Archive for the ‘Marlon Brando’ Category

Marlon, Maria & Me

February 16, 2011

Last night I checked out the Blu-Ray disc of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, a film which over the last decade or two has quietly made its way from cause célèbre to one almost needing rediscovery. (Of the twenty-somethings I’ve talked to who’d even heard of it, none had actually seen it. Odd thing is, their generation may be better prepared to enjoy Bertolucci’s cinematic in-jokes—ranging from the jabs at Godard to the casting of neorealist icons in a couple of important secondary roles—than the audiences of 1973.) It doesn’t help that MGM treats Last Tango like a Showgirls for people with opposable thumbs. The DVD case promises “THE PASSION IS EVEN HOTTER ON BLU-RAY” (along with the anal rape, presumably), though the additional puffery offers no serious indication that the film was a milestone in its day. A Blu-Ray release clearly signaled the time had come for a making-of documentary or (at the very least) a commentary track by a smart critic or two, but MGM considered its work done by merely remastering the film—the threadbare minimum.

The premiere of Last Tango in Paris at the New York Film Festival—that would be the same premiere which Pauline Kael compared in impact to the opening of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring—occurred on October 14, 1972, which happens to have been my eighteenth birthday. We’ll get into why that matters in a sec, but let’s just say for right now that by the time the movie opened wide a few months later, it was a full-blown media event, with a level of mainstream buzz and anticipation reserved today for Super Bowls and Batman movies.

For a Marlon Brando sex movie! I was a part of that buzz, most definitely, even if I can’t totally pinpoint today just why I was so eager to see it. It wasn’t just the sex: I’d let Therese and Isabelle and I Am Curious (Yellow) blow through town without taking a flyer on either of them. I adored Brando but earlier that year I’d been only mildly curious to see him playing a Mafia don, and while I knew who Bertolucci was, I’d missed The Conformist, his ultra-stylish warm-up to Last Tango, when it was in the theaters. And, of course, like everyone else in the world, I’d never even heard of Maria Schneider.


Last Tango was given a prestige release when it finally arrived. Tickets—available only by mail-order—ran a scandalous five bucks a pop. In Houston’s Bellaire Theater on opening night, I plopped down in my reserved seat only to notice that the head directly in front of me was topped by a familiar snow-white toupee. It belonged to Marvin Zindler, the obnoxious consumer-affairs reporter for a local TV station; Zindler, who had a foghorn for a voice, ended every report by booming into his microphone “MAR-R-R-VIN ZIND-LER! EYE-WIT-NESS NEWS!” The presence of Zindler, a well-known do-gooder and spoilsport, had people eying the exits, wondering if they were about to be swept up in a vice raid; in just a few months he’d make such a public fuss about La Grange’s “Chicken Ranch”—a/k/a The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas—that it would have to shutter its doors after 60 years of business.

Last Tango is often called an “erotic” movie, but there’s really only one stretch of it that I’d call sexy: the 15-minute long scene which Schneider plays wearing only a pair of jeans. With a post-coital mood hovering over them like a cloud, it’s the closest Paul and Jeanne come to acting like a normal couple, one whose relationship doesn’t feel driven by Paul’s rage. As Jeanne prowls the darkened living room, Paul plays a harmonica and tells a story—perhaps from Brando’s actual past—about getting cow-shit on his shoes. Jeanne chides him for talking about himself, and the teasing leads to their X-rated spoof of Little Red Riding Hood. Suddenly Paul remembers his dead wife and, disengaging, moves to another room; left alone, Jeanne masturbates and, weakened after she comes, pulls herself by inches up the wall. With her back to the camera, her arms stretched apart and her jeans just hanging from her hips, she looks like Fay Wray tied to the altar on Skull Island—a slave-girl waiting to be sacrificed.

Well, here we are in 2011, and Maria Schneider died a couple weeks ago, at 58. Her obituaries dutifully recounted her troubling relationships with Bertolucci and Brando, her resentment over being pigeon-holed as a sex kitten, her breakdown and drug abuse and the girlfriend-in-the-asylum mess.  (Google the details if you must, but none of them are as interesting as the movie is.) Only one obit bothered to mention that she was any good in Last Tango, though it stopped well short of pointing out how she held her own against the acting phenomenon of her time, when he was twice her age and giving the performance of his career, or that she did it in the face of Bertolucci’s mind-games and while playing a third of her scenes fully nude. She was also all of 20 years old at the time. Finally, as if to add insult to, well, death, God thought it’d be funny to take, exactly one day later, the life of Lena Nyman, the star of Curious (Yellow), again yoking Schneider to the image of a date-stamped sex-object, which is the lasting impression of a world that never really bothered to look at her (or Nyman) in the first place.

