By Martha Gregory
A magnificent man and a remarkable actor left us a profound statement about ourselves, in his portrayal of Terry Malloy, in On the Waterfront. Contrasting with Brando’s calm, confident roles in The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, Terry Malloy’s character is trusting, dependant, insecure, and eventually betrayed.
A talented actor can mask his own essence, revealing only the characters he portrays. In observing Marlon Brando’s life, with his defiant rejection of the Academy Awards and his determined isolation from the celebrity scene, we are given hints as to his true nature and his complex perception of betrayal. His unique intellect, caused him to collect a social world composed of ordinary, undistinguished, yet honest people. They became his guiding becons and stabilizing anchors. Housekeepers became his wives, gardeners became his confidants, and aboriginal natives became his spiritual guides.
A “method actor” can immerse himself into a role. With the portrayal of Jerry Malloy, a very young Brando, not only lived the part, but also adopted a new outlook on life. He recognized the dangers of relying on those around him and chose to protect himself from the tragedies of betrayal. With all the vultures, snakes, and parasites inhabiting his movie industry, he made a wise choice.
The world of Jerry Malloy is a vivid example of how reliance and trust can be squandered and aspirations shattered. Betrayal can occur without malice or sinister intent. There is the normal greed and stupidity that sacrifices others, in the shallow pursuit of self-interest.
“ I couldda been a somebody. I couldda been a contender. I could have been….”. What prophetic words, what a staggering, numbing realization; yet, life goes on.
In his life, Brando was not handed a joyful script. The difficulties with his children, their drug addictions, the suicide of his beautiful daughter, only added to the instability of his love life and problems with his health. He accepted these burdens and endured them, quietly.
Examining Brando’s presence among us, we could conclude that his life was a resounding success. He was admired, rich, famous and very accomplished at his craft; but, what is success or failure? It clearly has to be an individual assessment from one’s own introspection.
The subject of trust and betrayal intrigued me and I approached a stranger, sitting near me, while I sipped coffee on the patio of the Newsroom Restaurant, adjacent to our office. I advised “Paul” (not his real name) that I was writing an article on Marlon Brando’s On the Waterfront, and would appreciate his views on the subject. Once I assured him that we would not print his name or photograph, he invited me to join him.
Paul had seen the movie, several times on television and remembered the line “I couldda bin a contender”; but, didn’t recognize the theme of trust and betrayal. I learned that he was a man in his forties, who had recently lost eight million dollars in a failed advertising business and a plunging stock market. He said, “I’m flat on my back now and I’m struggling to recreate myself”.
I asked him if he had ever been betrayed by those he trusted. “Betrayed?” he shouted “huh! I’ve been mugged, robbed, brutalized, left for dead and pissed on! Oh, it was only business, you know, nothing personal, you know…..oh yeah!”.
I asked him if this experience made him bitter. “Of course it made me bit…well, I guess I simply regret my ignorance at not noticing what was going on. You know that line ‘I couldda bin somebody’ – well, it’s not a hopeless situation for me yet. I still have my health and my sexuality – life is good! Money is only a tool. I lost it – so what – I can get some back. You know, I realized that you don’t need a lot of money to be happy.”
I asked him if he empathize with the character of Jerry Malloy. “I never really thought about it,” he said. “I’ve always been too busy chasing the buck. Now that I am focusing on it, I can see the tragedy. Broken promises do lead to broken hearts and yes, we trample on other peoples lives to get ahead. I think I’ll rent the video and see it again. I live in a small condo over there and you know, this waterfront may look a little glitzier than Brando’s, but the shameless destruction of dreams goes on right here, right now!”
I thanked Paul for his blunt analysis and realized that human nature is resistant to change. Greed, stupidity, self-interest and social blindness have survived, unaltered through the years.
When Marlon Brando died, he was survived by eleven living children. He also left 18.6 million dollars in real estate and about 3 million in personal assets. The most valuable treasures, his films, he left to us, the public. Of the many films he elevated to lofty standards of reality, On the Waterfront, released in 1954, remains one of his brightest gems.
Believing that Marlon Brando succeeded in his struggle with tragedy, disappointment, failure, and betrayal, I hope that when he faced the final betrayal and closed his eyes for the very last time, he was able to raise a contented smile to his dramatic, brooding face.