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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

HIGH CONTRAST: The New Kids



Hot new kids on the lot-- Monty Clift and Marlon Brando-- rub 
elbows while locking horns in a secret, friendly rivalry.

Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift remain steadfast representatives of the bygone era of the "Method" revolution. This cataclysmic moment of artistic realism hit the homogenized world of Hollywood-ized acting with a disruptive, destructive, and seductive violence that was perhaps the most important milestone in cinema since the advent of sound. Ironically, it would be unfair to label either Brando or Clift as a "Method actor." Clift never studied the technique and only attended a few, early classes by invitation after he'd already had success in The Search. Brando did study the method thoroughly, but-- ever the humble fellow-- claimed to have invented his style himself and too asserted that instructor Lee Strasberg had merely taken the credit. Both men thought that Strasberg, the originator of this new school, was a bit of a quack, and both possessed enough natural talent, bravado, and (arguably) healthy narcissism to crawl from under the stigma of being one of Lee's proteges to become their own, unique Masters of the Craft.

Whatever teacher, technique, or lack thereof that either actor claimed to have, mattered not in the end. What they delivered was an almost unnatural brand of naturalism. One sect of the population would claim that the super-reality of their performances was the beginning of cinema's ruination, for it defiled the "art" of it-- the structure of illusion or the creation of the cinematic dreamworld was to be protected at all costs! (Strangely enough, this was the same issue that many took with the innovation of the 'talkies'). This theory would assert that there must be a thick, hard line between the real and the fake, between the viewers and the product. Film was supposed to effect an audience in a painless, subconscious fashion; this overt, emotional thrust was far too dangerous. Still, the other half of the population, not surprisingly the younger half, went ga-ga over their new Demigods. The fact that the movies had become real seemed like the final consummation of the initial promise of the movies themselves: art imitating life without appearing as imitation. The lie became true, and the male engines that could and did deliver this devout honesty would find themselves in a life-long battle of respect and rivalry-- envy and one-up-manship. The audience was just glad to sit back and watch.


Monty interprets the internalized, tormented American rebel in 
A Place in the Sun.

Bonus points, of course, are awarded to Clift for getting there first, yet the brash vitality of Brando has made his impression much more memorably poignant. Even today, when men come to Hollywood in search of their own artistic yearnings, it is the name of "Brando" that they speak. Clift is more of an afterthought or a later found gem. The reasons for this distinction are multifarious, but the most obvious place to start is in the men themselves. To borrow an analogy, Marlon was the "bull," and Monty was the "China shop." On the surface, these men couldn't have been more different, despite the fact that both were born in Omaha, NE. Clift was slightly senior, raised by a banker turned insurance salesman and an ambitious mother who had her eyes fixed on penetrating the social set. Monty was raised to believe that he was a first-class aristocrat, despite the family's occasional financial downfalls. He was nourished both artistically and intellectually, and behaved always with impeccable manners and the regal poise of a prince. Brando, on the other hand, while equally the son of a less polished businessman, was under-educated in the art of decorum. His family didn't wear a cloak of facade. A born rebel who was expelled from school, he preferred being an outcast to being, what he would consider, a pretentious monarch. He wore torn shirts, mussed hair, and seemed Hell-bent on disturbing the Hell out of people for the mere Hell of it. Though sprouted from essentially the same seed,  both Clift and Brando grew in vastly different directions and presented themselves with marked distinction. On the outside, one could easily say that Monty at least appeared to be the boy every mother hoped her daughter would marry, and Marlon was the boy all fathers feared. Monty would be invited in for tea; Marlon would be chased off the lawn with a shot gun.

Their manner, which invested itself particularly in their work, is definitely worth discussing. Both were instinctual men, prone to uncanny mimicry, and masters of observation. The way their talents manifested themselves was a product of their naturally different personalities. Clift was the intellectual, tearing everything apart in his mind and painstakingly putting it back together again to create a fully formed, perfectly natural character. He led with his mind. Brando led with his guts. He would simply step inside the character and wear him out. His being is much more physically dominant than Clift's. His characterizations, therefore, appear almost haphazard, as if he is figuring them out on the spot. He is always infinitely more interesting than the person he is creating, even in his most iconic performances. His raw, unapologetic interpretations were more intriguing to audiences, and even Clift saw this, admitting that Brando "connects better with his audiences." In this respect, Clift's calculation and perfectionism worked against him; he put the work before himself. Brando, no matter how great his performance, seemed to carry a sense of resentment for the work-- he didn't need it. He was just doing it because, whatever...


