I recently received one of those chain-gag letters that presented the way it was and the way it is, a waggish somewhat wry admission that, zut alors, time passes!
One of the suggestions was that my generation once wanted to look like Marlon Brando or Elizabeth Taylor and now risk botched plastic surgery and gastric by-pass so as NOT to look like Brando and Taylor in their later years.
It’s a cute conceit, but off the mark.
Both Taylor and Brando were striking in their prime, not simply movie-star attractive, but charismatic, intelligent, vulnerable,tough, and world-wise. As I consider the span of their careers I am struck by their ability to bring depth to roles that might have been formulaic and mindless, even the saccharine string of Lassie films (Taylor) and the first Superman (Brando). When given the roles they were born to play, Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Brando as Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire, Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, they were transcendent, creating indelible characters that live outside of the films themselves.
Let’s get real. Nobody actually tried to look like either one because each was a higher order of human, capable of a range of expression we mortals simply could not command. I might have done the Brando, “I coulda had class…I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am” for my own amusement, but actually look like Brando? I could buy a leather jacket, slouch, attempt to look simultaneously earnest and injured. Not even close.
There were other very effective method actors and other great roles, but anyone who has seen the play of emotions crossing Brando’s face in the course of a moment, who remembers his taking Eva Marie Saint’s glove, in a gesture embodying pure masculinity and gentle affection, knows that there is a kind of kinesthetic genius we can admire but never replicate. The oddest and closest comparison I can make with current actors is with Keanau Reeves’ singular ability to show dawning understanding without movement of any kind.
In Taylor’s case, she too was one of a kind; the color of her eyes was a distinctive blue, so pronounced as to be seen as violet. She was born with dark double eye lashes, a mutation that made her seem simultaneously sultry and wise. We later learned that she, like Judy Garland, had been robbed of childhood and made by the studio into whatever facsimile of contemporary popular star they felt they needed that year, but unlike Garland, she managed to arrive in each role with crackling, understated energy.
Her roles after National Velvet are unexceptional; despite MGM’s efforts to make her into a teen prom queen in a series of adolescent romantic comedies, Elizabeth Taylor was never truly a teenager. In 1951, she married Conrad Hilton, Jr. who had already demonstrated an uncommon gift for debauchery, having had an affair with his step-mother Zsa Zsa Gabor. Taylor was eighteen and divorced within a year. That was the first of eight marriages to seven husbands; she married Richard Burton twice.
Both Brando and Taylor were uncomfortable when seen as sex symbols although both had libido to spare. Brando’s liaisons and affairs were the stuff of tabloid frenzy. he fathered sixteen or seventeen children, one of whom, given up for adoption, is almost certainly Courtney Love’s mother, linking Brando with Kurt Cobain, an unlikely association at first glance, but an oddly appropriate meeting of two men of genius defined by their demons.
Yes, the last years of Elizabeth Taylor’s life were less glamorous. She was guilty of the sin that plagues women celebrities; she aged. Her personal life was occasionally sloppy and too public. She stole America’s Sweetheart’s husband (Eddie Fisher, Princess Leia’s dad), and abandoned him for Richard Burton. In her last years, she shilled for her own lines of jewelry and fragrances. She befriended Michael Jackson. At the end, she was bloated, wheelchair bound, and defeated by congestive heart failure.
Nevertheless, we who had seen her as Maggie or Martha were neither surprised nor disappointed at the end. Taylor was unique in that we saw what she would become even as we were transported by the role that she played. She was more than believable in those parts; she inhabited them completely, every sloppy, generous, bitter, sensual, unpredictable moment. She was a force of nature and a complete woman in an era in which few women were allowed to reveal the complex entirety of their persona.
In a profession known for grotesqueries of ego, Brando was certainly among the most outrageous, and yet, as we watched him slowly destroy himself as Babe Ruth had, hot dog by hot dog, his body swollen, we knew that he was literally eating himself to death. He weighed as much as three hundred and fifty pounds, but he was no Sydney Greenstreet, a smug epicure. He dieted fiercely, lost weight, binged, gained, lost. On the set of Mutiny on the Bounty, he went through more than fifty pairs of pants as his weight elevatored up and down; in the end, his costume had to be made of elastic material. In later roles, doubles had to be used for full screen shots as his weight ballooned during the course of filming.
Brando’s appearance was widely observed and discussed; the tabloids loved to print pictures of him at his worst. His role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather is considered his redeeming return to the pantheon of actors, and he played the part well. “What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully,” has now become the other Brando imitation I trot out from time to time, knowing I can’t approach his gravitas, but enjoying the plainness of speech with which a man of power offers a rebuke.
I have seen Apocalypse Now fifteen or twenty times and never fail to have the same reaction. Critical language doesn’t do justice to the experience as the film is so over-the-top and painfully true-to-war that it can leave me shivering, but each time I screen the film, it is the image of Brando as Kurtz, shot so that his head appears a shard of uncertain and uneven light against primordial darkness. He rubs his shining head with a hand that, in that moment, appears too large, too perfectly shaped to be genuine, and I find myself thinking year after year:
“That is the most beautiful man I have ever seen.”