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Brando, Obama, and The Brando

Just days before Marlon Brando’s 93rd birthday on 3 April, Barack Obama announced that he will write his presidential memoirs at an exotic South Pacific hideaway once owned by Brando. Thirty miles north of Tahiti and accessible only by boat or small aircraft, the island of Tetiaroa was transformed into a high-end resort after Brando died in 2004. In fact, Obama will be staying at what is now called The Brando.

The actor discovered the island when he was scouting locations for his 1962 film, Mutiny on the Bounty. Feeling that he was about as close to paradise as possible, he bought the island for $270,000 in 1966. He would spend most of the rest of his life there, emerging reluctantly to appear in films, some of them less memorable than others.

In the 1950s Brando transformed the art of film acting. By the 1960s, however, he had begun to hold his talent in disdain. He had even less respect for people deceived by Hollywood mythology. When he received an Oscar nomination for his performance in The Godfather (1972), he boycotted the festivities. After he was declared the winner, an actress named Marie Cruz stepped up to the podium. Appearing in Native American garb and identifying herself as “Sacheen Littlefeather,” she read Brando’s denunciations of the industry’s treatment of Native Americans.

Barack Obama, with a multi-million dollar advance from Crown Publishing, will be enjoying the peace, quiet, and luxury that Tetiaroa abundantly offers. In many ways, Obama’s move to The Brando makes sense, and not just because Brando had worked hard to make the island environmentally-friendly and self-sustainable. The President surely knows Marlon Brando’s history as a civil rights activist, one that preceded Obama’s own activism by a generation. Brando marched with the movement’s leaders and did not hesitate to embrace the cause, even if he offended those who may have shared his values, as when he sent Ms. Cruz to lecture a crowd that included many Hollywood liberals.

Earlier, in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Brando actively supported the Poor People’s March on Washington sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In his memoir White Dog (1970), diplomat and novelist Romain Gary describes how Brando sought to raise money at a meeting of celebrities prior to the march. When Brando asked for volunteers for a steering committee, thirty hands went up in a crowd of about three hundred. According to Gary, Brando than said, “Those who didn’t raise their hands, get the hell out of here!”

Although he was raised by his white mother and her parents, Obama was drawn to African American culture and found his voice listening to black preachers and activists. Born in Nebraska and raised in white America, Brando was also fascinated by African American culture. In the late 1940s he joined Katherine Dunham’s School of Dance, where sixty-five percent of the students were black. He also learned to play congas and bongos with a Haitian drum master. I am convinced that his early filmic impressions of inarticulate working-class men was inspired by black artists for whom inarticulacy was a survival strategy. Nathaniel Mackey has described “the telling inarticulacy” of blues artists who speak of their oppression not with words but with cries, groans, and shrugs.

Similarly, Brando learned a great deal about improvisation from black jazz artists. Yes, we know that improv was essential to the Method acting of which he is the inevitable exemplar, but Brando was much more like a jazz musician with his surprising and even playful improvisations. In Streetcar Named Desire (1951) Brando is Stanley Kowalski, a confused, often-violent man child like many of the characters he played in the 1950s. Early in the film, he explores the items in a trunk that belongs to his wife’s sister, Blanche. Not at all happy with the amount of family money that Blanche seems to have spent on her clothes, he manhandles a white stole. As tiny white feathers drift away, and as Stanley is in the midst of an argument with his wife, he picks feathers out of the air with the purposeful purposelessness of a child. Brando found a way to react in character outside of any scripted directions. Like jazz improvisers working out their ideas “in the moment,” he was fully in control of his craft as an actor.

Press publicity photo of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in the play A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951 Source ebay, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I should also point out that in The Wild One (1953) Brando plays a member of the “Black Rebels Motorcycle Club” and that he is almost lynched by a group of white townspeople. After several memorable performances in which he channeled his fantasies of blackness, Brando made a career decision and appeared as Napoleon in Désirée (1954). Although many praised his performance, Brando affected a British accent and deployed acting techniques that had little to do with the Method and everything to do with his personal magnetism. There would be a handful of extraordinary performances during the half-century of work that followed, but by this time Brando cared little about the art of the actor and was simply phoning it in. He was much more interested in turning Tetiaroa into his own personal utopia.

Between writing sessions, Barack Obama will be strolling the beaches and gardens where Marlon Brando had hoped to live in paradise. I wonder if he’ll have anything to say about Brando in his much-awaited memoir.

Featured Image credit: Onetahi, Tetiaroa, in French Polynesia, February 2003. Tom Dhaene at nl.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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