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Turning Points: Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris

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Marlon Brando was the greatest film actor of the 20th century, and a failure. Directors clamored to work with him and writers created characters with him in mind. He inspired everyone from Montgomery Clift to Ryan Gosling, and somewhere right now there’s a 12-year-old watching Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire or On the Waterfront and seeing his own future.

Everyone worships at the altar of Brando, but Brando never did. Close friend Jack Nicholson said that he was sure Brando considered himself the best actor alive, but Brando also once told Elia Kazan, “Here I am a balding, middle-aged failure, and I feel like a fraud when I act.” It isn’t that he didn’t think he was good; it’s that he didn’t think being good at acting amounted to much. As far as Brando was concerned, he was a genius at an idiotic pursuit.

He approached Hollywood—once he got around to approaching it at all—as if it was “one big cash register,” as he told an interviewer when he arrived in 1950 for his first film, The Men. He wasn’t happy to be there, wasn’t grateful for the opportunity, and didn’t try to hide it. “The only reason I’m here,” he famously said, “is because I don’t yet have the moral courage to turn down the money.”

But Brando didn’t just spend his life doing something he judged worthless—he poured himself into it, tearing off his own thin veneer and exposing his greatest agonies, again and again. Even in his worst performances he dug a finger into his own wounds, not only because this is more or less the foundation of Method acting (a term Brando disdained for various reasons), but also because this was his temperament. His suffering, in both art and life, often seemed willful. Pauline Kael, among others, noted that in nearly every role he ever played, Brando’s character was killed, savagely beaten, or both.

In role after role, Brando subjected himself to the full concussive force of the roles he played. He could be a bad actor, but he couldn’t be an indifferent actor. Not, at least, until after playing the role that completely and permanently changed his life and approach to acting: Paul in Last Tango in Paris.

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For the role of Paul, Brando had to do something he’d never done before: play himself. Bernardo Bertolucci had first conceived of the story’s basic set-up—an older man meets a younger woman for totally anonymous sexual encounters—after seeing a beautiful woman in Paris. Paul was to stand in for Bertolucci’s desires and fantasies.

Brando wasn’t Bertolucci’s first choice for the role. The character—American in the finished film—was originally French, and Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Alain Delon had all turned the role down. Brando’s name was brought up by the film’s producer, Alberto Grimaldi, who was then suing the actor for causing delays during the shooting of another of his films, director Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1969 Burn!. Grimaldi offered to drop the suit if Brando would appear in Tango. Brando, who had walked off the set of Burn! to protest the treatment of Colombian extras and was likely to lose the case, agreed.

After signing up for Tango, Brando came to Paris, where he and Bertolucci holed up in an apartment and talked. The talking went on for weeks. Bertolucci laid himself bare, revealing childhood pains, private aspirations, personal secrets. Brando did the same. Brando, who had once broken a paparazzo’s jaw, had always been intensely private, but Bertolucci drew him out. Brando had been in psychotherapy since the 1950s and knew well where his soft spots were, the sources of his depression and instability, even if he never seemed to escape them: his mother was a binge drinker who regularly abandoned Brando and his sisters without warning for weeks at a time; his father was an alcoholic, bullying, emotionally abusive womanizer who quite thoroughly convinced Marlon he was worthless. Psychoanalyzing famous people from the sidelines is a fool’s errand, but it’s almost impossible to consider Brando without doing so. He was defined by abandonment, neglect, abuse, humiliation, and despair, and he wrought those same things throughout his adult life, with wives, lovers, co-workers, children, and most of all himself. As longtime friend Maureen Stapleton succinctly put it: “Marlon—oh, man, you want to talk about pain?”

As Brando and Bertolucci collaborated on the story, the character of Paul stopped being Bertolucci, and started being Brando. In his memoir, Brando writes plainly, “[Bertolucci] wanted me to play myself, to improvise completely and portray Paul as if he were an autobiographical mirror of me.” Bertolucci, who spoke little English and had no grasp of American slang, let Brando write or improvise nearly all his lines. Unlike so many previous roles, the pain in Tango doesn’t just lurk around the edges of the performance. It is the performance.

