Marlon Brando on DVD, Part Three: 1972 - 2002
by Jesse Shanks
Marlon Brando's career has spanned five decades and includes some of the greatest films ever made. In this third and final part of Brando on DVD, the last three decades of his career are examined. Most of the Brando films available on DVD are from this era, including The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris and his most recent film, The Score.
As the Seventies dawned, Marlon Brando's career was a mess. Although considered by his peers as the greatest American actor, he was often contemptuous of the profession in interviews, referring to it as a "bum's life." A string of box office failures and a virtual blacklist in Hollywood had forced Marlon Brando to appear in a series of strange films often financed by foreign sources. His politics and other controversial activities had also contributed to a decline in his popularity and employability. Southern theater chains had boycotted Brando films because of his stands on civil rights and his association with the Black Panthers. The actor also had supported the American Indian Movement that attempted to redress issues involving the Federal Government's treatment of Native Americans. Meanwhile, Paramount Pictures had purchased a pulpy novel, The Godfather, by Mario Puzo, about organized crime and assigned a young director, Francis Ford Coppola, to direct. To the surprise of many, the novel became a publishing sensation, selling millions of copies and what was to have been a quick and dirty gangster picture suddenly became the most anticipated movie of the year. The lead role of Don Vito Coreleone, the patriarch of the criminal clan, became one of the most sought after roles in Hollywood.
When Coppola insisted that studio executives consider Brando for the role, they imposed harsh and (they hoped) impossible conditions, including a screen test and an appearance bond. Virtually ignoring the conditions, Coppola contacted Brando and proposed a makeup test on video. With this footage in hand, the director was able to convince the studio that Brando could be the aging Mafia chieftain on film and work was begun to finalize casting of the other important characters in the film. On his best behavior, Brando turned in one of his finest, most indelible performances as Don Vito Corleone and was—for once—a positive force on the set and his work inspired the cast of unknowns to perform at a level that made the film one of the best-acted films ever made. However, this was a financial disaster for Brando himself: Personal problems prompted him to sacrifice his box office percentage in favor of an upfront payment—then The Godfather went on to become one the biggest box office hits of all time, ultimately costing the actor millions. This debacle was to influence the way that Brando chose his roles for the next decade. Winning the Best Actor Award in 1972 allowed Brando to make a statement about the treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood movies by sending a little known actress to refuse his Oscar® and condemn the very industry that was honoring him. Needless to say, this did not endear Brando to his peers and created a national controversy.
It was planned by Coppola for Brando to appear in the Godfather sequel called The Godfather, Part II and portray a Vito Corleone closer to Brando's actual age. Ultimately Robert DeNiro took home an Academy Award® portraying the young Don. Even a plan to have Brando make an appearance in the final scene of the film, arriving for a birthday party, fell through. Most accounts credit Brando's compensation demands as the ultimate culprit in foiling any attempts to put him in the picture. To this day, Brando has never appeared in a sequel.
The Godfather was released as released on DVD in a box set with the other Godfather films from Paramount on October 8, 2002.
The strong sexuality that has been a part of many films in Brando's career took front and center in his next two projects. In 1973, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci cast the actor as Paul, an American expatriate, in Last Tango in Paris. Following the suicide of his wife, Paul initiates a torrid, violent love affair with a young Parisian played by Maria Schneider. The X-rated film was banned in several countries, and although roundly lambasted for bringing raw sexuality into the mainstream, caused a worldwide sensation. Amazingly, Brando netted his seventh Oscar® nomination for the role in a film that literally changed the boundaries of sexual content in mainstream motion pictures.
Drawing on his own life and the predilections of the director, Brando gave a searing portrayal of mid-life angst that still shocks its audience and remains one of the most notorious films ever made. Last Tango came in at number 48 on the AFI list, "100 Films Passions."
Last Tango in Paris was released on DVD on August 14, 2001 by MGM Home Entertainment.
Sado-masochism was a theme of Michael Winner's The Nightcomers, also from 1973, as Brando portrayed Quint in a prequel to Henry James' novel, The Turn of the Screw. His character and the nanny, played by Stephanie Beacham, have already died in the novel and the film attempts to realize the implied perversions that have affected a pair of children. The film features scenes of rape, cruelty, incest, and is quite distasteful all around. Brando's performance is potent but difficult to like in any sense.
