The Confidence Man

[I’ve been working long hours and have been too tuckered out in my off-time to put together anything like a finished post, but in the interests of keeping this thing from evaporating altogether I’m going to post the little I’ve managed to get down in the last couple weeks, in the reverse order that it was written.]

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On the night that Marlon Brando died, Nightline pulled in those mental titans Roger Ebert and Richard Schickel to explain the King of the Jungle to all those folks who haven’t found time to make it to a movie in the last fifty years. It quickly became clear, though, that the show wasn’t meant to hang wreaths around the great actor’s neck, as guest moderator Chris Bury asked one leading question after another, each of them lined with a dryly skeptical edge. You heard me right: that blow-dried homunculus Chris Bury was taking digs at Marlon Brando. The mass media is at its worst when it’s dealing with people who won’t slide into some predetermined cubbyhole, usually preferring to marginalize them or, if their talent, as in Brando’s case, is undeniable, relegating them to the “controversial” status that plays like a death sentence. The Lehrer News Hour aired a panel discussion about Timothy Leary on the very day that he died, and not a single person sitting round that table could find a nice thing to say about the freshly dead human being, all because he’d been a cheerleader for recreational drug use. The historical footnote Leary doesn’t approach Brando in importance, of course, but didn’t Jim Lehrer have even one person in his Rolodex who isn’t a complete square, and who actually might’ve provided some insight into what Leary and psychedelics were all about? And does anyone doubt that on the day Woody Allen dies we’ll be force-fed flashbacks to the ugly breakup and Soon-Yi and all the movies that didn’t work when we could be honoring the man who gave us Love and Death, Sleeper, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose, Zelig, and Husbands and Wives?

Nightline merely conformed to the print obits which worked hard to leave the feeling that Brando’s achievements were all somehow offset or devalued, if not flat-out undermined, by his complicated personality, with every acknowledgement of greatness ending in a but that made him out to be a clownish loser. Yes, he was talented, they all agreed, but he also made crap movies. Yes, he was brilliant, but he was also fat, and there was all that tiresome stuff with the American Indians. Yes, he changed the course of American acting, but he was “difficult,” “dogged by controversy,” and “temperamental.” Personally, when faced by all of his great and near-great performances – especially the Mount Rushmore of Streetcar, Waterfront, Godfather, and Last Tango – it’s impossible for me to give a shit how much the man weighed or what he did on Larry King. All those things are mere distractions, smokescreens thrown up by people who either don’t care or just can’t see what the man was doing up there on the screen, and that get seized on by a culture, if you want to call it that, to which art means nothing and celebrity everything.

It’s striking how many of Brando’s most famous moments began as writers’ high notes: there’s “Stella!” and “Whattaya got?” and “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” and “I coulda been a contender.” That last one’s been quoted nigh unto death; more freely pleasurable to me in that same scene is the beatific ache with which Terry Malloy pushes aside Charlie’s .38, softly exposing the hysteria of Steiger’s violence. More than any actor whose name wasn’t Buster Keaton, Brando left behind a catalogue of rich physical gestures that administer savory licks to the memory whenever one bothers to dredge them up. A lot of people have mentioned the moment when Terry slips on Edie’s glove (but not how the lost-at-sea Eva Marie Saint can be seen plainly waiting for him to hand it back to her, as Brando had been directed to do). But there’s also the way he points in the opposite direction from the one he means, and otherwise leaves Randy Quaid trailing one crucial step behind his leaps of logic, in The Missouri Breaks; Don Corleone shrugging the traumatized Jack Woltz out of his thoughts; Terry Malloy using his pork-sausage thumb to show Edie where he’d be – “Down. Right down.” – if he doesn’t play ball with Johnny Friendly; the outlaw in One-Eyed Jacks dropping a banana peel on the counter of a bank that he’s in the middle of robbing; Robert E. Lee Clayton’s white, marbled dorsal area rolling over in the bathtub like a foundering battleship; and the raw-faced Paul clutching his temples as if to catch his exploding brains in the opening shot of Last Tango in Paris.