Marlon represents the animalistic, unapologetic American rebel
in On the Waterfront.

This made Brando fascinating, but it offered him fewer acting opportunities. Roles had to be tailored to his specific, male-animal type, whereas Clift could more easily conform to any role that tempted him. The most specific distinction could be that Clift cared, and Brando at least acted like he didn't. Monty sold his soul to his craft, and his determination and focus constantly stressed and tormented him. His resulting performances always came off flawlessly due to this diligence, but his acting seemed to alluringly creep up on his audiences because of his understated specificity. The camera had to search for him, and only after he was found did it realize how much it had wanted him in the first place. Thus, he let the audience find the story and him within it. Not so with Brando. His craft remained a sacrosanct secret. He didn't think too hard, or try too hard-- or so he claimed. He just did. As such, the camera grips him from the moment he hits the screen and never lets go. Of course, both men possessed pieces of each other, though in different proportions. The acting yin and yang, they served as perfect compliments to each other in their field, and offered audiences their personal preference of the modern man: class or crass. One could use an analogy of the men's acting by viewing them as lovers, which is fitting, since acting was probably their number one love in life anyway. Monty would woo the role, fall in love with it, endure all the fascinations and pangs of it, and wring himself dry on it, before leaving brokenhearted and altered after every performance. Marlon would have his way with a role, enjoy the stimulation of the carnal act, then kick it out of bed and move on to the next conquest, hungrily but dispassionately. Marlon had a better separation of himself from the role, (which is perhaps why he lived longer than the ever-conflicted Monty).

While both had their ups and downs in their careers in terms of critical approval and box-office, Clift would arguably appear to be the victor. He was so careful about the roles he chose and such a hard worker in each performance he made that, more often than not, even if the picture was a dud, he was still raved over. His career took a certain dive after his car accident, for his lack of a handsome face in a very superficial industry certainly crippled his early advantage, but there was never a doubt about his talent. That was always present, even if at moments it flagged under exhaustion, pain, or the dilution of drugs or alcohol. Brando didn't suffer from the same chemical dependencies that dismantled Clift's early promise, yet he too had a demon that worked against him: himself. Marlon couldn't seem to take the whole acting business seriously. Perhaps a part of him felt the need to keep himself at a distance from an occupation that was never accepted as "masculine." His much more macho presentation on film would also bolster this theory, for it was the necessary machismo that he injected into his performances that made him such an exciting presence on the screen. He needed to label himself as divergent-- other. He was not a pretty boy or an aesthete. He was no "sissy." He was changing the game. Thus, when he embodied his roles, he seemed to simultaneously thumb his nose at his own audience. As such, as his career progressed, he became lazy, disinterested, or perhaps even overly narcissistic, and stopped giving as much as he had early in his career. 


Monty's sex appeal at first appears uncomplicated. With the "face of an angel,"
seduction was simple. Yet he too had a sinister inner danger that gave him an
edge and elevated his appeal. (With Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity). 

One could also state that, since Brando was an unabated personality early in his career, he failed to become a great character actor until later in his reign. Early attempts, such as in Mutiny on the Bounty, fell flat. He wouldn't obtain the same critical reception as a character actor as Clift had until he pulled off his earth-shattering performance as "Don Vito Corleone" in The Godfather. In this respect, Monty seems to be the older brother passing on life lessons to a younger brother. Brando had to mature as an artist before he was able to distinguish himself as a character actor. When he was able to marry this talent to his innate charisma and power, he pulled off his second Academy Award for The Godfather (his first being for a more Marlon-like role in On the Waterfront). This contrast makes the two actors read like Fire (Brando) and Water (Clift). Brando reacts with instantaneous physicality, which gives way to his emotion. Clift reacts with immediate intellect, which then gives way to emotion. In this respect, it was Brando who was left at a disadvantage. A humorous example can be seen in their personal lives. At one point, Brando was dating Ellen Adler and took her to a party at which Clift was also in attendance. Brando wandered off into the mix, and Ellen found herself talking to Clift, who was, of course, all charm and manner. He asked inquisitive questions, he was attentive, and he began almost accidentally seducing her out from under Brando, who, by the way, stood frothing from across the room. Finally, seeing how Monty was seamlessly putting the moves on his girl, Brando came bursting through the crowd like an angry school child whose toy had been stolen: "She's my Jew, Monty!" Whoa. With that, he grabbed Ellen's hand and stormed off. Clift just stood in his place, smiling to himself at the pushy, uncouth amateur who had made a foolish scene. Marlon still behaved sort of like a cave man, clubbing his current choice over the head and pulling her into his cave. Clift didn't even have to bend a finger; he would hypnotize and bring the women to him like moths to a flame-- though his actual preferences lay elsewhere.

