The Successful Gesture

How Marlon Brando kept it real


in Pop Studies


There’s a line in The Great Gatsby that took me by surprise when I first read it in high school, and I’ve been puzzling over it ever since. Early on, the fictional narrator Nick Carraway is thinking about what makes Gatsby special. He wonders “if personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures” which seemed at first blush like a strange thing to say. Isn’t personality supposed to be something more than a mere gesture? Aren’t gestures, a form of non-verbal communication, supposed to convey aspects of one’s personality in the first place? The phrase eluded me for a while until I thought of it as describing what it might be like to be an actor — and, of course, Gatsby was always playing a role of his own invention — which is about constantly making successful gestures, which ultimately add up to creating a genuine personality, albeit fictional.  

Nick goes on to describe this tragic, glamorous friend: “There was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes a thousand miles away.”  It’s not a bad description of the legendary actor Marlon Brando, who was born 100 years ago today. That heightened sensitivity is a part of what made Brando into such an icon and why his charm still captivates audiences all these years later. His crackling authenticity can tell this intensely self-conscious age something about what keeping it real really means.

Even if he had never made any, Brando’s life would have been the ideal fodder for a movie. A strikingly handsome, charismatic, unruly Midwestern kid arrives in artistically bustling postwar New York City and enrolls at the legendary Actor’s Studio. Acting, William Mann wrote about Brando in his biography The Contender, is the only thing he’s ever been good at. At first, he’s all mumbles and slouches and fists jammed in his pockets, dragging loads of psychic baggage courtesy of two alcoholic parents (Dad is harsh and abusive while Mom is poetic and vulnerable) behind him, which means that his moods can vary from utterly charming to violent at a moment’s notice.  

What he learns at the feet of Stella Adler, the renowned actress and teacher at the Actor’s Studio, is that acting is not about you. If she had simply ordered him to think about his Daddy issues to help him get into character, it would have been too much, and he would have probably screamed and sulked off into oblivion. Instead, she instructs him in the profound truth that, “Everyone is acting every day.”  

We are all performing ourselves daily, aren’t we, which is not to suggest that we’re all being fake or contrived. Far from it. If you want to unveil what is inside to come to light, first you must learn how to reshape the incoherent mass of feelings into a tangible shape. You need a successful gesture that will finally express what you’re trying to say, what you deeply feel, and what you need others to understand. Performance done well is truth, which requires imagination, reflection, and craft. In a word, art.  

In many cases, actors treat dialogue like it’s sacred and must be strictly adhered to. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes if the writing is that good, like in Shakespeare or in the ratatat rhythms of screwball comedy, make the text your guide and you’re golden. In contrast, Brando would essentially rewrite his lines so they felt natural to him, with all the awkward pauses and mumbles and half-starts that come with everyday conversation, where we’re always groping for the right thing to say. This made his characters real in a rare way; Brando was a revelation for his generation of actors. No less than Jack Nicholson said that Brando “gave us our freedom.”  

Ironically, the more intensely private Brando tried to hide his inner self through his characters, the more it came roaring out. As Oscar Wilde said, give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth. During his early days, Brando’s large emotions could shake the back rows of a theater with a primal caterwaul — the highlight of an otherwise forgotten play, a moment which people still talk about years later. Those early roles scored him the part of the prowling, sweaty, seductive Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning A Streetcar Named Desire. Brando’s is still the definitive interpretation of the role, and the play’s success launched him from Broadway to Hollywood.  

The great playwright Williams was always fascinated with the various dangers that desire brings, and young Brando fit that bill perfectly. The torn T-shirt, his swagger, his wide grin, and the way he effortlessly dominates the space around him all helped to make the brooding Brando a symbol of antihero masculinity. Jack Kerouac wanted him to play the movie version of himself in On The Road and wrote an appreciative essay hailing a fellow free spirit against ’50s conformity. Brando’s raw but exquisite naturalism registered the vibrations of a mid-century cultural shift.  

In The Wild One, the movie’s stern opening warning about the dangers of hooliganism is amusingly undermined by how the camera clearly adores its leather-clad biker antihero Johnny and doesn’t even try to ignore his sex appeal. In all that leather he comes off as rather campy, something that the sometimes double-exposed Andy Warhol silkscreens of him in that ultra-butch role subversively noticed. It’s worth noting that contrary to his macho vibe, in real life Brando was perfectly comfortable with his bisexuality. If the public had known that such a masculine icon was having sex with other men it might have freaked them out more than his rebel charisma already did.    

Sure, Brando could be wildly self-indulgent at times. Some of his movies are complete wastes of time because directors just let him do whatever random thing popped into his head. Yet at his best, Brando transcended adolescent impulsiveness. He used his natural eccentricity to fuel his imagination, and that only enriched the characters he created. For example, his unwillingness to learn his lines during The Godfather brilliantly enhanced the depiction of Don Corleone, since the Don’s meandering phrases and verbal drifting are appropriate for an old man who spent his life between two different countries and who has been through it all only to find his best intentions slipping away.  

Or take Apocalypse Now, a movie conceived and finished in complete chaos that still somehow casts its mesmerizing spell. Brando showed up to the notoriously anarchic shoot late and very overweight and refused to learn his lines as Colonel Kurtz, who had gone mad with his own power. Instead, he sat around bullshitting with Francis Ford Coppola for hours on a houseboat about God knows what. And yet his short scenes are absolutely riveting every time I’ve seen them, which is a lot. I’ve observed different audiences watch his spaced-out monologues about death and fear and judgment and whatever else with rapt attention. Some have even argued that Kurtz is the only one who truly understands what’s going on in the jungle.  

