Weekly Obsession 2023-10-02: Apocalypse Now” and Marlon Brando

It was about time I got around to watching Apocalypse Now, the cult-classic 1979 Viet Nam war film from Francis Ford Coppola that had an equally apocalyptic production. I don’t know why it took me until I was 22 years, 6 months, and 20 days old to see it, but I’m glad I did. I saw it last Saturday (there, now you have no excuses not to wish me a happy birthday), and it still lives rent-free in my head. Seeing this film spurred me on a path of learning all about Marlon Brando, who I had previously only seen in The Godfather and On the Waterfront. These two films also witnessed great performances from him - true highlights of his career - but the context of what was happening behind the scenes in his life was completely different for these three films, and I guess I’ll enlighten you because I found this all rather interesting.

You may have heard people refer to Norm Macdonald as the comedian’s comedian” because his technique and methodology were, in many ways, groundbreaking for its time, garnering him respect and admiration from fellow comedians. Despite this, his brand of comedy seemingly confounded and isolated a large part of the public. In the same manner, Marlon Brando is really an actor’s actor” because he broke through a wall which had stood since the beginning of cinema: the pressure to conform to a model of the Shakespearean Actor

Before there were movies, there was theater, and theater outruns the history of movies by many many centuries (thus spoke the Greeks). An actor in a play needs to project their voice and speak c l e a r l y for the audience to follow the story. Shakespearean actors often over-act as well. That sounds like a bad thing but it’s used as a neutral term in the theater biz; overacting is just increasing the amplitude a character’s emotions so the audience can understand how they feel more easily. An example of an equivalent from eastern culture would be Kabuki actors.

If someone on twitter quips say it louder for the people in the back” in response to you, they’re actually instructing you to over-act. maybe. anyway. 

Good film directors will put emphasis on the emotions of a performance by moving into a close-up shot, and if you’re watching in the theater that means you might be seeing someone’s face projected to be 12 feet tall and 8 feet wide. Every little facial muscle, every eye twitch, even individual beads of sweat on the actors face may now be considered part of their performance, because the audience can pick up on it - even if they’re not processing it consciously, it influences your subconscious. 

I’m making my way back to Apocalypse Now, just give me a minute.

The first wave of actors came from theater; some of them stayed in the film business until the 50s! Many of them had been drilled by their former instructors from theater school that good acting meant clarity and projection. Watch old classics like Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, or Stage Coach - look at their performances with a critical eye and think about how different they are from modern actors, and you’ll see what I mean.*

Marlon Brando broke the mold by leaning into realistic mannerisms and natural speech. He was criticized by the old guard of actors for mumbling, stumbling over words, or sometimes looking aimlessly around the room while speaking. They saw it as imperfections, he saw it as enhancing the performance. He wasn’t the only one doing this at the time, but he was at the tip-of-the-spear; he won an Oscar for Best Actor in 1954 for his performance in On the Waterfront in which he used all these aforementinoed techniques at a level never seen before.

A tremendous share of great actors from following eras cite him as an inspiration: Jack Nicholson, Johnny Depp, Ryan Gosling, Al Pacino. Well, Pacino acted alongside him in literally The Godfather, so that one doesn’t really surprise me, but I digress. Someone on YouTube even made a clip compilation of famous people talking about Marlon Brando, and then a part two.

It’s hard to call Marlon Brando a great man: he cheated on all three of his former wives with a laundry list of partners, he had 11 confirmed children, and he was famous for his outbursts. To be an actor, it helps to be naturally melodramatic, emotional, and a good liar - I don’t know why everyone keeps getting surprised that Hollywood actors are some of the most insane people on Earth, it’s the same reason why CEOs are some of the greediest people on Earth.

At the end of the day, Marlon Brando did not give a single flying f*ck what people thought of him. If he didn’t like an interviewer’s questions, he would flip the script and psychologically tear apart the interviewer, like he did with Dick Cavett. He leveraged his influence to intentionally sabotage people on set just to prank them for his own amusement. He died in 2004 of heart disease because he got so obese from not being able to control his own inhibitions.

