Geoff Pevere: Brando Misbehaves

I’m not exactly sure why, but a few days ago I finally pulled the DVD of Night of the Following Day off my shelf and watched it twice: once as it was intended to be watched, and once with the director’s commentary. It still haunts me.

When Marlon Brando died in 2004, the Toronto Star asked me to write an obit, which I was delighted to do. I’d been fixated on the Method-making Nebraskan ever since 1972, that ‘comeback’ year of The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris.

The Godfather I skipped school to see on a weekday matinee, and Last Tango I snuck into underage. That’s how magnetic this guy’s movies were to me even before I really knew much about him. He compelled me to felony just to see him perform.

Once I had seen them, I slipped overboard. I started scouring the TV Guide ‘Movies This Week’ page for Brando movies, and I’d watch anything that crossed the tube. I watched the great ones – On the Waterfront, The Wild One, One-Eyed Jacks – and I watched the terrible ones – A Countess From Hong Kong, The Appaloosa, Bedtime Story – and I watched the puzzling ones, which probably comprised the bulk of the ouevre. Among these was The Night of the Following Day, which for some reason tended to show up on late night TV more often than just about any other Marlon Brando movie. While there was something truly fixating about it – not just Brando, but his co-star Richard Boone, the setting on the windy coast of France, the trippy tone of vaguely European is-this-really-happening – there was also something really wrong. Quite apart from the fact that the movie itself, about a gang of kidnappers who collapse into an intimate psychodramatic showdown while awaiting word on their ransom demands, was a deliberate exercise in low-key mind-messing surrealism, it felt less elliptical than broken. A puzzle yes, but with key pieces gone AWOL.

But I’d watch anyway, primarily transfixed by the great Boone, the overall climate of windy chilliness, and the truly awesome spectacle of Brando with blonde hair and a black turtleneck. He’s not yet beginning to balloon in this movie, and he has the feral sleekness of a surly cat. Which tells me something about my fascination with the guy: I watched even his worst movies to watch him. He was a genre in and of itself, and the fact that he remained so transcendently watchable even in his worst movies meant their intrinsic quality was ultimately subsumed to the larger service of being A Marlon Brando Movie.

I could go on about this, and I probably will at some point, but in the meantime let’s return to the day in July, 2004 when he died. It was not a surprise. When I’d seen him the year before in a movie called The Score, in which he appeared briefly opposite Robert De Niro, he looked like something that had been beached on the coast of Newfoundland and left there for months. In a word, awful. Now that he was dead, we were at least spared any more of that. Besides, the guy had clearly been imprisoned on a sustained sentence of existential pain for decades now, and it was high time for some resting in peace.

The next day, I received an e-mail from a reader who told me that he could tell from the obit that I was a Brando fan, and that I must check out the director’s commentary on the DVD of Night of the Following Day. “If you’re a Brando fan,” he wrote, “you owe this to yourself.”

Weird thing is, I already had the DVD and had never noticed that there was a director’s commentary track. But why would I? It’s not even listed on the box, and I hadn’t even watched the disc yet. But when I did pop it in some years later, there it was on the menu: “Commentary by director Hubert Cornfield.”

Seven years later and I listen. And wow. First of all, Cornfield is no longer alive. He died in 2006, and his commentary on the DVD sounds as though he is speaking through a tube in his throat, which I’m assuming he was. That’s the first unsettling thing. The second is what he has to say about working with Brando.

Cornfield had never even sought Brando for the movie – Boone was his first choice for the lead kidnapper – but how could he resist when the most famous and talented actor of the century send word that he was interested in the part? Cornfield was summoned to Brando’s and the director was thoroughly charmed.

That was the beginning and the end of Marlon Brando’s courtesy. From there on in, the actor created a singular kind of hell for Cornfield, a moderately experienced but highly intelligent filmmaker who initially couldn’t believe his luck. Brando tried to seduce Cornfield’s wife. Brando insisted Boone direct some of the scenes. (Boone had never directed.) Brando took issue with just about every camera setup and when he couldn’t get his way would disappear to his hotel room only to return stinking drunk. Brando decided as the cameras were rolling to dump one of the movie’s key plot points, thereby undermining the entire project in an instant of method whim. Brando made funny faces when asked to do closeups. And he decided one day he’d had enough and wanted to go home. Problem was, the movie wasn’t finished.

It’s easily one of the most uncomfortable yet gripping director commentaries I’ve ever heard, and it leaves you with some very dark impressions of the man considered the greatest American actor of them all. The script notwithstanding, what was motivating him? Why would he seem to swoop down on this poor unsuspecting man with such systematic sadistic deliberation? Why, for god’s sake, would he work so hard to ruin a movie that would be sold on his presence in it? How could he so cavalierly mess with the lives of everyone involved in Night of the Following Day? What the fuck was up with Marlon Brando, anyway?

We may never know that, but I suspect we’ll probably hear some speculation about it as we turn the corner to the Comeback Year’s fortieth anniversary. But what I do know is this: genius is a treacherous thing, and it often comes dragging some very heavy baggage. And Brando had some heavy baggage. In the end, the mystery isn’t why he made so many bad movies, but how he managed even those few good ones.

We now have an email where all of us here at Don’t Believe A Word I Say can be contacted dbawis@rogers.com. Please use it to ask questions, tell us what you would like to read about, links you would like to share, and, let’s hear what you have to say.

Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and popular culture for over thirty years. He can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

One Response to “Geoff Pevere: Brando Misbehaves”

  1. fantastic piece as usual. love the ending line.

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