"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Friday, January 20, 2006

The Great Narcissist Brando

Fellow Reform Clubber Tom Van Dyke kindly pointed me toward an excellent analysis of the career of Marlon Brando, by Nicholas Stix, at Mens News Daily. Stix correctly points out that (1) Brando was an immensely talented actor who accomplished several great performances and a lot of utterly atrocious ones, (2) the style of acting Brando pioneered was going to happen anyway, and (3) Brando's real stock in trade was not sensitivity but narcissism, and this played out in his personal life as well as in his performances.

Considering the basic impluse behind Brando's characterizations, Stix writes,

All the talk about Brando’s “sensitivity” is so much rot. The sycophantic “experts” who say that he played “sensitive” brutes are confusing emotional neediness with sensitivity. In other words, they can’t tell a narcissist from a saint.

Stix's observation that Brando's stock in trade was narcissism is a key point. Regarding Brando's influence on acting styles, Stix writes,

Since Brando’s death, we have been told that he somehow gave actors “permission” to be emotionally authentic. We have also heard, from Brando-apologist Richard Schickel, that it was the movies that let Brando down, beginning in the 1960s, rather than the other way around. Baloney!

A more intense acting style was coming into fashion after World War II, before Brando’s arrival on the Hollywood scene. Witness Kirk Douglas’ driven performances as boxer “Midge Kelly” in
Champion (1949), as “Det. Jim McLeod” in Detective Story (1951), and as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956). And already in 1946, in It’s a Wonderful Life, note the embittered, emotionally raw quality of so much of Jimmy Stewart’s performance as “George Bailey,” a quality that characterized much of Stewart’s best 1950s’ work with directors Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock. Something was in the air.

I have written elsewhere that what was "in the air" was the rise of anti-authoritarianism and personal narcissism throughout American society, and I think that Brando's ascendance, as Stix observes, was a powerful manifestation of that (and in fact I gave Brando as one of many examples of the post-World War II cultural change that led to what I call the Omniculture).

Stix also correctly accords credit to writer-director Elia Kazan for the rise of this acting style. I think that Brando's innovation in film acting was a mixed blessing at best, but would have been inevitable with the onset of TV anyway and, more importantly, the general rise in narcissism in the society. In Stix's discussion of the films of the 1960s and '70s, for example, change the word "antihero" to "narcissist" and you'll see it fits perfectly and in fact makes more sense (in that, for example, one's personal behavior can seldom be described as anti-heroic, as that is a dramatic/literary term):

Johnny Strabler was one of the early versions of what became the ultimate 1960s Hollywood cliché: The “anti-hero.” During the mid-1950s, in his brief career, James Dean would specialize in this type, in East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause (the ultimate anti-hero movie title), and Giant, before dying in an automobile accident in 1955. Another then-famous anti-hero role was Paul Newman’s performance as Billy the Kid, in Arthur Penn’s The Left Handed Gun, in 1958. (Though I admire much of Arthur Penn’s work, when I saw the movie on The Late Show about thirty years ago, I found it so dreadful, that I shut it off after a few minutes.)

In the 1960s, the anti-hero became the dominant shtick in Hollywood, as Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, Newman and Redford, (and a few years later) Charles Bronson, and countless other actors would earn millions of dollars portraying anti-hero crooks and cops alike. (On TV, for a producer to sell a cop series, it had to be about an “unorthodox” cop.)

However, the anti-hero shtick did not help Marlon Brando. Brando’s problem was that, rather than seeing the playing of anti-heroes as a calculated career move, he adopted the anti-hero as his personal shtick. But if you really act like an anti-hero (i.e., a juvenile delinquent) in your personal and professional life, you become a source of grief to all who depend on you.


I would suggest that Brando didn't change at heart after his twenties, which Stix argues. On the contrary, Brando just did what he could get away with at all times, and after his great run of early '50s performances he could get away with much more. His career is indeed a tale of great talent often wasted, and it is a cautionary tale about the consequences of narcissism both for others and oneself.

3 comments:

James Elliott said...

This is an excellent post. I don't think anyone can watch Gary Cooper's performance in "High Noon" and say that actors weren't allowed to portray emotion. There's a certain something to be said about subtlety in the portrayal. Emotion doesn't need to scream out of someone in order to be powerful. Just think of the ending scenes in Ordinary People. Watch Mary Tyler Moore as she desperately attempts to hang on to her control and not be overwhelmed by sorrow and anger. It is the single most moving ten seconds on film I've ever seen.

His career is indeed a tale of great talent often wasted, and it is a cautionary tale about the consequences of narcissism both for others and oneself.

And don't forget the overeating. Have you ever seen Don Juan DeMarco? I'd say it's Brando's most "sensitive" - by which I mean genuine - performance and probably the best since he played that utter bastard Stanley Kowalski. Am I the only person who didn't like "A Streetcar Named Desire?" Give me a movie based on a play by Tom Stoppard or Arthur Miller over Tennessee Williams any day.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Anti-hero as narcissist. I like it.

Hunter Baker said...

James, the final scenes of Ordinary People made me cry for years. Even when I was a hard-hearted teenager, that film got to me.