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Ad Astra: A Review


My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE. IT. NOW. A profound meditation on masculinity that boasts an Oscar worthy Brad Pitt performance in one of the very best films of the year. But be forewarned…this film is more art house than blockbuster.

Ad Astra, directed by James Gray and written by Gray and Ethan Gross, is the story of Roy McBride, an astronaut who goes to space in search of his father. The film stars Brad Pitt as Roy, with supporting turns from Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland and Liv Tyler.

I have not been to the movies in quite a while, the reason being that there has been nothing playing that I considered worthy of paying $15 to see. Ad Astra was one film that I was aware of and which intrigued me so I thought I’d take the plunge. I did not have particularly high hopes for the movie because the director, James Gray, has consistently turned out beautiful misfires of movies. I have seen all of Gray’s movies, which include The Lost City of Z, The Immigrant, The Yards, Little Odessa, We Own the Night and Two Lovers, and he is certainly gifted at making moody, cinematically gorgeous films with solid performances that should be good but just never are. Gray’s films have consistently failed to resonate with me because the narratives are always so unfocused and his film’s structures so fundamentally unsound.

Ad Astra, which for some reason I keep inadvertently calling Ed Asner, actually means “through hardships to the stars” in Latin, and that is an apt description not only of the film’s story, but of Gray’s cinematic ambition and Pitt’s performance. The bottom line is this, Ad Astra is an intimately profound and profoundly intimate film that is absolutely stunning.

While Ad Astra is, like all of Gray’s films, deliberately paced, it is very well put together and flows seamlessly and effortlessly along its journey. The film never lags and has a forceful emotional and narrative momentum to it that makes it thoroughly compelling.

The film is set in the near future and the plot is about an astronaut going into space to track down his highly revered space exploring father. Ad Astra is similar to two other recent “space” films, First Man and High Life, that use space as a narrative device for the compartmentalization, isolation and emotional frigidity of manhood. I loved both First Man and High Life, and Ad Astra is a quality finale to this makeshift thematic trilogy.

At its core Ad Astra is a mediation on masculinity, its accompanying rage and the afflictions passed down from fathers to sons. I was deeply moved by this film because these themes have been the existential epicenter of my entire life. As a father, I am trying not to pass on the afflictions that were passed onto me by my father, down to my son. The tragedy of the masculine life though, and of my own life, is that men are often consumed by the flames of their afflictions, and no matter how hard they try, they fail in stopping the transmission of their wounds onto their male offspring. As Ad Astra tells us, “the son suffers the sins of the father”, and I know in my case I fail in the endeavor of sparing my son from my own affliction the overwhelming majority of the time. My only feint hope in redemption would seem to be my son being strong enough and resilient enough to eventually forgive me for my failings. I only hope I live long enough to see that happen…but there are no guarantees.

As I watched Ad Astra I couldn’t help but think of the 1997 Paul Schrader film Affliction, as that movie, which was set in the forbidding cold of New Hampshire which seems as isolating as the cold of space, was also about the madness of wounded masculinity being passed down from father to son like a genetic disease. Seeing Affliction for the first time rattled me to my bones, whereas Ad Astra moved me to my soul.

Ad Astra is also reminiscent of both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now (there are a bunch of small clues paying homage to Apocalypse Now in this film…from Brad Pitt’s voice over to his answering a question by saying “that’s classified”, to a detour with a brief but distinctly surreal musical number…among many others), as the demanding evolutionary journey of the main character is not only outward but inward. McBride’s journey deeper into space is like Willard’s journey down the river in Apocalypse Now. The compulsion, bordering on madness, to make that journey, is akin to Hamlet’s musings on the “undiscovered country, from whose bourn, no traveller returns”. Put another way, you never go back up the river (if indeed you are even able to go back up the river), the same man you went down, and the same is true of space.

2019 is turning into the year of Brad Pitt. This past July, Pitt garnered raves and Oscar buzz for star turn in Quentin Tarantino’s blockbuster Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. That movie, and Pitt’s charismatic performance in it, put Brad Pitt squarely back in the center of the cultural zeitgeist, with women swooning over his shirtless antenna repairs (a weird connection between Ad Astra and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Brad Pitt repairing antennas! What does it mean?!?!?!) and men wanting to be cool like him.

Pitt has always been more a pretty face than an actor of any heft, but as he enters his late middle-age, he seems to have settled into himself and found a more grounded place from which to build his characters and to be genuine on screen, and that has never been more evident than in his powerful performance in Ad Astra.

