From his 1947 stage appearance in A Streetcar Named Desire until his death last year, Marlon Brando fought his own fame, with a pathological hatred of praise, an identification with the dispossessed, and a retreat to Tahiti. Talking to other Brando intimates, the screenwriter of On the Waterfront creates a private portrait of Hollywood's tormented king.
by Budd Schulberg March 2005 http://www.vanityfair.com/fame/features/2005/03/brando200503 (Date of Access: 1/12/09)
No other actor has ever rocketed to overnight stardom on the Broadway stage as Marlon Brando did in 1947, in Tennessee Williams's steamy play A Streetcar Named Desire. There have been some memorable debuts in the American theater—I still remember Elia Kazan, the director of Streetcar, in his acting days, shouting "Strike!" at the curtain of Clifford Odets's stirring agitprop play Waiting for Lefty in 1935—but nothing will ever compare to the explosion set off by Brando in his savage portrayal of Stanley Kowalski, the brutal blue-collar tormentor of his defenseless sister-in-law, Blanche DuBois, who has come to take refuge with him and his wife. I will never forget the impact Brando had on me and the rest of the audience. This was beyond a performance. It was so raw, so real, that you wanted to run up onto the stage and save the poor woman from his taunting abuse as he ripped away her pathetic pretensions. At the same time, you were afraid the out-of-control Kowalski would flatten you if you dared interfere with his sadistic, sexually threatening fun.
What we were seeing was a new kind of visceral intensity onstage that veteran theatergoers had never experienced before. The bar for dramatic actors was being raised before our eyes. The way Brando's Kowalski raged at his fragile victim and totally destroyed her at the climax was like a hard punch to the belly of the audience, and at the curtain there was a strange pause, as if the audience were trying to catch its breath. Then the thundering applause, the standing ovation, and the bravos came as a burst of relief that Blanche's ordeal was over and that the cast could return to their dressing rooms and become themselves again.
Who was this incredible newcomer? Where had he been while we were enjoying more conventional Broadway fare? From friends who had been in the Group Theatre in the 30s, I began to get his backstory. He was a 23-year-old kid from Omaha, Nebraska, with an alcoholic, artistic mother and a hard-drinking, abusive father, who had told the military-school dropout that he would never amount to anything. Without finishing high school and with no idea what he wanted to be, Marlon followed his sisters—an aspiring actress and an art student—to New York City. Prompted by his actress sister, Jocelyn, he enrolled in the New School and, in a stroke of luck that would change his life, found himself in Stella Adler's acting class.
Adler was a force of nature, an unforgettable personality. A daughter of the great Yiddish actor Jacob Adler and the seasoned actress Sara Adler, she had been raised in an atmosphere of devotion to the theater, real theater, the theater of high purpose and dedication. Acting wasn't a job for money in crass Broadway hits. It was a cause, a sacred calling. Hollywood was a dirty word. Adler was flamboyant, sometimes outrageous in her behavior, but she probably knew more about developing a dramatic character than any of the talented people around her. A student of Konstantin Stanislavsky, she was strong enough to stand up to the authoritative, didactic, and self-promoting Lee Strasberg, who was known as "the Master of the Method" to aspiring young New York actors. The Stanislavsky method as interpreted by Strasberg was basically self-psychoanalysis in action, with the actor drawing on his own deepest experiences to interpret the character he or she was playing.
Adler's approach was just as deep but much broader. She taught her students to go beyond their own inner feelings and to use their imagination in order to enrich their roles. She urged them to grow as human beings, to study nature, art, and history, because the more they knew, the more choices they would have. Her mantra: "Your talent is in your choices."
Adler, an actress of unique power and the best drama teacher in New York, knew the real thing when she saw it. With Brando's miserable childhood and rebellious nature, if he hadn't found his way to her class, and if she hadn't had the gift and the zeal to mentor him in a way he would relate to throughout his career, who knows what would have happened to him. Marlon himself later speculated that if he hadn't become an actor and learned from Stella how to discover the rich vein he could mine, "I might have been a robber." At times he liked to entertain the fantasy of becoming a Robin Hood, robbing from the rich to help the poor. While indulging the concept that he could be a bad boy and a prankster ready to take wild chances, from childhood on he had also had a feeling for damaged things—wounded birds, the homeless, the losers of life—which would eventually find political expression in his identifying with Holocaust Jews, Native Americans, and African-Americans. What Stella Adler had discerned from the beginning was an ambivalence in Brando that he could tap into—he could be a tough guy like Bogart and a wistful tramp like Chaplin. Only the tough guy showed in his uncompromising Stanley Kowalski, but the tenderness was there.
Stella sensed the quivering mass of sensitivities within him and taught him how to relate them to the expanding horizons of her own interpretation of the Stanislavsky method, which she had studied with the master in Paris. She provided the base on which Brando would build his art. Beyond the memorable roles she herself had created on Broadway—most notably a domineering mother in Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing! in 1935—Marlon Brando was her greatest work of art.
