Marlon Brando’s body was going through the motions, awaiting the return of his personality. It was miles away. He was reeling it in like a dancing sailfish.
His van was parked by the trees in a grassy field. Inside it was quiet. The air conditioner diced the air. Minutes had passed since our introduction, but he just sat on the edge of the bed, hands in a drawer fumbling aimlessly with a hank of wires. He picked up a screwdriver and turned it over carefully.
Here was a hero whose vanity had surrendered. Beneath those wide oakstump shoulders was a vast rippling cargo hold, 240 pounds on a 5-foot-10 frame. It was neat enough in here, a small brown space piled high with books on solar energy and Indian history, and his two congas. Cupboards were stacked with fresh T-shirts, clean towels, and the icebox was filled with Tab.
When at last he found what he was looking for — a cassette tape of Caribbean drum music — he eased across the bed and rested his head against the curtained window. The silvery blond hair rolled over his ears.
That face. He looks an old medicine man. He appears as unmovable as the city planetarium. The concentration level is so high that when his distant manner suddenly evaporates and he has questions about your mother, ah, the arena gets hot.
He is, indeed, a presence. On the cowboy movie set of The Missouri Breaks, shot on the hot dry plains of Montana, people seemed to be no more deferential to the actor than they’d be to any pharaoh about to exact tribute.
Which is not the normal attitude for a hard-boiled movie crew. They’d see him walking in their direction, with that head balled up like a clenched fist, that forehead all knotted and complicated. People were embalmed with awe. Beethoven must have had the same air. The costar here, Jack Nicholson, had to laugh: “The man does scorch the earth, right? I mean, for 200 miles in any direction. Not much leavin’s.”
Not for many moons has Jack Nicholson been second bill in a picture. I guess a guy will do some funny things for a million dollars. When Nicholson was a high school kid in Neptune, New Jersey, his very last hero was Brando. Now they are next-door neighbors in Beverly Hills. Still, Nicholson will stare . . . at his neighbor.
“It’s a big problem,” Nicholson said, all glassy lizard grins. “I suddenly felt myself feeling an old symptom while working with Marlon, which is that he’s so powerful, you fall so in love with what he’s doing, that you want to do it yourself. I studied him then and I find myself now, even when I’m working with him, wanting to emulate him.”
Jack is an earnest character. He was suited in a sorry cowboy costume. We stood on the broken farmlands of Montana.
“In other words, when I first came to L.A., there were ten or 12 James Dean-types, innumerable Marlon Brando-types. No telling how many people were trying to emulate his timing, his style. I made a very conscious choice not to do that, even though I might feel in my heart that Marlon and I were true soul brothers . . . it’s a wellbeaten path, do you know what I mean?”
Yes. Writers do the same.
He grinned. “I think there’s a well-known contest in the acting profession to see who can say the best stuff about Marlon.”
He was one of thousands of jaw-flexing young dogs who fell into the arms of the Method, nursing visions of On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. Elia Kazan, director of those two, turned out a couple more wonderboys, James Dean in East of Eden and Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass. They joined the ranks of Actors Studio toughs who were labeled Road Company Brandos. Paul Newman. Vic Morrow. Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro are continuing the line.
Norman Mailer recently called Brando our noblest actor and our national lout. (Who would know better?)
Now Brando is 52. His step is heavy with reputation. He has dried out in the air of scandal. A walking collection of headlines: a front-page banner on the L.A. Herald-Examiner: ‘Nightie Rampage Jails Brando’s Ex; the Saturday Evening Post, 1962, after Mutiny on the Bounty (an ill-prepared folly with a constantly shuffled script, three directors and an $18.5 million price tag): Marlon Brando: ‘How He Wasted $6 million by Sulking on the Set’; Time magazine, 1954, over a cover painting of Brando as Napoleon for Désirée: ‘Too Big for His Blue Jeans?’
So we arrive at Last Tango in Paris, where the girl, Jeanne (Maria Schneider), looks at his character and says: “I shall have to invent a name for you.” Brando (“Paul”) looks away: “Oh God, I’ve been called by a million names all my life. I’m better off with a grunt or a groan for a name.”
Anyone knew that Paul was really Brando. His audience rapport has, to that effect, almost worked against him. Here, even the biographical details were the same. Grew up on a farm, dug ditches, milked cows, boxed, went to Tahiti, played the congas. (As a high school drummer, his band was called Brando & His Kegliners.)
Paul is going through the last debauch of a man crowding 50. He remembers. . . .
Bad memories, I guess. My father was a drunk, whorefucker, bar-fighter, supermasculine. My mother was very poetic, and also a drunk. My memories of being a kid are of her being arrested nude. We lived in a small town, a farmer community. We lived on a farm and I’d come home after school . . . she’d be gone . . . in jail, or something.
We all dig good acting, but this is going too far. He is brutal, but relies on a long repertoire of little-boy mannerisms to charm his way out of the consequences.
Then he rapes the girl, per anum, forcing her to repeat his litany: Go on, say it. Holy Family . . . Church of Good Citizens . . . The children are tortured until they tell their first lie . . . And the world is broken with repression . . . Freedom is a sin. . . .
