I was born in 1971, the year before The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris were released, so the first film I saw featuring Marlon Brando was Superman in 1978, in which he plays Jor-El, Superman’s biological father. It was not his finest hour: according to legend, he refused to learn his lines, instead reading them off the diaper of the infant Superman before he laid him in his spiky escape cradle and blasted him off to earth.
I next caught up with Brando, the subject of Susan Mizruchi’s new biography, Brando’s Smile, in the 1990 mafia spoof The Freshman. In the film, Brando plays Carmine Sabatini, a dead ringer for Don Corleone in The Godfather. Matthew Broderick is an NYU freshman, newly arrived at Grand Central Terminal, who instantly gets caught up in a mob plot to illegally import a komodo dragon. Everyone who meets Sabatini is struck by the resemblance to Don Corleone, but nobody tells him to his face. It is the dangerous third rail that could get you in big trouble, maybe get you killed. This struck me as an astounding role: Brando plays the real-life inspiration for the character he made famous, wielding Godfather-like power by forcing others not to notice the resemblance.
The Freshman is sometimes considered minor Brando, the sort of thing he dashed off when money was short. But it was an extreme example, a comic example, of the kind of predicament he always found himself stuck in: how to become his characters when the total surrender to character was his chief trait as an actor. Simply put, the more Brando disappeared into a role, the more he became himself, the more the film became a Brando film, his acting a tour de force bigger than anything else on screen. This was the trap he set for himself with his great films of the 1950s, A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, where his performances are so convincing as to seem menacingly, dangerously “real.”
As Stanley Kowalski and Terry Malloy, Brando seems on the verge of unleashing actual, not performed, violence, the way Junius Booth, the Shakespearean actor who is best known as the father of John Wilkes Booth, used to terrify his fellow actors on the stage. According to the historian David Reynolds, Booth, playing Richard III, “many times…pursued the terrified Richmond of the evening clear out of the theater and into the streets.” The threat with Brando was that, in a movie, reality might suddenly break out. The Freshman gave a later version of this problem: a “real” guy, Broderick, finds himself with a “real” Corleone, and spends the whole film worrying that a movie—The Godfather, the wrong movie—will break out. Wasn’t he supposed to be in a…
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