Stella Adler was married to the insightful critic and director Harold Clurman, who dreamed of going beyond conventional Broadway entertainment to a theater dedicated to dramatic works keyed to social change, and bringing serious actors, directors, and writers together in what would evolve into the celebrated Group Theatre.
In that spirit, Clurman and the young actor and fledgling director Elia Kazan planned a two-man venture in which they would take turns producing and directing. An early challenge, in 1946, was Maxwell Anderson's Truckline Cafe, which had a vital role for a young soldier who comes home from war to find that his wife has been unfaithful, and kills her. Impressed by Brando, Clurman decided to try him in the part. Adler knew Marlon's potential but wondered if he might be too young. But Clurman followed his hunch and helped cure him of his "mumbles," and Marlon opened in the role. The play was panned and short-lived, but Adler's protégé had an impact on the audience not unlike the one I experienced seeing him in Streetcar a year later. When Marlon reacted to the crime of passion he had just committed, one critic, Pauline Kael, thought he was actually suffering a seizure. So did the actress onstage with him, Virginia Gilmore. The audience had seen reactions to murder on the stage before—they had seen their Macbeths—but never anything as visceral as this.
In casting A Streetcar Named Desire, producer Irene Selznick thought she had the ideal Kowalski in John Garfield, the popular movie star with an authentic New York blue-collar background, who had been nominated for an Academy Award for Body and Soul in 1947 and starred that same year in Gentleman's Agreement, which brought Kazan his first Oscar as best director. "You can't get a better fit," Selznick insisted. Kazan's answer was "Look, I love Julie [Garfield's real name], I was with him onstage in Golden Boy, and he's a hell of an actor. But in Truckline Cafe we had a kid who's just this much better. There's something in him I can't describe, some unique kind of magic. I want the kid. His name is Marlon Brando."
Selznick fought back: "We need a marquee name, not some unknown, not when we can get a star like John Garfield, who's perfect for it." Kazan stood his ground: "Either we go with the kid or get another director." Kazan prevailed, and Brando was on his way to the instant stardom that would be his glory and his curse for the rest of his life.
Beyond the professional interest Adler took in Marlon, she virtually adopted him, providing a sense of home and family he had never known in his troubled, bohemian life. And what a home it was. Stella's daughter, Ellen, described it to me with wistful but total recall as a center of Jewish art and creativity that would leave its stamp not only on the American theater but also on the future of serious film acting. A special bonus for the young actor was Ellen's glowing presence. Beautiful, if less flamboyant than her mother, and an intelligent college student, she began a romance with Marlon that would endure for many years, despite Marlon's compulsive roving eye, which would complicate his life. From the beginning, Marlon displayed a chameleon-like personality, showing different faces to different people, and putting people into separate compartments. Ellen described herself as Marlon's "good girl" from a good family, with good values. He felt a sense of stability with her that he would cling to through the years as their romance weathered into a supportive friendship, with daily, hours-long phone conversations. It lasted—with one telling breach—until the day before he died. Stella had wanted Marlon to marry Ellen, but as much as he was drawn to her and her family, he was never suited for marriage, believing that monogamy was not the natural state of man and citing a lot of scientific theories to prove it.
As Streetcar ran into a second year, and as Brando continued to find and project the Kowalski within him (so different from his naturally peace-loving persona), there was a resistance in him to the day-to-day work of acting. He told his co-actor and friend Karl Malden that checking in every night and pretending to be someone you weren't really wasn't respectable work for a grown man. "What are we really doing here?" he kept asking his gifted and solidly down-to-earth dressing-room mate. That was the beginning of Brando's lifelong put-down of the profession that would proclaim him its undisputed king. At times he would get so bored that he would look for some action before his next entrance. Once, in the basement, he squared off with one of the stagehands, who had done some amateur boxing and took it easy with Marlon. Always after the real thing, Brando urged the stagehand "not to pitty-pat," and his opponent obliged, smashing Marlon's face, breaking his nose, and blackening his eyes. Returning to the stage to Jessica Tandy, who was sensitively playing Blanche, Brando had blood streaming from his nose, but Tandy's method-acting background helped her take it in stride. "You bloody fool," she said, as if he had been in a street fight—perfectly in character for Kowalski—and they went on with the scene.
Marlon never did anything quite the same way twice. Kim Hunter, who played his wife—the target of his famous roar, "Stella-a-a"—became fascinated by the way he tore through Blanche's pretentious wardrobe trunk. "It was different every night. Somehow he found something new and interesting to do." An actress with years of experience, Hunter had never come up against anything like him.
But the overnight star lost none of his feeling for the underdog. Karl Malden told me a revealing story: "While Marlon and I were sharing our dressing room, we noticed that cash and valuables would disappear. After one Saturday matinee, I decided to take a nap instead of going out for dinner. The opening of the door woke me, but I feigned sleep and watched as a young friend of Marlon's, a struggling hanger-on, scooped things up from our dressing table, went through the pockets of our clothing, and slipped out again. I said nothing, but I told Marlon about it when he came in for the evening performance, and suggested we confront the fellow together. But Marlon said, 'Oh, no, we can't do that. After all, he'd never take anything if he didn't have some terrible need. What the hell, it's only money. He needs it more than we do.'" With affectionate understanding, Malden continued: "That's Marlon. Always for the underdog. Always worried about the little guys on the bottom, all over the world."