But he was also a very progressive thinker, becoming a politically active supporter for Native American rights in the late 50s and 60s. He openly criticized all of Hollywood for portraying Native Americans wholly inauthentically for decades. He rejected his second Best Actor Oscar win in 1973 for The Godfather and instead sent Sacheen Littlefeather to represent him on the big stage.** Everyone can agree that he was on the right side of history with this one, and far more vocal about it than anyone else 50 years ago. To date, only three people have ever rejected an Oscar, and Dudley Nichols ended up accepting his later anyway after the writer’s strike was over.

I’ve brought you up to my current level of knowledge about Marlon Brando, five days after watching Apocalypse Now (that’s why it’s called a Weekly Obsession™) but let’s get back to the film.

Apocalypse Now is about an army major sent on a crack-mission to kill a Colonel who has gone completely rogue deep in the jungle of Viet Nam. The Colonel in question is Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando.

Colonel Kurtz is meant to be absolutely deranged, operating totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct” to quote the film directly. At this stage in his career, Marlon Brando had already had his high in the 50s, followed by a string of bad performances paired with manic behavior on set during the 60s which almost steamrolled his career, and then a resurgence in 1972 with The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris coming out in the same year to catapult him back into the spotlight, following by yet another downswing. What I’m getting at is that he seems like the perfect amount of crazy for the role. He was, but it had offshoot consequences.

By 1976, Coppola convinced Brando to star in the film for a $2 million paycheck - Martin Sheen, who played the main character, earned just $20k. Other side-characters played by the likes of Lawrence Fishburne were paid $10k or just $5k.*** In the end, Brando only had 15 minutes of screen time. He threw the entire production into a panic by showing up to set completely overweight for a character who was meant to look physically like a lean mean fighting machine - he had promised to get into shape, but obviously hadn’t kept his promise. Coppola was distraught to learn on top of this that he hadn’t read the book The Heart of Darkness on which the film was heavily based (especially Brando’s character). The production was already grossly overbudget: if they had kept filming with Brando for more than a month period specified in his contract, they would have had to pay him even more and sunk the budget completely. Coppola put the entire film production on an emergency pause for two weeks to go on a 1 on 1 boating adventure with Brando in the Philippines, where they were filming, to hash things out. When they came back, they had come up with a plan on how to portray the character. His performance diverged further from the source material, but has nonetheless proven to be one of the most critically acclaimed supporting performances of all time. They still couldn’t fix the fact that he was fat though: half the time Brando is on-screen, his body is shrouded in darkness and only his face is lit. The most well-lit scene of him only made it onto the extended edition of the film.

I concur with the critics - his performance has stuck in my mind since I saw it. It was really unexpected! Colonel Kurtz ends up being so much more subdued and lucid than you would expect, being able to distill the horror of his violence into a logical thought process. The performance generally defies the conventions of films, especially modern films. (James Cameron would never.)

I would highly recommend seeing Apocalypse Now, it’s a miracle this film even got finished considering the problems with production. An entire set was destroyed by a typhoon causing a month-long hiatus - an event which Francis Ford Coppola would later reflect as being surprisingly not the worse thing that happened on set.”

That’s it. This was a long one, and won’t be the norm.

See you next week!


*Side note: earlier films used close-ups far less often, opting usually for the medium or medium-long shot most of the time. Most people correctly point out technicolor, audio timbre, and slower pacing / fewer cuts as hallmarks of what makes a film look old” (add in a lack of diverse casting, of course), but this change in shot-framing over the decades is an underplayed contributor to this old feeling. It makes a massive difference! And the shift to more close shots ran concurrent with the change in acting style.

**He also sent her a 15 page speech to read on-stage, which, to everyone’s surprise, was not read in-full by her.

***This was Lawrence Fishburne’s film debut - he was only 17 at the start of filming. It would be 20 years until he delivered an eternally memorable performance as Morpheus in The Matrix in 1999. I didn’t even recognize him until I learned about it on the Wikipedia page later.