On the Water Front

Life, Like A Fingerprint (or: Why Ted Never Wanted To Be Marlon Brando)

In my very late teens, I took up acting by chance. I had been interested in movies (grew up on foreign cinema), and had no direction in my life (aside from snowboarding), and it fell into my lap in the way most things do. One part, get out of trouble card, the other, channeling the trouble. It was sort of necessary, however brief.*

One of my earliest teachers, Ted Jones (an alias) was a white-bearded man in his sixties. He had bit roles in several major movies, and did regional theater most of his life. And for extra money, he was a licensed taxi driver. He emphasized that the profession of acting was an ill-advised path, whether you “make it or not” and like many actors, he found the line of work accidentally, to get out of trouble himself. Nevertheless, he was good at it, and I believe he actually liked it. At his point though, he might not have had a choice, habits are hard-worn.

One day after some standard, silly actor exercises, while we sat in some weird meditative sit down position, while giving a lecture, Ted Jones blurted out tangentially, “I would never trade my life for Marlon Brando’s”. I felt he had ruminated over this many a time before. Marlon Brando was of course, at that time, and to this day, regarded as one of the greatest movie actors in cinema history (if not the greatest). This is of course, a consensus popular type of “greatest” because people hardly ever know what they are talking about when describing performances. But Brando was mythicized in acting circles, much of that owed directly to the hands of director Elia Kazan, most notable, when Brando played ex pugilist & has-been Terry Mallow in the exceptional film, ON THE WATERFRONT. The myth was solidified, specifically in one scene romanticized to death, that in which Brando plays with his co-stars (Eva Marie Saint) glove in a naturalistic, off- the-cuff, improvised way. To this day, there is neither a film school nor an acting class unwilling to sell you on the regurgitated magnitude of this moment, frozen in time. Kazan was certainly a sound director (a personal favorite), and one that became infamous in the black listing scandal during the McCarthy era, which seems to be in the zeitgeist again. Brando of course rose to fame prior, playing Stanley Kramer in A STREET CAR NAMED DESIRE, first on stage, then on the big screen.

Brando always disparaged his profession whenever given the opportunity (as do other well-known actors, possibly as a mimetic homage to other great actors, or possibly something more internal, though I don’t want to speculate), and barely prepared for his roles as his career went forward and fame overwhelmed. A story comes to mind is that he had a microphone in his ear, reciting lines feed to him over radio waves. Though, he certainly was a natural, and his naturalness was something we like to see on screen. That’s usually what differentiates actors that we prefer. Something about the personality and ease in front of a camera. The rest of it, the spectacle of losing weight or becoming physically something altogether different, those actions have a tinge of superficiality attached, though they make great press and help win awards. But that extra stuff often has less gravity then a mere smile, a face never too pretty nor too ugly, and a certain charisma we call star power for lack of the right words.

But coming back to Ted Jones remark - Brando’s life was full of tragedy. He hit the highest highs, and the lowest lows, and for Ted, life was more than a career. That kind of thinking is irrational, or rather, incomprehensible for a 20-year-old would be artist. Glory is after-all, the immortality that we seek. To change the world, blah blah, ego blah! But, we all learn of the tradeoffs of these grandiose illusions as time marches forward, and with every level up, after a brief period of ecstasy when going up, the psyche neutralizes and you deal with life in much the same way as any other period. There is a clip of an older, more mature Mike Tyson dismissing all his championship belts as meaningless. And a life filled with excessive tragedy and suffering, even when the highest peaks were reached, was too much of a net negative tradeoff when the macro lens was applied as far as our subject Ted was concerned.

Of course, there is an additional argument to be made here, one that we can’t skip over, one in which the great writer, & lover of the twitter argument Nassim Taleb calls an example of “sour grapes”. That Ted Jones, never achieving the status he craved consoles himself through an illusion, or rather, delusion to protect his ego. Of course, this is a psychological possibility, but also, a weak, projected judgement about the wants and needs of another human being, with another fate, and an individual path like a fingerprint, as valid as all others, and inseparable from all others. All of the upside, and limited downside is nice, but the universe is a trickster. (a side note here, Taleb has major distaste for actors and the acting profession, which is ironic in that it is the king of Lindy when it comes to professions).

Which brings me to this: the highs will bring the lows, and like a roller coaster, up and down it goes.

*Post script - I quickly found my way out of that career because the auditions I got called in for and the opportunities at the time where horrendous (terrorist shit). I had decided that my stories where essential & no one but myself could tell them (immigrant shit), so I moved into another realm, just a hop, skip & jump away. This trajectory is partly why I have such fondness for John Cassavetes to this day.