By the time Streetcar wound up its triumphant two-year run, Marlon was hearing the siren call of Hollywood. As Ellen Adler explained it, "Hollywood was a no-no for serious theater people. They spelled it sellout, representing Mammon, not art. Julie Garfield deserted the Group Theatre in the late 30s and went to Hollywood, where they promptly Anglicized his name to John Garfield—the Jewish producers were on guard against presenting anyone as 'too Jewish.'" Semitic noses had to be cropped, and as sensually attractive as was Stella Adler, she appeared in only three films, with her name Anglicized to Ardler. Hollywood's self-conscious anti-Semitism worked against her.
Marlon, a handsome kid who was as American as Tom Sawyer, didn't have those problems. When he went to his mentor, Stella, for guidance, she advised him to shun the Hollywood boilerplate, seven-year contract. "For you, it's one picture and a good role, that's it." For his first film, The Men, playing a paraplegic war veteran, Marlon was in good hands, with a top writer, Carl Foreman, a sensitive director, Fred Zinnemann, and an independent producer with high standards, Stanley Kramer. It would not always be so, but, for his film debut, Marlon could bank those Hollywood checks and keep his ideals. To prepare for the role, he lived for a time in a veterans' hospital, experiencing life in a wheelchair and learning from the actual patients how they coped with their affliction.
Next for him was the film production of A Streetcar Named Desire, somewhat diluted from the raw stage version to appease the prevailing Catholic censorship, but still more sexually outspoken than anything before it. Jessica Tandy had been replaced by the British film star Vivien Leigh, whom Brando credited with being even more real than the stage-wise Tandy. At the helm once again was his favorite director, Kazan, who knew that less was more for the intuitive Brando, and allowed him sufficient space to bring his unique instincts to the role. Throughout his career, Brando would respond enthusiastically when he had that kind of direction, but would pull back and become difficult and cynical if a director failed to live up to his high standard.
With subsequent roles as diverse as the Mexican revolutionary in Kazan and John Steinbeck's Viva Zapata!, Marc Antony in Julius Caesar, and the leader of a rebellious motorcycle gang terrorizing a small town in The Wild One, Brando became a hero for a new and restless generation anticipating the hippies and flower children of the 60s. When asked in the biker movie, "Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?," his answer, "Whattaya got?," became the mantra of the new generation.
When I first showed my screenplay for On the Waterfront to Kazan, his first thought was "Perfect for Brando," and he told me to send it to him. A week later it came back, rejected. Having been in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and trained in its school for undercover agents, I used some standard anti-surveillance tricks to judge whether Marlon had actually read the script, and I told Kazan that I was sure he had not. We assumed that Marlon had turned it down because he disapproved of Elia's having given friendly testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities the year before. Resigned, we went on to our next choice, Frank Sinatra, who had just scored dramatically in From Here to Eternity and was basically a tough kid from Hoboken, where we planned to shoot our film. Kazan figured Frank had the chops to do it. When Sinatra grabbed the part, I had to revise the taxicab scene so that when the Mobbed-up brother of the protagonist, ex-boxer Terry Malloy, tells Terry, "You coulda been another Billy Conn," I had to change it to "another Jimmy McLarnin," because Conn was a 175-pound light heavyweight, a ludicrous size for the scrawny Sinatra, while McLarnin was a champion in a much smaller division.
After every major studio turned us down, we were finally bailed out by an independent producer desperately in need of a project, Sam Spiegel, who fixated on the idea of wooing Brando back. One of the chief qualities of a good producer is to be a master seducer, and the wily Spiegel could have given Casanova lessons in that art. After a few weeks of wining and dining Brando, Sam announced that Marlon was back in the picture, if he liked the script. Kazan instructed me to take it back to him.
When Marlon said yes, Spiegel had the sulfuric Sinatra to deal with, but Sam somehow weaseled out of it (or "Spiegeled" out of it, as we said), and we got ready for Marlon. As with The Men and his other films, his preparation was extensive. We introduced him to some rebel longshoremen, and he bonded with Hoboken's Tony Mike DeVincenzo, a Mob-connected dock boss who had seen the light under the influence of the waterfront priest Father John Corridan, actually testified against the International Longshoremen's Association racketeers, and stood up to their threats against his life.
A few days before we were to start shooting, Marlon asked me to walk him through Hoboken in his Terry Malloy outfit to get the feel of it. He wasn't quite as celebrated as he would be after our film came out, but his five preceding films had stamped his image on the public, and I told him he could never walk through Hoboken without being recognized. "Let's try it," he insisted, and the next morning he met me dressed as he would be in the film, in a longshoreman's outfit with a grappling hook on his hip. We walked Hoboken from one end to the other without having a single person ask for his autograph. Marlon Brando had disappeared. All people saw was just another longshoreman on Hoboken's waterfront. We even stopped for a beer at one of those 19th-century bars, and no one caught on. We approached a Catholic girls' school when the students were streaming down the steps, and as we threaded through them I thought, This is it, because he's the teenage girls' delight. But nothing happened. In Richard Schickel's felicitous phrase, Marlon was hiding in plain sight, and he stayed that way the 35 days of that tough shoot. One day, on a tenement roof, Marlon came up with a classic: "You know, it's so fuckin' cold out here there's no way you c'n overact."
