Marlon Brando and the Problems with Collective Cartooning

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud defines the act of cartooning as “amplification through simplification.”  In other words, a cartoon ignores most of the details, focusing instead on only one or two key components.  In the hands of a masterful cartoonist, it’s a wonderful, shorthand way of communicating ideas simply and clearly, and it’s a powerful method for rendering a character or telling a story.

But as it’s often practiced in our meme-driven culture, it’s a rotten method for rendering an actual human being.

Collectively, we seem to do a lot of cartooning these days—particularly of public figures and artists.  We reduce them to a couple of character traits and then magnify those traits to represent the entirety of the person and their work.  A cartoon created by someone with genuine expertise can often be insightful and can help clarify complex ideas.  But the sort of unofficial, groupthink version of cartooning often does the exact opposite by recklessly and inaccurately perpetuating false impressions.

We see it often in politics, where things have become so divisive that many people’s emotions and perceptions are driven by haphazardly constructed cartoons rather than actual facts.  Currently, there is a semi-serious movement to impeach the President of the United States for … for … well, apparently for high crimes and misdemeanors to be named later.  That’s the sort of muddle that comes from accepting a groupthink cartoon.

But we also see the same thing happening to many of our popular artists.  In his official DC Comics biography, Batman writer Scott Snyder describes himself as “a dedicated and un-ironic fan of Elvis Presley.”  Un-ironic fan?  What an odd phrase.  I’m sure some of you enjoy Elvis’s music while others do not, but clearly he’s one of the most influential recording artists of the last 100 years.  And yet, Snyder obviously feels pressure to clarify his enthusiasm.

That’s because Elvis Presley, for many, is no longer a musician.  He’s a cartoon—a fat, drug-addled, self-indulgent, recluse of the Howard Hughes tradition.   He’s the gaudy bastion of bad taste and peanut butter and banana sandwiches, shooting out television screens and haunting the canvases of thousands of black velvet paintings while legions of impersonators cultivate their sideburns and practice saying, “Thank you … thank you very much” in an accent that sounds like a cross between something from The Beverly Hillbillies and Li’l Abner.  The cartoon Elvis is an easy figure to mock, but it has little to do with a real person, much less an artist.

And strangely enough, we often seem to embrace these reductive cartoons when discussing our most distinctive and creative artists.  William Faulkner was undeniably a genius, but I have to ‘fess up to making more than my fair share of dismissive Faulkner-and-Jack-Daniels jokes.  Ask someone about Orson Welles and they’re likely as not to call up a YouTube video of his frozen peas commercial.  And in the comics industry, we’re increasingly seeing cartoonish descriptions of that fellow from Northampton—the one with the long beard.

That’s why when someone offers a corrective to one of these overly simplified and misleading cartoons, it behooves us pay attention.  Anyone who wants better insight into the legacy of Elvis, for example, can read the wonderful two-volume biography by music critic Peter Guralnick who actually takes the radical approach of writing about Elvis as a musician.  Imagine that.

But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better, more ambitious, or more effective “recovery” effort than Susan Mizruchi’s recent biography of Marlon Brando, called Brando’s Smile:  His Life, Thought, and Work.

Not to geek out on you too much, but it’s a pretty good bet that I’ve read more biographies of Marlon Brando than anyone you know—from Bob Thomas’s Brando: Portrait of the Artist as a Rebel in 1973 through Stefan Kanfer’s Somebody:  The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando in 2009.  But over the last half dozen years or so I’ve finally started skipping some of them, and with titles like Brando Unzipped it’s not hard to figure out why.  While some of the Brando books have been better than others, almost all of them have engines that run primarily on high-octane celebrity gossip.  The composite figure they draw is of a dim-witted, over-sexed, self-absorbed, lazy movie star.

In fact, none other than Truman Capote set the pattern for this, writing a wickedly dismissive profile for The New Yorker in 1957 where he very obviously and consistently manipulates quotations from his interview with Brando in an effort to make the actor appear ridiculous.

Such reductive cartooning sells, transforming complex artists into punchlines or half-baked Jungian archetypes.  But as the inaccuracies of such cartoons begin to spread, we gradually lose track of the real, complex person and of the art.

If you’ll allow me to get personal for a moment, I didn’t really discover Marlon Brando’s work until shortly after graduating high school.  Like most of you, I had seen him earlier as Jor-El in Richard Donner’s Superman, but as a kid I had no idea that he was anybody special.  In my mind he was just one of those talky guys from the “boring” part of the movie.  But the summer before I entered college I finally discovered The Godfather, followed in rapid succession by On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Apocalypse Now.

The acting itself, of course, was extraordinary.  Brando was easily the most influential serious actor of the past century.[1] Whether you’re watching Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, or Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, you’re seeing the legacy of Marlon Brando.  Yet, much like Elvis, Brando’s significance is often lost, replaced by a reductive and inaccurate caricature.

