Beatles, Heifetz and Brando

There are two ways that art and artists are judged, their initial impact and their historical impact. We have become a world, over the last fifty years, where initial impact is hard to define because “buzz” has taken it’s place. If I were to say the names “Harrison Ford” or ” Tom Hanks” or “Dustin Hoffman”, you would either be thrilled or roll your eyes depending on what 6 to 18 month period we’re talking about over the last thirty years.

So, I look to the Beatles. Obviously, we are going to be talking about Lennon/McCartney/Harrison in two hundred years the same way we talk about Mozart now. They were a marketing magnet, four handsome and charming young men who were exotic, foreign and somehow still human, but we won’t remember the interviews or the exit from Candlestick Park or Bag-ism. People will still be studying their “aeolian cadences” and backwards looped caliopy music, along with the incredible simple elegance of “Across The Universe”, “I Will”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “She Said, She Said”.

But these were guys who wrote music, and you can’t judge them the same way you judge an actor. An actor has a job that is much smaller and more specific. I think I’ve quoted Jascha Heifetz here before when he said that he had no legacy because he had never composed.

(Sorry, one other of my favorite Heifetz quotes, “I occasionally play works by contemporary composers and for two reasons. First, to discourage the composer from writing any more and secondly, to remind myself how much I appreciate Beethoven”)

Heifetz is wrong about his legacy. His is the model that all young violinists look to when they are practicing. Not to make this about him, but he said something to the effect of, “If I don’t practice one day, I know it. If I don’t practice two days, the critics know it. If I don’t practice three days, the public knows it.” And his dilligence is what makes you saw away at your scales for hours every day, knowing you are gonna end up in the middle of the second violin section of the Witchita Symphony Orchestra, surviving on $15 an hour students and four nursed scotch-n-soda’s a day.

Actors are in the same boat, pushed on by the same dream. We take every single show we can, and many of us try “teaching”, what amounts to private coaching in whatever “technique” we’ve studied (man, the different techniques and staggering failures of most of them is subject for an entirely different blog), and we do this half because we hope some day to play Richard the Third, but mostly because we hope some day to live lives as actors.

Marlon Brando wasn’t that guy. I’m not saying he wasn’t diligent, by all accounts he was. And his acting, such as it is, is a good representation of a certain theory. But when are we gonna break down and just admit that it was mostly hype? Brando was gorgeous, but he wasn’t any better an actor than, say, Hugh Jackman. The fact that some people mention Brando in the same breath with Olivier is a crime.

Because that is where we mention him, as one of the three or four greatest actors ever. But his work never meant shit to me. Gene Hackman, Ellen Burstyn, Gena Rowlands, Dustin Hoffman (who I know is one of the other names mentioned), Emma Thompson and of course DeNiro have all meant way more to me than anything Brando did. Y’know what? Kevin frickin’ Bacon is a better actor and Nicole Kidman is basically just as good.

In fact, take away the bongo drums and the beat poet, man-from-the-streets bullshit, and Brando is essentially Nicole Kidman. A person of enormous and breath taking beauty who is willing to work as hard as humanly possible on their craft, but whose work will never mean that much to me. Give me Katherin Hepburn and Kevin Kline any day.

My point is this. When George Harrison died, we certainly mourned, but we didn’t recognize the way we should have. Brando was partly responsible for the art of acting being taken away from actors and being handed to models in Method class. The studios get the prettiest people they can and keep the edits short to hide their inability and they make people think Josh Hartnett and Jared Leto are actors. Brando paved the way for every pretty boy who mumbles, and he aint no hero of mine.