Marlon and I were getting along nicely until I heard that he didn't like the taxicab scene. I was indignant. Kazan had praised the scene, the difficult Spiegel was satisfied with it, and I was protective of the script. When Kazan had first come to me on my farm in Pennsylvania to suggest that we work together in the East on a film with a social theme, I told him why I had left Hollywood. (It had actually left me, too, after I published the anti-mogul novel What Makes Sammy Run?) I said I had resented the way writers were treated out there, with everyone from producers to directors to actors declaring open season on their scripts. That's why I was writing novels on my own time. Kazan had countered that if I joined him on this project he'd treat my screenplay with the same respect as a play by Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, so I resented Marlon's challenging the scene. Kazan suggested that we all sit down together and talk it out. A meeting was set, but after my two-hour drive to the city, I was told it was off. A second meeting was set and called off again, and then a third. Now we were ready to start, and I wanted to kill Spiegel, for, as I learned from Kazan, he was the one who was calling the meetings off. I told Kazan I was ready to quit. I had been working on this screenplay for almost three years and going broke. Spiegel hadn't even paid me the measly $5,000 I was owed before we started. Kazan explained: Spiegel knew Brando was of two minds about our project, he also knew how defensive I was about the script, and he was afraid fireworks between us would lead to Marlon's walking out.
So day one found us on the tenement roof with nothing settled. Just before the lunch break our script girl, Roberta Hodes, mentioned to me that Marlon had told her again he couldn't play the cab scene. I blew up. Kazan came over to quiet me and said, "Look, as soon as Charlie [Maguire, our assistant director,] calls lunch, let's go down in the kitchen and have it out once and for all." When the three of us sat down in the tenement kitchen that we had been using as a set, Kazan said, "All right, Marlon, we've been hearing about this fucking thing for too long. What in hell is bothering you about the cab scene?"
Marlon said, "Look, in the script I've got all that stuff to say about 'You were my brother, you should of been looking out for me'—a whole big speech—and all the time Rod [Steiger] has a gun pointing at me. It doesn't work. I don't believe it. How c'n anybody play that scene with a gun in his face? I won't do it."
Kazan thought a moment and said, "What if you just reach out and put the gun down, and then pick up your lines?"
Marlon said, "Oh, that'll be fine." That was it. A conflict that had been tearing us apart was solved with a few simple words. In Marlon's defense, my stage directions had failed to indicate Kazan's simple solution. And though Marlon had overstated his case, his instincts were right. Of course he couldn't play a pivotal scene until his brother's gun was no longer a threat. If only Marlon could have been more specific the week before, instead of damning the entire scene. But that's how he worked—not intellectually but from his gut.
No matter what Marlon said later about the cab scene, he basically stayed with the script I had written. But here and there he added a word for punctuation that was so right it spoke volumes. When Steiger pulls the gun on him, after a marvelous look that conveys more sadness than anger, Brando sighs, takes an eloquent pause, and says, "Wow." That one little syllable is so right that it provides an emotional key to the entire scene.
Again and again he added little details that were exquisite. When he walks Eva Marie Saint through the park overlooking the Hudson River in his first, indirect, tentative love scene with her, she accidentally drops her long white glove, and instead of handing it back to her with conventional politeness, Marlon unexpectedly puts it on his own hand and starts to pull it up his arm—a lovely symbol for his slow awakening to the challenge of purity that is beginning to stir his conscience. That wasn't my stage direction or Kazan's suggestion. It was pure Brando—what Kazan had meant when he touted Marlon over Garfield as having that indefinable something. The word that comes to mind is overused in Hollywood, but here it is: genius. Here and there, with a word, more often a gesture, Marlon gave the performance of his life as the fringe hoodlum who has to face his dark side and come over to the light—a performance Kazan hailed as the greatest he had ever seen. Terry was a well-written, multi-layered character that I knew from the inside, but Marlon took him to that far horizon every writer prays for but never expects to reach.
Unlike his behavior on some of his later films, when he'd be late, or drive his fellow actors crazy by rewriting a scene with them and handing it to them, or ignore and sometimes humiliate directors for whom he had no respect, on the set of On the Waterfront he was impeccable. He was there on time, well prepared, and helpful with his fellow actors. Eva Marie Saint was literally shaking the first day, and not just from the cold, but Marlon went out of his way to reassure her, working gently off-camera with her and encouraging her to relax and just be herself. Kazan had told her to be afraid of Terry in the scene, and in a recent talk with me she said she had hardly needed that advice, since this was her very first film and she was in the big league, with Kazan and Brando. She also felt Marlon's virile attraction, she said, and told me, almost primly, "It's a good thing I was a happily married woman. Otherwise … " His coming on to her in the scene made her so uncomfortable that Kazan came up and whispered a single word in her ear: "Jeffrey." With her husband in mind she was able to respond in the love scene. This was a Kazan technique I would see again and again—no wordy directions, just that one right word that would trigger the desired emotions in the performer.