As tough as he was, Brando’s secret weapon was a profound sense of delicacy. You don’t want to get on his bad side, but you can always sense his carefully guarded tenderness. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review of Streetcar: “He’s a man, but not a clod, and in one scene, while he’s sweet-talking his wife, Stella, he absent-mindedly picks a tiny piece of lint from her sweater.” He does something similar with the girl he’s shyly courting in On the Waterfront. When she drops her glove and he caresses it, tries it on, and absently plucks at it like a flower petal while they talk. Brando brings a hidden delicacy that deconstructs his roughneck persona, suggesting a deep reserve of sensitivity. That complexity made his character more human.  

Much has been made of the famous “I coulda been a contender” scene in On the Waterfront, which was maybe his greatest role. It’s not just that classic line that makes the scene work, it’s the quiet way he responds to the moment when his frustrated brother pulls a gun on him and demands that he take the hush money. Critics have commented that Brando doesn’t let his otherwise brutish character freak out. He doesn’t yell or respond violently. Instead, he quietly looks his cowardly brother in the eye and says, “Oh, Charlie” with infinite resignation at the disappointment in how low his older brother has sunk. When he gently pushes the gun away, it’s so graceful and subtle and full of feeling at a loved one’s betrayal, which in real life Brando happened to know a thing or two about.        

In our age of constant oversharing, one unique aspect of Brando’s approach to acting is that even though he could certainly be explosive, it seemed like it was coming from a place of real anguish; he paradoxically always seemed to be holding something back. Even when he let himself go, there was more of himself left over that he either didn’t or couldn’t say. As much as Brando gave himself on screen, he kept plenty of emotion in reserve, which naturally only makes him only more intriguing.   

Brando’s nonchalant attitude towards the public is not one that we see very much in Hollywood – or in Washington, D.C. Careerism is the order of the day. Seemingly everyone is trying to figure out how to get rich and/or famous, preferably with as little friction as possible. Reality TV has always been chockablock with people trying to figure out the next outrageous thing they can do to raise their own profile and keep those eyes glued to the screen. So, the expensive drinks get hurled in people’s faces, the hair gets yanked, the messy brawls erupt in restaurants and sound stages. What’s worse, the political world has adapted the style and tone of reality TV, and now we have people with actual power behaving like reality show contestants.  

Today, everyone’s seemingly in show biz, in one way or another. Or trying to “build their brand” in various ways. It’s pretty much expected in a market economy. Hence the incessant posing and preening on social media, the courting of controversy for its own sake, the exultation of the self in the hopes of attracting a following. A lot of empty gestures. The real question for actors should be: Where’s the art? What are you really bringing to the audiences you’re courting? Perhaps the mark of true quality is to never be satisfied with oneself, to never feel like you’ve reached the ideal, to always be gesturing towards the murkier depths of the self, a place where things are neither pretty, easy, or comfortable. Not easily marketable, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing.    

Eventually, Brando became disillusioned with acting, trashed the line of work in bizarre interviews, explained that he was bored with the whole thing, and denigrated it as the lowest occupation there is, suitably only for phonies. Which is protesting too much. He was probably mostly motivated by his own tediousness and his genuine hatred of being famous. He shared that sentiment with other countercultural heroes, people who might have been ok with being popular but never desperately sought the spotlight, wisely valuing privacy and authenticity.  

Maybe this is the mark of someone with the right priorities, who isn’t in it for attention, or glory, or to have their name on everyone’s lips. One refrain I keep hearing these days, both on social media and in real life, is people complaining they aren’t as popular as they’d like to be. Maybe in some way people take that attention for granted, assuming they are more interesting than they really are. Everyone’s the hero of their own little drama and they’re miffed at the low ratings.    

Late in life, Brando notoriously holed up on his private island in Tahiti and grew bloated on his own disdain, seeming to think of his career as a sham. He only emerged for the occasional huge payday, to appear in a Superman movie or a Michael Jackson video. When he did go out and make a movie, his performance was filled with self-parody, with mixed results at best. If the director couldn’t tell the difference between a heartfelt performance and great technique, then he didn’t owe them his best work. I don’t think that his rejection of the mainstream was entirely motivated by noble intentions. He just didn’t care — Brando brought fart machines to the set.     

His stunt at the 1972 Oscars, sending an indigenous people’s activist named Sasheen Littlefeather to accept his award for The Godfather and condemning Hollywood’s portrayal of her people, might have come from good intentions but didn’t really do much other than infuriate John Wayne and liven up the routine back-patting of an awards show. Throughout his career Brando felt that movies were worth very little compared to the power of political activism, which he enthusiastically engaged in throughout his life, stridently advocating for civil rights when it wasn’t a career booster.    

I recently saw a snippet of his 1989 interview with journalist Connie Chung where she earnestly says to him that he’s considered the greatest actor of all time. He rolls his eyes and says that this is “part of the sickness of America.” It’s clear what he means: Why does it always have to be a competition? What does that sickness even mean, anyway? One could argue that it might be easy for Brando of all people to say, given how much he had accomplished and how indifferent he had become to the outside world.  

But maybe that eyeroll is the voice of experience. That’s none other than Marlon Brando shrugging off the all-American urge to compete and win a big prize. This is someone who had already made it to the top and happily left it behind. It might offer a much-needed reality check for our meretricious times. Success, money, and power won’t make you happy or heal your wounds. It’s not worth whatever amount of your soul you sell to get it. Given how much Brando had experienced, and how much of himself he was able to bring to his characters, maybe he had finally come to the realization that after you’ve spent a lifetime intensely focused on the inner theater of the self, sooner or later you won’t demand a starring role.•