Technically, my first experience of Marlon Brando was watching Superman as a kid, not that I would have had any clue who he was then. Later, in my grad school Shakespeare class, we watched bits of Julius Caesar, where he famously portrayed Mark Antony. But beyond that, I mostly know him only from the Truman Capote profile in The New Yorker.
Capote has his own mythos surrounding him, in much the same way as Brando – the center of everyone’s attention in New York City. While Capote placed himself at the heart of a web of society, almost reveling in the fakeness of it all, Brando went the other way, receding ever deeper into seclusion of his own making. You can almost see that moment of decision in the profile (though it’s probably more interesting to read about how it came about).
Anyway, I thought about that sort of mythos a lot as I watched On the Waterfront. There’s that famous line, about the contender and the bum, and I found myself wondering, every time somebody used one of those words (happens more than you’d expect in this movie) when the famous moment would come. Like so many other iconic scenes in cinematic history, when it comes, and you already know to expect it, it’s kind of a disappointment.
Brando plays Terry Malloy, a longshoreman whose older brother is right-hand man to a mobster. The mob runs everything in New York, including the longshoremen’s union. He decides to stand up to the mob, and embarks on a Christ-like journey that is inspiring, but also kind of futile.
One of the thoughts attributed to Brando in Capote’s profile, as he laments the idea of being a movie star and not making some kind of meaningful art, is “Movies date so quickly.” It’s true – how many of these Best Pictures will we watch in another forty years? That’s not a criticism of movies per se, so much as of entertainment or history of any kind. The things of contemporary life that survive us are not necessarily those we would choose, or expect. Much of the profile focuses on Brando’s current film, Sayonara, based on a novel by James Michener. Both have faded into the mists of the twentieth century.
I guess I’m also thinking about the idea of legacy, thanks to my recent stint of (finally!) listening to Hamilton. Brando has this legacy of brilliance, but what did he really do that lasts? What makes him so much better than the other actors of the time, if not simply the story that everyone tells of his superiority? He’s the kid sitting on top of the pile of candy, maybe buying into the mythos a bit, maybe not, but ultimately, like anything mythical creature, he’s forever alone.
Theme: Marlon Brando
First Time Watching? Yes
Final Verdict: Contender or bum?