This article and other features about the stars of Tinseltown can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Golden Age of Hollywood. This edition can be ordered here.
Before us, a crack, about half as wide as our car opened in the track. At the wheel beside me, Marlon Brando aimed the nose of his car at the opening. He shoved his foot down hard on the accelerator. My stomach flipped convulsively. I shut my eyes, then opened them. e crack widened in the split second before we bored into it. On each side of us frantic drivers jerked fenders out of our way.
As we hurtled through the opening, Brando put his head out. With contempt he said one word, “Toad!” to the driver on our left. He said it in a soft mumble. But it carried clearly.
As Hollywood interviews go, I thought, this one is going to be different.
I should have known from the beginning: that he didn’t mean what the usual dweller in Hollywood means when he says “to the beach.” Preparatory to creeping up on him, I had studied him from afar. My research had indicated that he is a nonconformist and endowed with a genius for the unexpected. He’d brought neighbors out of their beds at midnight because he’d chosen that hour to pound his African drums. Meeting a movie producer he had made up his mind in advance not to like, he’d held a fresh-laid egg in his hand while the producer shook it vigorously.
Paradoxically — and this makes him even more difficult to pigeonhole — when it comes to sad scenes on the screen, he is a four-handkerchief sentimentalist. Throughout a showing of THE YEARLING, he oozed tears. During a screening of THE WIZARD OF OZ, he wept copiously at the touching spots. Not having a handkerchief with him, he’d wiped his tears away on the face of the girl he was dating.
Despite such quirks, I was stupid enough to think that he would accept the Hollywood concept of “the really basic things.” What else could “to the beach” mean but a Malibu chalet, complete with picture windows, sun furniture and chafing-dish planters sprouting exotic plants? As for transportation, studios saw to it that you were rolled to keep an appointment with one of their stars in one of their long, purring limousines. Failing this, Brando would surely take me to the place appointed for our interview in his racy British sports roadster. As all the world knows, Hollywood stars come equipped with one of these at birth.
But I discovered that when Brando said “to the beach,” he meant just that. “I know a place where we can be alone,” he’d told me. “It’s 20 miles up the coast. Nothing but sand. We can sit there and talk while gulls hover overhead and pelicans dive — whoom! — for fish.”
As we headed in the direction of Santa Monica by way of Venice, Brando announced to me, “Back East the rocks are gray, dripping things. I don’t like the geology there. I haven’t yet found a place I’d like to live. Maybe around the Sault Sainte Marie Canal, where they’ve got big pine trees.”
We zoomed past Malibu. en past Los Tunas beach. Brando peered out as if looking for something. Then he found it. It was a side road leading behind a row of modest beach homes and running parallel to a stretch of sand bordering the Pacific. Stepping out of his car, Brando pulled off a T-shirt and dropped it on the front seat. He stepped out of his trousers—revealing faded swim trunks—and discarded his sneakers. I took my own shirt off and started to remove my slacks. Then I thought better of it. There’s no point letting the California sun have its merry way with me, I thought. Cooking my back, chest and shoulders is enough to pay for one interview.
I picked up my briefcase, and we walked toward the water. Our bare feet squirted sand under our heels. I sat down and took a notebook and pencils out of my briefcase.
“I make a mistake in talking to anybody,” Brando said, eying my preparations warily. “What I have to say is either misinterpreted or misunderstood, and I always feel betrayed afterward. But I’m building up armor against this sort of thing,” he went on defiantly, “so they can’t hurt me anymore.” By “they” it was obvious that he meant people like me. He didn’t say it with conviction. Nor did it take much insight to see that the bruises left by previous interviewers still hurt.
Rumor Versus Reality
I took a sheaf of notes from my briefcase. They were jottings of statements made about him, quotations of remarks he was supposed to have made. I handed them to him, gave him a pencil and asked him to correct the ones he found inaccurate.
He brooded over them darkly. “It says here that I’m a ‘brilliant brat’; that I’m ‘rude, moody, sloppy, prodigal’; that I’m ‘part child, part genius’; that I’m ‘an unhousebroken harlequin.’ They also complain that I scratch myself like a monkey. If it’s rude to scratch when you itch, then I don’t want to bless the world with my presence,” he said, scratching himself.
“I wouldn’t mind if people made up clever things about me. They’re too lazy to do that. Most columnists don’t get a chance to talk to me, but since I’m a semipublic figure, they feel they have to write something about me anyhow.”
He studied the notes I’d handed him for a while, frowned, muttered and worked on them with a pencil. Then he gave them back to me. I found myself frowning and muttering over them too. Brando’s spelling was even more off beat than Brando.
One of the statements I’d attributed to him read: “He has vowed never to become a slave to Hollywood, a community he finds vicious, degrading, disgusting and degenerate.” He’d crossed that out and had written in the margin: “You can find this sort of thing anywhere in the world, but Hollywood somehow acts as a firtertizer for it.” I pondered this for several minutes before I decoded “firtertizer.” He’d meant fertilizer.
Another one of the many press statements I’d given him to read over ran something like this: “Brando has a Mexican girlfriend. He met her in Mexico while readying himself for his part in VIVA ZAPATA! He may marry the girl. He says he definitely wants to marry somebody sometime.” When he returned it to me, he had crossed this out. In its place he had written: “Nobody’s biasness.”
Later, Brando remarked that he is really the opposite of the young brute he played in STREETCAR. “I despise that kind of human being,” he told me. “I think the reason I was a success in the film version of the play was that during the two years I spent on Broadway in the part, I’d developed a special characterization for it. It is impossible to do this for the usual film. You don’t even have time to rehearse properly.
“I invented a garbled way of talking for it I felt suited the character. When the critics hear me say Shakespeare’s words understandably, they’ll say I’m taking on hoity-toity airs. No matter what kind of delivery I use, the critics will nudge me with a broom handle.”
He said that once during the filming of STREETCAR he’d purposely got drunk to see if it would help him live his part more realistically. “Why not?” he asked. “After all, the character I was playing was half boiled most of the time. But I was so much under the weather I couldn’t act, and they had to sober me up and shoot the scene all over again.”
I gathered up my notes, pencils and briefcase, and we went back to the car. “I’ll drop you at your hotel,” Brando said. I had spent the afternoon trying to be a character analyst, and I realized I’d flunked the assignment. I couldn’t wrap Brando up into a neat bundle. I’d listened to him talk about what he thought of life, letters and being an actor. But what he’d told me rattled around in my mind confusingly.
There was one thing I could be sure of. Brando is the most outstanding male personality to hit Hollywood in many a year. An actor can act his head off, but if he has no spark, he might as well drop dead. Brando gives off sparks in showers. I found myself liking him despite the chip he wore on each shoulder. But I was glad I didn’t handle his public relations. That way lay stomach ulcers. I was even happier that I didn’t have to make a cross-country auto trip with him. I know truck drivers who take active measures when called a “toad.”