And the anguish of my solitude, sweet. 

 — Robert Mitchum, circa 1932
Verse written to his mother while he was serving time on a chain gang in Chatham County, Georgia

Shortly after he drowsily recites this “sophomoric” poem written at the worldly wise age of 15, Mitchum invisibly shifts gears and tartly remembers, “How­ard Hughes always said to me, ‘Robert, you’re like a pay toilet, aren’t you? You don’t give a shit for nothing.'” Hughes was wrong, but the self-deprecating Mitchum would be the last to care. At 65, the only observation he makes on his own behalf is “I know shit from pound cake, I know bad from good.” His slang is pep­pered with references to bodily functions. He returns from the bathroom, self-satis­fied, announcing, “That was a three-flush piss. I feel like the frog-prince.”

Robert Mitchum confides his poetic sentimentality and communicates his vio­lent antiauthoritarianism in the same voice, that husky, gravel-purr monotone two octaves below basso profundo, just at the edge of audibility. His lack of inflec­tion alerts listeners to content. An acid rain of profanity sears the air after the humid sweetness of a stray confession. He wears the fragrance of Tequila like after­shave, chain-smokes Pall Malls and what­ever other filterless weed is within reach. He is a reluctant interview, likening his promotional tour for That Championship Season to serving time (he’s been in the slammer on 11 occasions, for everything from vagrancy to conspiracy to marijuana possession, and refers to prison as “the great leveler”). But much as he wants to hold back, he’s a congenital raconteur, rapping improvisationally with a jazz man’s syncopation and stream of con­sciousness, immensely articulate if, at times, semicoherent.

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He’s large. Burly shouldered, barrel chested, ample bellied, Mitchum, upon our introduction at a publicist’s lunch, intimidates me by barking, “Fuck you and the boat that brought you!” I smile, “No boat, sorry,” and he gets raffishly apologetic, extending his hands, which I inspect to see if the knuckles are still tattooed with “LOVE” and “HATE” from his role as the evil fundamentalist preacher in Night of the Hunter. “Been in so many fistfights since then, they got erased,” he drawls, his lazy, bruised mouth curling. For those of you, like me, worried about the condition of his hams, he still has the digit severed in The Yakuza. Impulsively, he gives me a bear hug, and what I’ve suspected for 30 years is confirmed: I’m in love with Mr. Love/Hate, and he acts out every contradiction he projects on screen.

Alternately mucho macho and muy simpatico, Mitchum respects people who hold their ground, because he’s always held his and knows it’s hard. After lunch I arrive at his Waldorf suite for the inter­view (“You’ll have to be nude between the sheets,” he’d instructed me, “and wear a false mustache”), and we discuss his vagabond childhood, how his railroad­worker dad was killed in a train accident, how his mom, he, and two siblings were always the new folks in town. “My brother and I were always put in the position of proving ourselves. The trick was to push the challenger’s nose to the back of his brain without giving him a cerebral hemorrhage.” Mitchum slithers off the settee and forcefully rearranges my face without doing any damage, while I silently get hysterical and imagine Post headlines (ACTOR REVISES CRITIC’S PAN) but hold my ground. He’s respectful. He’s let­ting me know how far I can pursue this line of questioning. I ask him a little more about the early days, and he’s disgusted. “Why should I tell you when I can write it myself and get a $1 million advance?” He’ll tell some, but not all.

Dad’s early death. Gypsy life with his mother, brother, and half-sister. Mom’s a newspaperwoman who worked her way up from the linotype room. Robert was a habitual runaway and scrapper, given sax­ophone lessons as therapy (“Because I shit in the teacher’s hat or something”), and by his account, which sounds more mythopoetic than documentary, he played instrumental scat-tattoos during the “Star Spangled Banner” while his classmates plugged perfunctorily away. At 15 he was in Manhattan attending high school and working after school as a lyric arranger at WMCA. (“At the age of 15?”   I ask. He doesn’t answer.) He idolized Johnny Mercer and new music, which was jazz. Various arrests. (How?) Pissing in alleyways, vagrancy. Chain gang. Hopped a freight for California during the mid-­’30s. Wrote some radio plays. Directors told him whenever he wants to be in front of the mike, he’s hired. He accepted. He can ride a horse, so he was hired as a movie extra. Because he’s dumb enough to do his own stunts, he was in constant demand as actor/stuntman, directors get­ting two performances for the price of one.

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Since 1943 (he was 26), Mitchum has been in 100-plus movies and slowly chiseled an acting career of Rushmore monumentality. He brought a new kind of love to the postwar screen (sex) and a new kind of ethos (stoic doubt). His bedroom eyes and barroom mouth bespoke the rig­ors of the sack and the sauce. In the two movies be made with Jane Russell — ­Macao and His Kind of Woman — the pair are so sultrily laconic and sleepy (they look like twins) that it seemed as though they were filmed between rounds in the boudoir. When I mention my fondness for these films, he dismisses me with “You just like tits, Carrie.” I reply: “Hers or yours?” Almost guffawing, Mitchum growls, “Hers are bigger, mine are fur­ther.” I don’t know what he means, nei­ther does he, but we both know a punch line when we hear one.

