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10 Days With Marlon Brando

On the 100th anniversary of the legendary actor’s birth, a journalist recalls their time together on a rustic Tahitian isle


spinner image black and white image of Marlon Brando smiling with a view of water and island behind him
Portrait of Marlon Brando photographed by the author in 1978 when he stayed at Brando's ‘compound,’ Tetiaroa.
Lawrence Grobel

 

 

It has been two decades since Marlon Brando’s death in July 2004, and 10 decades since his birth on April 3, 1924. What should we tell our own kids and grandkids about this iconic actor?

That they should watch his amazing film performances in A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris and Apocalypse Now. That they should read the reviews of his incendiary stage work. And, perhaps, that they should google videos of his award-winning ecoresort — called The Brando — on the Tahitian atoll of Tetiaroa, which is also an enduring part of his legacy. That’s where I was called to meet him in 1978, long before the resort had been built.

“I’m sorry for giving you such a runaround,” he told me on the phone, after I had pursued him for nearly a year. “Why don’t we do this in Tahiti?”

It was an offer that no sane journalist could refuse, to paraphrase Don Vito Corleone, even if the date he offered was two days after my wedding. My bride understood the offer. The honeymoon could wait.

This was my chance to go head-to-head with America’s greatest actor. Brando’s early films — including The Men, Streetcar and The Wild One — had forever changed the way actors approached their craft. Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman have all acknowledged their debt to Brando. It was a dream assignment, and it turned out to be one of the last in-depth interviews that Brando ever gave.

I landed by small plane on Tetiaroa, a group of 12 islets for which Brando had earlier negotiated a 99-year lease. He greeted me wearing a cotton hooded shirt and pants, his hair gray-white, his frame a bit paunchy in his 50s. With a wry smile, he quipped about his outfit, which he said he had designed himself because he was prone to sunstroke and had to keep himself covered. Was he kidding? He seemed to take few things seriously; he was full of random knowledge spouted at random times, prone to practical jokes and side wagers for the amusement of the handful of staff and family members who accompanied him on the islands. And he was a man full of baffling contradictions.

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For two hours that day, he talked — about the Polynesian people, whom he loved, but also the Indian people then known as Untouchables (now called Dalit people) in India, African Americans, Haitians, Africans, Japanese, Pakistanis. He told me he wanted to build a school for the blind on his island. He wanted to invite oceanographers there for research. He’d had 40 scientists check the land and he’d had aerial photographs taken in advance of planning construction. But these projects hadn’t come to fruition, because progress tended to stall when he was away. “You can’t bring [your] culture here,” he offered in explanation. “You have to adapt to theirs.”

When we finally began the first of our taped interview sessions, Brando asked me why I wanted to talk about Native Americans. My head spun: It was the only topic that he had agreed to talk about, and my strategy preparing for this interview was to write so many questions about this subject (400 in all!) that when I would eventually talk about acting, he might feel relieved. But when he asked me point-blank why I wanted to talk about Native Americans, I answered simply, “I don’t.” His response took me by surprise. He cracked up. He couldn’t stop laughing.

After 10 days, I had about 20 hours on tape.

In our conversations, the star showed a prescient mistrust of interactive media, then in its preinfancy. He told me about an experimental technology that allowed TV viewers to communicate their reactions to a show in real time — and said the system had “many dangers”: “If I had the opportunity to press a button, and if that would somehow translate into a vote or an opinion that would influence other people, it could be very destructive,” he reasoned. “Because after a day or two I might have seasoned my thoughts with reflection and found I made some critical errors.”

Brando also talked about the universal nature of storytelling, and why viewers are drawn to films with clear-cut heroes and villains. “People get so tired of sitting in the in-between world” — that is, the real world, where questions of good and evil are more nuanced, he told me. “It’s such a relief to see something that’s good or for the devil.”

With the women’s movement in full swing, Brando shared his philosophy on the conflict between the sexes. “I think, essentially, men fear women,” he told me. “History is full of references to women and how bad they are, how dangerous.” Having been raised by women, he speculated, men feel dependent upon women, and they fear that dependence. “We’ve all been guilty, most men, of viewing women through prejudice,” he confessed. “I always thought of myself not as a prejudiced person, but I find, as I look over it, that I was.”

spinner image Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone, wearing a tuxedo and holding up his hand showing a ring on his ring finger, in The Godfather movie
Marlon Brando starred as Vito Corleone in the 1972 film "The Godfather."
CBS via Getty Images

And yes, he did talk about the struggles of Native Americans. Brando had famously tried to draw attention to the issue in 1973, when he learned he was the favorite to win a best actor Oscar for The Godfather. Rather than attend the ceremony, he sent an actress and activist named Sacheen Littlefeather to decline the award on his behalf. His goal had been to protest discriminatory portrayals of Native Americans in Hollywood films, and to call attention to the Native American activists who were at the time involved in a standoff with the federal government at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, over unfair and breached treaties.