Pitt’s work in Ad Astra is a thing of subtle beauty and genius, and is easily the greatest work of his long career. Pitt’s Roy McBride is a layered creature, wrapped tight enough to control the volcanic, primal rage that courses through his veins, and to regulate his own heart beat, but that control is a tenuous thing when McBride’s inner wound pulsates. Pitt’s once flawless face is now weathered, and his every wrinkle and every slight movement of his facial muscles in Ad Astra, tell epic stories of the emotional pain suffered and psychological crosses borne deep within McBride.

Pitt, the charismatic, eye-candy movie star, was on full display in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, and his star power carries Ad Astra from start to finish too, the difference here though is that Pitt also gives an exquisitely precise and detailed acting performance that gives his character, and the movie, depth and profound meaning.

The rest of Ad Astra’s cast all do splendid work, with Ruth Negga, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland making the utmost of the rather small roles they inhabit.

The cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema is simply gorgeous. Hoytema’s use of shadow and light is stunning as he creates a precise, austere yet visually vibrant background upon which the emotional journey of the film takes place. Hoytema, who won the prestigious Mickey©® award for his spectacular work in Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film Dunkirk, is among the best cinematographers working today, and Ad Astra is among his greatest work.

The entire aesthetic of the film is superb as the visual effects of the film look fantastic, as the near futuristic world in which the story takes place is entirely believable, and the script also enhances the authenticity of the film, as the minute details of the future world seem mundanely accurate, as does the science. The soundtrack, made by Max Richter, is brilliant as well, and helps to create an unnerving and ominous mood that flows through the film like a river, inevitable and occasionally swelling.

In conclusion, Ad Astra is the film where James Gray’s peculiar talents, aesthetic and style finally come together in a supernova of cinematic brilliance, and the result is a psychologically insightful and poignant film that speaks profound truths about the affliction and isolation of masculinity as it struggles to find its place in our cold, forbidding modern world.

As to whether I can recommend this film to people or not, I find myself in a conundrum. Ad Astra, which is definitely more art house than blockbuster, resonated so deeply and personally with me that I do not know if it will do the same with other people. I think women in particular might have a hard time connecting with the film, which has a paucity of female roles and minimal female dialogue, only because it is exclusively focused on the masculinity. That said…maybe women, who often bear the burden of the wounded masculinity of the men in their lives, will find solace and understanding in the film. I honestly do not know…all I know is that Ad Astra was one of the very best films I have seen this year, and spoke eloquently and astutely to the seemingly endless war that forever rages within me. If a war rages within you or within someone you love, maybe you should go see this movie, it might be a salve for wounds unseen, or better yet, an impetus for a much needed cease fire.


The Pentagon and Hollywood's Successful and Deadly Propaganda Alliance (Extended Edition)

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes 48 seconds

The Pentagon aids Hollywood in making money, and in turn Hollywood churns out effective propaganda for the brutal American war machine.

The U.S. has the largest military budget in the world, spending over $611 billion, far larger than any other nation on earth. The U.S. military also has at their disposal the most successful propaganda apparatus the world has ever known…Hollywood.

Since their collaboration on the first Best Picture winner Wings in 1927, the U.S. military has used Hollywood to manufacture and shape its public image in over 1,800 films and TV shows, and Hollywood has, in turn, used military hardware in their films and TV shows to make gobs and gobs of money. A plethora of movies like Lone Survivor, Captain Philips, and even blockbuster franchises like Transformers and Marvel, DC and X-Men super hero movies, have over the years agreed to cede creative control in exchange for use of U.S. military hardware.

In order to obtain cooperation from the Department of Defense (DOD), producers must sign contracts - Production Assistance Agreements - that guarantee a military approved version of the script makes it to the big screen. In return for signing away creative control, Hollywood producers save tens of millions of dollars from their budgets on military equipment, service members to operate the equipment, and expensive location fees.

Capt. Russell Coons, Director of Navy Office of Information West, told Al Jazeera what the military expects for their cooperation,

“We’re not going to support a program that disgraces a uniform or presents us in a compromising way.”

Phil Strub, the DOD chief Hollywood liaison, says the guidelines are clear,

“If the filmmakers are willing to negotiate with us to resolve our script concerns, usually we’ll reach an agreement. If not, filmmakers are free to press on without military assistance.”

