Marlon Brando was the greatest actor of his generation, possibly of all time.
Marlon Brando was the worst actor in the world to work with and his performances in his films were terrible because he could not have cared less about doing his job.
You can say both of those things and be right because when we talk about Marlon Brando we’re really talking about two different people. There’s the ruggedly handsome, intense method actor who captivated audiences in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), The Wild One (1953), On the Waterfront (1954), and Guys and Dolls (1955) before coming back with a vengeance in The Godfather (1972). Then there’s the increasingly overweight, tragedy-stricken man who held the Superman: The Movie producers hostage with his insane demands (he wanted to play Jor-El as if he were a bagel) and clear disdain for the material, taunted Star Wars/Muppets voice actor/director Frank Oz on the set of The Score (2001) with his own impressions of Miss Piggy whenever he walked by, and wrecked several people’s lives and careers with his terrible behavior while making The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996). In the new documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, Fairuza Balk hilariously recounts a time when she went to Brando to discuss her character’s motivation in the film. She was horrified to learn that he hadn’t even read the script, telling her that it was clearly a terrible movie no one would ever want to see. Since he couldn’t be bothered to read the script, they had to feed him his lines through a radio receiver in his ear, but it would sometimes pick up police radio. So, when that happened, Brando, like some kind of acting robot,would simply recite police radio chatter instead of his lines.
It’s crap like that which makes it very difficult to remember how good Brando was when he wanted to be or simply when he was younger and less beaten down by life. Today, The Hollywood Reporter published a fascinating account of a very hush-hush 10-day acting seminar (called “Lying for a Living”) Brando conducted in November 2002, less than two years before his death. 20 young actors were in attendance along with multiple well-known actors, such as Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Edward James Olmos, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Coyote, and Harry Dean Stanton (even Michael Jackson attended one class). It was exactly as crazy as you’d expect from late-in-life Brando, e..g, “movie stars mingled with midgets, Madonna’s ex-boyfriend nearly caused a riot and an Osama bin Laden lookalike almost gave Jon Voight a coronary, was a never-to-be-repeated moment of Hollywood letting its freak flag fly.”
Here are some of the highlights from the weirdest 10 days in the lives of anyone lucky enough to attend:
- A troupe of little people and a team of Samoan wrestlers did improvisation exercises together on the stage.
- Brando plucked a homeless man from a dumpster and brought him in for acting lessons.
- Students had to strip naked in front of the entire class. (“The girls were shaking, like, ‘What the f— am I doing here?’ ” recalls Olmos. “But Brando had a reason for it. He always had a reason.”)
- While a jazz musician played Brando’s favorite tunes on a rented piano, Philippe Petit, the French tightrope walker who had crossed the Twin Towers, did stunts on a high-wire.
- Robin Williams attended all 10 days, at one point doing a 30-minute improv routine about haggling with a used-car salesman.
- The director filming all of it, Tony Kaye, arrived on the first dressed as Osama Bin Laden because, “[President] Bush had said, ‘Don’t let [9/11] stop you from being yourself; if [the terrorists] stop you from being yourself, they’ve won. So I thought, ‘I’ll dress like Osama bin Laden.’ Because doing something that ridiculously stupid — that’s me being myself.”
- Leonardo DiCaprio left after one day, and refused to sign a release form
It’s all on tape. Somewhere. Unlikely to ever be released. But why in the world did this happen? Simple: Brando needed the money. Despite burning every bridge possible in Hollywood, if Marlon Brando, the man who revolutionized stage and screen acting, offered an acting seminary people were going to want to be a part of that. It was actually his secretary’s idea, though. Alice Marchak told THR, “He called me to discuss products he could sell on QVC. He was looking to generate money, but the products he came up with weren’t viable. He had an idea for an earthquake-proof house. And a way to air-condition homes that involved drilling. Things that couldn’t be sold on QVC. I told him he could make money if his face or voice was part of a product — I suggested acting classes.” That led Brando to set aside $50,000 to fund a series of acting classes DVDs to be sold through QVC. The ten-day seminar was all filmed by a professional crew because it was meant to be cut up and sold as the DVDs.
So, he had a business plan, but no real teaching plan. According to Olmos, “The whole class was improv, from beginning to end. Nothing was scripted.” He even sometimes turned over teaching duties, as if on on a whim, to his famous colleagues, which was very confusing for someone like Olmos, “When Brando says, ‘OK, you teach a class,’ what the hell are you going to do? I just talked about how I work and the feelings that I get from acting.” That’s not to say that Brando was just breezing through it like he seemingly did everything related to acting later in life. Again, Olmos, “Was [Brando] serious about the class? As serious as a heart attack. Brando had never taught an acting class before — this was the only time in his whole life. This was going to be his legacy to the acting community.”
Formless, but intriguing. Why haven’t we seen it? Somewhat because it completely imploded on the third day. Brando and the director, Tony Kaye, had a power struggle which erupted into an argument in front of everyone, resulting in Kaye and many of the young actors walking out. Olmos recruited local actors to replace them, and the next seven days went by without incident even if several of the big name actors didn’t stick around until the end. However, not all of the actors will sign releases to be included on any kind of DVDs, and the executor of Brando’s estate, Mike Medavoy, told THR, “What would be the point of releasing the tapes now? We’re not going to sell them. We’re not going to rent them. There’s no reason to do it.”