April 3, 1924– Marlon Brando:
“Homosexuality is so much in fashion it no longer makes news. Like a large number of men, I, too, have had homosexual experiences and I am not ashamed. I have never paid much attention to what people think about me.“
Brando, at the height of his powerful career, approached his craft in a way that challenged Hollywood’s concept of acting on film, and the way he lived his life was an affront to the entire showbiz industry. His very being seemed to undulate with energy like a live wire in search of a socket. His physical and emotional persona appeared to burn through the celluloid on which it was printed.
Brando appeared in a series of films that made it impossible for the industry to ignore him. He smoldered, abused, ripped his tee-shirt in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), proved he was up to the challenge of doing William Shakespeare when he played Marc Antony in Julius Caesar (1953), popularized the whole butch leather biker look in The Wild One (1953), and he wore the shit out of a longshoreman’s jacket while breaking your heart in On The Waterfront (1954).
Brando earned four Academy Award nominations in as many years, finally winning for On The Waterfront. Back in the early 1950s, Brando was operating on an entirely different level than any actor around him.
If Brando had just been talented, he would probably have returned to the Broadway stage where he started. Hollywood, in his era, did many things, but serious experimental art was not really one of them.
In the 1970s, his The Godfather (1972) and Last Tango In Paris (1972) period, Brando’s work is quieter and more introspective. He disowned Hollywood with his legendary rejection of his second Academy Award. He also became lazier, being paid $14 million dollars for 12 days work on Superman (1978), and even abusive, pushing director Francis Ford Coppola to the brink of a breakdown while filming Apocalypse Now (1979).
Brando, before the weight gain at the end of his career, was spectacularly sexual and ruinously handsome. Off-screen, he presented something new to film fans; he wore dirty jeans, motorcycle boots and t-shirts rolled over his formidable biceps. During the 1950s, the gossip magazines had been doing features about family outings and chaperoned dates. They had no idea how to process Brando. He was so smart, realizing that shunning publicity was publicity itself. He could play the game as suavely as any studio star; he simply played the game by a new set of rules, with no studio contract, dialogue coach, personal trainer, publicity handler or entourage.
Brando was a tough guy who was also a ravishing beauty. He was expelled from his high school for riding a motorcycle through the hallways. He came to the rescue of a skinny kid being bullied by schoolmates, picked him up, threw his arm around him, and stated: “I’m your new best friend“.
Brando’s bisexuality was not a secret in the Broadway community or in Hollywood. His greatest love affair was with fellow actor Wally Cox. Their relationship lasted a lifetime and beyond. After Cox took his final curtain call in 1973, Brando kept his ashes. On Brando’s final bow in 2004, in accordance with his wishes, their ashes were mixed together and scattered in Death Valley. Brando:
“If Wally Cox had been a woman, I would have married him and we would have lived happily ever after.“
Brando possessed an insatiable libido, among his main courses: Burt Lancaster, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Leonard Bernstein, Noël Coward, Stephen Rutledge, Tyrone Power, Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, and Richard Pryor (!). For dessert there was: Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, Rita Hayworth, Shelley Winters, Ava Gardner, Gloria Vanderbilt, Hedy Lamarr, Rita Moreno, Elaine Stritch, Tallulah Bankhead, Ingrid Bergman, and Edith Piaf. I guess Brando could have whoever he wanted. A Hollywood insider once insisted to me that when Paul Newman showed up at the stage door to meet him after a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando took the younger actor for a tour of the city on the back of his motorcycle and that they disappeared for three days.
James Dean was one of Brando’s most lasting yet troubled male relationships. Their affair went on for years but it was always turbulent. At one point they had a big stand-up fight at an industry party witnessed by dozens of people in the biz. Brando had a bit of a fling with Cary Grant, spending a weekend with him in San Francisco. Grant was also having a thing with actor Stewart Granger, who then became another of Brando’s conquests. Brando admired Gielgud while making Julius Caesar but they didn’t exactly have a romance, rather Brando performed sexual favors for Gielgud and told his friends:
“I owed it to him because he really helped me with lines.“
Throughout his life, Brando recorded his thoughts on audio tapes and stashed them away, never imagining that they would one day become a most valuable tool in telling his story. They have been skillfully gathered in an absorbing documentary Listen To Me Marlon by Stevan Riley.
Brando actively supported John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. In the summer of 1963, he participated in the March On Washington along with Harry Belafonte, James Garner, Charlton Heston, and Sidney Poitier. Along with Newman riding shotgun, Brando joined in several Freedom Rides.
Brando was a lifelong Democrat, but, as befitting his outsider persona, it seems that he wasn’t really interested in politics. His activism was centered around Racism and Civil Rights. He was deeply committed to equality in our society. Two of his most controversial public statements were sending an Apache Native-American to refuse his Oscar for The Godfather in protest of the film industry’s treatment of Native Americans, and making a rare television appearance with members of the militant Black Panthers during the heat of the Civil Rights Movement. His activism caused widespread boycotting of Brando’s films. He was also outraged by U.S. foreign policy, particularly covert military and CIA operations in several of the Mexican countries.
Of apathy and antagonism toward our pretty planet’s less-fortunate and those marginalized groups of people, Brando said:
“If we are not our brother’s keeper, at least let us not be his executioner.“
My favorite Brando performance is his droll mafia don, Carmine “Jimmy the Toucan” Sabatini, a character who bears startling resemblance to a certain cinematic star, in The Freshman (1990) opposite young Matthew Broderick.
“The only reason I’m in Hollywood is that I don’t have the moral courage to refuse the money.“