When we spoke five years later, Brando despaired of being able to rally public opinion behind the Native American cause. “Nobody wants to think about social issues, social justice,” he told me. “Ask most kids about details about Auschwitz or about the manner in which the American Indian was assassinated as a people and ground into the ground, they don’t know anything about it. And they don’t want to know anything. Most people just want their beer or their soap opera or their lullaby.” (Brando might not be surprised to learn that it is only this year, 46 years after our interviews, that the first Native American woman, Lily Gladstone, was nominated for a best actress Oscar.)

A few years before my interview with Brando, John Wayne had said some controversial things about Native Americans, including that he didn’t think it was wrong to take America away from them because they “were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” When I asked Brando for his thoughts on those comments, he told me he would answer, but he wanted to have what Wayne said in front of him when he did. In those days before you could pull up an old interview on your phone, we agreed to meet again back in L.A. for a follow-up chat. For me, that was a bonus, because it would give me time to digest what had gone down on the island. A few months later, I was supposed to go to Brando’s house, when his assistant called to ask where I lived. “Marlon will come to you,” she said.

I wasn’t expecting that. Our house was a mess, and I quickly grabbed the dirty dishes in the sink and stuck them under the cabinet. It only took Brando 15 minutes to pull into our driveway. The first thing he said was that he’d like to see what I’d written about him. No, I told him. That wouldn’t be journalism if I let him have a crack at it. “Let’s get to John Wayne,” I said.

We talked, not just about Wayne, whom he didn’t care for, but about so many other things that he hadn’t been willing to talk about on the island. We even got into his using cue cards when acting because he didn’t like to memorize his lines. “Isn’t it distracting for the other actors?” I asked. “They’ve got their lines down, and you’re reading yours off cue cards, or in the case of Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris, off her forehead.” During this part of our conversation, Brando would arbitrarily mention book titles as he looked at me. I wasn’t sure why, until he said, “I’ve been reading the titles of the books on your shelves, and you haven’t noticed or been distracted. You didn’t even know that I was doing that. I can do the same thing when acting. It’s more spontaneous.”

When I asked him why he was so put off by winning the Academy Award for The Godfather, he said, “I don’t believe in awards of any kind. They are ridiculous. The optometrists are going to have Oscar awards for creating inventive, arresting, admirable, manufactured eyeglass frames — things that hook on to the nose, ones that go way around under the armpit for evening wear. They should have an award for the fastest left-handed standby painter who’s painted the sets with his left hand at great speed. And the carpenters union should have an award for somebody who can take a 3-pound hammer and nail two-by-fours together.”

“Does being labeled a method actor mean anything to you?” I asked, knowing how much he disliked talking about acting.

“B-o-r-e. Bore,” he said.

“Is that what a method actor does — to bore through to the core of a character’s being?”

“It bores through and goes beyond the frontiers of endurable anguish of interviews,” he said.

By this time, we had been talking for five hours and I knew he had a plane to catch that evening. But before he left, I asked him if he thought there was any hope for the human race. Or were we all going to hell in a handbasket?

“You can’t live a life saying, ‘Well, this is the end, so we might as well get out the banjo and the rowboat and get it on,’ just go laughing and scratching along until Gabriel blows his horn. Whatever the circumstances are, one has to keep trying to find solutions. Even if it seems impossible. They have never invented a system that worked: Religion didn’t do it, philosophy didn’t do it, ethics didn’t do it, economic systems won’t do it. None of the systems that deal with man’s problems have ever worked. But to live a life of hopelessness, it’s not possible.”

Twenty years later, in 1998, Time magazine would name Brando the greatest actor of the 20th century, along with Pablo Picasso as the greatest artist, T.S. Eliot as the greatest poet and James Joyce as the greatest writer. My guess is that Brando had no problem with three of the four. But as far as he was concerned, no actor had the right to consider himself an artist. “Acting is just hustling,” he had told me on Tetiaroa. “I don’t think any movie is a work of art. In your heart of hearts, you know perfectly well that movie stars aren’t artists.”

Maybe so, but whenever I see him as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront or Don Corleone in The Godfather, I can never turn away. If that’s not art, he’s sure fooled me.

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