Of course, Monty enjoyed indulging in this prowess, and he certainly began the aforementioned "innocent" chat with Ellen to bait his arch nemesis. The rivalry between himself and Brando is legendary if not altogether scandalous. Aside from the Ellen exchange, both men truly respected each other too much to ever let things come to blows or immature arguments. Their careers and lives too had a strange way of running parallel to each other, if not completely overlapping. Clift met Brando for the first time when he went to see the latter perform in "I Remember Mama." Later, Clift was offered the role in "The Eagle Has Two Heads," from which Brando had just been fired. After seeing the play, Clift refused the role, and actually wound up riding back to New York on the same train as Brando. The two men shared a friendly but awkward exchange on board as a result. Initially, the hot, young Brando must have seemed like a thorn in Clift's side. After Monty extricated himself from a passionate but troubled relationship with Ann Lincoln, she turned to Brando and had an affair with him as well. When Clift ended another relationship with Judy Balaban, Marlon served as the best man at her wedding to Jay Kantor. Clift too had to host a party specifically so his enamoured acting coach, Mira Rostova, could meet Brando-- though she was too shy to ever introduce herself.


Brando's sexuality was more immediately violent. He was the "bad boy"
women fantasized about being dominated by, yet he too had
enough of the hidden vulnerability women wanted to
discover, as seen in his desperate cry for Stella!!!

Although both men could at times offer up an immature aside or two regarding their rival-- Monty making fun of Marlon's singing in Guys and Dolls, Brando saying that Clift looked like he had a "mixmaster" stuck up his ass-- they enjoyed a unique and somewhat competitive friendship. When both were up for the Oscar in 1952, they went to see the other man in his competing film. Both later admitted to each other that they believed the other man deserved the award more. Despite the classic performances of both-- in A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun-- it was Bogie who would win for his performance in The African Queen, which left their battle a fortunate stalemate. With no way of choosing between these two new, compelling actors, who were simultaneously reinventing the medium, why not just give it to the old guy? Perhaps more interestingly, the two were in talks to work together in East of Eden, with Monty as "Aron" and Marlon as "Cal." The role of Cal instead went to the boy who could have been birthed from the consummation of their artistic selves: James Dean. The only time M&M would share the marquee would be in The Young Lions. As if intimidated by Monty, Marlon's performance suffered in the film, and it gave Clift a great deal of pleasure when he witnessed Brando creeping around the set, trying to secretly watch him work. Yet, Monty had confidence in his rival. When Brando's career began to stall, Monty was vocal in his support: "Marlon isn't finished yet. He's just resting up. He'll be back-- bigger than ever." Brando's great return was indeed a triumph in both The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris. Brando too revealed a rare kindness when he came to Monty prior to Lions and begged him to get himself cleaned up off drugs and booze, because he needed Monty around to keep "challenging" him: "I've hated you because I want to be better than you-- but I'm not." Sadly, that battle would be lost. It is believed that Marlon took the role of "Maj. Weldon Penderton" in Reflections in a Golden Eye in honor of Monty, who was to have starred in the film opposite Elizabeth Taylor had he not passed away so suddenly.





Pick a side

It is hard for me to even conceive of Clift and Brando as separate entities anymore, knowing the way that they both secretly worked off each other and how they separately but equally influenced the very art of film acting. Their success is a product of multiple factors, but what made them stand out and stand the test of time so well was their unique appeal and modernity-- which, in turn, is eternal. Perhaps Monty said it best:  

"I don't think either Marlon or I are imitators, which is why I guess we both respect each other."

Eccentric, they may have been. Brash, cocky, and occasionally full of sh*t, you betcha. But phonies? Never. As such, we continue to trust them in every role that they played and allow them to lead us again and again through the maze-like plots of their competing films, wherein looking for them, we continue to find ourselves. They weren't a breath of fresh air in Hollywood; they were two cataclysmic tornadoes. We haven't been so enthusiastically nor thankfully shaken up since. One doubts we will ever be fortunate enough to encounter another such storm.

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