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'Brando' shows us what a ferocious contender he was

Imagine Marlon Brando in his Mark Antony toga from Julius Caesar, astride the worlds of classical and modern acting like the Colossus of Rhodes. And then re-imagine him magnificent in ruins, still inspiring generations of actors with his emotional and imaginative reach, despite decades of paycheck performances and a personal life that would challenge the erotic powers of Henry Miller and the tragic breadth of Theodore Dreiser.

Brando emerges in a spellbinding two-part documentary Brando, making its premiere Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m. on Turner Classic Movies, as an alternately noble and self-indulgent personality who was nonetheless a Wonder of the World. It's the rare documentary that does equal justice to artistic divinity and mortal frailty.

Mimi Freedman, who wrote and produced it with a devastating combination of sensitivity and panache, never treats mere psychological trauma as Brando's godhead. For this portrait of the actor's actor she relies heavily - and wisely - on his colleagues, who reward her with a cavalcade of insights about Brando's craft.

Martin Scorsese says Brando was "the marker": As far as screen performing goes there is "before Brando and after Brando." Yet no matter how celebrity chafed him, Brando was a movie star in the time-honored sense - for a decade, the biggest movie star in the world.

Like embodiments of old-school machismo, such as Clark Gable, or postwar cynicism, such as Kirk Douglas, he had a solid star persona.

Nonetheless, Brando felt brand new. He was an instinctive revolutionary. He spoke for everyone from pent-up suburban teens to future Black Panthers when, in The Wild One, he replied to "What are you rebelling against?" with "What have you got?"

In an era when many American kids thought they were "growing up absurd," he grew up a madcap in Omaha, Neb., and Libertyville, Ill., with two older sisters, a harsh, womanizing father and a theater-loving mother who drowned her fading hopes of happiness in drink. (She gave Henry Fonda his stage break at the Omaha Playhouse.) From early childhood, Brando flouted authority and made his life up as he went along.

George Englund, his sometime best buddy, says Brando hated acting because he started ÀôÀ doing it from desperation as a little boy, impersonating farm animals and neighbors to shake his mom from her alcoholic daze. (As a kid he felt abandoned twice, first because of his mother's emotional absence and second because a beloved live-in nurse abruptly left the Brandos to get married.)

But Brando turned a Freudian whirlpool into a bubbling warlock's caldron of dramatic resources.

He had the help of brilliant teachers in the New York stage world, including Stella Adler and her critic-director husband, Harold Clurman, and Elia Kazan, his sublime collaborator on the stage and screen versions of A Streetcar Named Desire as well as the movies Viva Zapata! and On the Waterfront.

On his own, Brando would transform his existential survival skills into an ability to seduce and manipulate lovers, collaborators and friends, including filmmakers who sometimes wrongly thought they controlled his movie sets.

Brando mixes interviews with newsreel and archival footage including appearances on Edward R. Murrow's Person To Person and The Ed Sullivan Show, film clips, and even a radio broadcast featuring Brando with Jessica Tandy from A Streetcar Named Desire's Broadway cast.

It functions as both a critical biography and a prism, illuminating hidden facets of his character and genius as it pushes his life story forward.

Everyone recognizes the influence of On the Waterfront on movies like Scorsese's Raging Bull. But in Brando, Scorsese admits that Brando's underrated performance in Reflections in a Golden Eye suggested a key scene in Taxi Driver.

The astonishing minute of Brando's repressed gay Army major striking pathetic debonair and hard-guy poses before a mirror became Travis Bickle taunting himself with "You talking to me?"

Brando's fascinating foray into directing, One-Eyed Jacks, has always demonstrated his mastery of movie imagery. But in Brando, Arthur Penn says Brando's suggestion to vary the film speed during the shooting of a fight in The Chase led to Penn's breakthrough bloodbaths in Bonnie and Clyde.

Even if you think you know Brando - well, as Jeremy Irons might drawl, "You have no idea." Angie Dickinson, a sexual icon in her own right, confesses on-camera that he reduced her to jelly. (He was for decades an insatiable seducer of women.)

Maryland's own heir to Brando, Columbia-bred Edward Norton (who acted with him in The Score), hits on the actor's enigmatic force when he says Brando's lacerating honesty in Last Tango left "character" behind. But when you see Brando tremble before his true love in Waterfront or sigh over the death of Sonny in The Godfather, you realize he enters a realm of pure feeling in those movies, too, without ceasing to play a washed-up boxer or a Mafia don.

Norton and other superbly eloquent performers, co-workers and pals express what made Brando a pivotal figure in acting and American culture. John Turturro points out Brando's mastery of difficult, ambivalent emotions, such as shame; James Caan analyzes the way Don Vito caresses his pet cat without looking at it, conveying sensuality yet refusing to let the animal take over the scene.

Together, they don't pin him down. They encompass him.

Michael Winner, who directed Brando in the Henry James pastiche The Nightcomers, puts his impact pithily: "Before Brando, actors acted. After Brando, they behaved."

Kazan, in a 1995 interview, says Brando had everything that he wanted from an actor: passion and turmoil. Yet Brando's catastrophic personal life became too painful for him to draw on for his art, long before his eldest son Christian shot and killed his daughter Cheyenne's lover. (Cheyenne committed suicide five years later.) At his late best, in The Freshman, he became a great comedian.

He remained a living legend to the end. And the performances that made him a movie god are ripe for rediscovery in all their flesh and blood and spirit. The final paradox of Brando is that his legacy transcends art. As Scorsese says, "It's about being human."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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