Thursday, January 19, 2017

LIZ SMITH: Brando on the brain

by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Marlon Brando, Director.  His "One-Eyed Jacks" re-released and reexamined. Also, "The Merry Devil of Edmonton" — do we really care if Shakespeare wrote it? It's devilish and merry!

“ACTING IS the expression of a neurotic impulse. It’s a bum’s life. Quitting acting, that’s the sign of maturity,” said Marlon Brando.

Not that Brando ever had a fixed idea about his chosen profession. He also said, “An actor is at most a poet and at least an entertainer.” 

And then there was this: “An actor’s a guy who if you ain’t talking about him, ain’t listening.” 

He had, as we say now, issues.
I HAVE Brando on the brain because my friends at Criterion DVD have just put out a dazzling restoration of the only film Brando ever directed, “One-Eyed Jacks.”  And until popping in this DVD, it was perhaps the only Brando film I hadn’t seen. (Although some, such as “The Countess From Hong Kong” or "Bedtime Story” need cautionary labels. Nobody’s perfect!)

“One-Eyed Jacks” became notorious in its time; a byword for the indulgences of big stars in general and Mr. Brando’s peculiarities in particular. 
It began filming in 1958 with Stanley Kubrick at the helm, but he and Brando had what are known as “artistic differences” and the star  took over, directing himself, Karl Malden, Ben Johnson, Katy Jurado, the veteran Slim Pickens and Pina Pellicer, a young Mexican actress in her screen debut.
Pina Pellicer in her screen debut.
The movie went millions over budget and it was rumored that Brando favored a five-hour version (this is likely untrue, but it made a good story.)  Eventually, the film was taken out of Brando’s hands and edited to a reasonable two and a half hours length.  Released, finally, in 1961, it was dismissed and misunderstood by many. (The reception to “One-Eyed Jacks” was not helped by the fact that Brando was involved in another long, calamitous film-making experience, “Mutiny on the Bounty.”) 

Well, here it is again, all spruced up by Criterion, and I have to say, this is one of the most ravishing and compelling westerns I’ve ever seen. If for no other reason that most of it takes place in Monterey, California — yep, an old-time western with a beachfront view!
It is fairly standard revenge/redemption story.  Brando is out to get his old bank-robbing pal (Karl Malden) who betrayed him and left him to rot in prison for five years.  Malden is now a sheriff, with a respectable life — a wife and stepdaughter (Jurado and Pellicer). But similarities to other westerns end there.

I don’t know if the inevitably inward acting of Brando is really suitable for a cowboy — even a seaside cowboy — but he is fascinating to watch. (I also don’t know if what appears to be an overload of eye makeup is suitable, either.  But it’s Brando, and it’s a movie, after all.)
Karl Malden as Brando's partner, "Dad" Longworth.
Brando’s sense of mood and color, his direction of every other player, is superb. Malden, whose split-personality backstabber is bad to the bone, is given most of the scenery to chew, and he does it brilliantly. I’d read about the film, and heard it described as “slow.” I’d say, slow in a good way. There’s a thrilling kind of tension, even when nothing much is happening.
The heart of the film is Miss Pellicer, as Malden’s stepdaughter. In other hands, her sudden infatuation with Brando’s character might have been laughable — even back then, when people in movies were required to fall for each other in 15 minutes.  But her physical fragility and a deep, haunting voice lift the material and her scenes with Brando, up, up, up. (This lovely actress died only a few years later, a suicide.)
Criterion packs “One-Eyed Jacks” with all the extras ones comes to expect — interviews, special introductions, tributes, trailers, etc. But here they are unnecessary. I was left, after the poignant fade-out of this movie, with the melancholy wondering why Brando never attempted to direct again.  He became so cynical and undisciplined as an actor, so careless with his gift, perhaps it was simply laziness.  Or perhaps the experience of having the movie taken from him was a defeat he couldn’t recover from. (Actors are just like real people — sometimes they don’t get back on the horse, when they fall off.)

But it’s clear, gorgeously clear, from “One-Eyed Jacks” that had he wanted to, Brando could have forgotten all about acting, and made himself a fine, perhaps a finer career, as a director. 
DO YOU want to see a delicious play that might have been written by Shakespeare? (Unless you are one of those conspiracy theorists who think none of The Bard’s plays were written by him!)  Anyway, this one is called “The Merry Devil of Edmonton,” in which a man besotted by love, calls on Lucifer to help him win his lady.

It’s a short work, and apparently as per the title, quite “merry.”  It was very popular in its time, although even then (the first production was in the 1590s) nobody knew for sure if Mr. Shakespeare was truly the author. Nobody seemed to care.

Listen, it was the 1590s, things were tough. People wanted a good time, some mead, and a let-up on the Black Death. (“Who cares if banks fail in Yonkers, long as you’ve got a kiss that conquers” ... right?)

“The Merry Devil of Edmonton” is presented by The Red Bull Theatre Group via Revelation Readings, who do a lot of little-known, but classic plays. It happens Monday, 7:30 p.m. at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher Street.)  Directed by Ben Prusiner, the show features a cast of 15.  They are listed alphabetically, with no way to know who are the merry lovers or the devil, etc.  This is annoying.  But they all look very talented!  Call 212-924-8782.
MY longtime pal, Bill Harbach, was recently seen exercising at a Pilates studio, which makes sense as he is only 97 years old.

Mr. Harbach worked on the original NBC “Tonight Show” with Steve Allen and was still present (as either producer/director/writer) when the hit “Saturday Night Live” came to be. He also can include the classic “What’s My Line?’ to his resume and is remembered for the long-running TV hit, “Hollywood Palace.”
Bill Harbach and host Steve Allen in 1954.
Bill has four Emmys, a Peabody award and other shiny objects lining his shelves.  He briefly managed nightclub goddess Kay Thompson and was even a stock player in movies, appearing in such fare as “Good News,” “Song of the Thin Man” and “On An Island With You.”

Bill with his beloved late wife, Barbara.
It’s been quite a life, and it’s still going strong.

Through the years, numerous females I’ve known have been in love or madly infatuated with darling Billy, wishing only to be on an island with him. The late Elaine Stritch was one who never gave up. 

A few years ago, we were talking about Alec Baldwin, who she was working with on “30 Rock” as his mother. Elaine admitted — again — that had she been younger (and not that much younger!) she definitely would have had an affair with Baldwin.  Then she said, “But I still would have liked Bill Harbach over all of them!”

He was long wed to the popular Barbara Schmid Vought who he lost to an illness, only weeks ago. They were well known and much loved in Fairfield, Connecticut.

It is inspiring to learn that even in times of trouble, that my friend Bill is still doing his Pilates!
Bill with NBC's current “Tonight Show” star, JImmy Fallon.
Contact Liz here.