Brando: The myth outshone the man

MARLON BRANDO’S DEATH Thursday stirred contrasting reactions within the entertainment community.

In describing his talent, people quickly exhausted the supply of superlatives. He was, very simply, the best. In describing his character, however, insiders by and large fell silent. That’s because Brando was a man haunted by his own genius, a tortured soul ultimately isolated by anger and self-destructiveness.

It is hard to summon up any other star who worked so sporadically and who squandered his gift on such appallingly mediocre work.

Though he excelled brilliantly at his craft, he often expressed his disdain for acting — and for himself. In his later years he insisted that he worked only for the money and seemed to relish the absurdity of his choices. The fire of his early performances gave way to corpulent self-indulgence.

EVEN WHEN I FIRST encountered him on “The Godfather,” he seemed surly and unprepared. He knew that some of the corporate hierarchs at Paramount had tried to veto him for the lead role because he’d already been identified with a string of failures. Though he finally won the part through the persuasiveness of Francis Coppola, his deal was relatively paltry (there were points but little cash).

The initial days of shooting seemed disorganized and confused and Brando was slow in getting the feel of his character. There were problems with lighting — the initial scenes were so dark that the actors were virtually unidentifiable — so reshoots were necessary.

I remember how oddly distanced Brando seemed and I was puzzled why an actor of his accomplishments needed to have his lines surreptitiously pinned to various parts of the set. Couldn’t he master his own dialogue?

Yet these were not issues one discussed with the star. He was even then a mythic figure — a remote, seething individual who could exchange friendly banter with fellow actors one moment yet become extraordinarily cruel the next.

DURING LARRY KING’S weekend tributes to Brando on CNN, he described a whimsical, eccentric free spirit who would drive around Beverly Hills with him, singing showtunes. This is all fine and flattering in retrospect, but it ignores the Brando whose personal life was steeped in tragedy — the suicide of a daughter, the murder trial of his son. The results of his prolific parenting seemed as haphazard as his film projects.

His talent was so luminous that “everyone wanted a piece of him,” as Robert Duvall observed. While he loved to be the center of attention, the glare of stardom caused him to withdraw into himself. He became obese and hid away in Tahiti.

His death stirred glowing reminiscences from those performers who had been inspired by his technique and from filmgoers awed by his charisma. He left a legacy of extraordinary respect but minimal affection.

WHEN COPPOLA INVITED the principals in “The Godfather” to a 25th anniversary dinner and screening, the clan quickly gathered — Pacino, Caan, Duvall, et al. It was a warm and high-spirited reunion for those who had, through hard work and great fortune, succeeded in turning out what many believed to be the best movie of its era.

Brando had been invited but didn’t show; at the last minute he had demanded an exorbitant “appearance fee,” as though he’d been invited to attend the opening of a supermarket.

It was typical Brando.

It was as though he couldn’t allow himself the camaraderie of success. He preferred to brood. He remained, above all else, the superstar.

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