What did it take to face down the great Brando at the height of his Marlonosity? A large dose of hipness or just plain balls?
June 11th, 1992
By Chris Hodenfield
When I first hoisted myself into Marion Brando's Dodge van, I was struggling badly with the electric shakes. It was the summer of 1975, and in the world of maximum charisma actors, Brando was the unassailable king. Jack Nicholson had warned me that whatever I imagined Brando was going to be, in person he was going to be a lot more. You'd have thought I was meeting Mao Zedong. I was but a fresh‑faced, longhaired punk, just twenty‑five, in a psychedelic shirt out of Arabian Nights. I had flown to Montana on the promise of getting perhaps an hour with Brando, who was there filming The Missouri Breaks. The reasons for my stroke of good fortune were not entirely clear. Something I had written about director Robert Altman had appealed to one of Brando's allies. But the real reason, I expect was that I was carrying credentials from ROLLING STONE. In 1975 there were still clear divisions between straight and hip. It wasn't like today, when everybody is clothed in the same vague shopping-mall casual funk. Brando had no interest in talking with a booze‑hound Broadway columnist with meaty sideburns and a jazzy necktie, here to ask what it was really like to work with Frank Sinatra.
Always a presence: Brando in costume for 'The
A guy from ROLLING STONE might be different. Brando had a subscription. When Daniel Schorr wrote a big story about the CIA, for instance, Brando would call down for ten extra copies. A ROLLING STONE guy would want to know if the situation was cool.
Being cool was then considered a heightened state of moral sanctity, like being wealthy today. Anyway, the code of cool let you get away with wearing an Arabian Nights shirt in public.
That's what helped ROLLING STONE get through its first ten lean and thread-bare years of existence ‑ it was serving as the arbiter of cool. Celebrities and politicians who fell afoul of the code often got brutally hammered. And we who made the decisions at ROLLING STONE were a real Barbary Coast stew pot of infidels and washouts.
Before it settled down in New York in the late Seventies, ROLLING STONE was scattered all over the world. The magazine was like a great flophouse for itinerant wordsmiths. People wandered through the door and drank coffee from your cup. Often in your travels you had to flop on some other writer's couch. I can recall nights at Don Katz's flat in London, Howard Kohn's in San Francisco and Bob Greenfield's in Carmel And I don't know how many times some visiting ROLLING STONE dignitary bunked on my sofa. We all assumed that Hunter Thompson had the only expense account in the joint.
As I say, it was a good place for migrant writers, and that's how I found myself joining up in 1970. I had been slumming around Spain and Morocco that year. I fell by England, where my brother Jan was running the London office, and the next thing you know I was assigned to infiltrate a recording session where Howlin' Wolf was mixing it up with Eric Clapton. As I would find over the next fourteen years, in places such as the door to Brando's van, being from ROLLING STONE got you inside.
Nothing about the magazine was secure. The whole staff was a shipload of transient poets and fools on a voyage of self‑discovery. I moved along with it. After a couple years in London, I spent a season in the bare‑bones New York office. Then I packed all my gear in a $300 Cadillac and moved to the L.A. office, which was also an open‑door kind of down‑home precinct. The main office at that time was in San Francisco, and it was a raunchy old factory, a palace of intrigues, the nerve center of sudden and inexplicable decisions, the Plato's Retreat of surging excess.
Visiting writers would hit the San Francisco office like sailors on leave. You never knew if you were going to strike it rich or if you were going to get rolled, bitten and tattooed and lose your watch in the fun house.
All writers need something resembling a home, and ROLLING STONE was a natural asylum. Some writers, like Robin Green, Bob Greenfield, Julia Cameron and Tim Ferris, lit up the magazine famously for just a few years before moving on to books and movies. Then there were guys like Robert Palmer, Cameron Crowe, Tim Cahill, Charlie Perry, Joe Klein, Mikal Gilmore and Tim Crouse, who like me revolved in and out, year after year, doing the work of our lives one month and then the following month wondering what the hell comes next. You couldn't easily leave it.
In all the anarchy, though, the writers had that fiery central point of inspiration -each other. You couldn't risk writing like a jerk because all these other guys would run the table on you.