The prayer of the alone and absurd. And what could be more absurd than being a bankable man again. A one-human corporation who has had 26 years of the audience’s karma invested in him. It’s enough to make anyone suspicious of success. Brando is. The executive producer of Missouri Breaks, Elliott Kastner, employed everything but extortion to nail down his contract.
Rarely found in Beverly Hills, Brando is forever on the road, attending to his five children, taking them to Tetiaroa, his cluster of atolls near Tahiti, where a grunt or a groan is enough for a name. He builds windmills, methane gas converters; he saves the turtles. He has funded a scientific study to raise cold-water Maine lobsters in Tahiti! He is as proud as a Republican farmer.
Reporters who ask for interviews find themselves presented with conditions. To talk about solar energy, or the American Indian, because Brando has received some undesirable dividends on his public image. Like the time he sat with some respected Indian, leaders in a restaurant at a time when tensions were running high over the Wounded Knee trial and suddenly there appeared a woman with a plate of butter in her hand requesting a Last Tango performance. The actor crumpled. “Please, lady.”
Arthur Penn thought a lot about this amount of romance projected towards Brando. It intimidated Penn when they first worked together in 1965 on The Chase. He heard, in the five weeks preceding Brando’s arrival, rumors of an unstable mass about to explode.
Think of what a longtime friend said: “Unconsciously, Marlon takes on the part he’s playing. For The Godfather he was very nice, very caring, always giving people little gifts. But during Last Tango, he was a shit.”
While Penn would disagree with that appraisal, he did know that his 18-year-old son idolized the actor; maybe John Q. Public would not like Brando playing this hired killer. When Penn consulted the actor, he found how heavily Brando deals in images. He wanted Penn’s image of the character. “I dunno,” Penn said, “I see this as kind of a hermit crab. He goes into an area and inhabits someone’s shell for a while, consumes everything around there, and then moves on to another shell.”
Brando consumed the image, and then one day he arrived on the set. He got out of the car. He walked up to an electrician and introduced himself. He shook hands with the whole gang. “Just beguiled the hell out of everybody,” Penn said.
The bounty hunter character evolved into a charming old crazy who gets to know the horse thieves one by one, each time in a different disguise, just beguiling the hell out of everybody, before he kills them. But this is not to suggest that Brando unloosed his screws. He didn’t bother anyone. He just parked himself by the river bank every night while the crew returned to their Ramada Inn. He stayed alone. Kicked out the awning and thought it over. He does swell imitations, you know. One night, stoned to the teeth, he pretended he was an usher in a Las Vegas nightclub. He showed people to their seats for three hours, telling the fat lady to please sit here, aren’t the ribs just wonderful tonight, oh ho, breaking himself up over and over again.
I wasn’t in that van five minutes and I was playing catch-up ball. He does not take up a point and extrapolate to the far measures. He starts on a virgin asteroid and winds his way back to earth, free versing and free associating, leaving behind his poetic blur of images about the Russian troops hovering at the Mongolian border, and what starvation does to a baby’s brain, and the time we drove through the African riverbeds during monsoon season. . . .
Even if the Pakistanis are the haughtiest people in the world, this is a planetary community, and Wendell Willkie saw it coming, the One World concept, but they laughed him off the stage. Anyway, atolls are notoriously short of nitrogen layers unless you go down below the coral reefs. . . .
He sat absolutely still, his shoulders parked on the pillow like a grand piano. The sad, brooding eyes drank in all the details. And as for the relationship between his body and the space around him, Bernardo Bertolucci’s observation was very true. “We are usually dominated by space,” the Last Tango director told Jonathan Cott, “but Brando strangely dominates space. Even if Brando is absolutely still, say, sitting on a chair . . . Brando has already taken for himself that privileged space. And Brando’s attitude toward life is different from that of other people because of this fact.”
Any mention of moviedom would be sidestepped very neatly. Finally I asked if he loathed the subject. “No,” he said, shaking his head with no great commitment. The eyes darted and the great train pulled into a distant station.
“Kazan is a performer’s director,” he said suddenly. “The best director I ever worked with. Because most actors . . . it’s very lonely out there. Most actors don’t get any help from directors. Emotional help, if you’re playing an emotional part. Kazan is the only one I know who really gives you help.
“Most of the time you just come like a journeyman plumber and you gotta have your own bag of stuff, ready to go. But the people who perceive most delicately are Bertolucci and Gillo Pontecorvo [Burn!]. I never worked with, ah . . . the guy that did Mean Streets. Yeah, Scorsese, he’s the best American director there is. He’s a remarkable talent. He uses the actors very well, his intuitions allow him . . .”
He arrested his thought and glanced at my hands. I was twirling my sunglasses.
“What you’re doing now, playing with your glasses and looking at me. Shaking your head in moments you don’t plan on.”
I stopped playing with my glasses, blinked and smiled.
“And blinking and smiling, moving your head. You see, all those are unplanned things. You don’t know what you’re going to do in sequence. And Bertolucci and Scorsese would allow you to do that. They put you in the psychological circumstances so that you would do all that stuff and that is . . . that’s the essence of reality.
“Now the mere fact that I mentioned it set off a whole bunch of movements on your face. Because in some small measure you were frightened by it. Everybody has a very low threshold of fear, and they carry it around and they don’t know it. They don’t know that they’re being afraid if they do something like that. You talk to some people and they’ll hang on your eyes for maybe a 12-count and they’ll just have to get away. They can’t stand eye contact. They’ll look everywhere . . . and once in a while they’ll give you a little flick just to make it look real.