When I was growing up, my father, B. P. Schulberg, ran Paramount, so I was familiar with movie stars like Gary Cooper, Fredric March, and Cary Grant. But Marlon was even more seductive. He was gorgeous, of course, and charming, but beyond the charm you sensed that he was deeply interested in you, and, more than that, sensitive to you, with an intuitive understanding that opened you up to him. I saw him express this with tough guys like Tony Mike DeVincenzo and with sensitive souls like Eva Marie Saint, and I always felt it when we were together one-on-one.
When a rough cut was run for Harry Cohn, the foulmouthed Columbia Pictures honcho who had bankrolled our picture on a B-movie budget, Kazan phoned me in the East right after the screening to report that when the lights came on in the projection room Cohn simply walked out without even saying good night. "I think he hates our picture," Kazan said.
Marlon's reaction wasn't much better. After the film was run for the cast, he walked out with his chum Karl Malden, who had brought the actual waterfront priest to the screen with tremendous energy and searing social conviction. "So what do you think of it?," Karl asked. "In and out, in and out" was all Marlon would give it, and throughout his career he seemed to resent anyone who dared to praise the film to his face.
Ellen Adler knew him so well: "On the night that Streetcar opened, he walked into our apartment at two o'clock in the morning. He was wearing a black turtleneck T-shirt and jeans, same as always, but I could tell from his stride that his life had changed. But I knew not to mention it to him. You couldn't say, 'You were great tonight, Marlon.' Then you'd be out of the club. It was like a club, or a domain, all the in-people, and he was the president, or the duke, and he made up the rules, like never praising his work or mentioning his fame. It came to him so suddenly, and he really hated it. He spent his whole life trying to run away from it. But of course he couldn't. He was on his way to being the most famous actor in the world, and the more famous he got, the more he hated it. If people came up to him and asked for his autograph, he was rude to them. He carried it to extremes. When we were in Italy, [Roberto] Rossellini asked me if I would introduce him to Marlon. I said, 'Sure. Come up.' Here was the famous director of Open City and other great films. Marlon was on his bed in his shorts and didn't even bother to get up. He was unbelievably rude, because Rossellini said what an honor it was to meet him and how much he admired him. All of us in the club knew that was a no-no. Fame was Marlon's cross, and he was going to suffer it the rest of his life. He did the same with Farley Granger in Venice. Farley mentioned a part he was up for, and Marlon said, 'Oh yes, I turned it down.'
"I thought his behavior was disgusting," Ellen continued, "and I left him that time. We had lots of fights. Years later I happened to mention Farley, and Marlon said, 'I believe I treated him very shabbily.' So of course he remembered. He remembered everything, every last detail. He loved to study people. And being famous got in the way of that. Because now they were looking at him instead of the way it had been before. Before the fame."
When our film opened cold at the Astor Theater in New York at 11 o'clock in the morning, after the negative reaction from Harry Cohn and his pushing The Caine Mutiny as his Oscar candidate, Kazan and I figured we had a flop on our hands that only the two of us liked. The positive reaction the movie received came as a total shock.
Somehow the audience was there; the ticket line was around the block, and the next morning the critics hailed On the Waterfront as America's answer to the great neo-realist films of the Italians. We began to sense Oscar possibilities, but meanwhile Marlon was sounding off in Hollywood about how meaningless the Oscars were, how all awards were just self-congratulatory nonsense. The two forces who controlled public opinion in Hollywood, those formidable dragons at its gate, Louella Parsons, of the Hearst papers, and Hedda Hopper, of the Los Angeles Times, bared their fangs. If that's how Brando felt, they huffed, no Academy members should vote for him or our picture!
Our film had been so rejected by the Hollywood powers that we hoped winning an Oscar might open the door to other East Coast films of social significance. So Kazan suggested that since I had ended up on good terms with Marlon I should fly out to Hollywood with the ex-fighter Roger Donoghue, whom we had brought in to coach Marlon on how to move and throw punches like a pro. The articulate young middleweight from Yonkers had taken Marlon to Stillman's Gym and had come back with a glowing report. "Buddy [Marlon's nickname] learns so fast, I've already got him hooking off the jab, and he moves so nice, he's a natural! I can make a helluva fighter out of this kid!"
"That's great, Roger," I told him. "Just wait until he gets through our picture and he's all yours."
Marlon had taken to Roger and bonded with him, as he had with Tony Mike DeVincenzo. He was at his best with people he thought of as "real," but he had zero tolerance for bullshitters.
