Brando began to let his burgeoning flab fan out and permit his bent for goofiness to run amok in the sour satiric Western The Missouri Breaks (1975). How remarkable to see a movie in which Jack Nicholson is the underactor. And Brando's put-on gravitas in Superman (1978) set the pattern for decades of highly-paid cameo appearances.
The Godfather. Kurtz, the madman who's carved out his own kingdom in the Cambodian jungle during the Vietnam War, is seen in half-light and heard in half-whispers. Brando's bulbous chieftain doesn't lay down the law -- he waxes poetic and pontificates. Trying to arrive at a concept of Kurtz that would fit Brando's newly bloated heroic presence, Coppola and his star make him Christ and satyr, martyr and Manson.
In one speech approaching lucidity, Kurtz tries to explain himself to the assassin Willard (Martin Sheen): "It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies." It's hard to resist feeling that you're in the presence of something profound, or at least deep, or in the very least meaningful. In movies, as in physics, the bigger the vacuum, the more power it has to suck you in.
Although a new scene in Apocalypse Now Redux adds political context to Kurtz's rebellion, the rest of the restored footage doesn't do anything to augment Kurtz's character. The movie and Brando's performance remain hybrids of lunging artistry, undigested content and untrammeled ambition.
If Brando has gone in and out of focus ever since Apocalypse Now, it's not entirely his fault. Moviemakers often don't know what to do with him even after they cast him. Most recently, Frank Oz, the director of the hollow 2001 heist film The Score, lamented that he tried to challenge Brando instead of listening to him -- and the result is listless.
I was lucky enough to see an early preview cut of A Dry White Season (1989), Euzhan Palcy's adaptation of Andre Brink's tale of two families -- one black, one white -- destroyed by apartheid. Apart from the eloquent presence of such phenomenal black South African actors as Zakes Mokae, the movie's one oasis of artistry was Brando's performance as a super-smart, world-weary barrister who attempts to expose apartheid's outrages in court.
Ultimately, the moviemakers cut down Brando's role to extended-cameo length. But even in truncated form, Brando's performance is still enormously effective. He oozes the sardonicism a brilliant man would have to cultivate in order to survive in a system that he hates. He uses his bulk to create a character who's carved out his own imposing space in a racist society.
In the very next year, 1990, Brando gave a scintillating comic performance in Andrew Bergman's best movie, The Freshman. It has one of those moments that sends a thrill up the spines of moviegoers: the sight of Brando, as an Italian mobster named Carmine Sabatini, skating across a rink like an improbably graceful ice boat. Brando performs with prodigious brio. The context is satirical, but what the actor delivers isn't self-parody, or even parody. He transforms the tragic ironies of Don Vito Corleone into the inspired comic ironies of an adventurous criminal entrepreneur. As Don Carmine Sabatini, Brando is a sport. He doesn't just provide ripe sentiment and ominous gestures; he also exudes an infectious gaiety. Sabatini has a violent edge. Yet the way writer-director Bergman shapes his whirligig plot, Sabatini stands for everything affirmative about urban life, from community and tradition to catalytic energy. And Brando's performance floats through it like a gorgeous hot-air balloon.
The next time we see Brando, it may be in an instructional acting video he is producing called Lying for a Living. Brando has already taped Sean Penn, Nick Nolte and Jon Voight improvising with nonactors for this video. Penn told Talk magazine: "On the day of the first class he 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."
The intersection of raw reality and superb training reflects Brando's own expansive aesthetic. He calls what he does lying for a living. But he's actually turned movie acting into the art of telling the truth.
A Streetcar Named Desire: The Original Director's Version
(1951, Elia Kazan, director) Full screen; B&W, Dolby Digital 1.0 (mono). Warner.
The Wild One
(1954, Laszlo Benedek) Full screen; B&W, Dolby Digital 2.0 (mono). Columbia Tristar.