Given my open and well expressed interest as well as involvement in cinema, it is natural that more often than not I should be posed such unholy questions as “what is your favourite film/director/actress/actor”? These are obviously difficult questions for anyone to answer, but when put on the spot, I have quick answers at the ready for each of them.
Despite that, it is quite clear in my mind who the actor and big screen icon I admire the most is. And he is Marlon Brando. His sheer charisma, his ground breaking line delivery, his overall attitude and even his personal eccentricities make him, to me, one of the most fascinating figures to have ever been involved with the cinematic art form. I would even go as far as to say that to me, Brando is to cinema what Elvis is to music – anyone who knows me will know how big of a statement that is, given my adoration for the King.
I first saw Brando, possibly like the vast majority of my contemporaries, in his performance in The Godfather. It’s strange to think that by then I had reached my preteens, given the fact that by then I had already watched an incredible amount of classic Hollywood movies due to my precocious fascination with cinema in general. I had of course heard of his performance and seen it spoof countless of times, yet actually seeing it was quite a different experience. His slight movements, those big jaws and of course his muffled speech added an enchanting mystery to the character of Don Vito Corleone, as well as a mystical air of solemnity.
I instantly looked him up and, as naive as it may sound, realised that this heavy set, greying man had once been a beautiful stud like icon, with muscular arms, straight shoulders, big lips and a devilish stare that even through a photograph seemed to scream out “S-E-X”. One thing that was clear to me, even looking at stills and photos of his, was that despite his looks, he seemed quiet, reserved, introverted, mysterious and even a little shy. A stark contrast of bravado and vulnerability that erupted in unparalleled intensity – and one that I certainly wanted to identify with, being quite the self-professed outsider.
In my early teenage years, MTV – that perennial youth culture reference point – had taken a turn for the worse, and aside from The Strokes and The Hives, represented to me a constant disappointment. I had learned to look up to the silver screen heroes such as Bogey and Bacall (whom I blame for my early start in smoking as much as my idea of romanticism running parallel with shared alienation and spontaneous bursts parallel with “criminal ambition”…), James Dean, Marcello Mastroianni and any character in the Dollars Trilogy. My introduction to Brando hit me hard when soon after seeing him in The Godfather, I taped a late night showing of The Wild One.
Already infatuated with the American Rockabilly culture and the punk rock rebelliousness, Brando in his Harley with the leather clad attire and dark jeans rolled up at the bottom (of course) had my eyes glued to the screen. His ride into the small town with his gang was to me as epic as the arrival of a cavalry, combating conventionality and consensus with their evident rebellious and anarchic creed. Yet, even his toughness bowed down to a small town girl, and his romanticism plainly showed when soon after meeting her he offers her his “trophy”, and by god he means it!
There was something about his voice, his accent, that was unlike the wooden or snappy acting of his contemporary. To this day, it’s hard not to see his pose and carry ons as stand out and revolutionary on so many levels. In Streetcar Named Desire, his debut, I was definitely sold. After watching On the Waterfront, I wanted to be him. The “could have been a contender” line is one of the lines I quote the most in everyday life – and also the one speeches in film history that haunts me the most.
A hero of my teenage years, I began to roll my jeans and wear them a little too high on the crotch. I mimicked his slow and confident strut. I even learned to imitate him. Even today, when I feel playful and flirtatious, I will pull out the old Brando impression (even in the most intimate moments…).
Eventually, my love for his acting led me to find out more about his true self and found him to be an enigma. Considered by some as being a prima donna, I delighted as knowing him as flamboyant. I have seen his rare TV interviews, namely the one from the Dick Cavett show and the one with Larry King, over and over again. I have read his autobiography. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to think that no one can really tell who he really was. In interviews, he seemed to take pleasure in playing the interviewer more than being interested in revealing truths about himself. Likewise, his autobiography has actually been mostly proved wrong, and many believe it should be read as a fictional novel and an amusing hoax.
This aura of mystery that perpetually surrounds him makes him even more fascinating to me. It’s almost as if he were half real and half made up. A myth. In other words, the influence he has had on my life also depends upon the grey areas of his being and of his existance, that allowed for a more creative interaction between the Brando-brand and myself. Half of my perception of Brando, aside from his incredible and indesputable talent and his legitimate reputation as the greatest actor the cinema has ever known (alongside Laurence Olivier, although Olivier arguably left his greatest mark on the theatre than on the big screen), is as a made up and fantisized creature. Woody Allen’s Humphrey Bogart in Play it Again, Sam, if you will.
That is also perhaps why, when posed in difficult situations, I find strength in that instinctively triggered voice in my head, asking me “what would Brando do?” And something tells me that this is a question that will pop up quite regularly throughout the rest of my life.