In other words, the Department of Defense is using taxpayer money to pick favorites. The DOD has no interest in nuance, truth or, God-forbid, artistic expression, only in insidious jingoism that manipulates public opinion to their favor. This is chilling when you consider that the DOD is able to use its financial leverage to quash dissenting films it deems insufficiently pro-military or pro-American in any way.

The danger of the DOD-Hollywood alliance is that Hollywood is incredibly skilled at making entertaining, pro-war propaganda. The DOD isn’t getting involved in films like Iron Man, X-Men, Transformers or Jurassic Park III for fun, they are doing so because it’s an effective way to psychologically program Americans, particularly young Americans, not just to adore the military, but to worship militarism. This ingrained love of militarism has devastating real-world effects.


Lawrence Suid, author of “Guts and Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film” told Al Jazeera,

“I was teaching the history of the Vietnam War, and I couldn’t explain how we got into Vietnam. I could give the facts, the dates, but I couldn’t explain why. And when I was getting my film degrees it suddenly occurred to me that the people in the U.S. had never seen the U.S. lose a war, and when President Johnson said we can go into Vietnam and win, they believed him because they’d seen 50 years of war movies that were positive.”

As Mr. Suid points out, generations of Americans had been raised watching John Wayne valiantly storm the beaches of Normandy in films like The Longest Day, and thus were primed to be easily manipulated into supporting any U.S. military adventure because they were conditioned to believe that the U.S. is always the benevolent hero and inoculated against doubt.

This indoctrinated adoration of a belligerent militarism, conjured by Hollywood blockbusters, also resulted in Americans being willfully misled into supporting a farce like the 2003 Iraq war. The psychological conditioning for Iraq War support was built upon hugely successful films like Saving Private Ryan (1997), directed by Steven Spielberg, and Black Hawk Down (2001), produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, that emphasized altruistic American militarism. Spielberg and Bruckheimer are two Hollywood heavyweights, along with Paramount studios, considered by the DOD to be their most reliable collaborators.

Another example of the success of the DOD propaganda program was the pulse-pounding agitprop of the Tom Cruise blockbuster Top Gun (1986).

Top Gun, produced by Bruckheimer, was a turning point in the DOD-Hollywood relationship, as it came amidst a string of artistically successful, DOD-opposed, “anti-war” films, like Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, which gave voice to America’s post-Vietnam crisis of confidence. Top Gun was the visual representation of Reagan’s flag-waving optimism, and was the Cold War cinematic antidote to the “Vietnam Syndrome”.

Top Gun, which could not have been made without massive assistance from the DOD, was a slick two-hour recruiting commercial that coincided with a major leap in public approval ratings for the military. With a nadir of 50% in 1980, by the time the Gulf War started in 1991, public support for the military spiked to 85%.

Since Top Gun, the DOD propaganda machine has resulted in a current public approval for the military of 72%, with Congress at 12%, the media at 24% and even Churches at only 40%, the military is far and away the most popular institution in American life. Other institutions would no doubt have better approval ratings if they too could manage and control their image in the public sphere.

It isn’t just the DOD that uses the formidable Hollywood propaganda apparatus to its own end…the CIA does as well, working with films to enhance their reputation and distort history.

For example, as the War on Terror raged, the CIA deftly used Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) as a disinformation vehicle to revise their sordid history with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and to portray them-selves as heroic and not nefarious.

The CIA also surreptitiously aided the film Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and used it as a propaganda tool to alter history and to convince Americans that torture works.

The case for torture presented in Zero Dark Thirty was originally made from 2001 to 2010 on the hit TV show 24, which had support from the CIA as well. That pro-CIA and pro-torture narrative continued in 2011 with the Emmy-winning show Homeland, created by the same producers as 24, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa.


A huge CIA-Hollywood success story was Best Picture winner Argo (2012), which ironically is the story of the CIA teaming up with Hollywood. The CIA collaborated with the makers of Argo, including alleged liberal Ben Affleck, in order to pervert the historical record and elevate their image.

The CIA being involved in manipulating the American public should come as no surprise, as they have always had their fingers in the propagandizing of the American people, even in the news media with Operation Mockingbird that used/uses CIA assets in newsrooms to control narratives. 

Just like the DOD-Hollywood propaganda machine has real-world consequences in the form of war, the CIA-Hollywood teaming has tangible results as well. 