Part of what made Brando so fascinating beyond the performances themselves was the sense that he seemed to bring to his work far more than the professionalism of a good actor like Spencer Tracy, whose maxim of “know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture” often seemed to sum up the expectations of a film actor.  But Brando seemed different—more like a genuine creative artist than a player in someone else’s game.  Brando’s film projects, his characters, his on-screen aesthetic choices, and even his off-screen fights for political and social justice all spoke to a larger vision.  If there were an actor you could mention in the same breath as Pablo Picasso, Samuel Becket, or Igor Stravinsky, it was surely Marlon Brando.

However, over the years this version of Brando grew smaller and smaller.  His work was still amazing, but the biographies and documentaries, rather than enlarging their subject, tended to shrink it.  Gradually, the Brando I saw in my mind became less like Picasso and more like an overweight Justin Bieber.

That’s why I can’t praise Mizruchi’s book, Brando’s Smile, enough.  It’s a book I’ve been waiting half my life to read, and it offers the most amazing restoration work on an artist’s image that I’ve ever seen.  Through persistence and determination, Mizruchi wound up gaining access to Brando’s personal records and his vast library of over 4000 books.  A voracious reader from his teenage years through his death, Brando was seemingly never without a stack of books on everything from Greek philosophy to types of wood.  Science, entomology, politics, fiction, history, psychology, literary classics … his was a veritable university library.  And as Mizruchi learned, over one-fourth of the books were annotated by Brando, many of them heavily so and in multiple waves, first with pencil, later pen.  The same is true of his scripts and production materials.  She notes that his records were remarkably well organized, which belies the myth that he never took his movie work seriously.

Mizruchi uses all this information and all these annotations to take us through his life and career.  Her goal is never simply to tell us “the Brando story,” but rather to use these materials to explain the ideology behind so much of his life and work.  It’s the portrait of an artist and a thinker, someone for whom almost no decision came without an intellectual justification.

Let’s take a look at just one example.  In 1958 Brando appeared opposite his first great acting rival, Montgomery Clift, in a World War II drama called The Young Lions.  The movie was an adaptation of a popular novel by Irwin Shaw that told the stories of a Jewish American soldier, played by Clift, and a Nazi soldier played by Brando.  In the novel, Brando’s Nazi was the representative of evil, but Brando refused to play the part that way.  Instead, he insisted on multiple re-writes, eventually transforming the character into a sympathetic German soldier who supports the Reich until he finally realizes—too late—the horrors of the Holocaust.

Now most accounts of the making of this film tell this same story, but they usually cast it as an example of a Hollywood star driven by ego, crafting a sympathetic role for himself (as a Nazi, no less), and insisting on a melodramatic and sacrificial death scene, complete with a Christ-like pose.  In fact, according to several of the accounts I’ve previously read, Clift was so disgusted with Brando’s grandstanding that he threatened to walk off the movie.

That makes for good copy and it feeds the image of the cartoon Brando.  It’s a scandalous account of the moral and artistic bankruptcy of a bloated movie star, overfed on a diet of praise and boredom.

But as Mizruchi demonstrates, that narrative is not only misleading—it’s verifiably false.  Among several of the more heavily annotated books Brando was reading at the time was Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism.  The book was a deliberate attempt to broaden the public’s understanding of fascism beyond the confines of a single nation like Germany.  What Brando seemed most moved by was Reich’s argument that we all carry the potential for fascism within us, and that the greatest atrocities are often carried out by ordinary people who, for a variety of reasons, remain silent or even participate in injustice.

At the time, Brando even appeared on a television program in a friendly debate with Irwin Shaw, and ironically it was the so-called literary man who argued for the essentially “evil” nature of the Nazis while the actor argued for the far more complex position that each of us carry the seeds of fascism within ourselves and that we must be aware of it in order to combat it.  Thus, when Brando’s sympathetically-depicted soldier discovers the true horrors that he has been supporting, he might as well have been us.

By showing what Brando was reading and responding to at the time, Mizruchi is able to demonstrate the intellectual foundation for Brando’s approach to the character and the whole project.  Of course, I suppose an exaggerated anecdote about a ham actor and some petty jealousy between rivals makes for a better story … or at least a better cartoon.

Reading this book has helped me understand what attracted me to Brando’s work.  For the first time, I realized that when I was embracing On the Waterfront and The Godfather, I was also discovering the revisionist comics of writers like Alan Moore, and the two couldn’t have dovetailed more perfectly.  While I was watching Brando humanize a Mafia Don, I was also reading Moore as he turned the morality of superhero comics upside down with deconstructed heroes coping with terrible flaws.

That’s when I realized that the bloody, cartoon smiley face that became the central, iconic image of Watchmen could just as easily have been a distillation of the career of Marlon Brando, where nothing is as simple as it seems.  Perhaps that’s why, when I hear many of my friends in the comics community demanding that superhero stories conform to old-fashioned notions of good and evil, I wince a little.  It feels like our culture is trying hard enough to make cartoons out of real people.  Seems only fair that we find some real people in our cartoons.

That’s something Marlon Brando was trying to teach us half a century ago.

[1] One could make a case for Constantine Stanislavski, the Russian actor, director, and theorist, though his influence largely comes from his directing and writing.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer


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