Roger and I flew out and lunched with Marlon at the Goldwyn studio, where he was playing the colorful high roller Sky Masterson in Frank Loesser's inspired musical Guys and Dolls. The atmosphere on the set was charged, because who should be playing the rival gambler Nathan Detroit but Frank Sinatra, still bristling at having been shunted aside for Brando in On the Waterfront. To deepen the wound, they had contrasting acting habits. The impatient Sinatra liked to do a scene in one take. The perfectionist Brando insisted on doing take after take until he finally got it right. In addition, Marlon felt that Frank was too soft, too eager to be liked. He even complained to director Joe Mankiewicz, who hesitated to confront the combustible Sinatra, thereby losing Brando's respect.
At lunch in the studio commissary, Roger and I appealed to Marlon's lifelong feeling for underdogs. Our movie was an underdog. No one had wanted to do it. The subject matter was an underdog. The exploited longshoremen were the lowest of the underdogs in the labor movement. Father Corridan, the waterfront priest, was an underdog. He was already in hot water with "the powerhouse"—the archdiocese. On the Waterfront was even the underdog entry on the Columbia roster. Cohn and the studio were putting all the money and P.R. behind The Caine Mutiny. Paramount was touting The Country Girl. On the Waterfront was the orphan on the list.
"Champ, I've gone in the ring an underdog. I know what it feels like, Champ," Roger said, tapping Marlon fondly but firmly on the chin.
Marlon thought for a moment and then said, "What do you want me to do?"
"Just shut up," I said. "You don't have to do anything more than shut up. Stop knocking the Oscars. Maybe then the two battle-axes will get off your back."
Marlon went way beyond that. He offered to go with us to the Foreign Press Association Golden Globe Awards. He showed up immaculate in his tux and charmed those European birds out of the trees. The message was loud and clear: Marlon had swung over to the side of the Oscars. He helped us set a record number that year, and he accepted his best-actor award with grace and a million-dollar smile. Years later he would look back on that concession as a great mistake and consequently scorn acting awards for the rest of his life. But Roger and I returned east with a sense of mission accomplished, and our eight Oscars and 12 nominations enabled Kazan and me to do another anti-Establishment project in the East, A Face in the Crowd. Jack Warner of Warner Bros. walked out of the preview, just as Cohn had left the screening of On the Waterfront.
In my phone talks with Marlon over the years, from the 50s into the 80s, even without being clued in by Ellen, or Alice Marchak, the attractive, able secretary who was his devoted and knowing assistant, adviser, and confidante for more than 30 years, my instinct was never to mention his films or career. We might talk about fame, because the awful effect of fame in America had fascinated me, almost obsessed me, since my early Hollywood days. As Ellen and other loyal friends have observed, fame was Marlon's obsession, too, but in a negative way. Fame was like a monstrous hump on his back, which no surgical knife could sever. He could run but never hide from it, even on his island retreat in Tahiti. Reaching Marlon could be an eerie experience. He had a private, private number, and when you called it, instead of getting a beep, there was dead silence. As you left your message, you felt as if you were talking into a deep, black cave. And every few weeks the number would be changed. Then you would call the old reliable Alice Marchak and get the new private, private number and begin all over again. When Marlon called me, it had a devastating effect on people around me. I remember a German au pair girl running to me in a panic, screaming, "Mr. Schulberg, there's a crazy man on the phone who says he's Marlon Brando, and he says he has to talk to you. What should I do?"
Mostly we talked about current events. His devotion to Native Americans in their struggle was no pose. He knew their history, he put up money for bail when activists were arrested, he participated in fish-ins in the Northwest, and he was even under fire when American Indian Movement militants stood up to the F.B.I. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and joined his friend Harry Belafonte in support of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
In 1965, when I went down to Watts on the day the curfew was lifted after the weeklong riot (or "uprising," as they called it) and managed to start the Watts Writers Workshop, which attracted far more creative talent than anyone had expected, Marlon was fascinated and full of questions. He had been working with the Black Panthers in Oakland, and we shared a sympathy for young blacks fighting for self-expression after being inspired by Malcolm X, who was pointing the way to real emancipation. I told Marlon I had rented a little house in the heart of Watts, where the young poets and playwrights could live and not be hassled for what I called "nothing crimes" such as vagrancy. I even read him poems by Johnie Scott, Quincy Troupe, Jimmie Sherman, Sammy Harris, and Eric Priestley, which would soon be published and win national acclaim. This was his subject, too, and he asked a lot of inside questions: What did black militants think about the workshop? Were there any Panthers down there? Were they resenting "a great white father" moving in? I told him about a strong young leader named Tommy Jacquette, who had barged in one day, with an edge. "I wanna know what you're doin' down here. Is this some kind of a rip-off—you're working for the pigs—or are you really trying to help these brothers? Either way, it's good for us. If it's bullshit, we c'n use it against you, and if you're really helpin' 'em write, that's good for us, too."
"I'll take that," I said. When he saw how the kids were developing, he supported me all the way through.
Marlon related similar sensitive relationships with the Panthers up north. He was sticking his neck out, he said, and taking some heat for it. While the gravel-voiced character actor Lionel Stander (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, A Star Is Born) liked to indulge the conceit that he was striking a blow for humanity by sneaking into a scene his whistling of "The Internationale," I felt Marlon was doing more for his cause than those Marxist ideologues.
