The second half of the first sentence of the New York Times‘s obituary of Marlon Brando claims that his “erratic career, obstinate eccentricities and recurring tragedies prevented him from fully realizing the promise of his early genius, has died.” For what it’s worth, I never cared for Brando, not even in A Streetcar Named Desire–I thought he was a self-indulgent, undisciplined ham–but it strikes me that his admirers, however fervent, ought to squirm at the use of the word “genius” to describe him.
For that matter, I doubt that any actor who doesn’t also write or direct can properly be described as a genius. (One film does not an oeuvre make, least of all One-Eyed Jacks.) I’m not normally fussy about usage, but one thing that does bother me is what I call Definitional Inflation, and if the word “genius” means anything at all, it means Definition 6 in the Shorter Oxford:
Inborn exalted intellectual power; instinctive and extraordinary imaginative, creative, or inventive capacity, freq. opp. to talent; a person having this.
I suppose you might say that certain interpretative artists have had that kind of power or capacity, but when you compare them to the truly creative artists whose works they interpret, you start to see how high the bar ought to be set. In an art form like jazz, where composition and performance are fused indissolubly, the difference between creator and interpreter is radically ambiguous. In acting, it isn’t: Shakespeare would be Shakespeare if John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier had never been born. In fact (and I’m smiling as I say this, though I’m more than halfway serious), it may be that actors have more in common with critics than with playwrights. They serve as intermediaries between the creative artist and his audience, helping to narrow the gap across which the divine spark of comprehension must fly.
A few film actors–Bogart, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Marilyn Monroe, possibly Robert Mitchum, certainly John Wayne–have succeeded in constructing personas so magnetic as to float permanently free from their actual bodies of on-screen work. Brando wasn’t that kind of larger-than-life artist, though it’s conceivable that he could have been if he’d worked harder at it. Instead, like lesser mortals, he will be remembered as much for the quality of the films in which he appeared as for the quality of the performances he gave. Judged by that standard, my guess is that his memory will fade quickly, since so few of his films are worth seeing today. As for the performances themselves, it’s David Thomson, as usual, who nails it:
Too often, he impersonated characters he had thought out, rather than discover them in himself. Today, for instance, it is hardly possible to be moved by him in On the Waterfront for noticing the vast technical trick he is performing….even allowing for his disillusion with movies, we have to feel a kind of laziness, or a decisive lack of ambition, compared, say, with Olivier.
As epitaphs go, that’s a sad one.
UPDATE: Sarah writes:
Jeez…leave the office for a few hours and you’re the one who breaks the news (to me at least) about Marlon Brando’s death. Anyway, I also think that with time, people will scratch their heads about why he was worshipped so much in certain circles, because so much of the body of work he left behind ranged from disappointing to downright terrible.
But every time I think of Brando, I think of two things: one, James Dean, who also had a similar “magnetism” on screen, but who didn’t live long enough for people’s appreciation of such. And two, that Brando’s ticks and mannerisms always came across to me as a vestige of his early stage career, where the “genius” notices started piling up in the first place. Qualities that work to the back of a playhouse just end up being too caged or hemmed in as applied to a theatrical screen.
Maybe the ultimate problem is that Brando outlived his usefulness in the wrong medium. If James Dean had lived to be 80, would he have had the same kind of momentous decline in fortune and in role choice? Would we even be talking about him at all? I guess it’s just that in recent years, any time I saw Brando interviewed, he had this quizzical look as if he was surprised to still be on this earth. He didn’t age well, and I doubt his acting will, either. Some people leave too early; others really do stay far too late.
Astute as always.