For Mitchum on screen, sex wasn’t about romance or conquest; it was an expansive, immensely pleasurable, re­ciprocal trade agreement. When he and Jane Greer size each other up in Out of the Past, Jacques Tourneur’s echt film noir sizzler, the feeling is mutual. In Pursued, the first Freudian Western, Teresa Wright tries to kill Mitchum on their wedding night, and they literally pistol-whip each other before disarming in a hot embrace. In Mitchum movies, women were always equals, had to be, or he’d wipe them off the screen, and I think it’s as much a function of his persona as it was of the scenarios. Of all the postwar actors — Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark — only Mitchum imme­diately figured out how to be a man’s man and a woman’s man at the same time. His Kind of Woman could just as well be titled Her Kind of Man.

World-weary, battered, unpretentious, Mitchum epitomized postwar masculinity. Here was the conquering hero conquered by self-doubt, who never feared reprisal for confessing this weakness (self-doubt never entered the consciousness of John Wayne, for example) because Mitchum could defend himself with a truly terrifying physical strength. A typi­cal Mitchum character never dictated good and evil, because all he could see through those heavily lidded eyes were shades of gray. Mitchum precociously gave ambivalence a good name, anticipat­ing a ’60s ethos. A swaggerer nonetheless, Mitchum was a hipster John Wayne, never suggesting might makes right though he’d acknowledge that it sure helps. Cast against type very rarely during his 40 years of screen sleepwalking, he was the brick men could rely on, the hooligan who could be chastened by Susan Hay­ward’s wide eyes in The Lusty Men, by Deborah Kerr’s nun in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. He had a sense of sexual and professional protocol. Self-reliant, he ex­pected the same of others, and be never seduced a woman who made herself un­available. Though this reinforced the femme fatale/good girl mold of ’50s women characters, it acknowledged that women had a right to their own desires.

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And for a man committed to holding his own ground, he sure gave his co-stars plenty of room. Explaining his philosophy of strength — which is visible on screen­ — Mitchum gestures, pounding his left fist into the palm of his right hand, “Just because I’m bigger than you and can maim you doesn’t give me any right to bash your brains in. You don’t get away with shit in this world and your only alternative is figuring out what you can give to others, not take from them.” His conception of a destiny distinct from the manifest kind is probably what makes his movies and performances seem so modern today. His presence in a ’40s and ’50s movie was enough to reinvent genres. Out of the Past was the first no-win film noir, Pursued the first psychological Western, The Lusty Men the first “modern” West­ern, set amid the present-day rodeo circuit.

Mitchum is loath to talk about acting as his way of giving. “Circumstance got me in front of the camera,” he tersely dismisses his vocation. The only self-as­sessment he grudgingly offers: “I take ’em on a trip, with authority!” But his author­ity is fundamentally antiauthoritarian, laissez-faire; he tries to inflect the word, can’t, and stresses it by raising his voice, slightly. On the Scranton, Pennsylvania, location of That Championship Season, Mitchum wittily distinguished the older generation of movie actors from the new: “These kids only want to talk about act­ing method and motivation; in my day all we talked about was screwing and over­time.” He evades the subject of movies (“My favorite movie? The Last Time I Saw Archie. Never saw it, but it was the first time I made 500 grand for a month’s work, that’s why it’s my favorite”), prefer­ring to teach me slang etymology and dish his former colleagues with brutally funny anecdotes.

“Billy Wellman?” Mitchum introduces the subject of the man who directed him in The Story of G.I. Joe and Track of the Cat. “He had a gentle heart and septic tastes,” he observes, and this could be autoanalysis. Of Raoul Walsh, director of Pursued, “A marvelous man, he’d cry at card tricks.” Mitchum describes Walsh as the indifferent auteur: “He’d call ‘action!’ and turn his back to the scene and try, unsuccessfully, to roll cigarettes with one hand on the side of his bad eye. He’d fail after four times or so; then he’d turn back to the actors in disgust and scream, ‘Cut!’ Yet his movies are the best.” Mitchum has worked with almost every major Hollywood director and is clamorously impatient with the aesthetes, preferring the wham-bam of action director Nick Ray (Macao, The Lusty Men) to the actor’s directors Cukor and Minnelli. “Cukor … Zukor … Pukor …” he rhymes, his nostrils flaring at the stench of Desire Me. He proceeds to do a devastating impersonation, puffing out his flattened lips to resemble Cukor’s full mouth, mimick­ing the director with damning precision. (Mitchum, though uninflected in his own speech, can ape anybody, everybody, and when he thought I was being dumb or beside the point, delighted in a breathless mimicry of me.)

