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Crusader for people’s causes, this Hollywood actor entered 'unexplored zones' in US

By Harsh Thakor* 
Marlon Brando on April 3rd completes his birth centenary. He perished in 2004, on July 1, aged 80 years. Arguably in Hollywood Brando penetrated sensitivity and versatility at an unparalleled scale and discovered new horizons or explored path breaking zones in acting.
Brando literally pioneered a new style of acting or took it to another dimension. No one was as impactful or crafty in projecting an anti-hero as a hero in his own right or better in defying past conventions in acting, as Brando.
Brando gave acting an unmatched touch of realism, and enacted a spectrum of roles and path breaking experiments no actor ever did. In a single movie itself he resembled an artist throwing different shades of paint on canvas. His acting had a unique mysterious element or suspense, which left an audience spell bound and often when performed resembled a scientist experimenting.
In his lifetime he played the role of a crusader for social justice immersing in struggles for native Indians and black people. His acting often portrayed the indignation of oppressed people against social injustice .With great courage; he even refused awards for his films.
His activities were shaped by an instinctive hatred for corrupt authority and the Hollywood system. He was a man caught between procuring the vast wealth and fame offered by acting, which he claimed he loathed, and the inequalities of society that ignited his rebellious spirit.
No actor better symbolized the fallacies of a repressive social order and it’s impact in shaping a man’s life. Brando also displayed untold mastery in expressing moral conviction of oppressed fighting for justice. No actor as effectively projected radicalism . or manifested spirit of rebellion.
Debatably the most talented Hollywood actors ever and amongst the three best ever actors, the world of cinema needs a Marlon Brando to be re-born in the context of the sheer crass commercialism engulfing the world of movies, virtually devoid of any humanism. It would plant seeds to resurrect spirit of progress.

Baptism into acting 

Brando was born in 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska, to an actress mother and a salesman father. His family life was volatile or disturbed, with his mother accusing his father of ruining her career. Columnist Bob Thomas quotes Brando as once telling him, “My father was a travelling salesman and my mother was a drunk, and I had a complete nervous breakdown at the age of 19. I might easily have become a criminal. Only by 10 years of intensive psychoanalysis did I manage to retain my sanity.”
The Brandos moved to Illinois and Marlon was admitted to a military academy in Minnesota, from which he was expelled before graduation. Brando moved to New York in 1943, and received his first theoretical baptism  as Nels in the stage production of the drama about Scandinavian immigrants, “I Remember Mama”, in 1944.
Brando studied acting at the Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research in New York, where he under the tutelage of acting teacher Stella Adler. Brando said simply of Adler, “She taught me to be real and not to try to act out an emotion I didn’t personally experience during a performance.” 
Brando, was a product of the Stanislawski School of Method acting. He made New York–based acting teacher Stella Adler, as his role model. and was fan   of the virtuosic Fredric March and tough guy James Cagney . 
Brando first lit the box office silver screen with Movie ‘A streetcar named Desire’, which was an epic of it’s era. His performance literally redefined acting techniques. In subsequent films ‘Viva Zapata’ and ‘On the Waterfront’  he displayed most distinctive character when executing different roles. In the 3 movies, one can hardly identify that it is Marlon Brando or the same actor performers  such was his depth in the very skin of the character.

Political views and activism 

From the early 1960s Brando integrated himself with Native Americans, getting arrested in 1963 in the state of Washington for supporting their fishing rights. In 1976 Brando stood up for American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks when he was arrested in San Francisco.
His radical social views led to his discontent with the increasingly conformist character of the film roles he was offered. After sharp disagreements with director Lewis Milestone on ‘Mutiny on the Bounty' (1962), during which Milestone claimed Brando used to stuff cotton in his ears so as to block out the director’s instructions, the actor became known as “difficult.”
The most spectacular instance of Brando’s activism came at the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony when 80 million television viewers witnessed the Apache Sacheen Littlefeather take the dais to refuse the Best Actor Oscar on Brando’s behalf to draw media attention to American Indian grievances.
In ‘Christopher Columbus: The Discovery’, Producer Alexander Salkind blindly rejected Brando’s arguments for including historically accurate accounts of Columbus’ brutal treatment and exploitation of the Indians. However, instead of relinquishing a multimillion-dollar salary by walking out on the project, the actor voiced his disapproval through a poor  performance. This “protest” was the only time in Brando’s career that he was deliberately ineffective in a role.

Reflections on his life 

Brando’s personal life was most controversial, complex and self-contradictory. In many junctures he expressed vulnerability. It is mysterious  why did such a gifted actor ended  his days as a recluse living on social security and a pension from the Screen Actors Guild.
His stepping into a cocoon, interspersed by appearing in shady films, deprived the radical movement of  a character  who could have been a mantle 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.
According to 'Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought, and Work', Susan Mizruchi’s extensively researched new biography, investigating the often antagonistic dichotomy between a capacious intellect and a vast, intuitive talent, went  a long way to unravelling  the everlasting enigma that is Marlon Brando.
“He modeled,” says Mizruchi, “a kind of social activism – the idea that actors were obligated in some sense to use their fame to help others.”
Regretfully Brando’s acting genius and relentless commitments to social issues such as civil rights had all but been obliterated by a prevailing public image of an eccentric and self-opinionated troublemaker with a self-destructive hatred for his own profession and a greed for approving a fat paycheck. 
Brando expressed his increasing disgust for the film industry and even for the acting profession. Some of his comments need to be taken with a grain of salt, as deliberate provocations, but the depths of his feelings need not be questioned.
He would tell interviewers: “The only reason I’m here in Hollywood is because I don’t have the moral courage to refuse the money.”
Significant that Brando held late Chairman MaoTse Tung of China in great esteem. He told ‘Playboy’ in 1978: “There are no giants today. Mao Tse-tung was the last giant."

Best films of Brando

Brando’s ‘Street Car Named Desire’ deals with the duel for power between economic classes and the transformations occurring in America at that time regarding social status, portrays the conflict between social classes, the contrast of old and new America, between the monopoly of power of the upper class over the lower class, and how it crystallizes an upheaval of the classes. Brando’s performance as the brutish Stanley Kowalski, combined with his unique sexuality, is dynamic.
His ‘On the Waterfront’ film projects the exploitation of workers; but in this case, instead of just being exploited by capitalists, these longshoremen are exploited, and downright bullied, by the very people who should be helping them – their union. The corrupt union boss has connections with the mafia, which represents capitalists. Brando in this film plays the character with high degree of nuance or malleability, posing for inner transformation in his quest.
His ‘The Godfather’ (1972) remains a masterpiece to this day, brilliantly manifesting the impact of capitalism. Although just 47 at the time of shooting, Brando is converted into a septuagenarian. It shows how Brando camouflages the mafia don, weaving into a cast one of the most captivating screen performances ever.
Brando’s other prominent films include ‘Viva Zapata’ (1952), ‘The Fugitive Kind’ (1960), ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’ (1967), ‘Southwest to Sanora’ (1966), ‘One Eyed Jacks’ (1961), ‘The Chase’ (1966), and ‘Last Tango in Paris’ (1972). 
---
*Freelance journalist

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