On the day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, April 4, 1968, Gordon Parks, the photographer, filmmaker, and novelist, who had been a guest of Marlon's for three weeks at his Tahitian retreat, happened to be in Los Angeles and went up to see his friend at the house on Mulholland Drive. "Marlon," Parks told me, "was so distraught that he told his housekeeper to order 12 shotguns and 12 revolvers and then called up the Black Panthers. 'I'm going out into the street,' he said, 'and kill, just kill.' Before I left," said the grief-stricken but levelheaded Parks, "I told the housekeeper, 'Don't order the guns.' She said, 'Don't worry, I won't.'"
Through the 60s, though, I began to be critical of Brando's film choices. He did some nice work in Sayonara, and there was a very telling moment in Mutiny on the Bounty when his aristocratic Fletcher Christian realizes he has to go over to the other side and lead the mutiny against his sadistic commander, Captain Bligh. No one ever projected inner conflict better than Marlon. But I felt that The Ugly American was bland, and the lightweight Bedtime Story a waste of his intensity and power. The Chase allowed him some creative improvs, which the serious director Arthur Penn encouraged, but it was a loopy script, and Candy, directed by Marlon's French buddy Christian Marquand, was a ludicrous mess. The greatest actor in the history of American film was playing patty-cake. Where was his self-respect?
Impulsively, I dashed off a letter to him, describing my feelings without pulling punches. "You're doing pictures they couldn't pay me to write. You've got stronger convictions than anybody I know out here, but I wish you could find some way to get your ideals and your professional work together." I was careful to avoid telling him what a once-in-a-lifetime actor I thought he was. I just hoped that maybe I could nudge him a little bit.
A few weeks later I ran into him at a party at George Englund's. George was his good friend and agent, and had directed him in The Ugly American.
"Marlon, did you get my letter?"
"You never answered it."
"Y' know what it did? It gave me nightmares."
After Candy and The Night of the Following Day, out came the Hollywood knives, always ready to cut down the high and mighty. Marlon was no longer bankable. Too unpredictable. Too difficult. Mario Puzo didn't think so, however, and he sent his recently finished novel, The Godfather, to Brando with a note saying that he had had him in mind when he created the role of Don Corleone. Marlon didn't bother to read the letter or the book. He gave it to Alice, who read it and told Marlon she loved it. She had talked to Puzo, and Paramount was buying it. "It's about the Mafia. I'm not going to glorify the Mafia," Marlon told her. Alice continued her phone conversations with Puzo. She liked him and agreed with him that Marlon could do wonders with the part. Sprawled on his big bed up on Mulholland Drive, Marlon said again, "I told you, Alice, I'm not going to glorify the Mafia." But Alice hung in. She took the book to him and begged him to read it. When she came back to check with him the next day, he was stretched out as usual on his bed, and he greeted her by throwing the book at her. "For the last time, I won't glorify the Mafia!"
By this time Alice and Puzo were phone pals, and determined to talk Marlon into it. But by some magic, the next time Alice showed up, Marlon had drawn a little mustache on himself with an eyebrow pencil and said, "How do I look?" "Like George Raft," she said. Each time she went to see him, he was wearing a different Mafia-don mustache. Finally she said, "I think you're beginning to get it right." Then Marlon did something he had never done in his life. He went to Paramount and started to campaign for the part. The director, Francis Ford Coppola, was all for him, but the boss of Paramount, Robert Evans, was negative. Finally, Marlon even agreed to do the unthinkable: test for the role.
Marlon told Alice to get together every photo she could find of the various dons who ran their little empires. Marlon studied each one carefully. He had made his peace with the subject matter by equating the Mafia with big business, with the Godfather shrugging off murder as "only business," just as big business was murderous in its own way. Now he could play the hell out of it, and he did. Marlon was back. Only, this time, when he won for best actor, 18 years after his first Oscar, there was no Roger Donoghue or this writer to talk him into accepting the award. He sent what was supposed to be an Indian maiden in full feathered regalia, Sacheen Littlefeather, to reject it on the grounds that Hollywood had distorted Native American history and failed to dramatize the terrible indignities inflicted on the Indian nations. It was a brave gesture, hailed by his Native American friends, even though his emissary was met with a stony silence at the Oscars. Marlon was thumbing his nose at Hollywood once again, and I must say the old boy was consistent, even though I thought his beau geste would have had more impact if he had chosen a more down-to-earth Indian rather than a pretty girl who looked as if she had come from central casting.
After 14 consecutive flops for Marlon, The Godfather was a box-office Niagara, and he was lighting up the sky again. Now he was getting offers, and he made a difficult choice, to do Bernardo Bertolucci's erotic, soft-porn film, Last Tango in Paris. Bertolucci allowed him free rein in the role of an anguished middle-aged widower whose wife is a recent suicide. He seeks a kind of male-dominating revenge on a nubile, naked 20-year-old in successive days of uninhibited but somehow melancholy sex in a near-empty apartment that becomes their private hideaway—their cell. Brando in despair is agonizing, especially when you realize that in creating all this he is revealing his real despair, not the usual histrionic version.