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Minnelli? “Vincent was essentially a designer,” analyzes Mitchum, dismissing their first collaboration, Undercurrent, as Underdrawers. “But in Home from the Hill he had to invent a genre while every­one at the studio was getting pink-slipped.” A Cain and Abel melodrama antici­pating the tension of That Championship Season, Home from the Hill stars Mitchum as a tormented, ambivalent pa­triarch. (Offscreen, he loathed George Peppard’s Method posturing and did his best to coach rookie George Hamilton, who once confided that he still sends Mitchum a card every Mother’s Day.) Only Charles Laughton escapes the barbed praise. “Charles should have directed all the time … I’ve never felt a keener sense of trying to please a direc­tor,” he recalls of the man who made Night of the Hunter, the first time Mitchum enacted a character outside his own experience.

Since then, except for Ryan’s Daughter and The Last Tycoon, Mitchum’s best performances have been in playing a character not unlike Robert Mitchum. He’s cast against type in That Championship Season as a homily-spouting basketball coach whose hypocrisy runs counter to Mitchum’s own straight-arrow, live-and-­let-live ethos. Although a true believer in laissez-faire economics and sociology, this battle-scarred vet of every private and public war imaginable has no trouble enacting a patriarch-under-siege in the role that was originally intended for Wil­liam Holden. As the coach, Mitchum pulls out all the stops to get where he wants to go. From the flow of our conversation, certain corrections he makes, I get the notion that the fatherless actor’s charac­terization of the coach might be based, in part, off Howard Hughes, about whom Mitchum (with uncharacteristic awe) re­calls, “Howard would always look through you, past you. If he said it, it was true.”

Mitchum conveys his antiauthority through the negation of eye contact: his drowsy peepers are all but hidden behind swollen bags. I ask him to take off his oversize spectacles so I can look at his eyes. They’re indigo — matching his shirt and his mood. He really doesn’t want to talk about how he made his living, he prefers to talk about living. Mitchum gets almost animated (his body lurches toward me, out of his customary slouch) when he recalls his love for music, particularly the music and lyrics of Johnny Mercer. He sings “Fare Thee Well to Harlem” in a voice that should be reserved for gospel. (Laughton knew: he made Mitchum sing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arm” in Night of the Hunter. And Mitchum did have a hit single, Thunder Road, in 1959, theme song of his movie.) He wants to rap, teach me new slang. “Brush ’em easy, he boxed out,” he says of a Pensacola dude, a dealer in contraband, who warned Mitchum not to disturb the privacy of a spacy street character. “Boxed out … that’s the opposite of prison, of being boxed in, that’s total freedom of imagination,” Mitchum says.

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“You know the origin of the word hip?” asks Mitchum, simultaneously the world’s oldest and youngest hipster, the guy who makes a trench coat look like a suit of armor. “Comes from hep, synonym of cool?” I volunteer. “Nah, like every important slang term, it comes from the Chinese opium trade … when you smoke, you lie on your hip. The you say, ‘I’m hip,’ that means you know the life.” He’s hip. About his verse he says, with regret, “I think the price of poetry is that it opens the door to more people than I have room for.” The anguish of his solitude, all the sweeter because he’s a loner who likes company. Dorothy, his wife of 42 years, wanders through, trying to open a window to air the room of its smoke and liquor aromas.

Mitchum’s last act as I prepare to leave is to teach me a self-defense trick. He wants people to hold their ground. ❖

1982 Village Voice profile of Robert Mitchum by Carrie Rickey

1982 Village Voice profile of Robert Mitchum by Carrie Rickey

1982 Village Voice profile of Robert Mitchum by Carrie Rickey

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

Martin Scorsese’s Cinema of Obsessions

GoodFellas: Blood and Pasta

Martin Scorsese is a small, fragile man in a pressed, custom-tailored suit and immaculately polished soft Italian shoes. Now that he’s shaved off his beard, his eyebrows seem even more imposing. They’re the first thing you notice about his face, before you catch the flight-or-fight expression in his eyes.

At 48, Scorsese is an anomaly among contemporary film directors. For 20 years, he has managed to make utterly personal, deeply autobiographical movies that are bankrolled by the film industry. He’s both an art-film director — the American equiva­lent of a Buñuel or Truffaut — and a “play­er” in Hollywood. Because his films deal with urban culture in knowing detail, and because their vocabulary is based in Holly­wood, their effect on American audiences is something no “foreign” film can achieve. Scorsese does not make homages to Ameri­can cinema. Rather, he shapes its syntax to his own experience.

