Jun 26, 2014

The Actor Who Broke The Movies

From my essay for  The Atlantic:—
'... Budd Schulberg’s original speech — “I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve had class and been somebody. Real class. Instead of a bum, lets face, it, which is what I am” — is streamlined by Brando into the more idiomatic, “I coulda had class, I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody — instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it” with the emphasis now falling on Molloy’s appalled self-recognition. For The Godfather, he reduced the Don’s scripted exchanges by half. “You come into my house on the wedding day of my daughter and you ask me to do murder and you say ‘how much shall I pay you?’” becomes  ”you come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married and you ask me to do murder for money”, the alliterative disgust of “murder for money” now irresistible, although the real kicker to the scene is, of course, the cat: a stray Brando had spotted on the set, scooped up, and cradled in his lap throughout, the very control required to be so gentle, while so angry, frightening in itself. 
 Brando touched everything. In that scene in The Godfather alone he touches the cat, his hair, his chin, his cheeks, the chair. He peels hard-boiled eggs in Streetcar, fondles a quarter in The Wild One, picks up Eve Marie Saint’s gloves in Waterfront, plays with puppies in Zapata, and lampshades in Last Tango in Paris. “He touched whatever he touched as if it were part of him,” wrote David Foster Wallace in a wonderful passage in Infinite Jest, one of the most perceptive things ever written about the actor. “The world he only seemed to manhandle for was him sentient, feeling.” Brando’s fondlings were a both a means of centring himself in the here-and-now, an instance of rampant scene stealing, and a means of rendering fond communion with the universe, his playful epicureanism often serving as an uncanny premonition of death. Those puppies in Zapata are almost the last thing he touches before he is mown down by federal agents, just as Don Corleone’s last act, before the attempt on his life, is to pick out fruit from a vendor’s stall (“he points so as not to disturb the vendor display” notes Mizrahi, with pleasing delicacy). Its telling that when asked to name their favorite movies in the 2008 presidential election, John McCain picked Zapata, while Obama went for The Godfather, the rebel and the patriarch, both picks telling you much about the extent to which that presidential contest was fought out between conflicting notions of paternal authority: McCain’s maverick instincts honed in the shadow of his famous admiral father, Obama’s more patient paternalism a simulacra reconstructed in the absence of his.'

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