Brando Bounty: Désirée and The Young Lions
Two recent Marlon Brando projects – Susan L. Mizruchi’s entertaining book Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought, and Work and Stevan Riley’s astonishing archival audio/footage Showtime documentary Listen to Me, Marlon – both pay tribute to the iconic actor’s dedication to craft and the pursuit of knowledge and experience that was often belied by his rebellious “bad-boy” public persona. Twilight Time’s two Brando titles, both CinemaScope war- and romance-centric epics from Twentieth Century Fox, illustrate the push/pull of Brando’s nature of immersion into roles despite his perceived deficiencies in other aspects of the projects, and the sheer fact that he could never be anything less than mesmerizing on screen. Brando didn’t want to do Désirée (1954), a contractual obligation, but the chance to play Napoleon Bonaparte was nonetheless irresistible. Though Brando’s work in that same year’s On the Waterfront reaped the critical acclaim and awards, Désirée was the bigger box-office hit and his conquering French emperor was, as Laurence Olivier told Dick Cavett, “immeasurably the best Napoleon ever, simply marvelous because of his own particular quality of being so easy, so easily bringing a sense of genius to a character who was a genius…He wouldn’t like to be called a technician, but he was one, a very great one.” Four years later, The Young Lions (1958) offered another opportunity that this time he savored, playing Christian Diestel, a German intellectual who sees Nazism’s dark side but joins the army willingly. He excels at soldiering while hating war itself, and when confronted with the tragedy that results (in a devastating concentration camp scene in the film’s final moments), takes it personally. Mizruchi recounts a fan letter Brando got from Mary Motley, an African-American homemaker from Detroit, Michigan, who resisted the strong temptation to demonize the German people but didn’t understand why. Motley told Brando that his powerful performance gave her the answer: his efforts to humanize Diestel convinced her that prejudice against an entire people was categorically wrong. “Intellectual honesty for Brando was synonymous with authentic acting, which could be far-reaching,” Mizruchi writes. “And touching a person like Mary Motley, making her think. That was an achievement.” With this Brando bounty – book, documentary and two TT Blu-rays – there’s much to think about…and enjoy.