For example, in our current culture, the sins of the Intelligence community, from vast illegal surveillance to rendition to torture, are intentionally lost down the memory hole. People like former CIA director John Brennan, a torture supporter who spied on the U.S. Senate in order to undermine the torture investigation, or former head of the NSA James Clapper, who committed perjury when he lied to congress about warrantless surveillance, or former Director of National Intelligence Michael Hayden, who lied about and supported both surveillance and torture, are all held up by the liberal media, like MSNBC and even allegedly anti-authoritarian comedians like John Oliver and Bill Maher, as brave and honorable men who should be thanked for their noble service. 

The fact that this propaganda devil’s bargain between the DOD/CIA and Hollywood takes place in the self-declared Greatest Democracy on Earth™ is an irony seemingly lost on those in power who benefit from it, and also among those targeted to be indoctrinated by it, entertainment consumers, who are for the most part entirely oblivious to it.

If America is the Greatest Democracy in the World™ why are its military and intelligence agencies so intent on covertly misleading its citizens, stifling artistic dissent and obfuscating the truth? The answer is obvious…because in order to convince Americans that their country is The Greatest Democracy on Earth™, they must be misled, artistic dissent must be stifled and the truth must be obfuscated.

In the wake of the American defeat in the Vietnam war, cinema flourished by introspectively investigating the deeper uncomfortable truths of that fiasco in Oscar nominated films like Apocalypse Now, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Born on the Fourth of July, all made without assistance from the DOD.

The stultifying bureaucracy of America’s jingoistic military agitprop machine is now becoming more successful at suffocating artistic endeavors in their crib though. With filmmaking becoming ever more corporatized, it is an uphill battle for directors to maintain their artistic integrity in the face of cost-cutting budgetary concerns from studios.

In contrast to post-Vietnam cinema, after the unmitigated disaster of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the continuing quagmire in Afghanistan, there has been no cinematic renaissance, only a steady diet of mendaciously patriotic, DOD-approved, pro-war drivel like American Sniper and Lone Survivor. Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker (2008), shot with no assistance from the DOD, was the lone exception that successfully dared to portray some of the ugly truths of America’s Mesopotamian misadventure.

President Eisenhower once warned Americans to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.”

Eisenhower’s prescient warning should have extended to the military industrial entertainment complex of the DOD/CIA- Hollywood alliance, which has succeeded in turning Americans into a group of uniformly incurious and militaristic zealots.

America is now stuck in a perpetual pro-war propaganda cycle, where the DOD/CIA and Hollywood conspire to indoctrinate Americans to be warmongers, and in turn, Americans now demand more militarism from their entertainment and government to satiate their bloodlust.

The DOD/CIA - Hollywood propaganda alliance guarantees Americans will blindly support more future failed wars and will be willing accomplices in the deaths of millions more people across the globe.

A version of this article was originally published on March 12, 2018 are RT.


Beasts of No Nation : A Review



Beasts of No Nation is the story of a young boy who struggles to survive in his West African homeland as civil war ravages the country. The film is shot, written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, and is based upon Uzodinma Iweala's novel of the same name. The film stars Abraham Atta as the young boy Agu, and Idris Elba as "Commandant", a leader of a group of rebel fighters.

Beasts of No Nation is unquestionably one of the best films of the year. It is a devastating portrait of the making, and life, of a child soldier in a vicious and brutal war. Director Fukunaga masterfully gives the viewer the palpable sense of fear that thrives amidst the chaos and disorder of a country coming apart at the seams. It is out of this fertile intense fear that ruthless child soldiers are born, and atrocities committed. Fukunaga deftly shows Agu's transformation from a frightened little boy wretched from his loving family and alone in the world, to being a young man thrown in with a 'new warrior family', who frightens his world.

Beasts of No Nation has drawn comparisons to Apocalypse Now, and rightfully so. While it is not as great as that iconic classic, it certainly illustrates the same maniacal senselessness of fighting in a war with no meaning, no purpose and no end. At its mythic core, the film is really about a world absent of the feminine energy, or Anima. When Agu's mother must leave the war zone, Agu is left behind to emotionally fend for himself as a boy among the men. He knows this is the beginning of his perilous hero's journey from boyhood to manhood. When a boy evolves he needs both the Anima (feminine) and the Animus (masculine) to shape and form him during this delicate developmental period. Without the symmetrical push-pull tension of feminine vs. masculine, no psychological balance and harmony can be created. Not to mix animal metaphors, but when the Mama bear is not there to protect and nurture her cubs, then they must run with the ruthless wolves. With the wolves of men, no quarter is asked and none is given. Men can teach a boy how to be a man, but they cannot teach him how to be human. Beasts of No Nation shows what happens when the fragile Yin and Yang of masculine/feminine is knocked out of balance. As the film teaches us, when the Anima vanishes and the Animus is left to reign alone, violence, sadism, madness and rape prosper.

