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Apocalypse Crazy: Marlon Brando by way of Judgment Day


All this talk of an Apocalypse last month was crazy.

If you hadn’t heard, this old coot named Harold Camping, a Christian evangelist, declared May 21, 2011, to be Judgment Day. Supposedly, thousands of people around the globe believed him. On that Saturday, Harold and his kooky cohorts were hunkered in their bunkers with their cans of Campbell soups, rolls of toilet paper and iPhones. So who did they call?

Speaking of crazy, in the May issue of Vanity Fair, Mark Seal’s had a magnificent deconstruction of the meteorically unglued orbit that is Charlie Sheen. Psycho- interpreting Sheen made me feel compassion for his father Martin Sheen, who triggered memories of Marlon Brando, and it all came back to crazy.

Everyone seems to be going bonkers lately. So Brando – the original celebrity bad-boy – merits revisiting in light of the celebrity crazies our 21st-century has so far offered: our Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, certainly Mel Gibson and, of course, our tiger-blood warlock, Mr. Sheen.

In Seal’s VF piece, there's an anecdote about the elder Sheen’s notorious un-gluing while filming Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now. The film, consider a masterpiece, was plagued by lots of calamitous production mojo, including Brando showing up in the Philippine jungle, where the movie was shot, so bloated Coppola had to film much of him in shadow. 

Brando as the crazy man-boy with the don't-give-a-fuck attitude found its zenith in the 1970s, particularly during the filming of Coppola's movie. But let’s go back a bit.

The early Brando was an actor of meteoric talent. Multiple Oscar-winning director Elia Kazan, who directed Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, once said of Marlon: “There’s BM and AM: before Marlon and after Marlon.” No actor since has so radiantly mesmerized audiences in master works like Streetcar (1951), Waterfront (1954), The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris (both 1972) and Apocalypse (1979).

Unfortunately, by the 70s, Brando had rubber stamped his reputation for kookiness: selfishly not memorizing scripts; driving directors, producers and fellow actors mad; and, for no apparent reason, affecting strange accents on film. In Stephan Kaner’s 2009 biography, Somewhere: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando, Kaner says Brando bizarrely assumed an Irish accent for the role of a Montana bounty hunter in the movie Missouri Breaks (1976). And when he showed up to film Apocalypse, “his appearance shocked everyone.” 

Brando wasn’t a sloppy boozer or heedless pill popper. Food was his thing, lots of it. He ballooned to more than 300lbs – on a 5’9” frame – by the 70s. “A vastly, overweight, compulsive figure for whom meals had become what strong drink” is for others, says Kaner. On the set of The Nightcomers (1971), the prequel to Henry James' classic "Turn of the Screw," the director, Michael Winner, "set aside a dining room just for Marlon."

By today's standards, Brando could definitely be strange. In comparison, however, his crazy was primarily hidden from public scrutiny. He was never on tape for (allegedly) stealing jewelry. He never collected DUIs. He didn't shave his head or have repeated emergency room run-ins. He was never on record for spewing to cops, "Fucking Jews...the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." Followed by, "What are you looking at, sugar tits?" And Brando never proclaimed to a gazillion TV viewers, “I’m bi-winning.”

No, Brando was a rarity. If he was an enigma, he loosely knotted it in an obvious pun. There was a Brando joke there somewhere, but it was on us. As oddball and baffling as he could be, Brando was the real deal. His convictions were sincere. He took public chances, social and professional, before anyone else. A pioneering and generous civil rights crusader, his blunt comments on race and ethnicity were too raw for some.

But if he spoke his mind, and sounded crazy, he never suffered penance. Before video, the Internet and the Sober Valley Lodge, Brando never back-pedaled, never plead mea culpa or 12-stepped (though he could certainly have used OA).

Like his 21st-century wannabes, Brando depended on the public for praise and paychecks. Yet, unlike his contemporaries, he hated the limelight, loathed the media. Tectonically talented and ridiculously recluse, his tabloid image – erratic behavior, troubled family, obesity – unfortunately, overshadowed his monumental gifts to American cinema by time he died in 2004, at the age of 80.

Webster’s defines crazy as unsound, crooked, askew, mad, insane, as in: Gee, he's been acting kind of crazy lately. And when “he” is, we all love to watch. Greek tragedy, after all, is based on human suffering that offers its audience pleasure. Sadly, though, behind every crazy act and crazy person is but a bucket of pain.

In Kaner’s book, fellow actor Maureen Stapleton says, “Marlon, oh man, you want to talk about pain?” Kaner adds, “The anguish that showed in so many of Marlon’s performances was earned, not imitated."

I’m not sure whether we see this type of “earned” performances yet in our Britneys, Lyndsays, Mels or Charlies. Maybe they're in pain too? If not, each has imitated Oscar-winning spectacles.

Truth is crazy is a relative term. We all act a bit askew at times. Even poor Mr. Camping, the Judgment Day evangelist, for whom crazy must be a permanent vocation. That Apocalypse never hit. I guess I can stop stocking up on cans of Campbell's.

By David R. Gately