TV Review – BRANDO- A TCM World Premiere Documentary

     April 24, 2007

Reviewed by Rob Klein

Brando- A TCM World Premiere Documentary

Part One : Tues, May 1 8:00 p.m. et/pt

Part Two: Wed, May 2 8:00 p.m. et/pt

Marlon Brando is a legend. Whether you know him from one film or many, or from tales of his behind-the-scene antics, he is an American treasure. To the fifties-generation of filmgoers, Brando was The Wild One; to the seventies he was The Godfather or Jor-el, father to Christopher Reeves’ Superman. A role model to many contemporary Hollywood actors, he is given credit for introducing method acting to film. His naturalistic mood and style on camera was groundbreaking, he had learned much of his technique studying under Stella Adler in New York. Director Michael Winner comments on the documentary: “Before Brando actors acted, after Brando they behaved”. Actor Al Pacino adds; “You saw the change in acting with Brando, it was in his DNA”. Marlon Brando was a unique, fascinating individual, and it comes through loud and clear in this interesting and engaging documentary.

Quickly moving from the stage to Hollywood films, Brando’s early screen successes set a new style and approach for film acting. Where before the film industry and acting was much the same as it had been since the talkies were invented, Brando revolutionized the depiction of on-screen pathos and male vulnerability. His talent and charisma impacted the motion picture industry in ways that are truly worth examining. Johnny Depp comments: “Marlon revolutionized acting. He changed it…he changed everything.”

For years I have heard local Hollywood lore surrounding the personal life of Marlon Brando, which added to his image as a larger-than-life character. My favorite story is that in the 1980’s Brando often frequented a childrens’ hair salon called “The Yellow Balloon” in Studio City, California to have his hair cut. He would also show up at a small pizzeria in the San Fernando Valley shortly before closing to order a pizza, which he would eat before returning to his sanctuary in the Hollywood Hills. He is also said to have frequented “Pink’s”, hot dog stand in Los Angeles, where he would eat up to six hotdogs in one sitting. Many savvy fans are also aware of Brando’s desire to depict Superman’s father Jor-el as looking “like a bagel” who spoke in electronic noises, whose voice could only be translated to the screen with subtitles. Though these are some of the tales I have personally heard, there are many more classic stories in this insightful character study. Actor Ed Begley Jr. tells a great story about being phoned by Brando in the nineties to come over to his house and discuss “a new project”. He arrives at Brando’s home, thinking that they were going to talk about a movie or a play. The first thing Brando asks him is if he knew how much current an electric eel produced. To Begley’s surprise, it turned out that Marlon was interested in using hundreds of electric eels in his swimming pool to supply electric power his property! Hilarious!

It was interesting to hear that in many of Brando’s later film appearances he refused to learn his lines. He preferred to use cue cards or to have his lines read to him by a personal assistant, who would feed her voice into his ear through a special hearing aid. He would also achieve a spontaneous feel to dialogue by hiding cue cards just out of camera range, a technique he demonstrated for Johnny Depp. Many motion picture giants who worked with Brando in his films reflected on the impact that he had on them in their careers, and Al Pacino’s memories of Marlon are fantastic. Just seeing Pacino reminisce about his on-screen “father” when he worked with him on The Godfather was priceless, he tells a great story about doing a long scene with Brando and nailing its emotional depth in one or two takes. Robert Duval and James Caan recall their childish antics during their first meeting with Brando on The Godfather set, where they mooned him from a moving car! Hearing such stories from these seasoned, respected actors are priceless and will be the tales of future Hollywood lore.

This is the first documentary regarding Marlon Brando’s career that I am aware of. Most people in their thirties, including myself know Brando from his role in The Godfather, but nothing else about him personally. This documentary takes the viewer back to Brando’s childhood, revealing his troubled family life and troubles he had with his mother, whom Brando later referred to as “a drunk”. All of these issues tie into his ability to act, to plumb great depths of sorrow, and his ultimate hatred of acting as a profession. To combat boredom in the workplace, Brando became involved with controversial projects, even in the beginning of his career. A Streetcar Named Desire was such a raw stage play that it had to have several scenes cut before it was considered decent for filmgoers.

Brando’s bankablity for the studios faded in the 1960’s, partly due to his costly and eccentric on-set behavior. As a result, he was no longer offered the quality parts that he was accustomed to, until Francis Ford Coppola wanted him in The Godfather in the 70’s. The heads of Paramount were so opposed to casting Brando for the film that they threatened to fire Coppola if he brought up Brando’s name for the part of Vito Coroleone again. Luckily for film history’s sake, Copplola took it upon himself to visit Brando at his residence and film a screen test, which ultimately convinced Paramount to grant him the now-legendary role. Brando won the Best Actor Oscar for his part in The Godfather but famously refused to accept it at the ceremony, on the grounds that Hollywood had historically mistreated Native Americans.

“Brando” is perhaps one of the most captivating documentaries I have ever seen, and is peppered with rare interviews with Marlon Brando, as well as never-before-seen screen tests. His personal charm immediately wins you over, adding to his likeability both on screen and off. I was of a Brando fan before viewing this piece, but after it I am a devoted fanatic, and am eager to see all of his movies. Get ready to experience Brando parts one and two, broadcast over two consecutive nights. Each night will feature several of his most important films immediately following the premiere of this two-part documentary. A masterfully crafted and exemplary documentary, this experience is not to be missed, an account of perhaps the greatest American actor of all time.

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