How DVD adds new depth to his greatness.
The replays made possible through DVD now give film performances a quality akin to the book in which one can read a passage over and over for enjoyment, for understanding, or for the discovery of how technique functions. So, today's viewer experiences a film far differently than audiences did in the past. As we all know, one can not only buy and take home a film, one can leap forward or backward to a favorite or a puzzling scene, and even change the visual velocity, revealing much that the eye can't see at the original speed. A given scene can be played back like a favorite aria or a jazz improvisation in recorded performance. While the reductive aspect of this technology makes many special effects far less special, it also clarifies that an actor of Brando's caliber is the most remarkable special effect that film can provide.
Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), like any superior film, benefits greatly from the DVD format and the revisions it makes possible. The inclusion of the experimental gold and sepia tone, which was removed from the print shortly after the film was released, allows the audience of our moment to see a film that most did not when it was available in theaters. We now have director John Huston's vision intact. We also have Brando in one of the boldest performances ever given by an actor on screen. What validates that last claim is the exemplary courage of Brando's egoless deep sea dive into his character, Maj. Penderton, whose desperate and arrogantly veiled pathos tellingly overflows twice. The character's central problem is his feeling of inadequacy, of being less that he should, and his terrible loneliness because of the difficulty of handling his attraction to men.
Brando reaches a nearly matchless desolation in the first instance of overflowing when his attempt to secretly equal his wife's control of her stallion is thwarted by the horse's power, which he cannot meet with the necessary combination of confident ease and equally confident force. When the stallion smells his fear, it is spooked into running through blueberry bushes that tear the animal's flesh and cut the face of the rider. The humiliation felt by a man facing the terrible pain of his limitations is far more intimate than cutting embarrassment—Brando evokes a moment of horrifying pathos. One thinks of Olivier's well-remembered theater cry after Oedipus has plucked his eyes out, for which the actor used the image of a seal shrieking when its tongue is stuck to the ice until it's clubbed to death by hunters. In the case of Brando's Maj. Penderton, the feeling is banked neither by having a tantrum nor by brutalizing the stallion with a tree branch; the violent action only deepens his sorrow to such a degree that the failed horseman slowly descends into apologetic sobs that cannot be held down. If a more shattering moment is available on film, I would like to know what it is.
The performance is not at all perfect, but its successes are so enormous that mistakes of tone and imposed intent become insignificant. Small are the number of actors who have been able to so perfectly express a man on the verge of collapsing under the weight of his anguish the way Brando does when Maj. Penderton tries to explain a formidable leader's qualities—all of which the major feels that he lacks himself—to a military class of young men who sense that something is wrong, but don't know what. Brando also does something else that proves his unavoidable position among the very finest performers. Without benefit of makeup and through some almost magical understanding of his facial muscles, he is able to nearly remove all handsomeness from himself and take on the look of a pretentious martinet, so much so that Pauline Kael described his officer as "ugly" when putting on skin-tightening cream and looking for a self who is not there in the mirror the way he would like it to be.
Jazz bassist Ray Brown once said, "They'll call a dog a genius today for bringing back a stick, but that doesn't mean the real thing doesn't exist." The ability that Marlon Brando had to tell us what a character felt, thought, and sensed through his body language, his facial expressions, his vocal nuances, and his gestures pinned the badge of genius through his skin. The actor's tragedy was that he lost faith in his talent, which sometimes seemed so, so far beyond talent, and wallowed in despair and bitter eccentricity for most of his life. Our luck is that this magnificent virtuoso of the endless manifestations of human feeling arrived when, through modern technology, he could be captured acting on a level so profound at its best that we will never be able to exhaust all that he gave.
Stanley Crouch is the author of The Artificial White Man and Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz.
Image and video clip courtesy Warner Home Video © Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.