“But they can’t stand it. They’re the only ones who know it, unless you’re aware of patterns of gestures.
“Shakespeare said something that was remarkable. You don’t hear it very often. He said, ‘There is no art that finds the mind’s construction on the face.’ Meaning that there is the art of poetry, music or dancing, architecture or painting, whatever. But to find people’s minds by their face, especially their face, is an art and it’s not recognized as an art.
“Bertolucci has that and so does Gillo Pontecorvo. Gadge [Kazan] also knows when things are in and when they’re out. Has a good feeling. He works viscerally and on instinct. Bertolucci is extraordinary in his ability to perceive . . . he’s a poet. Some directors are difficult to work for. Gillo is very difficult to work for, very highly disciplined. But Bertolucci is easy to work for.”
Different intuitions? Different manipulations?
“Definitely. Gillo has a very stringent and disciplined technique. Kazan would say, ‘Go out and rehearse this scene and bring me something back.’ He’ll take about eight points out of 12 or 11, and you argue with him. He’ll give you points and there’s no ego involved. He’s a guy that works without ego.
“There might be a difference of interpretation. But he’s got the last word on that. That’s the director’s privilege. And they’ll always beat you to the tape in the cutting room. You might say ‘yeah’ quick. But if you thought about it and said, ‘. . . . . Yeeeeah.’ Maybe he thought that was too goddamn long a take, so in the cutting room he dropped out 38 frames and it comes out, ‘. . . Yeah.’ Which alters the meaning. But if you’re tight with the director, you know what they’re after.”
You’re in the business of storing up memories.
“Well, we’re just big computers is all. You inevitably store stuff up, and for no reason at all; right in the middle of a conversation, you’ll start thinking of a short-handled hoe. It won’t be related to anything, except something in your dreams has to do with a rubber telephone. ‘Why was I thinking about a rubber telephone?”‘ He shrugged it off.
I had the impression that you were dredging up your own memories for Last Tango. Were they painful?
“No, because after a while it becomes a technical thing. I was putting things in my eyes to make tears in my eyes. I was making the right noises, the sounds of sobs. But, ah, I used to do that stuff straight. But it’s too taxing.”
He emphasizes such a point with a pincerlike grab at his chest. “For instance, now I don’t even learn the lines. I don’t learn them for a very specific reason, but . . .” He groped for a reason, and his eyes rested on me. “You see, you didn’t know you were gonna look down just then.”
I interrupted myself in mid-glance.
“You didn’t plan on it, you just did it. And if you know your lines, very often, most of the time it sounds like, ‘Mary-had-a-little-lamb-its-fleece-was-white-assnow.’ And people intuit, they unconsciously know that you have planned that speech. And they know, for instance, that when you get up to leave, and walk a certain, say, five steps to the doorway and then stop” — he pulled himself up and stopped at the bathroom door, suddenly a punk, and slouching — “they know that you’re gonna turn around and say, ‘Why don’t you ask Edith, then you’ll find it in the shoe box.’ And then walk out the door.”
He disappeared into the bathroom. The theatrical voltage arrives at such a leisurely pace that it successfully dismantles your defenses.
He bounced back out of the bathroom. “But they already beat you to the fucking scene! So that doesn’t keep them outta the popcorn. You always have to be ahead of the audience, or the audience is always ahead of you.”
Still, I said, Last Tango seemed like more than mere technique.
He waved it off. “No, when you . . .” Suddenly, his face clenched and turned away.
Jesus, I thought, maybe I hit a sore spot. He was definitely disturbed. His lips taut, his eyes torn. A sob gurgled in his throat and his shoulders shook. For an instant I was paralyzed. I stared at him.
Abruptly, his grief collapsed into a smile. “You just do that, you know. It just sounds like a bunch of tears. You make your face to go happy or to get mad. It’s too costly to crank up. It’s just too costly. If you can get by with a technical performance, nobody knows the diff. They can’t tell.”
I guess not, I said, wiping my palms on the bedspread. The key to his emotions seems to be in his upper lip. He has a very expressive upper lip. It lifts with a challenge, purses down when the irony of this earth gets serious. He cushions himself with irony.
I asked him if the Last Tango details were autobiographical.
“Oh, well he [Bertolucci] had some cockamamie notion. What he wanted to do was sort of meld the image of the actor, the performer, with the part. So he got a few extraneous details. Played the drums, I don’t know . . . Tahiti . . . so that the man is really telling the story of his life. I don’t know what the hell it’s supposed to mean. He said, ‘Give me some reminiscences about your youth.’ That made me think about milking a cow, my mother’s getting drunk, one thing and another. He went, ‘Wonderful, wonderful.”‘
Brando grinned at the thought, leaned back and joined his hands behind his head. I said that several of my friends were upset because the elements were too outrageous. They couldn’t take Brando in the role. It was too close.
“Not as far as I’m concerned. I would never, I’d never . . . there’s a certain line you draw . . . I mean, in the days when I used to have to crank up emotionally, I would think of things that were very personal, but I would never exploit those in a film. For some goddamn check that came in at the end of the week. Or a director. He wanted to give that impression, so . . .”
His voice trailed, as it did so often when he tired of the tack. He switched.
