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Brando: The Molecule Jiggler

{mosimage} It’s probably safe to say that Marlon Brando — a confounding, wildly talented movie star often tagged as the most influential film actor of the 20th century — would have detested Brando, the two-part tribute doc that Turner Classic Movies is running Tuesday and Wednesday. Its air of clubby canonization, the flash card psychology from friends and colleagues, talk of his acting choices in mythical, magical terms: One can imagine them all as healthy winding up for a vigorous spin in the legendary bullshit detector’s grave. (He died in 2004.)

That doesn’t mean Brando isn’t entertaining for the rest of us, though. For starters, the package is anecdotal catnip for cinephiles, a greatest-hits parade of the Nebraska native’s explosive stage beginnings, meteoric rise in film, on-set eccentricities, passion for political causes and mercenary approach to movie roles as he segued into a final act as a corpulent island poobah. It’s also a grand, glossy tease of a talking-head-studded clip show that — even with the mini-Brando fest TCM plans to run those same evenings — will inevitably spur a Netflix logjam afterward. For some, it’ll be about filling their rental queue with the caged-rattle excitement of ’50s heyday stalwarts A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, for which he won his first Academy Award, and in which he embodied as much as any actor ever has the American dilemma: How much is a soul worth?

For comeback lovers, it’ll be a hankering to relive the sobering power Brando brought to middle-aged introspection in The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris. And for the rest, they’ll be drawn to in-between stuff, wilderness finds and connecting-glue artifacts that offer no less a glimpse of Brando’s ability to take our breath away: his ruminative blond Nazi in The Young Lions, the repressed homosexual Army officer primping in the mirror or straightening his hair for a strapping private in Reflections in a Golden Eye, colonial opportunism personified in Quemada! (Burn!) and his quietly uproarious Mafia don send-up in The Freshman.

There are plenty of variations on the Master of the Craft theme offered in Brando, but to capture his unique aliveness on screen I prefer interviewee Quincy Jones’ co-opting of a favorite Brando phrase. “He’d say, ‘Q, let’s go out and jiggle the molecules,’” recounts Jones of their nightclub hopping. “And that’s a very graphic way of describing Marlon: a molecule jiggler.”

{mosimage}There are considerably more actors and friends than directors interviewed, which is probably a good indication of where allegiances lie with his colleagues. Actors were inspired by his flights of genius, commitment to soul baring, and spirit of playfulness and anything-goes. He may have been the Method acting school’s most forceful proponent of its memory-raiding mantra, but it wasn’t that he let scooped-up emotions run loose: Brando knew how to coil them up, protect them, ignore them and — unexpectedly — unleash them. He was theatricality and realism rolled into one leopardy, then tiger-ish and, in later years, lionlike frame. The voice was a trip: an adenoidal buzz saw with surprising range. And of course, a prop in his vicinity became a brush in a master painter’s hand. He turned Eva Marie Saint’s unintentionally dropped lace glove in On the Waterfront into a moment of offbeat, shattering poignancy when, as inarticulate dockworker Terry Malloy, he picks it up and tries it on. In Brando James Caan marvels at the way his onscreen papa from The Godfather took the sudden inclusion of a cat in his lap: Instead of drawing attention to it, the actor stroked it as if it had been there “for a hundred years.”

Directors, meanwhile, wanted his mojo for their movies but inevitably had to pay the price by suffering his increasing ill-preparedness (which Brando usually spun as respect for spontaneity) and the brunt of his contempt. George Englund describes how a joined-at-the-hip friend became an icy combatant when Englund directed Brando on The Ugly American, a title that suddenly took on an unintended meaning. And Francis Coppola is noticeably absent from the doc, perhaps still stinging from their Apocalypse Now experience, in which Brando’s paradoxical excesses — a fat Green Beret? — were inevitably frustrating in the moment, yet now stand as a chilling lunacy.

One of the tartest, and funniest, stories comes from The Freshman writer/director Andrew Bergman, who remembers his reluctant, difficult star eyeing his pack of gum on set one day. Bergman offered a deal: Do the scene right, get a piece. Brando nailed it — of course — then stuck his hand out. Laughing, Bergman concludes, “Here’s the Method: one stick of Bazooka bubble gum.”

He was the son of an artistic, drunk mother and a punishing, drunk father, and he was a selfless pleasure seeker and prankish charmer, which gave him more tools than necessary to be a powerful actor. But it was in New York at Stella Adler’s Stanislavski-oriented conservatory, and then under the disciplining direction of Elia Kazan, that Brando found parental figures who could make him a performance phenomenon, a century-pivotin acting from presentational to primal. As Henry Silva describes seeing Brando on Broadway as Tennessee Williams’ brutish zoo specimen Stanley Kowalski, “I thought somebody had made a mistake and walked on the stage, but at the same time, my hairs were standing up.”

Then Brando found a real-life connection to the sensitive agitator persona that was exciting young post-war movie audiences. In the 1954 biker drama The Wild One, he memorably met a flippant girl’s probe into what he was rebelling against with an almost bored “Whaddaya got?” The answer to that might as well have been: star-driven, conscience-less Hollywood. Determined to subvert what was expected of him, he chose roles on their challenge credentials. He tried singing (Guys and Dolls) and sentimental romance (Sayonara), and when One-Eyed Jacks — his long-gestating, self-directed baby about Freudian vengeance — became a recut, compromised release, Brando enacted his own revenge of sortswhen he treated the expensive Mutiny on the Bounty as a clock-punching, studio-bleeding exercise in how much star insanity he could get away with.

Things were never the same for Brando after that, from his weight to the quality of movies to his disdain for acting, problems that reappeared even after his ’70s resurgence. And Brando — though hardly probing — checks off the contradictions, high points and personal tragedies with a smooth, Biography-like efficiency. But the unspoken thought that comes from seeing his career laid out is that every movie he made felt like a turning point. That’s how hard it’s always been to separate the turmoil-ridden man from his roiling, ever-evolving art, which in the end seemed above all to glorify an intense need to always make humanity — in all its contours — the unexpected acting choice.

BRANDO | TCM | Tues., May 1 (Part 1), & Wed., May 2 (Part 2), 5 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sat., May 12, 2:15 p.m.; Wed., May 30, 12:15 a.m.

Marlon Brando films in May on TCM: The Men; Tues., May 1, 6:30 p.m. | A Streetcar Named Desire; Tues., May 1, 9:30 p.m. | Guys and Dolls; Tues., May 1, 11:45 p.m.; Sat., May 19, 7 p.m. | The Teahouse of the August Moon; Wed., May 2, 2:30 a.m. | The Wild One; Wed., May 2, 6:30 p.m. | On the Waterfront; Wed., May 2, 9:30 p.m. | Sayonara; Wed., May 2, 11:30 p.m.; Sat., May 12, 11:30 a.m. | The Missouri Breaks; Wed., May 2, 2 a.m.; Tues., May 29, 10 p.m.


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