His latest film, GoodFellas, is also his largest, budgeted at about $25 million. Whether or not it’s a commercial success, there’s a sense within the industry that Scorsese has been elevated to the ranks of the untouchables. The failure of any single film would no longer prevent him from getting others off the ground. Scorsese doesn’t agree. He’s as anxious as ever. “I just keep hoping,” he says with a nervously flashed smile, “I get to make the pictures I want to make.”

In his tiny apartment with a wide-screen view of Central Park, Scorsese keeps an Eames chair right up against the floor-to-­ceiling windows. This is one of the places where he takes phone calls and watches old movies: 900 feet above the street. Scorsese is a man who knows the edge. His elegant image is self-conscious, if not self-mocking (which is not to say he doesn’t get a kick out of it). He’s incapable of hiding the extreme shyness that might motivate his will to power. In a dark (most likely Ar­mani) suit and nattily knotted silk tie, he looks like a proud child actor playing the part of a Sicilian grandee.

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As seemingly dissimilar as Scorsese is from Henry Hill, the protagonist of Good­Fellas, the director points to one parallel between them. “Henry says that as far back as he can remember he wanted to be a gangster. From the moment I enrolled in NYU film school, I knew I wanted to be a director. Within a year I was planning my first feature.” There is another similarity: like Henry, who first appears in the film as a child, Scorsese has always been intensely aware of the privilege and violence of “wiseguys.” At a press conference for the film, the director is asked how he can look at these mobsters with such a nonjudgmen­tal eye. “It’s what I thought about these people when I was eight,” Scorsese replies. But unlike Henry, he was too sickly as a child to be one of them.

In Little Italy, where he spent much of his childhood, Scorsese led a sheltered life. Asthmatic from the age of three (he carries an atomizer and uses it frequently), he was barred from the obvious routes to becoming a somebody on Elizabeth Street, ex­empted from the male rites fetishized in his films. “On my block, people took games seriously,” Scorsese recently recalled. “They had bets going on them. If a kid dropped the ball, they could get very mad. I wasn’t good at sports; they became anathe­ma to me.” He spent a lot of time in church and going to the movies with his father. “Having asthma, I was often taken to movies because they didn’t know what else to do with me.”

One of the movies Scorsese remembers “being hypnotized by” as a boy was Mi­chael Powell’s The Red Shoes. He says he was drawn to the hysteria and elegance of the picture as well as its characters: to the impresario, with his “cruelty, beauty, and self-hatred”; to the choreographer “who spoke his lines the way he danced”; and to the ballerina (Moira Shearer) who, like Christ in Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, is torn between her special calling and her desire for a sexual and familial life. At the climax of The Red Shoes, the balleri­na, desperately attempting a reunion with her lover, hurls herself down a flight of stairs above the Cote d’Azur railroad sta­tion, loses her balance on the parapet, and falls to her death on the tracks below. Im­bedded in Scorsese’s memory bank — along with Jennifer Jones’s bleeding hands at the end of Duel in the Sun — is the close-up of Shearer’s broken feet, white tights stained as red as her shoes. For what it’s worth: The director who does business from a chair placed at a dizzying height is phobic about flying.

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Ambivalence is central to his style. Scor­sese’s Italian-American trilogy — Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and now GoodFellas­ — mixes anthropology with psychodrama, re­vulsion with empathy, from the perspective of an insider who was also an outsider. Mean Streets is the most overtly autobio­graphical film. (“It was about my friends and myself and about trying to break away.”) Raging Bull is the story of a man who gains fame and fortune by brutalizing others legally. GoodFellas is about the guys who take the other route, becoming gang­sters so they won’t have to stand in line to buy bread. At once a depiction and a critique of upward mobility, the films have elevated their director’s status, even on the street. Nicholas Pileggi, who co-wrote the script for GoodFellas, based on his best­seller, Wise Guys, says that Mean Streets is the favorite film of the gangsters he interviewed.

On Sullivan Street, where I do my laun­dry, the guys in the candy store watch The Godfather on videotape, on a daily basis. Mean Streets isn’t part of their repertoire. When I mention Sullivan Street to Scor­sese, he snorts: “That’s compromised. It’s the Village! People reciting poetry in coffee shops.” Further east, where he grew up, (and where he says “the last bastion is Mul­berry Street”), the guys who live like Scor­sese characters might fixate on seeing their daily rituals set to golden oldies and depict­ed in such florid detail. They might dis­avow the mocking critique of male vio­lence, the comedy of male excess and female domesticity. Outside the subculture, it’s possible to miss both the unsparing ac­curacy and the anguish, to see these films as urban exotica — a celebration of blood and pasta. In any event, what makes Scorsese attractive to the industry, besides the unde­niable skill and economy of his filmmaking, is that the critique doesn’t obliterate the blood. “Violence is a form of expression,” he says curtly. “It’s how people live.”