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Last Tango in Paris is about Paul, whose wife has just killed herself in the hotel they owned, operated, and lived in together. When the movie opens, he’s walking under an elevated train platform. As the train roars overhead Paul throws his head back and blocks his ears and lets loose a profane howl of anguish. The tone for the film is set.

Paul then meets a young woman, Jeanne (Maria Schneider), and they begin an affair. Though Jeanne is engaged, she meets Paul regularly at a squalid apartment. Paul is not a gentle lover, and he seems to do everything he can to drive her away, insisting that no names be used and no biographical facts be shared while they’re in the apartment (“Everything outside this place is bullshit,” he asserts), and refusing to recognize Jeanne as anything but a warm body. Eventually Paul simply disappears from the apartment, abandoning Jeanne. Later, he reemerges, pledging his love, wanting to start anew with a proper romance, but Jeanne isn’t interested. As he follows her back to her parents’ apartment, she grows increasingly frantic to escape him. Once there, she’s trapped and he closes in. She shoots him dead with her father’s old Army pistol.

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There’s a disagreement about Method acting. It’s based on the teachings of the Russian Constantin Stanislavski, who wrote of actors transliterating their own selves into their characters. He called it “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” But what this means is up for debate. Lee Strasberg, one of the most influential acting coaches in history and a teacher at the New School for Social Research, where Brando studied, maintained that it meant simply recalling emotions that correspond to those of your character. But for Stella Adler—the New School teacher Brando credited with truly teaching him to act—recalling your own emotions was just the starting point. In the 2000 compilation of Adler’s teachings, The Art of Acting, she says:

“It is the actor’s job to delve into [a character’s details], to imagine them, not just to find circumstances in his own life that correspond to them. There are none. You felt miserable when your beloved grandmother died. You were inconsolable when the dog you had all through your childhood was run over by a car. The memory of these things can give you clues about how Hamlet feels about his father’s death, but only clues. Whatever you reconstruct from your emotional memory is no substitute for putting your imagination to work.”

This, in a nutshell, was Brando’s approach to his craft, but in Tango Bertolocci asked him to recall not just similar emotions, but genuine emotions, and to live them on the screen, no imagination required. In revising the story, countless details were rewritten with Brando’s life and experiences in mind. Early in the film, for example, he stands in the hotel bathroom where his wife killed herself and listens to a maid—busy scrubbing the blood from the tile—recount being questioned by the police about Paul’s background. She says she told them that:

“[Paul] became an actor, bongo player, revolutionary in South America, journalist in Japan, one day he lands in Tahiti, hangs around, learns French. Then he went to Paris. There he meets a woman with money and marries her. Since then, what has your boss done? Nothing.”

In most movies, this is exposition. But not here. Every item listed is a ghost of something from Brando’s life or career, from Tahiti, where he owned an island, to Paris, where he now finds himself. And the most telling point of all, the question at the end of it: What does it all add up to, this life he’s led? What has he accomplished? Nothing. All during the speech Brando stands mute, offering not a word of contradiction.

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Brando was 48 when he made Last Tango in Paris. He was still recognizably Brando, but his handsomeness was fraying around the edges. His charm was beginning to drift into sleaze; his charisma felt predatory. Because things change when you reach middle age. Your body begins to break down in earnest, of course, but also your fire dims. When you get knocked down, you wonder if you can pick yourself up, or if you even want to, or if it matters whether you do. And the costs of your mistakes begin to come due.

Near the end of shooting Tango, Brando learned that his thirteen-year-old son, Christian, had been kidnapped from his boarding school. It would turn out to be a plot by Brando’s unstable, alcoholic first wife, Anna Kashfi, to keep Brando from gaining custody. Brando hired private detectives, who found the boy under a pile of dirty laundry in a tent in the Mexican desert. It was a sensational incident that set the tone for decades of sensational incidents to follow, many involving his children, and violence or death: there were years of custody fights, lawsuits, divorces, and compulsive womanizing, and in 1990 Christian would shoot and kill the boyfriend of his half-sister, Cheyenne, in Marlon’s home. Marlon whisked Cheyenne, who’d been mentally unstable for years, out of the country to prevent her giving any damning testimony against Christian. He hired a cadre of celebrity lawyers to defend Christian. There were even charges that Marlon tampered with the crime scene. He avoided as long as he could giving his own eye-witness testimony. Christian would eventually be found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Cheyenne was never the same after the shooting, and after several unsuccessful attempts, committed suicide in 1995. Brando, an absentee parent for so long, pursued his children at the end, just as Paul had pursued Jeanne, and in the end they all got away.

This all matters because as Brando’s personal turmoil began to engulf his professional excellence, he made a movie that’s not about sex, but regret and mistakes. It’s about the opposite of sex. Not connection, but disconnection. Sex in this movie is like a wound. There’s no joy in it. It’s anesthesia and escape. For Paul, it’s ostensibly escape from the despair of his wife’s suicide, but really the suicide is a device. Brando’s pain becomes indistinguishable from Paul’s, and it’s the pain of regret. It’s the pain of a life poorly lived, and of possibilities closing off around him. Jeanne wants to talk, to be found, to create herself, but Paul wants to be lost, to erase his mistakes and missteps, and even his identity. Youth wants to imagine. Age needs to forget.

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In Tango’s final act, Paul returns, catching up to Jeanne under the same elevated train track where the film began. He’s changed. He’s wearing a blazer and has a boyish vivacity. And he can’t tell Jeanne enough about himself. He wants to be with her. He wants her to come back and live with him at his hotel. He lists his physical ailments, but says he can still fuck; he’s still “a good stick man.”

But it’s all an act. Pledging romantic love, he seems as out of place as he was comfortably at home slumped in the shadows of that filthy apartment. He’s trying to play a young man’s game, but he can’t go back. He’s a pretender and he’s out of options. Like Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, his future’s all used up.

*  *  *

“You’re alone,” Brando says in Last Tango in Paris. “You’re all alone. And you won’t be able to be free of that feeling of being alone until you look death right in the face.”

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After Last Tango in Paris, Brando was absent from the screen for four years, the longest break of his career to that point. When he returned, it was to play an assassin in The Missouri Breaks. It’s a strange performance, mostly composed of odd hats and unexplained accents. The substitution of accents and wardrobe for authenticity and rawness became the norm in his work. He’d always struggled with his weight, and in this movie he was heavier than he’d ever been. His character winds up having his throat slit, awakening just long enough to see his killer. Two years later he made Superman, and was heavier still, over 300 pounds on a 5’ 9” frame. His character dies on an exploding planet. When he made Apocalypse Now,  he was so heavy Coppola used a double in long shots. His Colonel Kurtz is hacked to death with a machete, his murder intercut with the ritual slaughter of a water buffalo.

In the first 20 years of his career, Brando made 23 movies, almost exactly one per year. In the last 29 years, he made just 17 more, most forgettable, some straight to video, almost all made to raise money for the escalating legal costs of his chaotic personal life. His performances range from embarrassing (Free Money, The Island of Dr. Moreau) to competent (A Dry White Season, The Freshman), but in these later films Brando—the one who had suffered so much for so long in so many previous roles—is gone. His pain is something he is no longer willing to display for the sake of acting. Great art can consume the artist, and it had consumed Brando.

“When Last Tango in Paris was finished,” Brando wrote in his memoir, “I decided that I wasn’t ever again going to destroy myself emotionally to make a movie. I felt I had violated my innermost self and didn’t want to suffer like that anymore… In subsequent pictures I stopped trying to experience the emotions of my characters as I had always done before and simply [tried] to act the part in a technical way.”

Then he adds a final note, one he was too smart and too experienced—but maybe just dismissive enough of his life’s work—to actually believe: “The audience doesn’t know the difference.”


Larry Fahey is a writer living in Boston with his wife and two kids. Johnny Depp gives him hives. If you’re so inclined, follow him on Twitter. More from this author →