Writer/Director Cary Joji Fukunaga was also cinematographer on the film and he paints with a powerful and intricate touch. His camera movements and use of color are exquisite and give the film a distinct visual style. To be fair, I read a bit about a charge of "photographic plagiarism" on Fukunaga's part involving stealing a still photographers approach to shooting child soldiers under the influence of drugs. If the charge, which I take to be a very serious one, is true, it is a damning one. There is a thin line between paying homage to another visual artist, and downright theft, but when that line is crossed it is a deplorable act. Fukunaga is obviously an enormous storytelling and visual talent, I certainly hope he chooses to fall back on his own ideas and not borrow or out right steal from any other artists in the future.

As for the acting, Abraham Atta is an absolute powerhouse as Agu. He makes the transition from being a typical little boy who pesters his brother and is afraid to be away from his mother, to being a cold blooded killer, seamlessly and effortlessly. There is not a single false note from him in the entire film. He is a genuinely grounded, charming and dynamic screen presence. Atta is a Ghanaian born actor, and I really hope he is able to continue to work and grow as an actor in the years to come as he is a natural.


Idris Elba gives a staggering performance as "Commandant". Elba is one of the best actors working in film and television today. He can do drama and comedy, he can play the leading man or the villain. In Beasts of No Nation he plays a complex and charismatic leader of a rag-tag band of soldiers fighting government troops in a civil war. Elba's Commandante has an undeniable magnetism that lures both the viewer and Agu under his spell. Commandante is both bully and best friend, a father figure and a foe to Agu and the viewer alike. Without an appealing and forceful actor like Elba playing the role of Commandante, the narrative of the film would fall apart, as Agu's transformation would not be unbelievable for the audience if they themselves don't simultaneously fall under the Commandante's hypnotic allure right along with Agu. 

The rest of the cast are all Ghanaian born actors who do tremendous work. The entire cast is spot-on in their work and completely committed, bringing a chilling sense of realism to the picture. Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye as the mute child warrior Stryka is particularly fantastic. His character never says a word but conveys more than words ever could. Quaye carries a world and war weariness on his face that says more than any dialogue. Just a look from Quaye's Stryka can break your heart, or stop it, depending on his intentions. Quaye, like Atta, is a vibrant screen presence and an actor of undeniable intrigue. 

There has been a lot of talk about Beasts of No Nation and Elba, in particular, being snubbed by the Academy Awards because the film is a "black' film and Elba a black actor. I have written previously my thoughts on the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, so I won't go into great detail here. I will say this, Beasts of No Nation deserves to be nominated for Best Picture, Elba, and maybe even Quaye for Best Supporting Actor and Abraham Atta for Best Actor. The fact that they weren't nominated has nothing to do with race, it has to do with the film industry. Beasts of No Nation was distributed by Netflix, which made the film available immediately on it's online service. Netflix also skirted some distribution agreements with theaters and therefore only released the film into theatres in very limited areas for a short time. The Academy views Beasts of No Nation as a tv movie since it went online at the same time it went into theaters. This is why it was overlooked by the Academy.

Regardless of all that, the film deserves to be seen and admired. Fukunaga deserved a Best  Director nomination as well, but was overlooked right along with the film, Elba, Quaye and Atta. Race was not why that occurred. Right or wrong, the business is why it occurred.

In conclusion, Beasts of No Nation is a spectacular film. I saw it as a SAG dvd screener and desperately wish I could have seen it on the big screen. It is a visually dazzling, dramatically compelling and emotionally potent film. The acting, directing, writing and cinematography are all top notch and nearly flawless. I highly recommend you take the time and watch Beasts of No Nation, as it is most definitely worth your time and attention. 


Marlon Brando, The Big Bang and the Birth of Modern Acting


Marlon Brando was born on this day, April 3 in the year 1924. In turn, modern acting was born with Marlon Brando's revolutionary performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951. It is not an overstatement to say that every single acting performance we see on stage and screen today is an echo of Brando's Big Bang of modern acting in A Streetcar Named Desire. Some echoes of that performance are more faint than others, but they are echoes nonetheless.

