Nic, Johnny and Marlon: When Actors Go Full Brando
As Johnny Depp gets ready to promote the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie and scrambles to save the vestiges of his previously glowing public image following domestic abuse allegations from his ex-wife, further news of his crumbling finances have made their way into the public sphere. Depp has accused his former managers of mishandling his money, while they claim in return that his spending was completely out of control. Some of his exorbitant purchases include “45 luxury vehicles, 70 collectible guitars and enough Hollywood memorabilia to fill 12 storage facilities”. His former team laughed at suggestions his £30k a month wine bill was an “investment”, noting that “Wine is not an investment if you drink it as soon as you buy it.” A further $75m went towards 14 residences, including a chain of private islands in the Bahamas. All in all, money thoroughly spent.
The biggest revelation, and the one that shows just how far the former teen idol and critical darling had fallen, was an accusation that Depp has spent hundreds of thousands on sound technicians to feed him his lines on-set through an earpiece, a practice they allege he’s been doing for years. The technique itself isn’t unheard of. Many actors on Broadway have an earpiece in, especially if they’re over a certain age and could benefit from the boost, like Angela Lansbury. The issue here is that Depp’s usage coincides with a period when his acting got noticeably less interesting, and the whole practice invokes a bigger beast in the film world: Marlon Brando.
Brando often refused to learn his lines, preferring the supposed spontaneity of the shooting process, which led to moments like Robert Duvall having Brando’s script stuck to his chest during The Godfather. By the time Brando had fully entered the latter days of his career, muumuu clad and candid about being in it solely for the money, the earpiece had become an expected part of the gig. During the now infamous filming of The Island of Doctor Moreau (so awful that it warranted its own documentary), Brando’s earpiece would pick up signals from a local police scanner, leading him to loudly declare during scenes, “There’s a robbery at Woolworths!”
Depp has been effusive in his adoration for the iconic actor. The pair worked together on 1994’s Don Juan De Marco, and Depp has talked often of Brando’s influence on him, calling him “a great teacher for me, a great mentor, a great friend”. In a 2014 interview, Depp said of Brando, “What is really satisfying is, like Marlon, getting to that place where he just didn’t give a fuck… Suddenly you care enough to not give a fuck, because not giving a fuck, that’s the total liberation. Being game to try anything.” In fairness, few actors gave no fucks as masterfully as Marlon Brando, but watching Depp sink deeper into this hole draws such stark parallels with Brando that the end result is inevitably a pathetic one.
Most actors don’t get the chance to go Full Brando (and almost no actresses). That requires a career longevity few ever reach, and a trajectory of such variety and industry shifts that just don’t exist anymore. Brando started during the studio system, which helped to mold audience-friendly images for its stars and protected them from the worst of the public scrutiny. After his start as an acclaimed stage actor, Brando moved to Hollywood to take on the part of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, the film adaptation of the play he’d starred in, and immediately garnered his first Oscar nomination. Two more followed over the next two years until he finally won his first in 1954 for On The Waterfront. Brando wasn’t just an actor: He was a game changer, who, as noted by Roger Ebert, “changed American movie acting forever.” So what if he liked to use printed cue cards on set and didn’t seem to get on with anyone he worked with? The end result was worth it.
For a long time, however, it wasn’t worth it. Flop after flop dominated much of his work in the 1960s, starting with an especially disastrous remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, wherein his difficult reputation made its way to the press, as did claims he went through 52 pairs of trousers due to his fluctuating weight. These years, which he deemed the “Fuck You Years”, had even his biggest defenders rolling their eyes.
