Put Some Gay In Your Day, Dallas!

Rebel With A Cause

He had played the game before and succeeded.  Sprinting to the stage in 1955 when Bette Davis announced that Marlon Brando had won the Oscar, he passed Humphrey Bogart in an aisle seat on the way to the stage—the same Bogart who had gotten the award three years earlier when Brando had not won for A Streetcar Named Desire.

But Brando persisted after that loss.  He racked up four Best Actor nominations in four consecutive years, a feat no other actor before or since has replicated, finally winning for On the Waterfront.  Brando dominated the 1950’s as an actor, both critically and commercially, and changed what film acting looks like through his use of Stanislavski’s system, as taught by Stella Adler.

The 1960’s, however, were a very different story.  Early in that decade, two high profile projects, One-Eyed Jacks at Paramount and a remake of Mutiny on the Bounty for MGM, met with mixed reviews and posted losses for both studios.  Brando developed a reputation for being difficult to work with and an actor whose behavior would cost the production money.  Still, he continued to work steadily, but only in projects of uneven quality and usually disappointing box office results.

Then came The Godfather.  Mario Puzo, author of the book and the screenplay, wanted Brando for the part of Vito Corleone, as did director Francis Ford Coppola.  The studio (Paramount, see above) wanted Ernest Borgnine, but finally agreed to hire Brando on three conditions.  He would take a much lower than usual fee for his work, and he would have to post a bond against costs associated with delays he might cause.  And finally, the actor who revolutionized film acting and was arguably the greatest living actor at the time would have to take a screen test.  Brando did what he was required to do.

By 1973, Brando had achieved that most difficult of tasks—climbing the mountain for a second time.  He was nominated for an Oscar for the first time in 15 years and favored to win.  The Godfather was expected to be named Best Picture and was well on its way to toppling Gone with the Wind as the highest grossing movie in film history.  

Instead of springing to the stage a second time, the rebel Brando refused to accept the Oscar, sending Sacheen Littlefeather as his proxy to inform the Academy politely that he could not “accept this very generous award” due to “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”  From the audience came boos and applause.  Mixed reviews all over again.  

The backlash was immediate, with some of it televised in the remainder of the broadcast.  The comments ranged from lame (Raquel Welch) to mocking (Clint Eastwood) to emasculating (Michael Caine).  John Wayne, perhaps the actor most associated with the movies to which Brando’s statement referred, had to be held back by security guards to prevent a physical encounter with Ms. Littlefeather.  Well, what can you expect?  Maureen O’Hara didn’t seem to mind too much when he beat her with a coal scuttle in McLintock!, did she?

Liz Cheney, another rebel, lost her primary this week, and she seems to be somewhere on this Brando trajectory.  She has seemingly sacrificed her political career in order to “do whatever it takes to ensure Donald Trump is never anywhere near the Oval Office.”  Her concession speech was unapologetic, forward-looking, and more than a little defiant, and she gave it while some pundits were trying to decide how to write her political obituary.

While she has only climbed the mountain once (and remarkably fast at that), Ms. Cheney has presented herself as an elected official who will put principle above her political self-interest.  This is so rare that political observers don’t even know how to process it.  It’s the Washington equivalent of refusing Hollywood’s Oscar on principle.

So what happened to Brando?  Well, he was nominated for Best Actor the very next year for Last Tango in Paris and returned to the list of Top Ten Box Office Stars.  For Superman (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979), Brando was averaging over $1,000,000 (adjusted for inflation) per day for two and three week gigs in supporting roles—a daily rate about five times greater than what his fee for The Godfather.

What Liz Cheney does now is anybody’s guess.  Will she spend years in the political wilderness looking for a way back up?  Or is she going to get another great part in the next year or two that will pay off big over the next decade?