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15 October 2015updated 03 Aug 2021 2:16pm

All in the emphasis: how Marlon Brando turned his scripts from good to great

Does there exist one individual, radio-friendly, incontrovertible moment of Marlon Brando’s that perfectly transmits his genius?

By Antonia Quirke

To a discussion about Marlon Brando on the Today programme (BBC Radio 4, 12 October) in advance of the release of the documentary Listen to Me Marlon, which uses never-before-heard tapes of the actor talking about his life. John Humphrys spoke to the film’s co-writer and director, Stevan Riley, and the superlatives about Brando were unstoppable: “riveting . . . intriguing . . . mesmerising . . . curious . . . inquisitive . . . brave . . . an incredibly acute observer of human behaviour”.

Confessing to having rewatched Apocalypse Now only a few days earlier, Humphrys breathed: “God, it’s still an amazing film and his performance is just staggering . . .” And so on, all of it whetting the appetite – but as is often the case with movie- or book-plug discussions, only very general: the sort of small talk that goes on in the antechamber while everybody waits to file into the main room.

Does there exist one individual, radio-friendly, incontrovertible moment of Brando’s that perfectly transmits his genius? I kept thinking of something the poet Don Paterson said, about that scene in the back of the car in On the Waterfront – the “I coulda been a contender” speech, which, crucially, Brando wrote himself, or rather he rearranged the original lines, his ear impeccable. Paterson is very specific about the actor’s delivery, his “I coulda been somebody” instead of the more obvious “I coulda been somebody”. The modesty and humanity in that choice of locution – it’s impossible to hear it and not to conclude that you are in the presence of something wonderful. “It doesn’t just ‘get me every time’,” Paterson said, “it reminds me what art is. The way he hits class/contender/somebody/bum/am – all spaced so perfectly, so rhythmically, the way each one falls a little in pitch, as he drags you right down with him.”

In truth, you could listen for hours to people talking about Brando’s lost beauty and “intellect”, about how haphazard and lazy he was, more given to gestures than stamina in all aspects of his life. How much he hated himself for having sold out and was always more his own victim than victimised by others.

But all we ever really need to hear is that one line.

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This article appears in the 14 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy