David Gately

Archive for May, 2011|Monthly archive page

Apocalypse Crazy: Marlon Brando by way of Judgment Day

In Charlie Sheen, Crazy, David Gately, Judgement Day, Marlon Brando, Uncategorized on May 20, 2011 at 10:45 am
Bungle in the jungle: Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now

All this talk of an Apocalypse tomorrow is crazy.

If you haven’t heard, this old coot named Harold Camping, a Christian evangelist, has declared tomorrow, May 21, to be Judgment Day. Supposedly, thousands of people around the globe believe him. Tomorrow, Harold and his kooky cohorts will be hunkered in their bunkers with their cans of Campbell soups, rolls of toilet paper and iPhones. Who they gonna call?

Speaking of crazy, in the latest issue of Vanity Fair, Mark Seal’s has a magnificent deconstruction of the meteorically unglued orbit that is Charlie Sheen. Psycho- interpreting Sheen made me feel compassion for his father Martin Sheen, who triggered memories of Marlon Brando, and it all comes back to crazy.

Everyone seems to be going bonkers lately. So Brando – the original celebrity bad-boy – merits revisiting in light of the celebrity crazies our 21st-century has so far offered: our Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, certainly Mel Gibson and, of course, our tiger-blood warlock, Mr. Sheen.

In Seal’s VF piece, there’s a gripping anecdote about the elder Sheen’s notorious un-gluing under the strains of a grueling 17-month film production in the Philippine jungle for his role in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now. The film, considered a masterpiece, was plagued by lots of calamitous production mojo. A recently sober Sheen fell infamously hard of the wagon. And Brando showed up so bloated Coppola had to film much of him in shadow.

Brando as the crazy man-boy with the don’t-give-a-fuck attitude found its zenith in the 1970s, particularly during the filming of Coppola’s movie. But let’s go back a bit.

The early Brando was an actor of meteoric talent. Multiple Oscar-winning director Elia Kazan, who directed Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, once said of Marlon: “There’s BM and AM: before Marlon and after Marlon.” No actor since has so radiantly mesmerized audiences in master works like Streetcar (1951), Waterfront (1954), The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris (both 1972) and Apocalypse (1979).

Unfortunately, by the 70s, Brando had rubber stamped his reputation for kookiness: selfishly not memorizing scripts; driving directors, producers and fellow actors mad; and, for no apparent reason, affecting strange accents on film. In Stephan Kaner’s 2009 biography, Somewhere: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando, Kaner says Brando bizarrely assumed an Irish accent for the role of a Montana bounty hunter in the movie Missouri Breaks (1976). When he showed up to film Apocalypse “his appearance shocked everyone.”

Brando wasn’t a sloppy boozer or heedless pill popper. Food was his thing – lots of it. He ballooned to more than 300lbs on a 5’10” frame by the 70s. “A vastly, overweight, compulsive figure for whom meals had become what strong drink” is for others, says Kaner. On the set of The Nightcomers (1971), the prequel to Henry James’ classic Turn of the Screw, the director, Michael Winner, “set aside a dining room just for Marlon.”

By any generations’ standards, Brando could definitely be strange. In comparison, however, his crazy was primarily hidden from public scrutiny. He was never on tape for (allegedly) stealing jewelry. He never collected DUIs. He didn’t shave his head or have repeated emergency room run-ins. He was never on record for spewing to cops “fucking Jews…the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” Followed by “what are you looking at, sugar tits?” Brando’s veins never pumped tigers’ blood. He didn’t came out as “bi-winning” to a gazillion global TV and internet viewers.

No, Brando was a rarity. If he was an enigma, he loosely knotted it in an obvious pun. There was a Brando joke there somewhere, but it was on us. As oddball and baffling as he could be, Brando was the real deal. His convictions were sincere. He took public chances, social and professional, before anyone else. A pioneering and generous civil rights crusader, his blunt comments on race and ethnicity were too raw for some.

But if he spoke his mind and sounded crazy he never suffered penance. Before video, TMZ or Sober Valley Lodge, Brando never back-pedaled; for him there were no empty mea culpas or half-hearted 12-stepping (though he certainly could have a few good OA meetings).

Like his 21st-century wannabes, Brando depended on the public for praise and paychecks. Yet, unlike his contemporaries, he hated the limelight, loathed the media. Tectonically talented and ridiculously recluse, his tabloid image – erratic behavior, troubled family, obesity – unfortunately came to overshadow his monumental gifts to American cinema by time he died in 2004, at the age of 80.

Webster’s defines crazy as unsound, crooked, askew, mad and insane, as in: he’s been acting kind of crazy lately. And when he is, we all love to watch. Greek tragedy, after all, is based on human suffering that offers its audience pleasure. Sadly, though, behind every crazy act and crazy person is but a bucket of pain.

In Kaner’s book, fellow actor Maureen Stapleton says, “Marlon, oh man, you want to talk about pain?” Kaner adds “the anguish that showed in so many of Marlon’s performances was earned, not imitated.”

I’m not sure whether we see earnest performances yet in our Britneys, Lyndsays, Mels or Charlies. Maybe they’re in pain too? If not, each has imitated Oscar-winning vignettes.