As Scorsese tells it, Warner Bros. liked GoodFellas so much that they considered giving it a mass release. “Deep down, I knew it wasn’t that kind of picture,” he says. But Warner decided to test their hunch at a sneak preview in plush Sherman Oaks. “People got so angry that they stormed out of the theater. They thought it was an outrage that I had made these peo­ple so attractive.” Indeed, what attracted him to Pileggi’s book was its matter-of-fact, even affectionate attitude toward outra­geous behavior. He enjoys the wiseguys for their energy and single-mindedness, howev­er murderous, while debunking their mys­tique. “I liked the everyday banality of it. Daily life in the Mafia on the lower eche­lons as opposed to the bosses of crime fam­ilies. The real worker bees. Coming from an area where that was part of the life-style, I also found it very funny. They are human beings, human beings have a sense of hu­mor, and the humor is more extreme among people living an extreme life.” (Or, as Freud put it: criminals and humorists “compel our interest by the narcissistic consistency with which they manage to keep away from the ego anything that would diminish it.”)

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What blew them away in Sherman Oaks was not just the sight of Joe Pesci hacking away at a half-dead, flayed open body; it was Tony Bennett on the soundtrack, launching into “Rags to Riches” as the last blow is struck. GoodFellas mixes comedy and melodrama into a rock ’n’ roll Grand Guignol, further complicating its point of view. “I never intended to make a straight genre film,” Scorsese says. “My films never go from A to B to C.” Rather than fitting emotions into a conventional dramatic structure, Scorsese allows emotional change to shape the picture. GoodFellas has an astonishingly peculiar shape. It starts with an hour-long roller coaster ride that winds up exactly where it began. Then there’s a relentless downhill slide climaxing with frantic depiction of a coke-soaked day in which everything Henry has to keep track of — stirring the sauce, delivering the guns, cutting the coke, avoiding the helicopter — has equally absurd value. Finally there’s a grim denouement of betrayal and revenge: the music fades but the killing continues. As the film relinquishes its breathless pace, the viewer begins to feel the nausea and disgust that sheer kinetic involvement had masked.

Scorsese’s ebullient editing — that sense of being on a roll, of a process taking you over, so that you keep being surprised by what you’re seeing — is one with the experi­ence of his characters. “I wanted GoodFel­las to move as fast as a trailer or the open­ing of Jules and Jim and to go on like that for two hours.” Speed dominates other as­pects of his filmmaking as well. “On film,” he says, “it looks better if the actors do it twice as fast.”

But the power of Scorsese’s films is not merely kinetic; it’s visceral. His earliest memories of movies are seeped in blood and he remains fascinated by images of what violence does to the body. In Good­Fellas, the most brutal murders are shown not once, but twice, so that we see the act not only within the flow of the narrative but as a fetishistic spectacle that stops the narrative cold. It isn’t a laughing matter the second time around. In the end, violence is the means by which he shows us that the body bleeds — to death. And male identity cuts two ways: It’s not only the capacity to inflict pain, but also to withstand suffering. “I enjoyed making those little images of the bleeding heart,” he once said about The Last Temptation. “I enjoyed probing the wounds.”

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His anxieties notwithstanding, Scorsese clearly relishes being in business with the studios. Another layer is imposed on the kid and the artist — the serious but streetwise businessman. It’s a persona he’s still trying on. “I want to be a player,” Scorsese says. “To be a player in Holly­wood, you have to take a lot of bruising.”

An enthusiast with an immense store of knowledge, talking film with dazzling fluen­cy, he can’t help but impress the dealmak­ers. Although he has never produced a megahit, Scorsese has, during the past five years, cut deals with most of the major studios. “What they all want, of course, is another Taxi Driver.” His subsequent films were hardly that. Even a critical success like Raging Bull was not a big money-maker, while New York, New York, and The King of Comedy were regarded as “difficult.” Given the uneven progress of his career in the early ’80s, it’s remarkable how secure Scorsese’s position now appears. It’s not all mystique: the box-office success of The Col­or of Money (his least personal film) proba­bly made GoodFellas possible.

There’s no doubt, however, that his for­tunes improved after he became a client of Michael Ovitz, the agent frequently labeled the most powerful man in Hollywood. Scor­sese had been trying unsuccessfully for 10 years to make The Last Temptation of Christ; within three months of signing with Ovitz in 1987, he was in production.

Although most of Scorsese’s films have been studio-financed, they don’t go through the usual in-house process of development and packaging. How exactly does an auteur from Little Italy convince a bunch of corpo­rate executives whose primary responsibil­ity is to their shareholders to hand over $25 million for a film about gangsters that hard­ly conforms to the rules of the genre?

