Few could fail like Brando. His failures were like unrealized epics: unsatisfying, but fascinating. One keeps watching, worrying, mulling, hoping that somehow the pieces of his performance can be reassembled and understood. Maybe, one thinks, he is so far ahead of most actors that we missed something the first time. But in The Missouri Breaks, Marlon Brando's turn as the gregarious Robert E. Lee Clayton was more than a failure. It was disturbing. Time’s Richard Schickel wrote that Brando’s performance "does not suffer from an excess of discipline. Indeed, it is fair to say that it is gaudy and disruptive…"
Was Brando, as some believed, trying to upstage his younger co-star Jack Nicholson? Was Brando trying to spice his scenes up because he didn't have faith in the script? Was he being indulged by director Arthur Penn, an old friend who had directed him once in the 1960s? Or was his performance actually a great one, attacked unduly by critics who'd grown tired of Brando the "movie star."
By Penn's own admission, The Missouri Breaks was doomed from the start.“I don’t really know what I was doing making the film,” Penn said shortly after the film was released. “It was like passionless sex.” In a 1976 interview with Claire Clouzot of the French publication Ecran, Penn shed light on how the project materialized:
"It's something that can only happen in Hollywood. Elliot Kastner, a producer in the true sense of the word, sent me Thomas McGuane's script, which Ireally liked, but at the time I wasn't really in the mood to make another film. He sent the script to Brando, then to Nicholson, and all three of us had the same reaction: interesting, but not filmable. Kastner, who can be quite unrelenting, came to see each one of us, and asked me if I'd do the film if Brando did it. When I said yes, he went to see Nicholson and asked him if he'd do the film if Brando and Penn did it. And so on. A deal was struck that said each of us would do the film only if the other two were on board, and everyone agreed. We weren't actually interested in the film so much as working with each other. This probably isn't the best reason to embark on such a massive project. To tell you the truth, I don't really know why I made The Missouri Breaks."
There were problems. The script was wordy and needed trimming. McGuane was out of the country when filming started, so Robert Towne was brought in as a script doctor. Nicholson,who had done a little scriptwriting during the 1960s, also offered ideas for the screenplay. Nicholson, though, had other issues.
Nicholson had agreed to do the project for several reasons, including the chance to work with Brando. For one, he'd just finished One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, which was a taxing film for all involved. He wanted an easy role that wouldn't involve a lot of method acting. He'd enjoyed doing westerns a decade earlier when he was a struggling actor, and he liked the role he would play in The Missouri Breaks, that of Tom Logan. However, he wasn't comfortable with Kathleen Lloyd, a young actress cast in the film as his love interest. Worse, Brando was obviously not taking the film seriously. After Brando's monstrous comeback roles in The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, he was content to coast.
There were rumors that Nicholson was bothered by Brando's reliance on cue cards, and the way Brando had an assistant feed him his lines through an ear piece. (Depending on different sources, Penn either fueled these rumors, or dismissed them.) Nicholson did go on record saying, "Marlon's still the greatest actor in the world, so why does he need those Goddamned cue cards?"
Meanwhile, Brando dickered over his contract and didn't show up for his first day of filming.
"The ground quaked for weeks before he arrived," Nicholson said, although he added, perhaps for the sake of the press, that Brando was "exceedingly co-operative" and "gentle as a lamb." Later, according to Nicholson biographer Marc Eliot, Brando lounged around the set in a yellow bathrobe, was argumentive with Penn, and threw an angry fit one afternoon when a young Chinese girl he met at a local restaraunt wasn't allowed on the set to watch him. It gradually became clear to everyone on the set that Brando was only there for the payday - he'd wrangled a deal that would bring him 11- percent of the film's gross, and some estimates have him making around $16-million for The Missouri Breaks, most of which went towards his pipe dream of turning his home in Tahiti into an island resort.
There were also reports that animals were injured or killed during the production, drawing the wrath of the American Humane Association. Finally, there were rumors that the film went over budget. Penn derided the reporters who started those rumors, saying they were doing it build their cases against Brando. "You should have seen them," Penn told Clouzot. "Some really acted like idiots." Penn did what he could, trying to lengthen scenes where Nicholson and Brando appeared together, hoping to create some drama between the two heavyweights. He'd let them improvise, hoping they'd create some magic. Brando, seemingly pleased with the way things were going, stayed long after he was needed on location and even hosted the final day's wrap party.
Despite his misgivings about the movie, Penn managed to create something large and multi-layered, a loose metaphor for the dangers of colonization. He later admitted the film would probably be difficult for Americans. Brando biographer Stefan Kenfer wrote, "There were a few instances where Penn realized his objective," particularly when the unspoiled landscape "gradually turns to an outreach of Hell, animated by vengeance and littered with corpses."
Penn had done his job. He couldn't have imagined the backlash on the horizon.
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The premiere took place at the World Theater in Billings, Montana, not far from the foothills of the Tobacco Root Mountains where much of the film had been shot. The event was a champagne gala organized by local Shriners, featuring an 'Oriental' band, folks dressed as cowboys, local politicians, some actors from the film, and a choir from the local junior high school. But once all the booze had been guzzled and the two hour and six minute feature had played out, there was a sense that the film wasn't what the locals had expected. The premiere crowd of 472 cheered when Nicholson or Brando made their first appearances on screen, but the Billings reporter covering the event noted that, despite plenty of "good old red-blooded Montana violence," some viewers fell asleep. Others seemed confused as to why the two stars hadn't flown in for the event (Brando was in the Philippines shooting Apocalypse Now; Nicholson was preparing to direct Going South).
Two days later, The Billings Gazette said the movie was "worth seeing," but was also "a disappointment...flawed by the one-upmanship of its principal stars..."
And of course, there was Brando.
Nicholsen didn't help matters a week before the film opened when he blabbed during an appearance at UCLA that he didn't the think The Missouri Breaks was any good. His comments appeared in the UCLA paper, and spread throughout the film industry. Then, sensing trouble at the box office, Nicholson sold back 5-percent of his eventual gross to producer Kastner for a million dollars; Kastner agreed to pay, but never came forth with the money, resulting in Nicholson filing a lawsuit to recover his payments.
"There's no one before or since like Marlon Brando," Nicholson once said. "The gift was enormous and flawless, like (Pablo Picasso). Brando was a genius who was the beginning and end of his own revolution....You didn't rush him. He had a tremendous gift just in his stillness. I was in high school when I saw The Wild One. (1953). He changed my life forever...a monumental artist....There was no way to follow in his footsteps. He was just too large and just too far out of sight. He truly shook the world, and his influence will be there long into the future."
If Brando's performance did a disservice to The Missouri Breaks, if he, as The Times noted, "had no apparent connection to the movie around him," he was inadvertently creating a new type of villain that would begin appearing a decade later. Brando's influence could be seen in Dennis Hopper's crazed performance in Blue Velvet (1986), Anthony Hopkins' turn in Silence of The Lambs (1990), John Malkovich's in In The Line of Fire (1993), practically every Batman and James Bond villain to come, and even the overly talkative characters in the films of Quentin Tarantino. Critics couldn't see it at the time, but Brando had created something enduring in The Missouri Breaks. He'd created a blueprint for two generations of eccentric movie killers.
Failure? All failures should be so fascinating.