My province became the movies, and I had to abide by the standards set down at the magazine by Grover Lewis, a Texas poet with troubled eyes that still saw everything. Grover heard everything, too. In his stories on The Last Picture Show, Lee Marvin and Sam Peckinpah, Grover's people rose off the page in clouds of limelight. His sweeping, strong‑arm prose showed us that even if we were only writing about showbiz, it was worth it if your writing glowed in the dark.
And that was just Grover. I think all of us ROLLING STONE writers were teaching each other lessons every two weeks. Then Hunter Thompson hit the bigs, and we all had to learn a few more moves.
This camaraderie, this group hauteur, is what gave an unlettered sap like me the fiber, the temerity, to face down someone like Brando. The only other person I would meet with an equal physical force field would be Kareem Abdul‑Jabbar, who is seven feet tall. As I sat with Brando for what turned out to be a week of conversation, I was hanging on to a runaway train. But I had the ROLLING STONE writer's attitude to remind me that, loud shirt and all, I was in charge.
For years after the Brando story came out, it proved to be my foot-long, jewel‑encrusted calling card. Theater people treat Brando's utterances as if they were Holy Writ, and I was hailed as an apostle.
I remember one aspiring actor who had to know, had to know, what Brando was really like. I cranked up a few more stories about Brando's intense way of paying attention, his way of boring right into people's skulls. “Brando really listens to people," I concluded.
The actor heard this and got a little defensive. “Well," he said, “I really listen to people, too.” Then he shrugged it off. “But, you know, most of the time they don't have anything to say."
The poor dope had written his own epitaph. In a way, he spoke for all Hollywood, a place where long ago, in a delirium of cash, they just stopped listening to people.
At ROLLING STONE, I got lucky. I had fallen in with people who could see and who could listen. They helped me get the moments down on paper.
MAY 20TH, 1976
MARLON BRANDO'S BODY was going through the motions, awaiting the return of his personality. It was miles away. He was reeling it in like a dancing sailfish.
His van was parked by the trees in a grassy field. Inside it was quiet. The air conditioner diced the air. Minutes had passed since our introduction, but he just sat on the edge of the bed, hands in a drawer fumbling aimlessly with a hank of wires.
That face. He looks like an old medicine man. He appears as unmovable as the city planetarium. The concentration level is so high that when his distant manner suddenly evaporates and he has questions about your mother, ah, the arena gets hot.
He is, indeed, a presence. On the cowboy‑movie set of The Missouri Breaks, shot on the hot dry plains of Montana, people seemed to be no more deferential to the actor than they'd be to any Pharaoh about to exact tribute. I wasn't in that van five minutes and I was playing catch‑up ball...
Any mention of moviedom would be sidestepped very neatly. Finally I asked if he loathed the subject "No," he said, shaking his head with no great commitment. "Most actors don't get any help from directors. Emotional help, if you're playing an emotional part. Most of the time you just come like a journeyman plumber and you gotta have your own bag of stuff ready to go. But the people who perceive most delicately are Bertolucci and Gillo Pontecorvo (Burn!). I never worked with, ah, the guy that did Mean Streets. Yeah, Scorsese, he's the best American director there is. His intuitions allow him..."
He arrested his thought and glanced at my hands. I was twirling my sunglasses.
"What you're doing now, playing with your glasses and looking at me. Shaking your head in moments you don't plan on."
I stopped playing with my glasses, blinked and smiled.
"And blinking and smiling, moving your head. You see, all those are unplanned things. You don't know what you're going to do in sequence. And Bertolucci and Scorsese would allow you to do that. That's the essence of reality."
I had the impression that you were dredging up your own memories for Last Tango. Were they painful?
"No, because after a while it becomes a technical thing."
Still, I said, Last Tango seemed like more than mere technique.
He waved it off. "No, when you…" His face clenched and turned away.
Jesus, I thought, maybe I hit a sore spot.
He was definitely disturbed. His lips taut, his eyes torn. A sob gurgled in his throat and his shoulders shook. For an instant I was paralyzed. I stared at him.
Abruptly, his grief collapsed into a smile. "You just do that, you know. It just sounds like a bunch of tears. You make your face to go happy or to get mad. It’s just too costly to crank up. If you can get by with a technical performance, nobody knows the diff. They can't tell."