A BRONX BOY LOOKS AT BRANDO
NY Times Sunday 07/12/04 NY section
Reprinted with permission of the NY Times, all rights reserved, copyright 2004
by Jerome Charyn
He was the sum of all possibilities, the measure of all things, in my embattled kingdom of the Bronx. How could I have discovered him on Broadway, where he would stop a performance of Streetcar as he pranced across the stage with a kind of animal beauty that educated, refined theatergoers had never seen before? I was neither educated nor refined, and I’d never heard of their Broadway, a curious district of "live theater" that could limp along in a Manhattan given over to movie palaces. Few of us in the heartland of the East Bronx would have known where to buy a ticket for Streetcar. And so I never experienced that first "rush" of Brando in ’47, even though I was old enough and curious enough at ten to slip into the theater under the skirts of some maiden aunt. The Bronx was full of maiden aunts who were as lonely and starved for love as Blanche DuBois, but we had no streetcars named Desire, not one entry point that could have explained the power of humans dueling on a stage.
I had to suffer three more years. When Marlon appeared in The Men (1950) as a muscular paraplegic, I realized at once that Hollywood was giving some very strange signals: he had the stink of sexuality right on the moviehouse wall, but Hollywood was the land of boy meets girl, the healthy but haunting love that Louis B. Mayer had defined at MGM, where nothing interfered with the force of every frame to deliver what was safe and just a little sexy.
Brando wasn’t safe, wasn’t predictable, wasn’t imprisoned by any frame. It was impossible to tell what he would do next. He was like our gang leaders in the Bronx,
wizards who rose to prominence because they were unpredictable, and no one could read their direction or their dreams; they would slap or stroke you in the same instant, with the same hand. And often they had a beauty that separated them from most men, or boys like us. The girls who flocked to them seemed like apparitions in their wake. And so it was with Brando; even as a paraplegic, he was much more beautiful than Teresa Wright, who could have been a "debutante" attached to the Crotona Park Royals. Like our Bronx wizards, Brando was polymorphously perverse. And in Streetcar (filmed in 1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), The Wild One and On the Waterfront (both 1954) the women, whether Kim Hunter, Jean Peters, Mary Murphy, or Eva Marie Saint, were stationary objects held in place by the demonic magnet of Marlon Brando. Everything and everyone—decor, story, actresses, actors—disappeared inside his whirlwind. He was larger than any narrative, looking almost obscene as Marc Anthony without his toga in Julius Caesar (1953). Even Shakespeare had a tough time competing with Brando—the music and resonance came from one actor, tight as a corkscrew, having to mask himself in order to avenge Caesar’s death. I remember being bored when Brando wasn’t on screen, feeling sick in a sea of dead space.
"The film," I reported to my high school class, "is about Brando and the nothingingness we have when we’re deprived of him."
We didn’t have a library for miles in my corner of the Bronx, we didn’t have a bookshop, and the candy store I visited didn’t carry The New York Times. It was
a culture of comic books and gangs with zip guns, where violence was just under the
skin, where language was one more cover-up, one more camouflage. And if we’d never been to Manhattan’s museums or concert halls, or read about J. D. Salinger’s bananafish
in The New Yorker, we had a curious cave mentality. We inhabited empty spaces that turned us into trappers of the imagination, readers of film. We were made for moviehouses.
And we were prepared for Brando, for the violence, the cruelty that was always there in almost every gesture. He himself had come from the empty spaces of Nebraska, had grown up with violence, and the walk he had, his little strut, was like that of any Bronx cavalier. He was a Nijinsky who could dance with both feet on the ground—his acting a primitive war cry. My favorite moment is when Zapata is lying in Jean Peters’ arms, and says like a Bronx boy, "I can’t read."
Everyone has a favorite Brando film. Mine is Last Tango, where he plays a
widower who roams around Paris like a haunted man in an overcoat, suddenly so familiar. He could be roaming the bewildered plains of the Bronx—the car barns of Boston Road, the little bridges that connected nothing to nowhere—an amnesiac searching for himself. Brando’s beauty has begun to go. He’s forty-nine, but we’re just as entranced by his wreckage as we were with his lightning looks. He tells us stories, has more soliloquies than Hamlet, but it’s still his silence that stuns us. It’s as if his whole life had been a search for silence—I suspect that’s why he ran off to Tahiti.
He spent himself in Last Tango, scratched under his own mask and decided he didn’t want to do it again. We misinterpret Brando if we cry over his career. He didn’t
outgrow the movies. He lived most of his life in a void, came out of it to entertain us, and crept back in. That void would have been instantly recognizable in the Bronx, my Bronx of fifty years ago, when the borough was cluttered with doctors of philosophy who had lost their direction. They loved to talk about the Nobel Prize that had escaped them, etc. Talking, for Marlon Brando, was another kind of catatonia. I’m grateful for the five or six times he waltzed in front of us without his armor, let us feel the full power of his form, and proceeded to break our hearts.
Jerome Charyn’s novel, The Green Lantern, was published in the fall. He’s working on a book about Quentin Tarantino ( Raised By Wolves) was published, June 2006. He teaches film theory at the American University of Paris.