“You don’t lie to them,” he says directly. “They’ve got to respect your work so they know you’re not just coming in there to make fools of them or take their money. And they’ve also got to like the script, al­though they never fully understand what it is until they see it. So they give attention to other things like the casting — they had sev­eral suggestions which fortunately didn’t pan out because I knew from the beginning that I wanted Ray Liotta to play Henry Hill. Mike Ovitz was helpful in protecting the work and working it out so that the studio and I each got what we wanted. We’re not talking about a blockbuster. We’re talking about something which, if handled properly, can make some money.”

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Scorsese hadn’t thought there was a part for Robert DeNiro in GoodFellas. “In the pictures where Bob and I work together, he’s in almost every scene.” But when he was having difficulty casting the icy hi-jacker/killer Jimmy Conway, DeNiro sug­gested himself for the part. Neither man will discuss their working relationship. When Scorsese directs DeNiro, absolutely no outsiders are allowed on the set. “When I work with actors like Bob,” he says, “we improvise. We work it out in advance, re­write the scene, and then we shoot it.” Occasionally, the improvisation continues, even while the camera rolls. (When Scorsese played his famous cameo in Taxi Driv­er — “Do you know what a 44-magnum can do to a woman’s pussy?” — the tables were turned and DeNiro directed him. “If it wasn’t for Bob, I don’t know that I could have done it.”) In any event, DeNiro’s presence in GoodFellas encouraged the stu­dio to cough up a few million more dollars.

Scorsese has a gift for getting all kinds of people on his side. It’s not merely that he’s funny, smart, and surprisingly open. He’s at once the surgeon and the patient, a man with awesome skill and authority who evokes in others the desire to protect. His jackhammer speech and gestures erupt out of agonizing self-consciousness. His relief when his passionate grasp of an idea or process overcomes anxiety is palpable. Scorsese’s crew of regulars — writers, producers, assistants, technicians, and even ac­tors, some of whom have worked with him since his first film — are constantly worry­ing about Marty. Is he tired? Is he depressed? Is he doing too much? Not that these aren’t reasonable fears. (Scorsese’s workload at any given moment would tax a person 20 years younger who hadn’t been asthmatic all his life.) But the director’s fragility is also functional: it makes it hard for those around him to separate their in­volvement in the work from their concern about his well-being.

The artist who wants to be a player has one film in pre-production, a remake of the 1962 thriller Cape Fear, with DeNiro in the Robert Mitchum sadistic-killer role. Scor­sese hopes to follow up with an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. He’s also planning a film set in 4th century Byzantium and several other projects with Pileggi. He doesn’t intend the Italian-Amer­ican films to stop at a trilogy. “No doubt I’ll always be interested in underworld sto­ries. But no cutesy films about mama’s pas­ta and people getting married. I can’t stand that. It’s completely fake.”

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His enhanced status has opened up other options, like executive producing. The Grifters, adapted from the Jim Thompson novel and directed by Stephen Frears, will be released this fall. He’s also involved in a script by Richard Price to be directed by John McNaughton of Henry… Serial Kill­er fame. “I can’t do the day-by-day produc­tion stuff. I don’t know anything about money. And now that I’ve found out it’s not going to be that artistically satisfying, I have to be careful how much time I appor­tion to it.”

There’s another perk that comes with success as an auteur: Scorsese has become a crusader for film preservation, lobbying the studios, and running a foundation out of his office that locates original materials to be archived. Like the goodfellas who be­come gangsters so they don’t have to stand in line to buy bread, Scorsese can get his hands on any film he has a passion for. He watches movies constantly, though he finds it impossible to look at his own (except for Last Temptation). “That’s what I do,” he says. “Sit here, watch movies and talk on the phone. That’s it.”

He still gives vent to his anxieties about every project. About Cape Fear: He shud­ders to think where he’s going to be in November. He’ll need a pith helmet with netting because mosquitos love him. And he doesn’t know how to make a straight genre picture. He’s never done it. “There are certain rules — how you move the cam­era.” And he wants to have it both ways — ­to make an A-to-B-to-C film, but a bit twisted, like his other pictures. “At the end of Cape Fear, there’s a scene with a boat breaking up. It’s just like a real movie,” he says with mock incredulity. “Like the mov­ies we watch up here. I don’t make real movies like that.”

The notable objects in Scorsese’s mid­town office are a bookcase filled with refer­ence sources essential to a film archivist, and a large desk covered with papers. The walls are cluttered with movie stills, photos, framed strips of 35mm, and posters: East of Eden, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.… Ask him about one or another of his mementos and it’s more than likely he’ll reply with only slightly studied casualness that it’s a gift from this or that studio production head. Tribute to the Sicilian grandee.

