The Bottom Shelf

Brando

Within hours of Marlon Brando’s death on July 1, 2004, the conventional wisdom had solidified. (Of course, most of the obits and appreciations that appeared in the days to follow had most likely been sitting on dry ice for at least a decade. The man had not been the picture of health in some time.) Yes, Brando had been a great actor, perhaps even a genius, but he had squandered his talent. And besides, his personal life was just too alarming to contemplate.

I’ll concede the last point, but the squandering charge is now and always has been bogus — a fraud perpetrated by short-sighted hacks with no sense of adventure. If Brando had toed the line and put in his time turning in “dignified” performances in blatant Oscar bait for a few years, then retired to his island quietly, his demise would have been marked with the reverence accorded to lesser lights like Jack Lemmon and Gregory Peck. Apparently, a track record that includes bona fide classics A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris and Apocalypse Now isn’t enough. A handful of brilliant performances in lesser known films ranging from One-Eyed Jacks to Reflections in a Golden Eye to Burn! … well, that just doesn’t cut the mustard, not compared to all that — that — SQUANDERING!

Sorry, but I just don’t see it. Yes, there are a handful of stinkers on his resume, but I’ll put his IMDb page up against that of any Great One you’d care to mention. How about that other genius who played Vito Corleone? I could curate a week-long film festival devoted to Robert De Niro’s squanderings over the past five years alone, but I don’t think anyone would survive it.

Perhaps you are now scratching your head or shaking a clenched fist at the computer screen. “I thought this was the Bottom Shelf?” you howl, you wholly imaginary regular reader of this column. “Enough with the kind words already! Get to the bad stuff and fat jokes!” The problem is, there’s no clear consensus about which Brando film represented the beginning of his supposed decline. I’ve seen convincing defenses of Desiree, Mutiny on the Bounty, Bedtime Story and even Teahouse of the August Moon. I’m fairly certain, however, that I’ve never seen a defense of Candy. You can relax: I’m not about to attempt one here. I may be a Brando apologist, but I’m not insane.

A spiritual cousin to Skidoo (discussed in last issue’s psychedelic edition of the Bottom Shelf), Candy is a relentlessly unfunny lump of Sixties kitsch, based on Terry Southern’s novel and directed by Brando pal Christian Marquand. It’s a timeless fable about the journeys of a naïve sex kitten and the variety of repugnant characters who force themselves on her in numerous icky and slobbery ways. The gallery of grotesques includes Richard Burton as a Tom Jones-y poet, Walter Matthau as a gung-ho Army general, James Coburn as a groovy surgeon, and, of course, Ringo Starr as a Mexican gardener.

Each and every one of these individuals was unwise to participate in this incredibly tedious mess, but I have to give Brando a little credit for at least having the good sense to appear very late in the film. The Bottom Shelf’s crack team of researchers has determined that as much as 97% of the paying audience had left the theater by the time Brando made his entrance. Those who hung in there until the bitter end witnessed a sort of low-rent Peter Sellers turn from America’s greatest actor — proof, if any was needed, that a funny wig and funny accent don’t necessarily add up to a funny performance. He’s a numerology spouting Indian guru who rides around in back of an 18-wheeler and keeps getting stuck in the lotus position. Put yourself in the shoes of a Brando fan of the time — someone who has no idea that The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris are still around the corner — and you can understand that “Next stop, ‘Hollywood Squares’ ” might be a perfectly reasonable reaction.

And yet Candy is not the bottom of the Brando barrel. It’s a silly role in a godawful movie, but you can’t quite say he’s phoning it in. Nor can I claim the big guy never telecommuted in the course of his career — not while VHS copies of Christopher Columbus: The Discovery still collect dust on the shelves of Mom and Pop video stores from coast to coast. Producer Alexander Salkind, who had paid Brando approximately five bazillion jillion dollars to show up for 15 minutes as the Man of Steel’s father in the 1978 blockbuster Superman, apparently figured the same formula would pay off again in this 1992 atrocity. Kids today, what do they know? Superman, Christopher Columbus — same difference!

In order to further ensnare the youth market, Salkind hired Magnum P.I. to play the King of Spain and gave the title role to George Corraface, a Greek actor who looks very familiar until you realize you’re thinking of Julio Iglasias. While Corraface was able to parlay his swashbuckling turn into a pivotal guest shot on an episode of “Red Shoe Diaries,” he was sadly unable to reach the same heights as two of his co-stars, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Benicio del Toro. On the other hand, he has the best chance of being available to share treasured memories on the double-disc special edition DVD. Del Toro is actually pretty bad, but Zeta-Jones is not only smoking hot, she even manages to keep her composure when the famed explorer pronounces her “too top-heavy and narrow of beam.”

As for Brando, his take on Torquemada is never going to supplant anyone’s fond memories of Mel Brooks doing the Inquisition. You’d think he’d get at least one barn-burner of a scene doing some, you know, inquisiting, but alas, he merely lingers on the periphery, looking as bored as Paris Hilton at a Noam Chomsky lecture. In many of his late-period “I’ll give you a week then it’s back to Tahiti” films, like A Dry White Season or even The Formula, Brando’s cameo is the prize in a box of stale Cracker Jacks. Here, he’s just more caramel corn.

