Tuesday, July 30, 2013

THE MISSOURI BREAKS (1976)


LOOKING BACK AT THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY















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…"
 
The Missouri Breaks is the one that got away, the one that should’ve soared but didn’t. The blame usually falls on Brando.  Yet, his interpretation of an eccentric contract killer was actually quite bold and interesting. Brando decided Clayton was insane, driven mad by a kind of prairie fever; he'd convey this by speaking with different accents, dressing like a woman,  even pretending to be a priest.  Unfortunately, as innovative as Brando’s acting choices were, they felt out of place in an American western and were too strange for audiences of the time.  The New York Times' Vincent Canby described Brando's performance as "out of control."

           
 
 
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 I  really 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.

 
Somehow, the completed film ambled out for the public's inspection in May, 1976.  The story concerned Tom Logan (Nicholson), leader of a gang of rustlers in the 1880s whose friend was killed by a local landowner named Braxton (John McLiam). Logan and his crew retaliate by killing one of Braxton's friends. Braxton responds by hiring  Clayton (Brando), a notorious contract killer to patrol his land and kill rustlers on sight. Clayton, armed with a Creedmoor rifle and some homemade weapons, picks off several of Logan's gang, sometimes torturing or taunting them beforehand. Logan, who has fallen in love with Braxton's daughter, is left to deal with Clayton's mind games until the film's brief, bloody climax.  Once Tom Logan has dispensed with Clayton ("What woke you up is              ), he encounters Braxton, who pulls a gun on him. Logan is quicker, and shoots Braxton dead. The ending, with Logan shooting a bedridden Braxton, was added to the film by Nicholson, Penn, and Towne.  McGuane was never happy with it.

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.

                                                                 * * *

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..."

Worse was to come. Reviewers apparently took as much offense at Brando's body as they did his odd acting. John Simon appeared to lead the charge in skewering Brando, calling him, "utterly lamentable...even more slatternly and self-indulgent than his bloated physique."  "Marlon Brando at 52 has the  sloppy belly of a 62-year-old," reported The Sun, "the white hair of a 72-year-old, and the total lack of discipline of a precocious 12-year-old."   The Oakland Tribune gave cinematographer  Michael Butler kudos for providing "a burnished golden glow  across the fields and into the cabins," but called the movie  "such a bizarre western that it almost defies description." The Tribune's reviewer added that "Brando gives the impression that he sprawled through the wall from the movie next door."  The San Mateo Times called it "the freak show of the year," and "a paradoxical bummer." David Dugas of the United Press  described The Missouri Breaks as a "third rate and thoroughly nasty picture."

It wasn't all negative. Some critics appreciated the film's unusual nature, and some felt Michael Butler's cinematography was enough to give it a good grade.  

 
There is much to like about The Missouri Breaks. Randy Quaid and Harry Dean Stanton are exceptional as Nicholson's sidekicks.  The film also made an effort at period realism, namely in the darkness of the bunkhouse scenes, the men talking to each other with only candles to light their rooms. McGuane's script, while unwieldy,  featured some exquisite dialog, such as when one of Logan's crew complains during a trip north, "The closer you get to Canada, the more things'll eat your horse."

And of course, there was Brando.
 
Brando rides in for his first scene like professional wrestling's version of a gunman, a white buckskin jacket fitted snugly across his massive shoulders, his hair long and unruly. The rustlers comment on how he  sweet he smells; he's the meanest regulator in the land, as presented by Gorgeous George.  And it's easy to enjoy watching Brando enjoy himself. He's having so much fun playing such a strange, despicable character that you can almost feel him giggling between scenes, dreaming up his next move. He may be going down wrong paths, but he's pushing his horse at full gallop all the way.

Still, the movie's most generous supporters could understand why it landed with such a thud.

Too much anticipation: The film featured two of the best actors of the era, and a director who had helmed such classics as The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde, and Little Big Man. Audiences and the press were expecting something major. United Artists had boldly predicted a box office gross of approximately 50-million dollars based solely on the drawing power of Brando and Nicholson. The final result was closer to 14. It performed respectably, but was no blockbuster. At the year's end, Variety listed it as one of the year's "pretentious, self-conscious flops."

An uneven tone: The first several scenes are quite serious. Then, abruptly,  we get a slapstick train robbery with a lot of yee-haw silliness. Other scenes of Logan's gang horsing around break up the film's mood. Nicholson's love scenes with Lloyd didn't amount to much, either. Nicholson would say later that the film created friction between himself and Penn. "I told him I didn't like his picture," Nicholson told Cosmopolitan in 1976, describing the film as "very out of balance...The movie could've been saved in the cutting room, but nobody listened."

It was too soon after One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest: The filming of The Missouri Breaks began before One Flew Over The Cuckoo's nest was released. By the time Penn finished, Cuckoo's Nest had become a cultural touchstone, and Nicholson had picked up the first Academy Award of his career. Cuckoo's Nest was actually still in theaters when Missouri Breaks was released (some theaters featured both films), which meant Nicholson was inadvertently competing with himself. Not surprisingly, Cuckoo's Nest won out.

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.
 
 Audiences weren't sure who to root for:  There are no clearly delineated good guys and bad guys here. While dispensing with traditional heroes and villains creates a more sophisticated movie, try telling that to audiences looking for an old fashioned shoot 'em up.  Nicholson, ostensibly the 'hero' of the pic, is sort of a callous jerk as Logan. Brando is weird as Clayton. No wonder 1970's audiences were put off.

Anti-Brando feelings were in the air: The press had been slowly picking at Brando for years. His aloofness, his politics, and his reclusive nature, had made him an easy target. This was compounded by his growing salary per film, and growing legends about his bizarre behavior. One rumor that spread on the set of The Missouri Breaks was that he plucked a live frog out of a pond, bit into it, and then hurled the bloody remains back into the water. The world's best actor, it seemed, had gone nuts.  Penn, though, felt the press' attacks on Brando were unfair.
 
 "The American press is always running him down," Penn told Clouzot, "but he's a great actor and a true professional." Penn felt The Missouri Breaks flopped not because of Brando, but because, "The American public isn't ready for a film that doesn't have a big shootout at the end."  

Nicholson, too, remained enamored of his co-star. Some have speculated that there was tension between them - even though they were neighbors, they weren't close (Brando once called the police because a party at Nicholson's had gotten too loud) - and some wondered if Brando resented Nicholson being hailed as "the new Brando." Brando toyed with the press on the matter, telling that he didn't think Nicholson was very bright, and that Robert De Niro was a better actor. At other times he said, with a straight face, that he and Nicholson were lovers.  For Brando, the movie business had become a joke, and one suspects Nicholson, eventually, was in on it. Nicholson would eventually invest in more than one of Brando's money-making schemes, including a process known as "photovoltrolysis," which would use solar power to break down water into hydrogen to power automobile engines.   Indeed, Nicholson even spoke of a project he wanted to direct that he hoped would star Brando, a project called  Moontrap that never saw fruition.

"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."
 
 
 
Upon Penn's death in 2010, critic David Kehr referred to The Missouri Breaks as "a surreal western with moments of brilliance but a meandering tone."  That's fair. But I often imagine a different cut of The Missouri Breaks, one with the comedy and love scenes taken out, leaving behind a dark, mean western that would clock in at around and hour forty-five. 
 
 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.

 

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