Directly behind his desk is a print repro­duction of a Titian altar piece — Jesus on the cross. If Scorsese is in his chair and you are seated directly opposite him, his head appears superimposed on the crucifixion. It’s probably an accident, but the irony of the composition is worthy of his films. Like the man said: players have to take a lot of bruising. ■

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

Thinking About the ’60s: Thawing the Souls on Ice

Scenarios for Colorizing the War Movie

GOOD RIDDANCE, Viet­nam! — a likely sentiment for the groundpounders whose war experiences have been regurgitated on film. Enter the most recent of this set, Good Morning, Vietnam, a movie that wants to be comically thera­peutic about our dark affair there. The humor is as skittish as the war was; Rob­in Williams’s sidekick is a black named Garlick, whose role as Williams’s foil is ultimately blunted by his shuffling caricature.

It’s no wonder you could sniff out the tokenism like nuoc roam (fermented fish) in the recent spate of Vietnam War mov­ies, though the colorized war story is un­der our very noses. Not only are blacks out of focus in these “new-wave” films but no screenplay has yet dared to chron­icle the bizarre war stories of black troops. Not Oliver Stone’s autobiographi­cal Platoon, with its vapid treatment of blacks; not Stanley Kubrick’s touted Full Metal Jacket, which may have actually suspended belief in the fact that black heroes existed in Vietnam. So nothing’s changed — Hollywood has a history of revisionism.

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The other night during a hard rain I suffered a rare flashback, an image as vivid as lightning. Amid the cacophony of a midnight enemy raid near Tay Ninh, I’d realized I was the token black in my platoon.

Was this sharp memory the result of Post-Vietnam Stress Syndrome, the kind that has been induced by the recent bar­rage of Vietnam War films? So what did you do in the war, Daddy?

Well, it might depend on how blacks were typecast into various roles in com­mercial dramatizations of the war. I wish, at least, I’d had a line like “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Instead, I was lost amid the surrealism of battle fatigue in Apocalypse Now. Shooting my­self in the foot was the only way I could avoid extensive combat in Platoon. And I overdosed on acerbic wit and trench war­fare as a medic in Hamburger Hill, so I couldn’t fully articulate my problem with Whitey. My most prideful experience, though, was in Full Metal Jacket while persuading a Vietnamese prostitute to give me a “short-time,” I had to flash my genitals in the middle of the street to prove a myth. As for Rambo, come now, you know blacks “don’t have those neces­sities,” according to prevalent racial gospel.

But what did you do in the war, Daddy?

The real story is in how black troops served a pivotal, double role, as hawk and dove, in the affairs of the Vietnam deba­cle. Prior to 1970, black brothers were as feared by the enemy as were helicopter gunships and B-52s. Then, in the wake of a prolonged mourning of Martin Luther King’s ’68 assassination, and spurred on by myriad cases of overt discrimination on the line as well as in the rear, black soldiers risked losing honorable records by marshaling their brethren in the Viet­nam Theater for a reprise of a very old and personal war. Indeed, the civil rights movement had resurged on a new battleground some 12,000 miles from home.

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“BLACKANIZED PEOPLE,” or BP, was organized to instill, in the words of one brother, “respect in the world [the States] for black brothers and sisters, respect we never had before for our race.” Eventual­ly, blacks would slow down the U.S. anti­-communist war machinery by scuffing the army’s spit-and-polish image.

In Saigon, the designated ringleaders of these blackanized warriors were jailed by the army in the early ’70s. And, as a deterrent, the army mustered “beaucoup brothers” out of Nam with “212s,” jargon for undesirable discharge. Thirteen years after the war’s end, brothers holding “bad papers” are still chilling out. They’ve be­come souls on ice.

Blacks, or “bloods,” who saw action in the first half of “the conflict” (1965-68) didn’t fare any better than their blackan­ized replacements in the later stages of the war (1968-72). Despite the fact that blacks were 12 per cent of the national population, brothers were humping more than their fair share in the jungle. Pro­portionately speaking, there were more black KIAs (Killed in Action) than white deaths. It wasn’t unusual for some units in the field to be 40 per cent black. Oliver Stone’s own 25th Infantry Division was anchored by a legion of black grunts, and elements of the 173rd Airborne Brigade were as colored as Harlem. Throw in the First Infantry Division, to which I was assigned in 1967, Phuoc Vinh, and the expansive war zone to Saigon’s north dubbed the Iron Triangle assumed the air of a convention of displaced black Americans.

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“An air-traffic controller, eh?” mocked my commanding officer in Vung Thu, where I was stating my case for rear-­echelon duty. I was instead reassigned from a helicopter company there to a leg outfit in Phuoc Vinh, where the war and black heroes were in sharper focus.

The first black granted the Medal of Honor in Nam was a teenager who dove on a grenade to save the lives of four comrades. It was a posthumous award. Back then, such heroism sprang from black pride — a tough statement of black identity, racial discrimination notwithstanding.

Significantly, black power reached across enemy lines, too. Following patrol one night, a cousin of mine was catching a few winks on the jungle floor when he was surprised by a North Vietnamese Army regular.