“It wasn’t an easy film. Playing it another language was hard, and in a way it was easy because I just made up any goddamn thing. Not anything, just sorta he wanted this theme or that theme. No matter what you did, within a given context, he leaves you alone.”
He ruminated on a distant cloud. His jaw flexed.
“I don’t think Bertolucci knew what the film was about. And I didn’t know what it was about. He went around telling everybody it was about his prick!” The laugh sounded like an asthma attack. “He looks at me one day and he says, you know . . . something like, ‘You are the embodiment, or reincarnation . . . you are the . . . symbol of my prick.’ I mean, what the fuck does that mean? He has some conflicts that he’s quite open about. . . .
“I have no idea what that picture was about. I mean, most pictures are the extensions of people’s fantasies. You learn more about the reviewer when they review. A good reviewer anyway, like Pauline Kael. I think she overwrote the picture because she was overwhelmed by some personal experience she had.”
What did you see in the movie?
“I saw the picture about two years later. No, it was three years later, and I thought it was funny. I didn’t know what it was about.” He gazed emptily at the ceiling. “It was about a man desperately trying to find some meaning in life, full of odd symbols. He dies in a self-conscious way, in a fetal position. The woman shoots him at the end, and this whole thing was to have taken place over a three-day period. Impossible to have those transitions. It’s a mythological tale; it doesn’t happen in life.”
His eyes unfocused. “It was fascinating, that tango scene . . . in contrast to those strange men and movements and people. Iconoclastic. But you do something . . . the idea that he simply wanted to revert to his nature, he wanted to find out what was the common denominator in his misery, what his nature is . . . and then he found that his nature is not what he thought it was. And as soon as he reverted to a more natural way, meaning a more bourgeois concept, then she finally became more savage and primitive on an unconscious level. Finally killed him. He was sort of threatening her. Maybe it’s . . .”
He realized what a mouthful had passed, considering that he didn’t know what the film was about. His gaze shifted out the window with a certain amount of disgust. “I don’t know.”
Did you catch Bergman’s remark?
“No, what he say?”
He saw Jeanne as a boy, that Bertolucci didn’t have the nerve to cast a boy in Maria Schneider’s role.
“Oh. Well, he came as close to it as he can get. I mean, she’s a professed . . . homosexual.”
There were a lot of rugged stories around that movie, that it was an emotional pounding, that you’d never do anything like that again, that it took some recovery time. “Naaah. As soon as they let go of your leg, then it’s out to Tahiti or the desert.”
The taped Caribbean drum music gave way to the crying jag of Carlos Santana. When you’re around Brando for a while, you think not only of his comedic timing, but that he’d probably be a perceptive director. He’s only directed once, a western called One-Eyed Jacks (after Kubrick was fired from preproduction).
Do you have any more taste for the job?
“I did it once,” he said, shaking his head. “It was ass-breaker. You work yourself to death. You’re the first one up in the morning . . . I mean, we shot that thing on the run, you know. You make up the dialogue the scene before, improvising, and your brain is going crazy.”
You wrote the script, I take it.
“Yes. But it’s better if you make it up, of course. Unless you’re doing Eugene O’Neill. You can’t wing that.” He pulled up a dimply grin. “You can do it to Tennessee Williams, somebody that can write something. But you get in a picture with six guys like that, it’s like an old whore in a lumber camp who’s been fucked till she can’t see straight.”
The question is, how deep do you go with your improvisation?
“Well, it depends on what you’re doing. If you’re doing a hit-the-roof scene, you have to gas up, sorta. You don’t have to kill yourself. When I first started, it was in a movie called, ah . . . The Men. And I got there at something like 6:30, and by 9:30, when they were ready to shoot, I had shot my wad.”
You were that psyched up?
“In the dressing room, yeah. I was all set to go. I had music,” he waved and snapped his fingers, “and I had poetry, everything to transport me into another realm. So I came out dry as a bone.
“If you do a scene any number of times, you just go dry. Unless you crank up very slowly to it. And then snap out of it at take 13. It all depends on the director; if he’s fiddling around with this technical issue, there’s no sense in cranking up. Because you know he’s not going to print anything until the seventh take, he’s just rehearsing himself.
“The trouble is, when you’re playing one part, the director is playing another, and the writer is playing another part. Everybody’s got a different idea. That’s why it’s better to get the signals straight up front. A lot of directors want to know everything. Some directors don’t want to know anything. Some directors wait for you to bring everything to them.”
John Huston, who did Reflections in a Golden Eye, he was supposed to be a free-swinging guy.
“Ah, well. Yeah. He gives you about 25 feet. He’s out in the background. He listens. Some guys listen, some guys are auditory; some guys are visual. Some guys are both. He’s an auditory guy and he can tell by the tone of your voice whether you’re cracking or not. But he leaves you alone pretty good.
“It’s the no-talent assholes who get on your back, who all think they’re Young Eisenstein Misunderstood, or Orson Welles, or somebody like that. And you know fucking well when they say ‘print,’ that it’s just thumbs-up-the-ass place. Those are the guys that are tough to work with. Chaplin you got to go with. [Charles Chaplin directed him in A Countess from Hong Kong.]
