David Gately

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.

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