How we should remember Marlon Brando
By Dave Zirin | July 9, 2004 | Page 9
MARLON BRANDO'S death at the age of 80 will begin a battle over how the "greatest actor of all time" will be remembered. Some will focus on his latter-day isolation, his bizarre behavior and his many personal tragedies.
Others will focus on his iconic status, and, when it comes to Brando performances, icons abound. There was the 1950s motorcycle rebel from The Wild One (1954), the brutal Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Terry "I Coulda Been a Contender" Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954), or his performance as Vito Corleone in The Godfather.
Then there is Brando's influence on acting itself. In a Hollywood built around "movie stars," Brando was at the vanguard of a new generation of performers after the Second World War schooled in Stanislavsky's "Method" acting style.
Taught by Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg at new York's Actors Studio, emotional honesty and "becoming" your character were the hallmarks of this style. The Method was an attempt to use art to break out of the stultifying gray haze of early 1950s America. Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Laurence Fishburne, Sean Penn and countless others count Brando as their primary influence.
But the Brando I want to remember is the actor who pulled back in the 1960s to focus on the civil rights movement and broader struggles against war and oppression. In 1959, he was a founding member of the Hollywood chapter of SANE, an anti-nuclear arms group formed alongside African American performers Harry Belafonte and Ossie Davis.
In 1963, Brando marched arm-in-arm with James Baldwin at the March on Washington. He, along with Paul Newman, went South with the Freedom Riders to desegregate interstate bus lines.
When Native Americans protested the denial of treaty rights by fishing the Puyallup River in 1964, Brando joined Puyallup tribal leader Bob Satiacum and caught salmon in the Puyallup without state permits. The action was called a "fish-in" and resulted in Brando's arrest.
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Brando announced that he was bowing out of the lead role of a major film and would now devote himself to the civil rights movement. Brando said, "If the vacuum formed by Dr. King's death isn't filled with concern and understanding and a measure of love, then I think we all are really going to be lost."
He gave money and spoke out in defense of the Black Panthers, counted Bobby Seale as a close friend, and attended the memorial for slain prison leader George Jackson. Southern theater chains boycotted his films, and Hollywood created what became known as the "Brando Blacklist" that shut him out of many big time roles.
After making a comeback in Godfather, Brando won his second Oscar. Instead of accepting what he called "a door prize," he sent up Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse befuddled presenter Roger Moore and issue a scathing speech about the federal government's treatment of Native Americans. Even in the past several years, he has lent his name and bank account to those fighting the U.S. war and occupation in Iraq.
So how do we remember Brando? He was a celebrity, an artist, an activist, and at the end an isolated and destroyed old man. It is tragic that we live in a world where most people's talents never get to see the light of day.
It is equally tragic that those like Brando who actually get the opportunity to spread their creative wings, can be consumed and yanked apart in process. Yet whether Brando was on the top of Hollywood or alone and embittered, he never forgot what side he was on.