Brando made his choices not because he was a thoughtless ham or destructive megalomaniac, but because he was of such restless disposition that the big literary roles, the ones that get sanctioned by the AFI, held no challenge or reward for him. T.E. Lawrence, Atticus Finch, Hud Bannon, Travis Bickle, Oskar Schindler – which of these couldn’t he have knocked out of the park? Instead he was drawn to characters who, like himself, stood less above the world than askew of it: Sky Masterson, Walter Kurtz, the smalltown Texas sheriff who succintly sums up his fellow citizens as “just nuts,” the ostentatiously conflicted Sir William Walker, Vito Corleone, and the bemused South African attorney who accepts an unwinnable case just to prove that the system is rigged. His donning a gingham dress and whispering sweet nothings to his horse are supposed to be both proof and nadir of his clownishness, but only a fool or blind man could watch The Missouri Breaks without realizing that he was working the same humorously polyglot vein that Barrymore, Grant, Guinness, and Sellers had mined before him. I’ll take such free-form shape-shifting any day over Peter O’Toole’s sodden intensity in Lawrence of Arabia any day.

We wouldn’t be having this conversation today if Marlon Brando had been a good little rebel – if he’d just done his share of respectable parts, kept his politics out of the goddam papers, and thanked his agent and parents when he won that Godfather Oscar. But freedom is a messy thing, as Donald Rumsfeld likes to remind us, and Brando either couldn’t or wouldn’t follow the script, or stop his whimsical, anarchic urges from seeping into his work. Nobody’s quoting the scene that by all rights ought to send his critics howling for the closest foothills: the naked confession that he delivers to his wife’s grotesquely dolled-up corpse in Last Tango. It’s a scene primitive in its setup, with the camera simply recording a man as he puts his feelings into words, but it’s Brando who managed to erase the line between himself and his character in a way the movies hadn’t seen since the days of Falconetti and Lorre. Maria Schneider would complain for years about her treatment at Bertolucci’s hands, but Brando too was disinclined to repeat the searing experience. He’d gone as far as he could…

[As had I – I just ran out of steam here. This was supposed to end with some thoughts about what it means to always be taking the side of troublesome people like Brando, Allen, Pound, Dylan, Altman, and Peckinpah, but that’s just going to have to wait for another day.]

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The latest entries in my losing quest to catch up with movies that came out a couple of years ago:

Spellbound – Slighter than what I’d been led to expect, but I’ll take the memory of Angela’s emphatically stymied pronunciation of “wheedle” to my deathbed. The video quality is so bright and ugly that Ray-Bans are required.

American Splendor – Until its closing scenes Ghost World did a good imitation of a movie that’s about outgrowing adolescent attitudes, but American Splendor is an unabashed wallow for people who get all warm and gooey when they consider their own nerdy outsider status. Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis are both capable of dry, subtle work but you’d barely know it from this; Giamatti, who’s onscreen practically every second, does so much one-note slumpiness you wish Mickey Spillane would show up and slap him around. The script just about chokes on pandering, cloying hipness, and what with the comic strip panels and cutaways to the real Harvey Pekar, things get so meta that by the end I had a fine metaheadache. One wonderful (little) performance, though: James Urbaniak as Robert Crumb. And one wonderful (little) moment: Pekar asking a friend to bring his kid over because she’ll lighten the load caused by Pekar’s cancer.

In America – Jim Sheridan’s underappreciated The Boxer did expertly what political and historical dramas often scarcely try to do at all, find an even balance between its personal and social dilemmas, and make them feel proportionately worthy of each other. In America is nowhere near that good, but it’s still worth seeing for the precocious, almost absurdly photogenic Bolger sisters and its way of making you feel that you’re living through a particular series of days and nights. Also contains some outstanding Roegian displacement effects, particularly during the family’s approach to Manhattan. (Their first view of Times Square makes an amusing bookend for Bill Murray’s introduction to nighttime Tokyo in Lost in Translation.) Gorgeously photographed by Declan Quinn, who also shot Louis Malle’s luminous Vanya on 42nd Street.

Shattered Glass – An often clunkily directed film that still caught me off guard by switching focus at the halfway point. Brilliant acting by both leads, but Peter Sarsgaard was the one who made me forget to keep breathing, in the long take in which he simply listens as Hayden Christensen’s house of cards comes tumbling down. This movie made me realize what All the President’s Men left out: the undoubtedly strong reactions that Woodward and Bernstein’s colleagues must have had as success sought the duo out and carried them to the mountaintop. Office politics prop up the heaviest dramatic load of Shattered Glass, as the tyro editor has to overcome his considerable people-pleasing instincts and his subordinates’ scarcely muted dislike of him. This is the real Revenge of the Nerds, with Christensen providing several agile demonstrations of what it means to wheedle.

Wheedle!

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