The Nightcomers is not yet available on DVD.
With a trip back to his method of the previous decade, Brando signed to make The Missouri Breaks in 1976. Francis Ford Coppola had tried to convince him to reprise his role as Don Corleone in the second Godfather film and supposedly negotiations continued up until the day scheduled to shoot his short cameo. In the end, the film was made without him and he instead opted to make another Western, directed by Arthur Penn, written by novelist Thomas McGuane and co-starring Jack Nicholson. The supporting cast included such strong performers as Frederic Forrest, Harry Dean Stanton and Randy Quaid. As Robert E. Lee Clayton, Brando found himself portraying a Tom Horn-type gunman (often referred to as a "dry-gulcher" for a tendency to kill from a distance), hired by cattle ranchers to eliminate rustlers. Nicholson is one of the leaders of the horse thieves and, as this "regulator" begins to kill his companions, he finds himself in a kill or be killed situation.
There are some extremely effective scenes in this long film, especially a confrontation between the two stars as Brando lounges in a bathtub and coolly offers his back to Nicholson to shoot. Nicholson, unable to shoot a man in the back, instead shoots holes in the tub. Brando makes some eccentric acting choices in this role. For example, he speaks in a broad brogue that lies somewhere between Ireland and England and at one point dresses up in a granny dress and sunbonnet to dispatch one of the gang's members. Similar to his work of the 1960s, here was a great director, great cast, great writer, an eccentric Brando performance—and a box office failure. But, as is similar to other Brando movies, the subject matter is less than sympathetic; there is little that is heroic about this film.
The Missouri Breaks is not available on DVD.
The trade papers again were agog as Brando signed a contract in 1977 to portray Superman's father, Jor-El, in a 10-minute sequence for a reported four million dollars. Superman: The Movie was a very successful film, virtually founding the current blockbuster comic book superhero genre, and Brando's performance is memorable, if not one of his most challenging. Fixing his incredibly expressive face with a look of haughty boredom, he intones the pretentious arguments of Jor-El with a deadly earnestness that makes his fellow actors look positively elastic. This film marked a period in which producers seemed willing to provide outrageous fees to lure Brando into cameos and provoke headlines to promote the film, this perhaps being ultimately cheaper than a McDonald's tie-in. Any rumors that Brando was being considered for a film instead evoked press speculations at the size of his fee. Later, following his appearance in The Brave, it was erroneously reported that Brando had received 10 million dollars for his part in this small independent film.
Superman: The Movie was released in a Special Edition DVD on May 1, 2001.
In that era of his outrageous paydays, Brando provided yet another surprise to his fans with an unexpected turn as American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell in the television mini-series Roots: The Next Generations. His performance in a scene with James Earl Jones as Alex Haley is positively chilling and netted Brando an Emmy® for Best Supporting Actor.
Roots: The Next Generations is not available on DVD.
Apparently Francis Coppola held no grudges for the Godfather Part II disagreements because he gave Brando the role of the mysterious Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Brando's performance split the critics into those who hated it some, and those who hated it completely. Very few actors could have pulled off this role and whatever one might think of his performance, it must be admitted that it is unforgettable. Rumor was that the DVD would contain extended audio sections of his monologues and Brando fans were trembling in anticipation. This was not to be. As Kurtz, Brando appeared in the final third of the film and few performances have forced more critics to get out their thesaurus to search for new words that meant "incomprehensible" and "muddled." Coppola had extreme production difficulties on the film, even before Brando's involvement and then was stuck with the difficulties of how to end the film. The jury is still out on whether the movie ever really ended. There is an amusing scene in which Kurtz asks his assassin, Capt Willard (played by Martin Sheen), if the latter disapproved of his methods. Willard replies, "I don't see any method at all."
The fact remains that few actors have the gravitas to portray a character like Kurtz, whose presence looms over the entire action of the film and then must be confronted in the conclusion.
Apocalypse Now! was released on DVD in a new version with added footage, retitled Apocalypse Now! Redux by Paramount Studios on November 20, 2001.