The Big Bang and the birth of modern acting in the form of Brando's Streetcar performance was due to a perfect confluence of events. There were other actors before Brando who had turned away from the constricted theatricality of acting that had been the dominant style of the time and embraced Stanislavski's "Method" and the new realism, but none of those actors had Brando's movie star good looks, his innate talent and charisma, his vividly detailed imagination, his psychological and human instincts, his unrelenting commitment, and his unflinching artistic courage. The key to the perfect storm of Brando and his break out performance was that he had a director, Elia Kazan, who not only allowed him to embrace this new realism and discard the old-school theatricality, he openly encouraged him and collaborated with him. With Kazan, Brando was unchained and allowed to flourish, his talents unleashed upon an unsuspecting audience. The audience, and the acting world, would never be the same again.

Russian Konstantin Stanislavski, who developed "The Method", is the Patriarch of modern acting theory, with his three American prophets being acting teachers Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner. With Stanislavski as the Patriarch of modern acting, Brando, via his work with his teacher Stella Adler, became its realized messiah. 

Brando was volatile, fragile, charming, dynamic, magnetic and always unpredictable. In Streetcar his raw power, vulnerability, sexual dynamism and delicate yet volcanic emotionality gave him a presence no one had seen before on film. Before Brando, acting was more theatrical, mannered and emotionally confined. Brando shattered those stilted conventions by mastering the new way and ignited an acting revolution. He was a raw nerve, an open wound exposed to the world. He could whimper one moment and growl the next. Brando was tactile, visceral and sexual in a way no other actor had ever been. Marlon Brando was a wounded bear riding a bull in the china shop of the acting world. He was simultaneously loved and loathed for it. At the Academy Awards in 1951 the Best Actor Oscar went to Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen and not to Marlon Brando for A Streetcar Named Desire. Bogart is as old school Hollywood, classical acting style as it gets, and the old guard in the Academy weren't willing to reward the revolutionary in their midst just yet. The Academy did reward Brando's cast mates, in fact all three of the other acting awards went to his compatriots, Vivien Leigh won Best Actress, Kim Hunter, Best Supporting actress and Karl Malden, Best Supporting Actor, making Brando's snub all the more apparent. 

Three years later in 1954, Brando did get his Best Actor Oscar for playing washed up palooka Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront, also directed by Elia Kazan. The acting world and Hollywood were trying to grab a hold of the tail of the artistic tiger that was Marlon Brando. Hollywood though, is interested in money, not art, and for an artist like Brando, that is death. Hollywood believed they needed to tame Brando's voracious artistic spirit in hopes of controlling him and breaking the bank. Brando wanted to experiment, to challenge himself, to investigate and explore, while Hollywood wanted him to go along to get along and not rock the money making boat. Brando didn't play the game and the studios grew tired of his increasingly difficult and costly behavior. He soon found himself on the outside of Hollywood looking in.  "Business before art, profit above all else" is the Hollywood mantra, and Brando was too wild to keep in the palace so they cast him out to wander in the desert.

It wasn't until Francis Ford Coppola cast him as Vito Corleone in The Godfather in 1971, over the objections of the studio, that Brando got back into the game. Brando won his much deserved second Best Actor Oscar for his work in The Godfather. There is a scene in the film which perfectly sums up Brando and his genius. With precious light fading and the clock ticking, Brando asked director Coppola if he could improvise Vito Corleone's death scene. Coppola agreed and rolled the cameras as Brando played a game with a child playing his grandson. Brando puts an orange peel in his mouth and makes a monster face to the little boy, who instantly cries in fear. Brando gently reassures the boy that he is harmless and just playing. The boy calms himself, and then Brando directs him to run through a row of tomato plants, with Brando chasing him like a big monster. The chase goes in and out of the garden rows until Corleone begins to cough and loses his breath and then collapses. This improvisation is so mythologically and psychologically perfect for the character of Vito Corleone that it is sublime brilliance. This is Brando at his finest, playful yet committed and ever the insightful truth teller.

He followed his Oscar win in The Godfather with his seventh Best Actor nomination for Last Tango in Paris in 1972, one of his best and most personal performances. Last Tango in Paris is one of his most brilliant performances because it is so brazenly honest in its display of dishonesty. Brando bares not only his wounded soul, but his broken spirit, his self-loathing appetites, his vicious weakness, his barbaric ugliness and his smirking shadow. It is a mesmerizing performance that reveals more about the actual man and artist than any other of his great works.


