In the 1950s, the word “mumbling” got stuck to the name Marlon Brando, and there were several reasons for that. Brando, starting with his first film, “The Men” (1950), brought a new mode of naturalistic acting to Hollywood that was so revolutionary it would change not just movies but the world. (By the time the raging brushfire of rock ‘n’ roll came onto the scene, Brando had already lit the fuse with “The Wild One.”) Those who were used to hearing every actor in a movie enunciate their dialogue as if it were the King’s English couldn’t understand — literally — what Brando was saying.
Beyond that, Brando played the kinds of characters who’d never been front and center in a Hollywood movie before — most famously Terry Malloy, the inarticulate working-class loser-brute of “On the Waterfront.” This wasn’t just an acting revolution; it was a who-gets-to-be-a-hero-in-America revolution. And the everyday music of Brando’s magnetically low-key, throwaway speech was part of it. The new heroes were people who couldn’t fully express who they were (at least, not with words), and that was part of their shambling, broken-souled beauty. That was Brando’s poetry.
A dozen years later, when the New Hollywood was taking shape, many of the actors who’d grown up in the shadow of Brando absorbed his attraction to characters who would have been on the margins before, and to their gritty, lurching way of speaking. Robert De Niro was the first to update the Brando mystique to the next generation. He was to Brando what the Rolling Stones were to Elvis — and, fittingly, De Niro makes the first great entrance of his Brando-of-the-’70s period to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” in “Mean Streets,” his arms wrapped around two young women as he strolls forward in slow motion, in his pork-pie hat and too-wide tie, looking like an escaped lunatic. This is not your father’s “instead of a bum, which is what I am” Brando performance. De Niro’s Johnny Boy is a bum and proud of it; he’s a psycho and proud of it. There was never a more Brando line in a 1970s movie than his triumphantly self-destructive “I f— you right where you breathe, because I don’t give two s—s about you, or nobody else.”
After De Niro, a wave of next-generation Brandos came along: actors like Sean Penn, whose first great Brando performance came in his follow-up to “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the prison drama “Bad Boys” (1982), in which he acted with a feral attitude in place of words, and Mickey Rourke, who was pure Brando in “Diner,” and his own variation on Brando in “Angel Heart.” (Twenty years later, he was a bum who coulda been a contender in “The Wrestler.”) Gary Oldman’s performance as Sid Vicious, in “Sid and Nancy,” is his first and still greatest piece of film acting (talk about spewing broken shards of feeling!). And while Daniel Day-Lewis, with his upper-crust pedigree, is the rare actor to fuse the dialectical aesthetics of Brando and Laurence Olivier, the performance that announced Day-Lewis’s genius, in “My Left Foot” (1989), was the quintessence of Brando. His Christy Brown, afflicted with cerebral palsy, could barely get a sentence out, but Day-Lewis turned that strangled, tormented, between-clenched-teeth delivery into its own wounded music. He said more by barely saying anything than most actors say in a lifetime.
And then, ladies and gentlemen, there is Tom Hardy.
Born in 1977, he’s like the grandson of Brando — or the great-grandson, the one who’s living happily off his trust fund but seems to have no idea, and not the faintest concern, where the money came from. It’s his to spend!
Hardy, in case you hadn’t noticed, mumbles a lot. He mumbles in his new movie, “Capone,” playing Al Capone with a croak that makes it sound like his vocal cords have been singed. He mumbled in “Venom,” where he played a cable-TV news reporter and still found a way to make him sound like a mush-mouthed basket case. (And that’s before he starts sharing his body and brain with an alien monster.) He mumbled in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” where he took over the role of Max and fashioned him into a character so blitzed he seemed like he’d had a lobotomy. He mumbled in “Bronson,” where he played England’s most notoriously violent criminal — an incarcerated bare-knuckle psycho who looked like a circus strongman and would have kicked the holy hell out of Jake LaMotta. And, famously, he mumbled in “The Dark Knight Rises,” where his performance as the villainous Bane was delivered from behind a mask that muffled his speech to the point that he made Darth Vader sound like Tinkerbell. Half the time you couldn’t understand him, but…well, cool!
Tom Hardy is turning into a one-man cult of post-literate zombie Method acting. Yet it’s more than a matter of how he sounds. In “Capone,” the crucial element of Hardy’s bullfrog-croak Al Capone is that he never says anything too interesting. That, as much as the mumbling, is now the defining yardstick of the Hardy mystique — the fact that he’s addicted to playing characters who articulate what they have to say through everything except what they actually say. You might call this the reductio ad absurdum of the Brando school. I’d call it the Brando school minus the humanity.
It sounds like I’m talking about an actor who disdains the liquid flow of eloquent sentences. Yet it’s a very grand irony that if you asked Tom Hardy’s fans to rank his performances in order of preference, the film that many (including me) would place in the number-one slot is “Locke.” That’s the one that consists entirely of Hardy driving a car along the highway at night, conversing with one person after another on a speakerphone, talking in softly cultivated British tones as he tries to work through a slow-motion cataclysm. (His character, Ivan Locke, is a construction foreman who has gotten someone pregnant — and is driving to London to be with her as she gives birth, despite the fact that he already has a family.)
Hardy’s performance is so exquisite, and so masterfully verbal, that after “Locke” you wanted to see him play everyone from Hamlet to Joe Strummer. But it was not to be. Hardy now seems to think that the absence of meaningful dialogue is some creative test of manhood; he doesn’t seem to think that he’s acting — or even fully alive — unless he’s playing some surly brute who lacks the capacity to express himself. He’s a serious artist who has joined the Brando legacy by making it his spectacularly perverse mission to fly to the outer limits of misanthropic stuntedness. He’s the dude who goes to extremes, acting only with his eyes in “Dunkirk” (and, it must be said, doing a haunting job of it). It sounds like I dislike Tom Hardy, and I don’t; I think he’s a wizard — or could be. But if he wants to live up to his talent, he needs to rejoin the human race and stop treating acting like some ultimate escape from it.