Another high-priced supporting role came Brando's way in The Formula. This thriller is a confusingly plotted "hunting down the post-War Nazis" film, but Brando's performance is as sly as co-star George C. Scott's is straightforward. In these types of roles, Scott always resembles a bantam rooster and he is up for the challenge of acting with Brando, despite reports of some friction on the set. Scott seems to show a certain emphasis when in one scene his character says that "If not for my son, who loves me, I would blow your brains all over those venetian blinds." Brando played a cynical industrialist and really seems to be making up his dialogue as he goes, at one point offering Scott a Milk Dud in an odd non sequitur. The rumors were that he was not bothering to memorize his lines and instead was prompted by an assistant over a radio receiver that doubled as his character's hearing aid. The story emerged that his current theory of acting was that by not knowing his lines and then being given them right before saying them, he was able to maintain a spontaneity that memorizing lines did not allow. Of course, this theory might be more believable if he had not been known for reading his lines from cue cards cunning concealed around the sets of his movies (including a legendary incident from Last Tango where his line was allegedly scrawled on Maria Schneider's behind).
The Formula is not available on DVD.
On a more positive note, the decade ended with 1989's A Dry White Season, which earned Brando his eighth Academy Award® nomination, this time for Best Supporting Actor. He chews up the scenery as an impassioned liberal lawyer in South Africa battling the unjust Apartheid system. Mostly, the film features a stoic Donald Sutherland, but in the courtroom scenes, Brando is electric in his denunciations of the law in South Africa.
A Dry White Season is not available on DVD.
In a move certain to have set the teeth of his old enemies at Paramount on edge, Brando mined the sacred territory of The Godfather to create a lighthearted parody of the gloomy Don, dubbed Carmine Sabbatini, for the The Freshman. This performance won many kudos for its charm, including a lovely ice-skating sequence. The central plot line featured Matthew Broderick as a film student, looking for a job, who through some misadventures becomes involved with a man who instantly reminds him of a certain film Mafia boss he had been studying in film class.
The story overall is a quite silly, but harmlessly diverting comedy. Brando lent a hand to the publicity department by condemning the film at its release, which led to a flurry of press reports.
The Freshman was released on DVD by Columbia Pictures on January 25, 2001.
The press had a particular field day with Brando in the early Nineties when his son Christian was convicted of manslaughter in the shooting death of the boyfriend of his troubled sister, Cheyenne. Brando testified at the trial and the whole matter was tabloid fodder for months including, ultimately, the suicide of Cheyenne in Tahiti.
1992's Christopher Columbus: The Discovery prompted Roger Ebert to write: "As Torquemada, the inquisitor, Brando sulks about the set looking moody and delivering his lines with the absolute minimum of energy necessary to be audible. He's phoned in roles before, but this was the first time I wanted to hang up." This is one movie that was D.O.A. at the theater with absurdity following on the ridiculous. Amazingly, Godfather (and Superman) writer Mario Puzo scripted this turkey along with John Briley of Gandhi fame. This is perhaps the one film with Marlon Brando in the cast that is virtually unwatchable and unendurable. Reportedly, Brando earned five million dollars for about 10 total minutes of screen time.
Christopher Columbus: The Discovery is not available on DVD.
His next film featured the actor's first starring role in a decade and his first romantic comedy in nearly thirty years. With its lighthearted air, Don Juan DeMarco is unique in the Brando canon because there is not another film in his entire career that I could say is in this genre, and was also critically well-received and successful at the box office. The movie is a bit of fluff and Brando seems to have a lot of fun. His acting with Faye Dunaway is engaging and it is nice to see him with a female actor that he seems to have respect for and enjoy performing with. Don Juan DeMarco certainly contains more smiles and jokes than any other Brando film.
Don Juan DeMarco was released on DVD by New Line Home Video on February 24, 1998.
The Island of Dr. Moreau, from 1996, is significant for netting Brando his first Razzie win in his third nomination for their Worst Supporting Actor and, intriguingly, his first for being part of the Worst Screen Couple shared with "that darn dwarf." As the evil geneticist Moreau in a somewhat updated version of the Jules Verne novel, Brando gives an over-the-top performance that seems to exceed all propriety and expectations. Co-star Val Kilmer adds to the strangeness with a Brando impersonation toward the end of the film. The movie is literally horrifying for its strangeness and it seems completely inexplicable that John Frankenheimer directed this cartoonish survey of weirdness. But, it is mesmerizing in its awfulness, like salting snails. Dr. Moreau, as portrayed by Brando, is the inspiration for the geneticist Mephesto in the cartoon series South Park, known for having made the amazing four- and five-assed monkeys.