“Chaplin is a man whose talents is such that you have to gamble. First off, comedy is his backyard. He’s a genius, a cinematic genius. A comedic talent without peer. You don’t know that he’s senile. Personally, he’s a dreadful person. I didn’t care much for him. Nasty and sadistic and mean . . .”
His voice trailed off. “Oh God. He’s like aaallll . . . You got to stop them because they’ll get on you. You got to stop them dead. But nevertheless you have to separate that personal life from that artistic life. One has nothing to do with the other. It’s like writers, or anything else.
“You can’t think that understanding people, or perceptive and sensitive people, are going to be perceptive and sensitive in other areas of human relationships. It just doesn’t hold true. Talent has nothing to do with it, that’s all.
“There are shits who are very understanding and extremely talented, and there are shits who are without a shred of talent. There’s good guys on both sides.”
There was a knock at the door. One of the press agents pulled himself inside with a fine, agreeable smile. A nice guy. He could read a will and get a lot of laughs. He said that I could come back the next day, they have a London correspondent outside who represents nine syndicated papers and he’d like five, ten minutes?
Brando pulled himself up and composed his face with businessman’s calm. But his voice was pure Bar & Grill. “Well, I tell ya, I don’t know the guy personally and unless I have a clear contract of approval, I would not give him carte blanche to go home with a whole bunch of things. So tell him precisely that. Tell him if he presents to me a specific contract that I have approval of the full text and the nature of the interview, I don’t care what he uses as long as it’s real. But without a contract, I will not do an interview and that’s all I can do.”
Smile nailed in place, the publicist attempted to spread a little butter on the situation. “Mostly he’s doing a location story.”
Brando winced. “I don’t . . . in 20 years, I know what the angles are. They come in with a certain story angle, they’re gonna write it no matter what you say, it’ll be horseshit. So if he wants to do that, tell him I’d be perfectly delighted. Tell him that, tell him it’s nothing personal.”
The floating smile withdrew.
Marlon returned. “This asshole, he’s obviously a straight newsman . . . he might be a very nice guy, but in terms of policy, it just doesn’t pay off. It’s a waste of time anyway. We talked about that before. Sitting in a trailer and you come out from the Rolling Stone, we’re rapping about 9 million things . . . there must be some purpose in your mind. I love to talk. But to talk for, or to be in print, seems so goddamn pompous. Making pronouncements of some kind. I guess that’s one of the things that inhibited me from writing. It just seemed a pompous thing to do. When Van Gogh painted, for instance, he did it because it just said something to him that was irresistible. And he had to do that. That’s a certain kind of artistry — ”
The publicist reentered, with his certain kind of artistry. “No problems,” he said, “we’ll send everything to Alice.”
That would be Marlon’s secretary. “All right,” Brando agreed, “have Alice call the lawyers and have them dictate the language and type it up and have him sign it.”
The man’s smile dropped. “You mean, do that now? He’s going to leave today. Chris is going to be around for several days.” “
Look, for anybody that I don’t know, who doesn’t pass muster, I’m gonna have to have a legal document.”
“Well,” the publicist said levelly, “this fellow is an established Hollywood correspondent — ”
“Then he’s probably going to write a standard Hollywood correspondent piece.”
The publicist backed out smiling. The last time I’d seen a smile like that, it was hanging on a steel hook in a butcher’s window.
The door blew open again, and the event that transpired was a spiffy lesson on maneuvering this weary lion. It was his secretary, Alice Marchak, an elegant woman with exotic cheekbones. She was something of an older sister and bail bondsman to the actor, and was blunt with the news that he was not getting any day off. “They need you as soon as possible,” she said. “Should I tell them you’re ready?”
Brando, suddenly a kid, turned with a stage whisper. “That’s a good lesson. When they tell you to go, go!”
And he began to hoist himself up to get dressed, when the underassistant elbowed her way past Alice to confront the man. She had a flighty airline stewardess charm, and wore pink lipstick. She sighed helplessly. Brando leaned back.
“Do you want to hear my sad, sad story?” she said to him, trying to laugh. “As you know, I am now a liar in your eyes. We got into a whole thing with this stunt that’s going to take us far longer than we could take tonight. The only thing we could get today is scene 196, when you and Randy are first coming to the river. I’m sorry. What can I say?”
Genuinely mortified, she hurried out. He propped himself on an elbow to ponder the scene. Alice Marchak fussed with his overcoat.
“That’s all such a painful collection of dogshit,” he sighed, waving at the door. His voice was a low complaint. “There’s no way she can just come in and say, ‘Marlon, we need a shot of you coming in out of the woods, will you please get ready as quick as you can, please.’ She’s got to come in with the full Vaseline number first off. ‘We’re terribly sorry. I know you’re going to hate me for this and I know that I’m a liar and lower than a crock of shit.’ And give you a fugging long explanation. She doesn’t give a shit about me. She only gives a shit about what she thinks my position is. And she relates to that.
“Whereas, if I was driving the camera truck, it would be something like, ‘Hey, lissen asshole, get your buns over here because you got work to do, I got news for ya.’ So you feel . . . utterly alienated from your society.” He clawed the air with pinched fingers.
“One of the things I hate about working is that they won’t let you be some overweight . . . middle-aged . . . fart who’s walking down the street, who happens to be in the lumber business. They insist that you be somebody.” His face aged with agony, then relaxed.