I won’t try to kid you: for the longest time I was one of those people, mainly because I may be the only person on Earth who was more screwed up by Last Tango in Paris than Maria Schneider. Social Conservatives have a suspect reason for everything they do in their lives, up to and including brushing their teeth in the morning, but they come closest to making sense when talking about the need for two stable role models in a family. The number isn’t important, of course: one will do fine, just so long as that one person is sane. But when you come from a family whose every suppertime is like the third act of a Eugene O’Neill play, and your only parent has deeply, deeply ambivalent feelings about love and sex and the opposite gender—well, that shit tends to rub off on you. By the time I saw Brando screwing a ridiculously sexy Schneider before speaking a word to her, I knew so little about women and the world and I’d had so few sexual experiences that I naturally supposed that meet-cutes like Paul and Jeanne’s were the stuff of everyday life. I didn’t see Paul as a man agonized by his wife’s suicide when he abused Jeanne during their dusky afternoons together. I thought most everything he did—the callous jokes, the rough sex, the willful comings and goings—just a slight exaggeration of the things any man might do while courting a woman, and (and this is the kicker) that these were all things women secretly want, or at least secretly expect, their men to provide.

I won’t go into all the gory details; let’s just say it was a case of world-class cluelessness, and a disastrous way to go. It pretty much ruined me in my 20s and early 30s, as one failed relationship led to another drunken binge to another failed relationship, and some of the collateral damage—meaning most of the women I dated or lived with back then—won’t speak to me to this day. Why I had to choose Last Tango over any stray episode of McMillan and Wife is a question that’s long plagued me; all I can say now is that it’s what seemed most “adult” at the time, and if I’d come of age in ’85 I probably would’ve taken my sexual cues from Frank Booth.

What I do know is that no other work of art in the history of time had its way with me the way Last Tango in Paris did. It’s always been easy for me to see Brando’s part in all this; I just hope the fact that it took Schneider’s death for me to finally take a real look at her is a symbol of only limited meaning. Near the end of Last Tango Jean-Pierre Léaud, playing her boyfriend, drapes a ship’s lifesaver around her waist and proposes marriage to her—a union that would almost certainly be doomed by his cinema-fueled fantasy world. The couple banters the question back and forth in an almost bickering tone before Jeanne accepts, then she petulantly throws the lifesaver into a nearby canal. The legend on it reads “L’Atalante”—another in-joke, the title of Jean Vigo’s tribute to enduring love—but we barely have time to read the word before the lifesaver sinks like a rock.

Reach for the Sky

August 20, 2010

It was four or five obsessions ago—before film noir, before the Iraq War, before Enron and the Italian neorealists and vegetarian cooking the Army-McCarthy hearings—that I really plunged into the gunmen of the Old West. It lasted a while, a year or two in any case, and in that time I bored certain people silly (Gary, Kathy, Cay—are you still out there?) with the exploits of such forgotten men as John Selman, King Fisher, and Outlaw Bass. For instance, there was the handsome train robber Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum,

who caused some excitement when his head popped off during his hanging,

and “Deacon” Jim Miller, the religious nut and hired killer who asked permission to keep his hat on before getting strung up in an Oklahoma barn,

and Henry Brown, the popular but poorly paid marshal of Caldwell, Kansas, who decided to improve his lot in life by robbing the bank one town over from his own. It was a bad move: a couple of citizens were killed in the robbery, then Brown and his friends managed to trap themselves in a box canyon that was filling up with rainwater. They surrendered and spent the day in the Medicine Lodge lockup, waiting for the mob to reach its boiling point; while not posing for photographs at gunpoint, Brown used the time to write a letter to his wife which ended: “It was all for you. I did not think this would happen.” When the mob finally came that night, Brown made a break for it and was shot down in the street. That’s Henry, second from the left there, in shackles:

