Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/355/5870
Brando - A Legend And An Enigma
The death of screen actor, Marlon Brando, has sparked off an examination of the forces that motivated him. Universally recognised as one of the greatest actors of all time, the puzzle remains: why did such a gifted actor end his days as a recluse living on social security and a pension from the Screen Actors Guild, bloated to 22 stone and completely unrecognisable compared to the athleticism of his earlier years?
Tony Mulhearn, Merseyside
Brando, a product of the Stanislawski School of Method acting, cut his teeth in the theatre. But it is his acting in Viva Zapata! (1952), On the Waterfront (1954) and as the semi-lumpen Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), all directed by icon of the Hollywood Left, Elia Kazan, which projected him as a new star in the Hollywood firmament.
In the last three decades he is remembered for his outstanding performance as the Don in The Godfather (1972), which has become a cult movie and the chief focus for the obituaries in the capitalist media.
But Labour movement activists will recall his towering performances as the Mexican revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata, in Viva Zapata! and as Terry Malloy, the ex-boxer, in On the Waterfront. He makes the transition from being a stooge of the Mob to a worker fighting for the rank-and-file longshoremen of the New York docks, against the Mob.
Brando's life was a patchwork of supporting minority causes. Justice for the Native Americans, equal rights for Black people; he supported the Black Panthers against the onslaught of the state machine. Unusual as it was for a Hollywood star to adopt such a radical stance on these issues, it was never linked to a programme for radical change in society.
His activities were fuelled by an instinctive contempt for corrupt authority and the Hollywood system. He was a man torn between the vast wealth and fame offered by acting, which he professed to despise, and the inequalities of society that fuelled his rebellious spirit.
This dilemma is revealed when, having completed Viva Zapata!, he agreed to work with Elia Kazan in On the Waterfront. Kazan had been a 'friendly witness'; collaborating with the witch-hunting House of un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and naming friends who were then hounded out of the industry. Joe McCarthy, an extreme right-wing senator, who made anti-communism his permanent campaign slogan, elevated HUAC to infamy.
Kazan's action was, to radicals like Arthur Miller, the ultimate betrayal. In spite of his loathing of HUAC, Brando accepted the starring role. The director, the screenwriter Bud Schulberg and most of the principal actors had all been collaborators. Kazan himself declared that he made the film to justify his act of betrayal. Brando did not explain his actions but the notion that career came before convictions would appear to be too simplistic.
'A bum's life'
Maybe this aberration contributed to his sometime self-loathing. He dismissed the craft he so brilliantly pursued as 'a bum's life'. Brando never again achieved the intensity of the characters he played in Viva Zapata! and On the Waterfront. His genius as an actor surfaced from time to time over the next four decades, in films such as The Godfather and South West of Sonora (1966) - where he defended a small peasant family against the landlords. But his decline into reclusiveness, interspersed by appearing in dodgy films, deprived the radical movement of someone who could have been a tribune for workers whose lives are a continuous struggle for a decent existence.
If Brando had possessed a socialist vision, it is probable that his legacy could have been an inspiration to workers looking for a popular explanation and solution to the ills of society.
In The Socialist 10 July 2004:
Workplace news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis