Sunday, Dec. 19, 2004

Marlon Brando

REMEMBERING THE LIGHTNING STRIKES Two kinds of loss had to be reckoned when Marlon Brando died. One was the squandering of his potential during so many of his later years, when, bloated and cynical, he got hung up on causes, became entangled in personal turmoil, appeared in mediocre (or worse) movies and poured contempt on his profession as "a bum's life ... it all adds up to nothing." The other was the loss to us of the transcendent gift that he displayed in a succession of 1950s films like A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, and that flared again briefly in the '70s with The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris. In such films he transformed movie acting, taking it to a new level of startling intensity and achingly honest emotion. For many people today, alas, the later Brando looms larger than the earlier. His innovative legacy is scarcely noticed because it has been so thoroughly absorbed by other actors. ("He gave us our freedom," Jack Nicholson said.) His original achievement seems too remote, too scattered among a mere handful of films. But perhaps any artist can be defined the way Randall Jarrell once defined a poet, as "someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times." Five or six great performances in a career of six decades may not seem like a lot. Yet in Brando's case, the brilliance of those thunderbolts will blaze for a very long time.