There's no room for genius in the theater," Laurence Olivier once remarked. "It's too much trouble." He was right. For all the Sturm, Drang and general lunacy that so often attend the production of a play or film, the aim is to mobilize genial craft and polished technique to make something that's easy for producers to budget and schedule, something that clutches the audience's heart but does not send it spiraling into cardiac arrest.
For an important time in his life--and ours--Marlon Brando was touched by genius, by which we mean that he did things in his art that were unprecedented, unduplicable and, finally, inexplicable. And sure enough, for a much longer time, he was "too much trouble" for everyone to bear--including, possibly, himself. The road from self-realization to self-parody is always shorter than we realize.
But let's not talk about that--not yet. Let's think instead about brutal Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, about yearning Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, about the rough voice and silky menace of The Godfather and the noble and ignoble ruin of Brando's Paul in Last Tango in Paris. Then let's think about how in a minor but still palpable way our lives--especially our imaginative lives--would have been diminished if Brando had not been there to play them. Sometimes in those movies, and in others too, he gave us moments of heartbreaking behavioral reality in which he broke through whatever fictional frame surrounded him and gave us not just the truth of his character but also the truth about ourselves.
One example out of dozens will have to suffice. Waterfront's Terry is shyly courting Eva Marie Saint's convent girl. She drops her glove. He picks it up and casually, talking about other things, tries to wriggle his fingers into it. What else of hers might he similarly, clumsily like to invade and possess? And how, we wonder, have we similarly, unconsciously betrayed our truest intentions while pretending that we were just kidding around?
Elia Kazan, who brought Brando to fame in the Broadway production of Streetcar (1947) and directed him in Waterfront, never took credit for that or any of the other moments Brando achieved for him. "The thing he wanted from me," Kazan later said, "was to get the machine going. And once that machine was going, he didn't need a hell of a lot more." It was, of course, quite a complicated mechanism. Kazan spoke of the contrast, in Brando's work, between "a soft, yearning girlish side to him and a dissatisfaction that is violent and can be dangerous," and observed that it was true of the man himself. "He never knew where the hell he was going to sleep. You didn't know who he was running away from or who he was angry with. You never knew."