Recently, Alice Marchak told me what turbulence Marlon was going through in real life. His first marriage, to Anna Kashfi, was a marriage from hell. The last thing he needed was another driven alcoholic in his life. Anna, who had been his love at first sight, became a violent, vindictive drunk who tried to use their son, Christian, as a weapon against Marlon. While Marlon was trying to concentrate on his role, Anna took Christian out of a boarding school in California, promised to bring him back on Monday, but instead drove with him to Mexico, where she turned him over to a group of paid toughs who kept him sequestered in a tent hideout. No film of Marlon's had ever been as melodramatic as that. He had to take a week off, fly to Los Angeles, and hire a private detective, who used a helicopter to find his son somewhere in Baja California and bring him home. In a court order, Alice Marchak was made Christian's legal guardian, and she took care of him in Paris while Marlon struggled to complete Bertolucci's strange, tortured film.
Somehow Marlon was able to draw on all these inner conflicts to create the unique role of a grieving widower. Although the groundbreaking sexuality of the film was what most people talked about, Brando's improvised monologue addressed to his wife's coffin in the film was a painfully autobiographical portrayal of his complex mix of anger and sense of lost love as he dredged up his feelings at the premature death of his mother.
But the real-life melodrama wasn't over. At times it seemed to me that some madman was writing Marlon's story and overdoing it. In 1987 his Tahitian-born daughter, Cheyenne, a troubled child on drugs like her half-brother Christian, became involved with a young man named Dag Drollet, the scion of a distinguished Tahitian family. Finding herself pregnant, Cheyenne told Christian that Dag was abusing her—which was not true—and Christian, in a righteous moment of crazed wrongheadedness, shot and killed Dag, in Marlon's living room. The movie star who had quested all his life for privacy and peace of mind was suddenly dragged into his worst nightmare, a public scandal that became a tabloid dream.
Marlon made the heroic choice to stand by his troubled son, whose trial became the most celebrated target for scandalmongering and celebrity-bashing since the Fatty Arbuckle case, 70 years before. There was Marlon Brando, no longer gorgeous now, but gone to fat and old and tired. And there, glaring at him, was Dag's father, Jacques Drollet, a former minister of education and tourism in Tahiti, who had opposed Marlon's purchasing his atoll in order to stake out a paradise. As the only eyewitness to the shooting, Cheyenne, to avoid having to testify against Christian, fled to Tahiti, where she made at least two suicide attempts, finally succeeding in 1995. The one place in the world where Marlon felt he had finally found his private escape from the fame that had almost eaten him alive became instead the last step in his descent into hell.
When I was in Los Angeles soon after Marlon's death to look up his old friends, everyone asked, "Have you talked to Harry Dean Stanton yet? In these last years Harry Dean was closer to Marlon than anyone." I found Harry Dean, a neighbor of Marlon's, on Mulholland. In his late 70s, tall and gaunt and mysterious, a Kentuckian who can play a haunting harmonica and guitar, he's an unforgettable actor you've seen in a hundred movies, including The Godfather: Part II. His house, like those of his celebrity neighbors, is behind one of those massive gates, but I was surprised to find that it's just a long, cluttered cabin, with unwashed dishes in the sink and Buddhist legends on the wall.
I told Harry Dean I had heard that he had had long conversations with Marlon at three or four in the morning, and that sometimes they went on until dawn. "So what did you talk about?"
"We talked a lot about Eastern religions—Buddhism, Taoism, the Kabbalist Jews. We talked about Lao Tse in China. And Einstein came up. Einstein said that Buddhism was the only religion that could cope with modern science, and Marlon was interested in that. He was into poetry, philosophy, and religions—everything. He was curious about everything. We talked about ego from the Buddhist point of view. We talked about Shakespeare. Marlon really knew Shakespeare, and sometimes he would recite whole long monologues from Macbeth, Twelfth Night."
I could picture these two Hollywood seekers of solace, with the first rays of the sun beginning to peek into their lives, Harry Dean perfectly cast as a misfit and the ailing Marlon—all 300 pounds of him—beginning to look like, and trying to think like, Buddha.
"One time Marlon suddenly asked me, 'What do you think of me?,'" Stanton said. "And I said, 'What do I think of you? I think you are nothing. NOTHING!' And Marlon began to laugh, and he went on laughing and laughing."
I could picture Marlon. He had finally achieved his goal. Peace, peace at last. What I always wanted to be. Nothing.
At his memorial on the Mulholland hilltop, with a number of his living children, natural and adopted, from a collection of dark-skinned mothers gathered together for the first time, with the few true friends who cared deeply for him, his sister Jocelyn made a final plea: "It's over now. Let him be."
It was a kind and gentle thought. But sorry, Jocelyn. And sorry, Marlon. It's not your fault. You were just too damned famous. And too damned good. You can turn down those awards all you want. But, like your worst dreams, they'll keep on coming. Best Actor for All Time: Marlon Brando.
Budd Schulberg, author of the 1941 best-selling novel What Makes Sammy Run?, wrote the screenplay for On the Waterfront.