Marlon Brando, In Memoriam

By Greg Pak
Marlon Brando died yesterday at the age of eighty.
There’s a scene in “Streetcar Named Desire” in which a feather from Vivian Leigh’s boa floats past Brando’s line of vision in the middle of one of his lines. He keeps talking, but he bats at the feather it as it passes. It’s a beautiful little moment. Incredibly simple. But I can’t forget it. In that instant, Brando incorporates the world into his character. Nothing could happen — no, anything could happen, and it would fit, because Brando is letting everything in the world be part of his character’s world.
A similar moment comes in “The Godfather,” when Brando’s holding that now legendary little gray kitten. There’s one instant in particular which stands out for me, when the kitten bats at Brando’s hand. And again, he acknowledges it, accepts it, incorporates it seamlessly.
It occurs to me that both of these moments are somehow connected with play. Brando plays with the feather; the kitten plays with Brando. Even more specifically, the moments are about the instinct behind play — the primal impulse we all have to follow moving objects. That’s significant. Because while the profession of acting requires us to suppress a subset of our instincts as we hit our marks and remember our lines and screen out distractions, the scene only comes to life if we follow our instincts within the reality of the scene. So Brando, and all good actors, regularly performs tiny miracles. They screen out the boom overhead, the light in their eyes, the huddled crew, the weird fakeness of the set, the strangeness of their makeup — and they allow in the feather and the kitten.
For anyone interested in learning more about Marlon Brando, I recommend first, seeing his movies, and second, reading Patricia Bosworth’s excellent little biography entitled, shockingly enough, Marlon Brando.