He stood up to peel down for the costume change.
Another day, another 20 grand. That’s the way Jack Nicholson looked at it, picking up a million and a percentage for ten weeks’ work. Brando got $1,250,000 for five weeks, plus a percentage. The Missouri Breaks was not a movie, it was a business proposition.
Arthur Penn, short and wiry, a bundle of New York nerves, his lips chapped into Brillo pads, had an $8 million baby on his hands and he wasn’t going to take chances. He shot dozens of takes in hundreds of ways while 125 crew members wilted in the Montana sun.
Those 125 burnt and crinkly noses pretended not to notice when Brando moved their way, up the river’s edge. He picked his way over the white moonstones, grumbling, “There’s no walking with any dignity over these rocks.”
He lowered himself down on the shoreline and let the water lap at his heels. Nobody was about to interrupt him, except the photographers. They had to ask permission before a shot. He could have been praying on the Ganges, except he had a Morse code handbook in one hand and a pocket tape recorder in the other, bleeping signals into his ear. Morse code. On a movie set.
Out in the swift water, Michael Butler and his camera crew were slogging the Panavision cameras on deck. The reclining actor was enjoying spiritual communion with the wet pink rocks. He began dropping them into his pocket. A propman saw this and fetched a red plastic bucket for the mounting collection. Soon Brando was out squatting in the shallows. The giant shoulders were wrapped in an overcoat. A flat coolie hat hid his head. He looked like Winston Churchill. “Take a shot, Marlon?” the photographers asked. For once, he said, no, please.
Arthur Penn stood behind him, sniffing out a moment’s conference. He held the red bucket of rocks.
Ill winds raced in off the prairie that week, tearing off the windows and swallowing the city in a sheet of sand. Nerves got dragged on a razor strop. Dogs ran free. Idle persons turned to occult practices. Two FBI agents blew into town and they had questions.
They were a pair. Casual knit suits and sensible black oxfords. They met Brando outside his mobile home, flipped their badges at him and stepped inside.
The movie crew was parked outside a postal warehouse. Inside, a nighttime campfire scene was set up in a bunch of phony shrubs. But no horse opera would operate while the leading man was held hostage by lawmen.
They had found the actor’s fingerprints on all sorts of dangerous notions. Decades ago he had worked for the Jewish terrorist group, the Irgun Tzva’i Leumi. When Caryl Chessman was headed for the Green Room, Brando joined in a vigil outside San Quentin. He spoke at Bobby Hutton’s funeral. And finally, he has joined hands with a gang of un-Americans, the Indians. In 1964, he was arrested with the Puyallup Indians while staging a fish-in for their river rights. Last year, when the Menominee Warrior Society took over a monks abbey in Gresham, Wisconsin, Brando dodged the law and joined them inside. Three sleepless nights later they walked out winners.
And it was no secret that he’d housed members of the American Indian Movement, given them money and land. (The celebrated 40 acres he gave to the Indians, which turned up with a $318,000 mortgage due, was settled recently. He saw to the note, and the Survival of American Indians Association took the land.)
Brando’s plan to make a movie of the 1973 Wounded Knee uprising is certain not to paint a flattering, patriotic picture of our embattled FBI. And while the projected movie has been up-and-down hill, with the Indians sifting through directors and the investors waffling the money (Columbia Pictures dropped it from their schedule), the actor was still up for scrutiny. He would certainly know the whereabouts of Dennis Banks, who was at that time on the lam. (Banks was arrested January 24th, 1976.)
So the agents wanted to know if Brando would give shelter to any fugitive he might know. Brando, in turn, wanted to know if the agents would turn in another agent who illegally killed someone.
They had a nice long talk.
By the warehouse door, an artist was painting a thick deck of cue cards for Brando. The top one read: Tell You Why I Think Life is Like a Mountain Railroad. Because You Don’t Know What Sleazy Sonofabitch has His Hand On the Throttle.
Brando broke into the sunlight, with a guiding arm for the agents. He took them inside to the campfire scene and secured a couple of director’s chairs close to the action. Arthur Penn paced loosely among the shrubs.
Brando was to sing, from a seated position, “Life Is like a Mountain Railroad.” The lyrics were taped to his mandolin. He had a falteringmon-otone so cracked you could strain spaghetti through it. He strangled the song fatally. The agents watched for a while and picked lint off their trousers.
That night he was anxious to scram.
Get out of town, wash off the makeup, pull on the T-shirt, get this van moving. He knew there was a good place to camp out by the next day’s location, an isolated ravine.
The blue shadows of scrub prairie pines grew in the long light of evening. We swung on to the Interstate. Mike, a young, weary-looking driver hired to assist Brando on this picture, gunned ahead in the Jeep. Marlon didn’t try to keep up, but steered the lumbering van in his own way. Slow and confident.
I asked about the FBI agents. They come around often?
“No, they’re probably monitoring the phones, bugged the trailer, stuff like that. They’re always around. They like to know what the hard line is, what the azimuth is that you’re coming in on. But I never treat people as representatives of groups, I just treat them as people.”
A punch of wind sent shivers rolling through the van. He jerked the wheel.
“They don’t have anything to go on, so what they do is they get tweezers, pick up a grain here and a grain there. They get 620 grains of information and it starts to take shape. It doesn’t always work out too good, you know. Their best chance is infiltration.”
