Friday, April 3, 2009

Quote of the Day (Marlon Brando, on Sensitive People Such as Himself)

“A sensitive person receives fifty impressions where somebody else may only get seven. Sensitive people are so vulnerable; they’re so easily brutalized and hurt just because they are sensitive. The more sensitive you are, the more certain you are to be brutalized, develop scabs….Analysis helps. It helped me. But still, the last eight, nine years I’ve been pretty messed up, a mess pretty much.”—Academy Award-winning actor Marlon Brando, quoted in Truman Capote, “The Duke in His Domain,” originally printed in The New Yorker, November 9, 1957, reprinted in Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote (2007)

After reading this masterpiece of malice, Marlon Brando—born on this date 85 years ago—reportedly wanted to murder Truman Capote

I can understand why: The actor felt betrayed by the writer, in the same way that Janet Malcolm would note the phenomenon in a perhaps even more controversial profile years later, in The Journalist and the Murderer

"Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse."

In a nonfiction phase in which he would delve even more thoroughly in In Cold Blood, Capote was employing what he later called “the secret art of interviewing.” Crucial to this method was opening up about himself first, at length, in effect reversing the roles of interviewer and subject.

Such self-disclosure usually made his subject feel sorry for him—the effect it had on Brando. “The little bastard spent half the night telling me all his problems,” the actor remembered. “I figured the least I could do was tell him a few of mine.”

(John Knowles, author of A Separate Peace, realized afterward what had happened to Brando when Capote tried the same thing on him. Knowles had two other psychological explanations of why, like the actor, he told more about himself than he had intended. As he later recounted to George Plimpton in the latter’s oral biography, Truman Capote: “First, I would say to myself, ‘Well, I’ve got so much on him it doesn’t matter what I tell myself.’ And second, ‘After all, I’ve lived too. Things have happened to me. I’ve lived and suffered.’”)

The author maliciously hinted afterward that he had seduced Brando. Capote made up all kinds of things in the service of a good story, including flings with stars such as Errol Flynn and John Garfield. But in this case, his journalistic manipulation was only one step removed from seduction.

His infamous interview occurred on a sleepless night during location filming in Kyoto, Japan, for Brando’s film Sayonara. The actor opened up on all kinds of things, including his inability to love, his faking a serious nose injury during the Broadway run of A Streetcar Named Desire, and his annoyance with the late James Dean for copying his acting style.

Close to the end of the decade when he redefined acting through his use of “The Method,” Brando came across in the interview as self-absorbed, pretentious and intellectually shallow (he admitted to never having read a novel in his life).

But what got Brando’s goat the most, I think, was Capote’s revelation of the actor’s ambivalence toward his alcoholic mother. That relationship is even echoed in the title of the actor’s late-life autobiography: Songs My Mother Taught Me.

In Last Tango in Paris, under the direction of Bernardo Bertolucci, Brando improvised a scene in which his middle-aged widower reminisced about his alcoholic parents, particularly his mother: “My mother was very, very poetic, and also a drunk. All my memories of when I was a kid was of her being arrested, nude.”

After the scene was filmed, Brando told Bertolucci he would never expose himself in such a way again on screen—and, indeed, the films he made for the rest of his life, though not without brilliance (A Dry White Season) or even humor (The Freshman), lacked his old willingness to take risks.

As he unleashed his famous profile of Brando on the world, Capote would have been appalled by the unfortunate way his career was about to parallel his livid subject’s. Capote’s career as a fiction writer of promise would span, like the peak of Brando’s influence, only about a decade: from Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) to Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958). 

Thereafter, though they would enjoy one more career-defining classic (for Brando, The Godfather; for Capote, In Cold Blood), neither would have the self-discipline to maintain their level of productivity and excellence.

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