Truth is, crazy is relative. We all act a bit askew at times. Even poor Mr. Camping, the Judgment Day evangelist, for whom crazy must be a permanent vocation. I guess we’ll know tomorrow when the Apocalypse hits. I’m setting aside a can of Campbell’s just in case.


Sticks and Stones, or lessons on humanity from Chaz Bono (and maybe Forrest Gump)

In Chaz Bono, Cher, David Gately, Humanity on May 13, 2011 at 10:48 am
Chaz and Cher

Tuesday was an extraordinary day for Chaz Bono. The only child of Sonny and Cher–together the iconic 70s TV variety show couple; separately the late California congressman and the long-perserved diva-with-a-D who put the icon in iconoclastic–released a new book, appeared on Oprah and debuted a new documentary, Becoming Chaz. It was all-Chaz news all day.

Unless you’ve had your head in the sand the past 30 years as his supernova mother has ruled the tabloids, won an Oscar and become a Las Vegas legend, Chaz, of course, was born Chastity, came out as lesbian in her twenties and recently transitioned to a man. At 42, his book and documentary media-blitz, I imagine, serves a dual purpose: to testify his gender identity struggles growing up, while, hopefully, educating an increasing curious public that seems increasing open to being better educated. I am one of them.

I read Chaz’s book release and the online news coverage of it. I didn’t catch the Oprah interview, but watched the video snippets available on YouTube. I surveyed the comments on Facebook and Twitter. I’m fascinated. As I digest the all-Chaz news, I found myself digging deeper into my own curiosity to discern exactly what is it about Chaz’s story that compels me, equally validating my understanding of the intensity and range of human experience and challenging my perceptions. I’m drawn in on so many levels.

I have never felt trapped in the wrong body. But I too have had body issues, lost a partner and felt different than. Chaz’s story affirms that life is really hard sometimes. Growing up “was complicated,” he told Oprah. But it also validates life’s blessings. His mother “adores” him, he said, and so did his father. In many ways Chaz’s story is no different than mine, maybe even yours, except for the transgender part. Therein lies an element that trips me.

I can’t stop juxtaposing Chaz’s current appearance with the image of little Chastity: the adorable petite blonde girl who often appeared at the end of her parents’ show, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Show (1971-74), as they dutifully delighted their huge stage and TV-land fans with their number one sing-song hit, I Got You Babe. Once, during a particularly famous show closing, when Chastitiy was about two or three, she is wearing a white and green-stripe sundress with pigtails in her hair. Sonny is holding her in his arms and says, “Say good night Chastity.” “Good night,” she whimpers, “And God bless everyone.”

As a kid, I loved that segment of the show and the image of little Chastity.

When she was Chasity, I thought she was good-looking. As Chaz I feel the same. More honestly, I’m struck by what a physically appealing man he makes. So “normal,” I wouldn’t look twice if I passed him on the street. But physically appealing, good-looking and normal are labels I use, preconceived and limited by words and images I’ve learned to accept as traditional. They fuel my prejudices of what I think people should look, sound and act like.

Chaz knows this conundrum all too well. That’s partly the reason he wrote the book and made the documentary. He told Oprah and states upfront in his book, Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man, that although the world still holds dear the image of him as this “cherubic little girl” on his parents’ show, he has little memory of the experience. More to the point, as an adult, he says, he does not identify with the image or the little-girl label.

I genuinely like Chaz, always have. And I truly hope others like Chaz too. In a detached, co-dependent sort of way, I want the general public to embrace his journey, to “really, really like” him, as Sally Field’s might say. To learn, in Forrest Gump fashion, that life really is like a box of chocolates, each of us alike and connected to a destiny that defines success by how we collectively deal with chance elements in life.

Forrest Gump was curious about humanity. In the movie his favorite book is Curious George, given and read to him by his movie mother, the aforementioned Ms. Fields. In an opening scene of one Curious George reading, a feather comes floating down to Forrest’s feet, and he stores it in the book. The feather falls out of the book at the end of the film, rising up and floating through the air. Some say it represents the child-like innocence that Forrest once had. We all had it once. Chaz did too, and for those of us who watched Chastity transition to Chaz, it’s an emotional journey we share.

Emotional estrangement is sometimes blamed on an intensity of human experience one can not (or will not) fully penetrate. It’s an excuse to pretend to not understand. I am not transgender, therefore I can not comprehend.

What’s that saying: you have to have been there to understand? To an extent this axiom holds truth. The forever-wounded American soldier, returning stateside, can certainly testify. I have never been to war. I have never been married with kids either. I’ve also never committed murder. But marriage and kids and, unfortunately, war and murder are part of humanity, which enlightens and connects us, and I am human and I comprehend.

Chaz’s story about gender transition infuses hope. Its public reception symbolizes optimism for a 21st century shift toward more social progressiveness and understanding. In today’s highly charged political rhetoric, Chaz’s story, however, is not about politics or values. It’s about humanity, common respect, tolerance and acceptance.

If life is really about the spiritual, our bodies are merely short-term vessels any way. The physical is not what’s important. Who cares about the labels and images? They can waft skyward like Forrest’s feather. Sticks and stones my break our bones, but words and labels and images don’t Photoshop our real reflections.

So I’m casting the old image of little Chastity free. Say good night Chaz.