The prevailing myth of Hollywood, one of many, is that suffering in the name of art is a noble cause. Being difficult is worth it if you deliver the goods. Think of how often we’ve heard the story of the uber-dedicated method actor who never drops character between scenes, who spent months in the wilderness in preparation and treats everyone like crap because that’s how their character would treat them. Think Jared Leto’s Suicide Squad folly or Leonardo DiCaprio’s self-flagellation for The Revenant. It’s admirable but also a necessity, and it’s common practice when the badness spills out of their careers and into their private lives. There isn’t a soul in Hollywood who hasn’t read the Amber Heard case or seen the photos, but it won’t matter because Depp is a good actor and it’s worth it. Even when his films don’t make money and his performances are mere props for an assortment of wigs, it’s always going to be worth it. The glimmer of the past shines brighter than the grimness of the present, and so the work will pour in. People didn’t hire Brando in the 90s because he didn’t give a fuck; they hired him and put up with the difficulties because they remembered On the Waterfront, and they hoped that maybe this time, just this once, their film would be the exception and he’d start caring again.
Pauline Kael, who had previously written about Brando with orgasmic glee, noted in the 60s that Brando, like Chaplin and John Barrymore before him, had turned into “buffoons, shamelessly, pathetically mocking their public reputations.” Depp hasn’t quite reached that level of self-aware buffoonery, but another big spender has. Nicolas Cage went Full Brando with his spending, declaring bankruptcy after blowing through an estimated $150m then owing $13m to the IRS. You thought Brando and Depp’s private islands were lavish? Try a $300,000 dinosaur skull, four yachts, a haunted house in New Orleans, two castles, the first ever issue of Superman, and an assortment of shrunken heads. For all those who wonder why the Oscar winner member of the Coppola family keeps making forgettable action movies? That’s why.
Yet Cage has become a bizarre icon of the meme age in part because of this image he’s been forced to create to fix his cash flow problems. The wide-eyed creepy stare, the questionable diction, the assortment of wigs that bear more resemblance to flightless birds than hair; this is Fuck You Cage, Full Brando but never claiming for one moment that it’s for the good of art. Bright spots remain in his later years, like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Joe, but the priority is the money, and people love him for it. To go Full Brando is to cloak yourself in eccentricities you can only get away with when you’re famous.
There’s an undeniable appeal to the barmy eccentric. It ties into old school ideas of lavish celebrity lives, like the King Midas-level opulence of the silent era: Think Gloria Swanson spending $10k a year on lingerie and housing her mansion with a gold bathtub, or the legendary parties at Hearst Castle, thrown by William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. Even today, in times of tighter finances and a wider distaste for careless spending and gaudy displays of wealth, there’s an appealing fantasy to the lives of the rich and famous. We expect them to live large, and question when they don’t (see the exhausting panic every time a famous woman wears the same outfit twice). It’s exciting to see big living, which is what makes it all the more galling when even the most obscenely wealthy individuals struggle with finances. With Depp and Brando in particular, it was just too much.
Everything about the pair of them is far too much: The pay-cheques, the spending, the sheer amount of chances the industry gave them, and the ways the darker parts of their lives were consistently whitewashed. Brando could be brilliant, but he could also be cruel. He gave some incredible performances but put a lot of people through hell to do so, and that only increased when he didn’t care. He had turbulent relationships with many of his children, some of whom had very tragic lives. He was a stalwart advocate for civil rights who went on Larry King Live in 1996 and said, “Hollywood is run by Jews.” Generally, when we talk of Marlon Brando, it is of that icon of the 50s who revolutionized acting, and maybe we’ll mention the Fuck You Years. His legacy is sealed, an icon of his time, but we’ve no hunger for a repeat performance in 2017, especially from a tribute act accused of beating his wife.
Depp’s route to Full Brando has been a long time coming. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he said “Maybe I should do what Brando did 30 years ago: buy an island. Maybe take my girl … and just go there and sleep… You can’t be normal [in Hollywood], not with people hitting you up at any given moment with bizarre requests.” Perhaps muumuus and earpieces are his future, or maybe he’ll follow Cage into an assembly-line of indistinguishable action movies. Either way, his descent into self-parody will remain more watchable than most of his movies these days. If the Fuck You Years is what he yearns for, then audiences will be ready to return those sentiments.
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