Burn! Marlon Brando’s favourite film

Burn!

At the beginning of the 1960s Marlon Brando’s life and career took a turn. As Karina Longworth documents on her meticulously researched and compelling compulsive Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This, here, Brando was a unique phenomenon.

On the one hand, he was the first ever Hollywood, and therefore global, celebrity. There had been Hollywood stars before, but their creation had always been the result of a carefully calibrated plan concocted by the studios in cahoots with the press. Brando’s fame was of a different sort and at another level entirely. He generated an air of hysteria and of frenzied mania that was shockingly new.

And on the other, and even more remarkably, indeed uniquely, his fame was the result of his talent. Before he became the global celebrity of the 1950s, Brando had taken the craft and art of acting to pieces and re-constructed it as if from scratch.

A Streetcar Named Desire

His performance, on stage in 1947, and then on screen in 1951, in Tennessee WilliamsA Streetcar Named Desire floored everyone who witnessed it. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael was famously embarrassed, having witnessed what she took to be an actual break down. Only later realising that he’d been behaving like that deliberately.

He got his first Oscar nomination in 1951, for Streetcar, a second in ’52, for Viva Zapata!, a third in ’53, for Mark Antony in Julia Cesar, and a fourth, which he finally won with, for On the Waterfront, in ’54. That’s a working-class thug, a Mexican revolutionary, a Shakespearean hero and a wannabe boxer from the Bronx, each of whom he seems to effortlessly inhabit and actually become.

But after his directorial debut, One-Eyed Jacks, was unfairly overlooked in ’61, and, even more crucially, after then being blamed, again unfairly, for what was seen as the fiasco of Mutiny on the Bounty a year later, Brando became thoroughly disillusioned with the whole business of movies and of acting. And what followed, between ‘62-‘72, were what he later came to call my ‘fuck you years’. 

He now started to devote more and more of his time to the social cause closest to his heart and the issue Hollywood seemed most determined to ignore; racism. He marched with Martin Luther King and attended vigils and protests with native Americans at Wounded Knee. While the films he chose to appear in seemed to have been selected with the express purpose of wilfully derailing his career. 

Last Tango in Paris

But amongst the succession of impressively awful films he made during these years, he quietly snuck in a couple of gems. He starred alongside Elizabeth Tailor as a gay army officer in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, in 1967. And two years later he made Burn!, Gillo Pontecorvo’s follow up to his seminal The Battle of Algiers, from ’66.

Like that earlier film, Burn! is viscerally anti-imperialist. But where the Battle of Algiers had been neo-realist in style, with non-professional actors in what at times could be mistaken for a documentary, Burn! is in glorious technicolour, and has an epic sweep that’s framed by an Ennio Morricone score. And it stars Marlon Brando.

Significantly, it’s Brando’s favourite film of his and one that, shock horror, he seems to have been actually proud of. And this despite the massive falling out that he and the director had during its making. 

Brando had stormed off in protest at the treatment of the Columbian natives who had been playing the extras. And when the film bombed subsequently at the box office, its producer, Alberto Grimaldi, took Brando to court. 

A year later, the producer’s cousin, one Bernardo Bertolucci, suggested a solution. Why don’t they offer to drop the case if Brando would agree to star in Bertolucci’s next film for the bargain basement fee of $250,000? They’d even throw in ten percentage points of the gross, to sweeten the deal? After all, 10% of nothing won’t cost them anything, and in those days foreign language films were completely irrelevant, box office wise. 

Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Last Tango in Paris went on to become the 7th highest grossing film in north America in 1973 and Brando became so wealthy, he was able to sink into what was effectively early retirement in the 1980s. 

In Burn!, Brando plays an unscrupulous imperial adventurer, who arrives on a Caribbean island with a plot to oust the Portuguese and replace them with the British crown. So he manipulates one of the natives to lead a rebellion, only to betray him to the all-powerful sugar beet company which controls the region’s economy. 

Just as he would in the Godfather and Last Tango subsequently, Brando delivers a gloriously ambiguous performance. He’s so casually calculated and his nefariousness is cloaked so charmingly that it’s very hard to know whether to cheer for him or for his Marxist adversary, who we are clearly supposed to be rooting for. 

Like the Battle of Algiers before it, Burn! is mercilessly anti-imperialist and unashamedly champions the black cause and the native culture that will soon be justly liberated. Thrillingly, it’s one of the most openly anti-white and pro-black films you’re ever likely to see.

And it’s a measure of Brando’s intellectual rigour that it is his performance as so repellent a character, albeit a complex one, that remained the performance he was most proud of. And, of course, of his gargantuan self-esteem issues. 

You can see the trailer to Burn! here

And the trailer to the Battle of Algiers here.

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Jack Nicholson’s Regal Purple Patch and “The King Of Marvin Gardens”.

Jack Nicholson with Bruce Dern

Jack Nicholson with Bruce Dern

You can judge a man by the company he keeps. And nothing defines an actor quite as distinctly as the roles he choses and the directors he decides to work with.

In the eight years between 1969 and ’76 Jack Nicholson made fifteen films, nine of which make for a truly remarkable roll call. And even the six among them that don’t quite work reveal an exceptional if restless intelligence.

He began in 1969, with the seminal and still surprisingly watchable Easy Rider. And finished up in 1976 with The Missouri Breaks, where he plays a conventional, down to earth cowboy to his great friend Marlon Brando’s lawless maverick.

Brando was the only actor who possessed an even greater talent, and whose spirit was even less securely moored. It’s hardly surprising that the pair should have gravitated toward one another.

In between, he played the cocky misogynist in Carnal Knowledge for Mike Nichols in ’71. The salt of the earth sailor in Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail in ’73. The down at heel private investigator, trying to stay afloat in a sea of corruption in Polanski’s peerless Chinatown in ’74. The introspective existentialist in Antonioni’s The Passenger in ’75. And the archetypal non—conformist in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, also in ’75.

Jack Nicholson with Faye Dunaway in Chinatown.

Jack Nicholson with Faye Dunaway in Chinatown.

And amongst all of which, he made two films with Bob Rafelson. The more famous of which was Five Easy Pieces in 1970, where he plays a man who is in many ways a combination of all of the above. A brilliant pianist who turns his back on his bourgeois upbringing to take to the road and head west, in the vain hope of giving his life direction and meaning.

The following year he paired up with Rafelson again, in The King Of Marvin Gardens. This time he plays an intellectual whose only outlet are the weekly broadcasts he makes on night-time radio to his handful of faithful listeners.

Jack Nicholson with Marlon Brando in The Missouri Breaks.

Jack Nicholson with Marlon Brando in The Missouri Breaks.

But he’s lured east to Atlanta by his brother, played by Bruce Dern, in pursuit of the American dream. But that, as everybody knows, lies west. And all he finds instead is a rain-trodden, out of season, seaside purgatory. And from there, the only way is down.

All of the above are outstanding films in their own right. Each and every one of them, and they all merit repeated viewings. And those nine performances of his exhibit a staggering range, remarkable depth and an incredible determination to work with the most exciting and challenging people he could find. More than anything else, it shows an unrivalled willingness to explore the Greek maxim inscribed above the ancient temple at Delphi;

Know thyself.

The King Of Marvin Gardens is on at the end of May in the IFI in Dublin. And, if there’s any justice in the world, at a cinema near you.

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