Celebrity crushes: Falling in love with Marlon Brando

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Jul 29, 2015 in Rat News | Subscribe

In the summer of 1977, I was worried about starting high school, because I knew I was behind my peers in one key area.

All through eighth grade, my girlfriends gabbed about clothes, makeup, boys they had crushes on and boys they had kissed.

I didn’t get it. None of this boys-and-kissing stuff was on my radar. I was still clinging to my strange girl-world, fretting about the care of my pet rats or filling up notebooks with intricate drawings of imaginary palaces.

But my girl-world was broken wide open when the force of nature known as Marlon Brando blew into my life. Yes, I’m talking about the Academy Award-winning screen legend hailed as the most influential actor in the history of movies.

At least I aimed high with my first love interest. Brando continues to fascinate more than a decade after his death. This summer, the highly anticipated new documentary “Listen to Me Marlon” hits movie theaters in select U.S. markets. The Showtime film screens at San Francisco’s Opera Plaza Cinemas on Aug. 7.

Certainly, I’m not the first young female to have a celebrity crush. But I admit Brando is an unusual object of desire for a 14-year-old girl in the late 1970s. It would have been more typical for me to hang posters of Andy Gibb, Shaun Cassidy or even John Travolta, then the rising young star of “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease.”

In the late 1970s, Brando was an aging star, coasting off his triumphs in “The Godfather” and “Last Tango in Paris.” He was my father’s age, with gray hair, a famously expanding waistline and an ego that almost drove Francis Ford Coppola to the brink of professional disaster on the set of “Apocalypse Now.”

I didn’t fall for that Brando.

My introduction came via a local TV station that broadcast classic films each weekday night. One June evening, the station showed “On the Waterfront,” which won eight Academy Awards in 1955, including a best actor trophy for Brando.

“Waterfront” is still revered as a landmark in American film for its hard-hitting script about waterfront corruption and its stellar ensemble cast, at the center of which was Brando.

Playing onetime boxing champ Terry Malloy, Brando is all tough-guy bravado, masking a wounded, delicate heart aching to do the right thing. The thunderbolt hit me when he appeared on screen a few seconds into the film. Two hours in the company of Brando — even with commercial breaks — left my heart thumping.

I also couldn’t sleep that night, with my mind trying to burn Brando moments into memory — his great “I coulda been a contender” monologue or his tender love scenes with Eva Marie Saint. In this pre-VCR, pre-video store era, I didn’t know when I’d ever see “On the Waterfront” — or Brando — again.

Then, a few weeks later, the station broadcast “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the 1951 film that first catapulted Brando to stardom. He plays petulant, sexy brute Stanley Kowalski. At various points, Brando takes off his shirt — or has it ripped off — to reveal a lithe, toned torso. With his Greek god profile and rough/vulnerable way with women, he was beautiful, dangerous and exciting.

I spent the rest of the summer consumed with Brando. This meant frequent trips to the library to check out Brando biographies and books on film and American theater. I also dived into works by playwright Tennessee Williams, who created Stanley Kowalski. And every week, I scoured TV listings to see if stations were playing more Brando movies.

Fortune smiled when local stations delivered a Brando-filled summer. I got to see him play Mexican peasant revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in another Oscar-nominated performance from 1952, sing serviceably well against Frank Sinatra in a movie version of “Guys and Dolls” and embody conflicted mutineer Fletcher Christian in a big-color 1962 version of “Mutiny on the Bounty.”

But along with those Brando-viewing delights came crushing disappointments. When another local station scheduled a “Streetcar” screening on a night I had to go out for a family event, I cried for days.

My Brando fascination continued over the next few years. It inspired me to take high school drama and to try some famous Brando-esque Method acting techniques to improve my performances.

It also prompted a memorable outing with some drama friends the summer after sophomore year. I convinced them to sneak over to see “Last Tango in Paris” at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre.

Not only did we scam our way into a controversial film that had received an X rating for nudity and graphic sex scenes, we had ventured into the Castro district, then in its early, heady days as a burgeoning gay mecca. While one still-closeted male friend found it a revelation to be in a place where men openly showed affection to one another, I was thrilled to see an artsy film with subtitles set in Paris, not to mention another raw, anguished performance by Brando.

At this point, I need to clarify something. Perhaps unlike other girls with celebrity crushes, I never fantasized about ever being Brando’s girlfriend or anything like that.

For one thing, the Brando I fell in love at 14 with no longer existed. Also, my course in Brando studies taught me that he might be an acting genius, but he was mostly a jerk in his private life to his many wives, girlfriends and offspring.

If I fantasized about a real-life association, it would be me playing the role of platonic gal pal, someone with whom he could free-associate about his art or the meaning of life.

Foreshadowing of my romantic future? To some extent, yes. My teen and early adult years were populated by muddles and misunderstandings with boys and men who also were unavailable because they were 1) gay; 2) in love with someone else; or 3) Brando-esque “bad boys” or commitment-phobes who weren’t into anything long term.

But even if my 14-year-old self never envisioned being with Brando in that way, my introduction to him as Terry Malloy and Stanley Kowalski still stirred something profound inside me. It’s reminds me of Blanche DuBois’ line about falling in love for the first time at 16: “It was like you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow; that’s how it struck the world for me.”

Going into high school, it would be a while before I met boys who piqued my interest. But at least I was more in sync with my friends. During a late-night sleepover confession, a friend described how exciting and scary it was to be madly in love with her new boyfriend. Finally, I was able to respond, with full honesty and understanding, “Yeah, I know how that feels.” Share your celebrity crushes at features@mercurynews.com.

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