The Island of Dr. Moreau was released on DVD by New Line Home Video on March 5, 2002.
In 1997, Brando joined the cast of The Brave, directed by and starring his new friend, Johnny Depp. The film has received mostly negative reviews and has been rarely seen in this country. Depp plays a Native American who, to save his family, sells his own life as a victim in a snuff film. Brando has been accorded decent reviews for his performance but the film seems destined to be an odd side note to his career.
The Brave has not been released on DVD.
A couple of years ago, my brother told me that he had seen this movie on one of the premium TV channels called Free Money that featured Charlie Sheen, Thomas Haden Church, Donald Sutherland and starred Marlon Brando as a prison warden called The Swede. He described the plot that included Sheen and Church marrying Brando's twin daughters and then told me some of the wacky things that happen from there on, including an incredible scene where Brando is seen up-side down with his head in a toilet. I called him a liar and insisted that he must surely be putting me on.... Nope, it's true. It's on DVD. How could I possibly spoil any other moment in this film for any potential viewer?
Free Money was released on DVD by Sterling on April 9, 2001.
Brando's most recent film, The Score, was directed by Frank Oz and starred Robert DeNiro and Edward Norton. Released in 2001, the film received generally good reviews and Brando's supporting performance, typically eccentric, was also noted for being quite affective as a gay fence in the elaborate heist drama. Entertainment Weekly, referred to Brando's character as "seeming to be a cross between an elf and Truman Capote." Plenty of press emerged about Brando's behavior on the set and his contempt for the director. One press flash claimed the actor appeared in one scene with no pants on so that he must be shot from the waist up.
The Score did respectably at the box office and was a popular rental as a DVD release. One of the extras included on the disc worthy of note to Brando fans is a short sequence of the actor improvising a scene with Robert DeNiro in several differing takes.
The Score was released on DVD by Paramount Studios on December 11, 2001.
Also in 2001, it was announced that Brando had accepted a cameo in the schlock-shocker comedy Scary Movie II for two million dollars. However, a bout with pneumonia forced him to decline the role and James Woods got the gig. Recently, Brando participated in an all-star concert given by his friend Michael Jackson and did not exactly receive a warm welcome from the Gloved One's fans. He has also appeared in a Jackson video.
It is not yet possible to count Brando out as an actor, because he has bounced back so many times in his career to delight his fans and confound his critics. Certainly the twin difficulties of the actor's weight and his celebrated eccentricity on a movie set have conspired to limit his potential roles. There had been some rumors in 2001 of Brando appearing in a project directed by Sean Penn, Autumn of the Patriarch, based upon Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel about an aging Latin American dictator. But an acting strike delayed production and there is no longer any mention of the film on the Internet Movie Database.
Earlier this year there was a spate of articles about the bizarre spectacle of Brando organizing acting workshops featuring some of his well-known friends that would result in a video called Lying for a Living. Some rumors floating from the sessions mentioned a dustup about filmmaker Tony Kaye dressing as Osama Bin Laden, Brando conducting a session dressed as a woman and Sean Penn was quoted about one of the odd types who were picked to accept tuition, "On the day of the first class he [Brando] got one guy involved who was going through a garbage bin behind the studio. He got him started in the class, and the guy showed up on time the next day."
In April of 2002, Rolling Stone published an article by a former employee of Brando, Jod Kaftan, called The Oddfather that describes the editing of some of the footage from the workshops and other aspects of Brando's life. Ultimately the video is to be sold from a web site, marlonbrando.com, but as of this writing the site is not yet live.
Marlon Brando has made 15 films since his comeback with The Godfather and they represent a mixed bag of style and quality. A larger percentage of these later films are available on DVD than in the previous sections of his career, with nine available in a DVD release. This brings Brando's total to 39 films in over 50 years and a little over one-third have been transferred to DVD.