This sent him wandering off on a tangent about TV evangelists. “There’s so many crazy people in influential areas, the craziness isn’t even noticed. Craziness in the individual is much more noticeable than craziness in the society.”
He gave a measuring look. “Do you remember telephone numbers?”
It’s not my strong suit.
“My instinct — knowing the way they operate — the perfect setup is to get a guy from Rolling Stone to work me over.”
I had to laugh. But he shook his head and pressed on.
“That’s the way they do it. They’re really slick about it. You can’t control guilt. It sneaks up on you, like a rabbit on a weasel. I would suspect myself if I was in the Movement, if I was an Indian.”
There must be a limit to your participation.
“It depends on how high the risk is. They figure, ‘Well, he’s gonna make a movie. That shows how liberal the country is. Everybody knows about the Indians anyway, what the fuck is he telling them for?’ I went to Gresham where they’re shooting real bullets twice a day. But they don’t give credentials to naive people. They’re smart people.”
So what does this have to do with my memory for phone numbers?
He shrugged. “Some people have a memory for numbers, some have a memory for words, or for colors.” He had a soiled look on his face. Then he saw the tape recorder balanced on my knees.
“Oh, you got the machine! Yeah, it’s picking up. Run it back a second.”
I asked about the financing of his Wounded Knee movie.
“Oh, it’s coming along. I thought about taking this to the movie companies, saying, ‘Look, you people have done more damage to the livelihood of the American Indian’s cause than any other group, outside the United States government, and you ought to kick in and do something about it, you know, keep your skirts clean.’
“The whole idea of the motion picture industry is don’t offend anybody. Or you can’t make money. So I’m scraping my ass to get financing for this film. People don’t wanna spend $8 million for this. They’re not gonna spend for something they think they’re not gonna get back. And I don’t know why not, because the truth is more dramatic than anything they could make up.
“They give you a nice runaround because they want to see you coming in next time with something that’s palatable. They don’t want to make an enemy out of you. As long as you’re hot.”
That sounds familiar. As long as you’re hot.
“Yah,” he said, leaning on the steering wheel. “I couldn’t get arrested before.”
Before The Godfather?
“Yeah, just about then. I mean, I could get arrested, but . . . it’s a variable. When you been in about four stinkers in a row — ” He drew back. “When you say stinkers, they could be artistically successful, but they don’t turn into bucks — it starts to wobble.
“But films . . . it’s funny. People buy a ticket. That ticket is their transport to a fantasy which you create for them. Fantasyland, that’s all, and you make their fantasies live. Fantasies of love or hatred or whatever it is. People want their fantasies over and over. People who masturbate usually masturbate with, at the most, four or five fantasies. By and large.
“Most people like the same food and they like the same kind of music, they like the same kind of sexual fantasy for a period of time, then maybe it changes. As it is in children. Who is it?” He drummed the dashboard. “Bruce Lee. That’s the hero. Then you grow up and grow out of your Bruce Lee period, or your Picasso Blue Period, and go into another period.
“But with kids, because they outpower us, because they have no representation, because they are so dependent, all they think about is power. Dinosaurs or the Million Dollar Man, because they feel so helpless, because they have no way out of it, except fantasy. Because they are only that tall.
“And that’s all films are.” He had a concerned knit to his voice, like a preacher talking about his poverty. “Just an extension of childhood, where everybody wants to be freer, everybody wants to be powerful, everybody wants to be so overwhelmingly attractive that there’s just no doing anything about it. Or everybody wants to have comradeship and to be understood.
“They become lullabies. They’re ‘tell-me-again-Daddy’ stories. That’s all television is: ‘Tell me again, Daddy, about the good guy and the bad guy and the strong guy and Kung Fu and Flash Gordon.”‘
His voice grew soft. “People love to hear the stories, they love to hear the lullabies.
“Tastes change, but the function doesn’t. I might as well be Jimmy Cagney in White Heat. The same story, the positive and the negative, the yin and the yang, the antihero.
“You know, so often, creative or positive things are accomplished for reasons that are totally irrelevant. They’re done out of vanity, or out of anxiety or fear. There’s a book written by Joseph Campbell. He was fascinated by symbols, not unlike Jung. He psychoanalytically treated the hero. The name of the book was Hero with a Thousand Faces.” He gestured with an open hand, as if smoothing the ruffled air. “But evil has a thousand faces.
“We know so goddamned little about what makes us angry. Death is way down on the list of things that people are going to be afraid of, or care about. I was talking to an Indian kid, he was kicking Vietnamese out of airplanes. The intelligence officer asked questions that they wouldn’t answer, so they kicked them out of airplanes. The kid got his head turned around, wound up shooting his commanding officer and hung him up on a Cyclone fence through his wristbones.
“Community spirit, patriotic spirit, it’s just a big sell. The veterans who had their legs blown away, their jaws blown away in Vietnam. . . .” The irritation rose. “They just want to forget it. Go off like Major Hoople and think it didn’t happen. They don’t want to be reminded of it. Most people are expendable, and more than expendable; they’re indifferent.
“There’s no fooling. People are sheep. They’ll just do any fucking thing. Anything. I mean, the sum total of everything I believe is the sum total of everything I’ve read, seen. I’m not told how to do it, it’s just . . . something’s influenced me. James Joyce or Schopenhauer or my Aunt Minnie.