“Shhh,” whispered his foe, “you soul brother number one. No worry.”

But the enemy’s social behavior wor­ried our officers. Additional evidence that he was aware of our racial problems and/or had acknowledged respect for the army’s black muscle was manifested in crude road signs in the thick of the bush. “Soul Brothers, Go Home and Take Care of Problems,” one message read.

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IN TIME, blacks would be going home alive before their hitches had expired, though not because of the VC. No one’s sure how it began, but in 1970 a black insurrection was developing around the Iron Triangle, which the army seemed powerless to quell.

Blacks changed their names, grew beards, stripped away army insignia, un-­bloused their boots, garlanded themselves with crosses and wristbands they’d fash­ioned from black shoelaces, eschewed sa­lutes, and, yes, even refused to board choppers to the battlefield. Groused Brother Dickinson, citing a checklist of “harassment tactics” during an interview with me for a Voice story in 1970, “Every unit got a story. Our company quickly became blackanized after we scoped out a brother being tortured in the orderly room. He was bound with chains, hand and foot, standing there like a runaway slave. The pigs say he’s crazy. Shoot, he ain’t crazy. He’s blackanized.”

Attributing the army’s perceived persecution to oversegregation, Brother Me, another blackanized warrior, responded at the time, “The brass ain’t too comfort­able with so many bad brothers on the line.” I was with a Signal Corps unit near Saigon when a racial disturbance flared. We brothers reacted by sabotaging the MPs’ phones. They couldn’t make calls to the world for weeks. We were so blackan­ized they shipped half of us [about 100] up north — on the line — against them bad [militarily strong] NVAs.” Instigators, he said, were confined to “Silver City,” or the Long Binh Jail, nicknamed for its coils of barbed wire. “That place got about 80 per cent brothers. Ain’t nobody but brothers there,” he said of his stay at LBJ.

Blackanization propaganda fanned out from its War Zone D-base like a napalm attack in a monsoon wind. Black air cav­alry troops in the Central Highland ac­knowledged that there were “beaucoup accidental shootings during military sweeps.” That’s how some racial vendet­tas were settled. “Lifers were blown away in firefights,” said a black trooper, refer­ring to “redneck” sergeants, and “frag­ging an officer was no big deal.”

At the DMZ, Brother PC was wearing black wristbands and a black cross when he was wounded — he attributed the poor treatment he received in hospital to these outward signs of his blackanized pride. Inevitably, Bro PC disdained combat and became a wristband entrepreneur, using free moments to teach blackanized con­verts the “dap,” (the Vietnamese word for beautiful) a handshake ritual adopted by and exclusive to blacks. The lengthy salutation was as much a ceremony of brotherhood as it was an overt display of militancy.

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WITH THE SITUATION on the line turning potentially mutinous, search and destroy missions were redefined — hunters had become the hunted. Sister Tee Wee of the Lovely Bar, a blacks-only watering hole off Plantation Road in Sai­gon, confirmed a blackanized account of “Brother Harvey’s coldblooded murder” at the hands of the military police: “Well, the MPs come here, see, and search the place without asking Mamasan,” she said. “They run upstairs, find Brother Harvey, and shoot him up real bad. Beaucoup shots.”

By 1970, the war between blacks and whites had reached flashpoint. On Janu­ary 7, a micro race riot erupted in the Saigon headquarters of the U.S. Military Command. Casualties were listed as “in­jured as a result of nonhostile action.”

And how were troops faring in the jun­gle? The U.S. war effort was put into microcosm the very last evening I spent at a base camp, in April of ’70: Perimeter guards are sending up fiares in the dense night to deter VC sappers. Every trench is manned. One bunker is already mellow with pot. Others are en route. In a twist of fate, a black soldier, who went by the sobriquet Brother Cloud, is stuck in a foxhole with two whites. He lights up a reefer, losing perspective on the impend­ing attack. Nodding off, he warns his mates more dreamily than sarcastically: “Hey, Chucks, stay awake and look real hard for Charlie [Vietcong) huh, because I’m gonna cop some Z’s. Man, I ain’t in no mood to protect no crackers tonight.”

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It didn’t matter what information the generals were reporting back to Washing­ton. The program was literally going up in smoke. For that matter, regardless of how one viewed Indochina during the U.S. involvement there, or how intensely the action has been portrayed on the sil­ver screen, the Vietnam War had darker overtones.

Maybe it behooves the veteran brother like myself to hammer out the unexplored secondary theme into a workable script. For sure, that could spell another battle along racial lines, what with the film in­dustry’s historical treatment of blacks and provocative black statements. Nevertheless, the conclusive chapter remains — ­and needs— to be told. ■

1988 Village Voice article by Dalton Narine about Black soldiers in Vietnam

1988 Village Voice article by Dalton Narine about Black soldiers in Vietnam