With his career re-born in middle age with The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, Brando changed his approach to the studios. If they wanted to make it about money, he would make it about money. He used his newfound leverage to demand exorbitant pay for minimal work. While bringing his formidable gravitas and unforgiving intensity to Apocalypse Now (1979), he also brought his expanding girth and a time limit, he would only work for three weeks and with a price tag of $1 million. He did the same with Superman (1978), demanding and getting $3.7 million for two weeks work.

Shortly after he retired from acting, only to return a decade later with an intricately detailed and subtly charismatic performance in the 1989 apartheid film A Dry White Season for which he was nominated for yet another Best Supporting Actor Oscar. His career staggered along after that with a series of rather forgettable films and one personal family tragedy after another. Losing his son to prison for manslaughter and his daughter to suicide. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "Show me a hero, and I'll write you a tragedy", and so it was with the Godfather and hero of modern acting. 


In 1996 I had a conversation with a friend of mine (who happens to be a movie star and great actor) who had just worked with Brando on The Island of Dr. Moreau. The film was unrelentingly abysmal, and this star readily acknowledged that fact. The quality of the movie didn't matter though as the only thing the two of us really wanted to talk about was Brando. After a few minutes of us doing 'dueling Brandos', a natural occurrence whenever the topic of Marlon Brando comes up, I asked my friend, "what was Marlon Brando really like?" My friend said Brando was a good guy and a pleasure to be around for other actors, even if he was some sort of mad genius and drove the producers and director insane. I then asked my friend about an odd thing that happens in the film and is never addressed, namely, at one point, Brando's character, Dr. Moreau, shows up and is wearing white pancake makeup all over and a white wedding dress type of muumuu for no apparent reason at all, accompanied by a mini-me version of himself wearing the same get up. Nothing else about the character was different, he acted the same, he spoke the same, he was the same guy…except he was entirely covered in white makeup and a wedding dress (veil included). To add to the oddity, none of the other characters mention the get up or comment on it. My friend explained to me that Brando just showed up in that outfit one day, and walked on set and no one said anything to him about it. The director didn't know what to do and knew he couldn't dare question Brando about it. None of the other actors even cared at this point of the cursed production, so they just went with it, figuring, 'Hey, its Marlon Brando!' My friend explained that he knew it was a very strange thing to do, but that he understood what Brando was up to only after the filming was completed. Brando didn't care about what was expected of him or of what anyone thought, or about conventions, he just did what he felt like and no one was going to stop him or even say anything to him about it….just like the power-mad Dr. Moreau. Brando's ego, madness and irrationality matched Moreau's, and in hindsight it proved that Brando was not afraid to look the fool in order to prove a deeper, more human and artistic point. When, like Brando, you become a sort of living artist god, you must go to deeper and stranger lengths to prove to people that you are still human. Brando embraced the fool in order to try and elicit some sort of response from people, even if it was negative one, as long as it was honest. No one responded to the madness of Brando and Dr. Moreau, and the film is an indictment of the fear and lifelessness of those surrounding him, not to the mad-genius at the center of it.

The Island of Dr. Moreau is a long way from A Streetcar Named Desire, but that doesn't diminish the colossal impact of Brando's universe changing performance back in 1951. The Big Bang of his Streetcar performance unleashed a chain reaction in the acting world that reverberates to this day. Marlon Brando was quickly followed by James Dean, a younger, more feminine version of Brando, in Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden (directed by Elia Kazan). James Dean was followed by Paul Newman and the lineage goes from there up to Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep in the 70's and 80's, and onto Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore of today.

There were fine actors before Marlon Brando, there have been fine actors after him, and there will be more fine actors in the years to come, but there will never be another actor who will radically change the art and craft of acting like Marlon Brando did. As Babe Ruth is to baseball, as Sir Isaac Newton is to science, and as Shakespeare is to playwriting, so Marlon Brando is to the art and craft of acting.  As director Martin Scorsese said, "He is the marker. There is 'before Brando' and 'after Brando'." Sadly, we are in the 'After Brando' period, and all of us, actors and audience alike, owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the man who showed us the way. A toast to a revolutionary genius...Happy Birthday to Marlon Brando, the greatest actor to have ever walked the earth. Slàinte.

© 2015