“But everybody’s looking for the man on the white horse, everybody’s looking for the one who will tell the Truth. So you read Lao-Tzu, you read Konrad Lorenz, I don’t know who else, Melville, Kenneth Patchen, somebody you think is not a bullshitter. Somebody who has the eyes of a saint and the perceptions of a ghost.
“They’re gonna tell us the way, they’re gonna show us. They never really do, and we run around being cheap imitations of all those influences.”
He shrugged in a resigned way. “But there isn’t much of another way.”
Spending a week around the guy, it was easy to stew about this massive acting talent going to waste. All those years he was making dog movies, and now he’s got offers for every role going, from Aristotle Onassis to Papa Hemingway. When I asked about his present work ethic, he expelled a large, grudging sigh.
“I built a little house in Tahiti,” he said at last. “Out of sticks and grass and palm trees, droppings. That gave me an enormous sense of satisfaction. Whenever I can physically achieve some simpler way of doing something.
“Work ethics are funny things. The Tahitians couldn’t give three-ninths of two pieces of lizard shit about working.
“It’s such a small planet now. I used to think that up in the hills of Afghanistan, where the Kurds were, it was light-years away. You go to the interior forests where the Pygmies are now getting shafted. Same with the Masai, now split right down the middle between Uganda and Tanganyika. And Tanganyika says, listen you can’t show your dick anymore.”
The road gave way to rutted farm tracks. Mike, in the lead car, had disappeared. The tension seemed to be easing away from his shoulders. “I mean, where do you find hope?
“On the island, there’s an ample opportunity to demonstrate that it can be done. . . to put these technologies together . . . with wind and methane and solar energy. I want to build it in my own house and then just make a little flick about that.
“I’ve got a little community developing down there, for an experimental hotel. I dropped a considerable amount of money in research and development. I invented a windmill, but to actually produce wind is quite a trick. My wife and kids are there.”
We pulled up on a rise. Somewhere on these yellow fields was the campsite. Somewhere, Mike was out there taking corners. Marlon settled in his seat. “Is that the road he took? I got some glasses back there.”
I got the binoculars. “Do you have ‘journalist’ on your passport?” he asked, scanning the plains. My passport doesn’t say anything, I said. You mean the immigration cards?
“It must say something. I got so sick of writing ‘actor’ down on my passport that I wrote ‘shepherd.’ And it didn’t make any difference. Except one dry English immigration officer.” He set down the glasses and struck a Commander Schweppes pose. “‘Haws your flawk, Mr. Brando?’ I said, ‘Doing very well.’ ‘I’m delighted to hear it.’ Didn’t smile at all.”
He dropped back into gear and shoved off.
Jack Nicholson was so angry about this promotion movie — to promote the The Missouri Breaks on television — that he invited the United Artists floorwalker to kiss his ass. Then he apologized. For Jack is a regular guy.
But a TV promotion movie, Jesus, even a regular guy would shrink. As he walked over to the posing area he explained, “I’ve decided to quit smoking and it’s been ten days now. I’ve got such a tight asshole these days, it’s either cancer or hemorrhoids now.”
He watched the promo crew set up their 16mm cameras. “The difference out here in the field is that you have to keep educating them. You have to tell them that four lines in Ladies’ Home Journal ain’t fucking worth it if it messes up my whole workday.”
A wrangler pulled up with a spare gelding and the actor yanked himself aboard. The two broke off in a gallop. Brando arrived in his Jeep. “Do you want a lift over to the van? I’ve got so many things going on, it’s like having ants crawl up your nose. C’mon, c’mon. Jesus, the number of thoughts it takes just to get inside a car. You could make a painting of all the things that go on inside a man’s head.”
By the time they settled down to do some serious promotion work, a small crowd had gathered. Nicholson glady posed for the farmers’ wives. Harry Dean Stanton wore his guitar and Kathleen Lloyd wore the bright expression of a hamster on a winning streak. They sang Mexican ballads and joined arms around each other’s waists. For the promo crew, they were united. They couldn’t do. enough, as it turned out, and Brando began directing stunts, elaborate shootups, tintype poses.
The promo team shot furiously, and finally Brando counted the crowd. “Eighteen people,” he grinned. “I don’t know who’s more ridiculous. What we’re doing, or them watching.”
The PR man replied loudly: “Who’s the monkeys and who’s the visitors, huh?”
The camera crew ran out of film. They were heartbroken, because the actors were really into performing now, dancing in the setting sun. Brando wrapped a goodbye arm around the haggard promo-crew director. “You put up with a lot of bullshit, man. But that’s only the beginning.”
The promo man died laughing. For the rest of the night, he’d retell the line for anybody who’d listen.
Marlon jacked over his Honda trail bike. Nicholson climbed on the back and they took off yelling.
Brando had only a few days of moviemaking left. His 15-year-old son, Miko, was to join him for a slow drive back to Los Angeles. They had plans together for the desert, the woods and the rivers. Father was just about finished building a river raft out of inner tubes and two-by-fours.
That night, while he camped alone, the thunderheads rolled overhead. He sat in the dark with a pocket computer, counting and estimating the proximity of the lightning strikes. It travels 1100 feet per second. Enough, he said, to make him feel religious.