Just as musicians have been known to rework their early material later in life, releasing new, sometimes radically restructured versions of classic tunes, Brando put a fresh spin on a couple of his signature roles in the twilight of his career. While his turn in The Freshman was an affectionate parody, his most notorious late-period performance could be described as Col. Kurtz through the looking glass.

It would be foolish to try to make any definitive statements regarding the mercurial actor’s motivation for taking the title role in John Frankenheimer’s 1996 remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau, but it’s at least within the realm of possibility that lingering resentment from the public perception of his involvement in Apocalypse Now played some role in the offbeat choice. Among the stinging criticisms that made little or no sense at the time and don’t carry any more weight today are … well, for one, that he carried more weight when showed up on the set. Apparently fat people aren’t scary, or something. (Nobody tell Orson Welles, Sydney Greenstreet or Charles Laughton, please.)

Also among his crimes: he hadn’t read the book Heart of Darkness. The horror! Most major film productions get around this problem by having a screenplay of some sort available to the cast, but apparently it was also Brando’s fault that no workable third act had been committed to paper. But hey, I guess if you pay an actor an astronomical salary, you have the right to expect him to miracle an ending out of his ass through sheer Brando-ness. I’ve always thought he did all right for himself, but the convention wisdom has it that he simply didn’t bring enough to the party.

So maybe this was the allure of Moreau: an opportunity to show critics the Kurtz that could have been, if he’d really wanted to push Coppola’s hallucinatory masterwork off the deep end. Hell, he brought so much to the party this time around, he was a virtual one-man Mardi Gras. And yet, as loony as Brando’s Moreau is, there’s still a Method to his madness. Yes, his face is covered with chalky white makeup in certain scenes, but this is explained by his character’s rare skin condition. True, he wears an ice bucket on his head in a tender moment with his half-human daughter, but Moreau is a man ahead of his time, as you will realize one day in the future, munching on your seaweed cookie while making ice cream in your hat.

In short, if you have a special place in your heart for the bugfuck version of Brando, Moreau is a movie to treasure. He has a two-foot tall sidekick. He speaks with a peculiar British lisp. He wears colorful muumuus and gives piano lessons to hyena men who then rip him apart and eat him. As a nice bonus, he has Val Kilmer as a co-star, thus ensuring that he would never be known as The Difficult One on the set.

Brando followed Moreau with two of the least-seen performances of his career, each just as bizarre in its own way. Free Money is a straight-to-video heist comedy starring Charlie Sheen, made by people who had seen some movies by the Coen brothers but learned nothing from them. Brando, sporting a red walrus mustache and matching ring of Bozo-hair, plays a prison warden known as The Swede. He resembles a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloon of Popeye’s burger-loving pal Wimpy, and his performance is as broad as his bottom. It’s safe to say this is Brando like you’ve never seen him before, unless I’m forgetting another film in which he plunges face-first into a toilet. (Viva Zapata, perhaps?) He certainly can’t be accused of sleepwalking through this one, though his antics have only the most tenuous connection to the movie going on around him. That’s okay — it’s a lousy movie anyway.

Then there is Johnny Depp’s directorial debut, The Brave, still unreleased in any form in this country. To suggest that Depp’s filmmaking style is influenced by David Lynch is akin to speculating that Harry Connick Jr. may have heard a Frank Sinatra record or two. The movie takes place in a industrial/desert wasteland populated by freaks, scumbags and mysterious entities — it’s Mad Max by way of Eraserhead. Fluorescent lights sizzle and sputter, repellent characters cackle and make weird popping noises, greasy yokels power an oil drill by running in a giant hamster wheel, and an old man in a Boy Scout uniform chats up the transvestite bartender at the local beer joint.

Depp has the title role of an impoverished Indian living in a junkyard shanty, so desperate to provide for his family that he agrees to be tortured and killed in a snuff film for $50,000. Much of The Brave’s running time is devoted to long, loving takes of Depp walking slowly down desert highways, tumbleweeds rolling past, dust devil swirling by the roadside, Native American chanting on the soundtrack. At one point, carrying buckets of water back from the muddy creek, he assumes a Christ-like pose. It’s all a bit much, but there’s half a good movie in here somewhere, and it deserves some sort of afterlife on video shelves, if only to preserve Brando’s last worthwhile screen appearance.

He’s the man with the money, some sort of wealthy industrialist nearing the end of his days and needing a little bit of death to brighten his life. He explains this, sort of, in a Kurtzian monologue that may well have been improvised by Brando; you can almost imagine him delivering it to a befuddled Larry King in response to a question about Karl Malden.

In this context, however, it doesn’t really matter what he’s saying, even if you could make any sense of it. As he did so often in his later films, Brando has supplied himself with props and little bits of business — he sports a white ponytail and a bolo tie and rides in and out of his one scene in a wheelchair while playing a harmonica. He gives you your five minutes’ worth, though; simultaneously monstrous and pathetic, he rides a tidal wave of emotion while barely moving a muscle.

It would be a fitting capper to his career if it happened to be his last movie, but unfortunately that honor goes to The Score, a heist flick that manages to turn the one and only meeting of the two Vito Corleones into a non-event. The most memorable aspect of Brando’s involvement was his rumored comment to director/Muppeteer Frank Oz after Oz asked him to tone down his campy take on the role of an aging criminal: “I bet you wish I was a puppet so you could stick your hand up my ass and make me do what you want!” A distressing mental image, to be sure, but as good an epitaph as any for a man who never did what everyone wanted him to do.