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Marlon Brando: Brilliance behind the mumble

Marlon Brando mumbled his lines. Sometimes to irritating incomprehensibility. But beyond that muttering mumbo-jumbo lay an energy that electrified a whole generation of movie buffs. His physical magnetism seduced hundreds, and his understated style on screen transformed the perception of acting.

Often, Indians were tempted to draw a parallel between Brando, who died on July 1 2004 at age 80, and Bachchan. But I would think it was as misplaced as Brando's belief that his wife was an Indian. Anna Kashfina fed the Hollywood icon that she was the daughter of  wealthy Kolkata parents, and that she was trained in Asia's  classical dances. Brando married her in 1957, but the union could  last for just a year. Brando found out the bluff.

However, there was another Indian connection of Brando's that went beyond deceit. In a 1965 film,"Morituri", he acted as an apolitical German -- living in India -- tapped by the British to pose as an SS officer and infiltrate a Tokyo-Berlin freighter with a precious cargo.

"Morituri" sank without a song on the seas of choppy motion and  movement. Infact, Brando's legacy emerged out of a surprisingly  small number of roles: as Stanley Kowalski in the 1951 "A  Streetcar Named Desire", as boxer Terry Malloy in the 1954 "On  the Waterfront",as an aging don in the 1972 "The Godfather" and as a perplexed middleaged American living Paris in the 1973 "Last  Tango in Paris".

Brando in "On the Waterfront"

An almost two-decade hiatus followed "On the Waterfront", when Brando performed eminently forgettable parts. Probably, his  eccentricities (he bought, built up and lived on an island off Tahiti), and personal tragedies (his son's conviction for the murder of his step-sister's boyfriend) stopped him from being a truly great actor.

He did show a touch of genius in certainly "Streetcar..." and "...Waterfront", with classic contributions in his 1970s movies.

Brando excelled up to the point he did because of his animal magnetism, brooding image and controlled charm exuded all at the same time. He brought to the canvas a manner known as Method (as opposed to spontaneity),an acting technique promulgated in Russia by Konstantin Stanislavski in the 1920s, and popularised  by American teachers such as Stella Adler. Brando was the first to show us how gripping this style could be -- in the right hands of course.

His friend, Jack Nicholson, summed this up very well. "Brando gave us our freedom" to go beyond five-star characterisations".  Brando's Kowalski was a brute who defied the system of politeness  and ethics. In just a few words, he was a rebel, who became an  off-screen hero to growing kids.

But Brando himself had no idol to look up to. His parents were  alcoholics, often vague and distant. Brando was born in 1924 in  Omaha, Nebraska, and he said in his autobiography, "Songs My  Mother Taught Me" that his father was violent, never had a good  word for his son. The mother hardly cared for the family, was  always chasing the drink. "I suppose the story of my life is a  search for love, but more than that I have been looking for a way  to repair myself from the damages I suffered early on..."he  wrote.

Many critics have said that the anger one sees in him was  perhaps the animosity he felt for his father, and could not show  it. He, however, exhibited a raw rage, sometimes bordering on  violent sexual passion. One remembers the way, he has sex with a  stranger in "Last Tango in Paris" as she walks into an empty  apartment where Brando himself is resting. The girl seems to like  the almost brutal way he makes love to her indicating an enormous  degree of repression in him.

Yet, Brando could shock you with his resolute control over his  actions, a facet which one saw in "Godfather" as Don Corleone,  the Mafia leader. There he was the commander of his emotions  with a complete grip over them, pursuing a disturbing sense of  calm. He could kill you with his silence. And, innovation.

"During one of Adler's classes, she asked her students to  pretend to be chickens on which an atomic bomb was about to fall. Except for Brando, the rest ran around clucking loudly and  looking at the sky. Brando sat like a hen, laying eggs. What  would a hen know or care about a bomb ?" This was what a  newspaper article had to say in 1997, revealing yet another fascinating aspect of Brando's character. He might have been a  star, but he was intelligent and pioneering. Still, Brando never became an Olivier, never seemed to match the British actor's achievements. Brando never returned to the stage, and one noticed a certain lethargy in him. Or, was it a decisive lack of ambition. There were periods in his life that were marked  by strange withdrawals, punctuated by his fondness for food and  battle against the bulge.

Yet,the images that Brando left behind are far from ugly. One  remembers Godfather stroking a cat, Terry playing with his girl's  gloves and tens of other touching scenes that lit up even the most mundane of Brando's works. No wonder, actors right from Paul  Newman to Leonardo di Caprio found it hard to resist being  influenced by Brando.

Yes, he could have been a far greater icon. He twice won the  Oscar ("On the Waterfront" and "The Godfather"), but refused it  the second time, protesting against the treatment of native  Americans in Hollywood. Perhaps, in the refusal one can feel a deep sense of  anguish in Brando. Humiliation, rejection and disappointment were  constants in his life, emotions that blocked his path to true  excellence. One saw this, though rarely in some extraordinary performances.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated July 9 2004)

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