Some of the most famous gunmen were so thickly embroiled in the currents of history they seem like frontier Forrest Gumps, yet one can’t say much about them as people. These were far from self-actualized men, to put it mildly, and they had no say in how others represented them. Some of them come across as sociopaths pure and simple, others as workingmen carrying capitalism to its logical end, but in the main their personalities don’t communicate across the ages in any illuminating way, leaving us only with their violent, often nugatory experiences. Those experiences, draped as they were in law-breaking and immorality, were a tangled web to begin with, and any remaining hope of clarity was dimmed when generations of dime novelists, journalists, and slipshod historians took to heart the words of the too-slick newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Every field is open to information abuse, but the Old West was left to the amateurs for so long that peer reviews and other reality-checks couldn’t obtain a toehold for decades, allowing writer after writer, for generation after generation, to repeat “the legend”—the myths, tiresome the second time you read them, that Billy the Kid shot a man for every one of his 21 years, that Hardin once shot a man for snoring. Indeed, “the legend” was regurgitated so many times that the writer-bibliographer Ramon Adams felt moved to compile Burs Under the Saddle, a virtual encyclopedia of errata which painstakingly corrects, one by one, the outright myths and half-truths peppering Western histories. Beyond the weekend warriors, the field has also seen its share of warlords and empire builders, most notably the belligerent and quite possibly insane Glenn G. Boyer, whose inexplicable mindgames have hindered serious researchers for years. Nor do publishers, especially in the academic world, offer much help when they saddle their offerings with presentations trivializing their own subject matter. When the University of Oklahoma Press reissued John Wesley Hardin’s autobiography for the first time in decades, this is what it looked like:

Likewise, Joseph G. Rosa’s indispensable pictorial biography The West of Wild Bill Hickok is available only in a cheaply produced edition even though Hickok led a life richer than Picasso’s, and the man himself, an incorrigible camera hound, possessed one of the great modern gazes in 19th Century photographs.


Despite all this, certain potent snapshots still jump out from the literature that is reliable: a disconsolate Hickok sitting on his bed, surrounded by firearms, as a half-dressed prostitute putters about his room; or Henry Brown’s vest catching fire from a pistol flash and going up in flames as he ran down the street during that escape attempt. These luminous, ephemeral glimpses have no more substance than heat lightning, and they’re no help at all to, say, the grad student writing a thesis on the economics of mining towns. Anecdotal history like this doesn’t leave much more than a feeling, but it’s a feeling that’s tangled up with the texture of some rugged lives once lived, a constant shifting between the gridpoints on a wilderness, an easy familiarity with violence, and the unmistakably American flavor of all these things; if nothing else it injects some small dose of grit and authenticity into an age of designer-ripped jeans and Lady Gaga.

John Wesley Hardin, for instance, came out of the East Texas hills, the son of a Methodist circuit rider (hence the name), and his early reputation as a mankiller was based on run-ins he had with freed slaves, Union soldiers, and the hated (by Democrats and ex-Confederates) State Police. Getting himself into scrape after scrape, he was a fugitive long before he was 20; in the Taylor-Sutton feud he shotgunned a man on the deck of a riverboat even though the fellow was known to be fleeing the territory; when he subsequently murdered a deputy and lit out again, a furious mob strung up his brother.

The Texas Rangers caught up with him on a train outside Pensacola, knocked him out, and renditioned his ass back to Texas, where he was given a 25-to-life prison term. In Huntsville he taught Sunday school—par for the course for celebrity felons today, but Hardin seemed to believe his own sermons, and he went one step further and began studying law. He served 20 years before he was pardoned in 1894, and the Texas of his youth was fading away fast. He passed the Bar but few people wanted to pay John Wesley Hardin for his legal advice. He married a 15 year old girl who fled on their wedding night and refused to discuss him ever again. The children from his first marriage, grown now, were strangers to him. He moved to El Paso and hung out a shingle.

There he began work on his autobiography, a book short on insight but long on detail, with names and dates supplied for almost every killing, some 30 or 40 in all. He distributed autographed playing cards drilled by bullet holes—keepsakes which are traded to this day. But things continued to slide downhill for him: not enough clients, a messy affair with the wife of one of the few clients he did possess, a card game that so pissed him off he scooped up the pot and walked out the door, silently daring anyone to object. The local newspaper, hearing of this, began a drumbeat: the day of the gunman was over. It was just a matter of when. There was one final dispute, one final exchange of charges and countercharges, this time with a degenerate constable, and on August 19, 1895—115 years ago yesterday—Hardin was playing dice in the Acme Saloon when John Selman stepped up and shot him in the back of the head.

Now, not even with a gun to my head could I tell you why I find these details irresistible. The fact is, I just do…

The Confidence Man

July 11, 2004

[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.]


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.]


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.


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