AND A VOICE TO SING WITH -- A MEMOIR
1. ''A TEST OF TIME"
There is a line in the 1966 movie Morgan when the psychotic and endearing hero says, in a mournful apology to the colorfully nutty woman he loves, "You are the only thing that lives up to my fantasies."
I first saw Marlon Brando in person during the civil rights march on Washington, in 1963. He was standing about twenty feet away, surrounded by newsmen and stargazers; I was barefoot, leaning against a pillar on the Capitol steps, wearing a purple dress. I tried to see his face clearly, hoping he would glance over just once and look straight into my eyes. As he evaporated into the crowd my heart pounded so hard my body shook.
When I was thirteen my seventh grade art teacher took me to see the movie Julius Caesar. On the screen a young punk with a bent nose strode back and forth saying, "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me youreahs ..." while Elvira Teresa Pulombo, my art teacher, clutched the armrests and moaned. I didn't understand her reaction to him. He did have fierce eyes. And he did have a beautiful chest. We got to see his chest at the beginning of the film before he entered the Roman cabinet and began wearing robes. I teased Miss Pulombo all the way home.
It must have been two years later that someone took me to see a double bill of Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. Shortly after, I saw The Wild One. Goodbye world. I was struck by blue lightning. There he was, the magnificent dark horse who was a winner, the punk, the hurt child, the rebel. The most appealing man I'd ever seen. A veritable sex extravaganza, tough and tender, granite and satin; on top of that he seemed to be able to act, or else he was so loaded with charisma that one was left with the impression that he was an incredible actor. To this day, I don't know which is nearer to the truth. It doesn't matter.
I was hurled into my first totally consuming movie crush. I had hot flashes. I moped and daydreamed. I fantasized and prayed that he would come riding by on a motorcycle and be swept off his feet by the sight of my long black hair, brown skin, and limpid, knowing eyes. He'd want to take me somewhere. Anywhere. And when we got there, at the end of a long and thrilling ride, my hair all tangled and my face flushed, Marlon Brando would kiss me. In my fantasies, ver and over, tenderly and passionately, he'd kiss me. On the beach he'd kiss me. Under the elms and oaks he'd kiss me. In the desert at sunset he'd kiss me. We kissed my way through seven periods of school a day, through three hours of homework a night, through the dishes and whatever chores I could do alone. I called a reluctant halt to it all at mealtime so that my family would not suspect my secret. This love was for real, and it was mine.
In those fantasies I wore beaded Indian garb of soft deerhide adorned with tassels, thongs, and feathers. The tassels, thongs, and feathers were ingeniously placed so as to hide my hopelessly flat chest, and the whole outfit cleverly ended somewhere in the middle of my thighs, giving full exposure to my thin but basically good-looking bronze legs. We never went any further than just kissing. (In the middle fifties there were still many others like myself who, at the age of fifteen, were still virgins, or very nearly virgins. "Very nearly virgins" meant that, in an uncontrollable state of passion and confusion, in the back seat of a raked Mercury or the like, preferably on tuck and roll upholstery, we had abandoned our precious maidenheads to the steady hand of some senior who had "plenty of experience," but understood that sexual intercourse, referred to as "going all the way," was out of the question, at least for the time being. Maybe next summer.)
My phantom Marlon understood all this, and was content simply to run through scenario after scenario of drawn-out plots and wild motorcycle rides, always culminating in the same old kiss. In spite of the drop in my school grades and body weight, this affair was much simpler than having to suffer through a real relationship with some tedious adolescent whose pimples and inadequacies I had once found easy enough to accept but which were now at best annoying, and at worst positively revolting. All local heroes paled in the blinding shimmer of Marlon.
This passion lasted a couple of months, and was rekindled to a fiery glow with each fresh viewing of a Brando movie, whether a new one, a repeat of a new one, or an old rerun. He was the king. When I was eighteen, I sneaked off with my mother to see The Young Lions, where, over our melting bonbons, we confessed to each other that we had shared the same crush for years. My father made wisecracks about the slight retreat of Marlon's hairline, but his attempts to slander my idol affected me not at all. I saw The Young Lions four times, mainly to gaze at the silvery blond peak which nestled at the back of Marlon's neck.
Sometime late in the sixties I finally met Marlon Brando under the legitimate guise of raising money for some cause. When I stepped up to his front door to greet him, he handed me a gardenia. I see the white gardenia now through a wistful, fragrant haze. I can say that he was a gentleman, and that he was funny. He seemed a little weary of everything, a little sad, though he told me that he was happy. We shared stories about crazy people we'd met as a result Of being the object of other people's fantasies. Though he was aging somewhat it was not difficult to match up his eyes with the eyes of the young lion, the wild one, and all of my phantoms. Time was a veil. My memories of that meeting are as heavily laden with pathos as the gardenia was with its heavenly perfume.
Someone once said that meeting other celebrities was for the most part like ships dipping their prows to each other as they pass. I have found it so. But some phantoms seem to linger for a lifetime, and through many veils.
Recently I went with a friend to see On the Waterfront for the fifth or sixth time. It was billed with The Wild One. The Wild One was already on. Back through the veils I tore like the wind, back to adolescence and my phantom. During the close-ups I moaned audibly, and was joined by a chorus of other women. I hooted obscenities at Johnnie's persecutors and waited for his smile in the closing scene as he speeds off into nowhere on his bike, the camera pulls back and the ancient reel flickers to a halt. The audience clapped and cheered and felt they knew each other. Then I sank into a reverent trance as the crackling old grey, black and white print rolled for the millionth time. On The Waterfront. And there I sat for an hour and a half, victimized by the magic happening before my eyes, tears pouring bountifully and shamelessly down to my chin and onto my coat. Bring infinity down to me one more time. Make it tangible. Put it in my hand, or hold it up before my eyes. Make it an emerald necklace, or make it an old classic starring Marlon Brando.
A month after seeing On the Waterfront that last time, I saw Marlon Brando again in person. The occasion was a benefit concert held in a stadium filled with over sixty thousand people. The day was grey, windy, cold, and verging on rain. Marlon was there to make a pitch for money for the American Indians. I heard his voice from the muddy campsite that served as a backstage, a vaguely familiar nasal tone issuing with a gusto and force that could well have been a matured version of Mark Antony's "Lend me youreahs." Curiosity overcame me and I headed for the stage. He was talking emotionally about giving to the cause. He would give five thousand dollars; if you couldn't give money, then give your spirit. I saw the back of his head. His hair was long, white and combed back. He was saying things about nonviolence and brotherhood, and smoothing his hair back with cupped fingers. When he finished his speech he raised his arms in the air, fists clenched in the "Power to the People" sign. There was a great roar and thunder from the audience, as sixty thousand people screamed and yelled. Marlon walked off into a crowd of waiting press and groupies. There was a tiny break in the crowd clinging to him, and I saw his face. It was pale, tired and dignified. It was old. The veils were gone. The astonishing thing was that he seemed so pale, almost transparent; I had remembered him as dark. He was wearing a light blue Mexican shirt and an open jacket, nondescript pants and black cowboys boots, and he was overweight. I was still drawn to him as though he were a lifelong friend whom I hadn't seen in years. It was more than that: he seemed to be my blood brother. Or perhaps I was his mother right then. Those thoughts were in my mind as he caught my eye, and I was smiling because I knew I would get to hug him. He smiled back and proceeded toward me, Moses parting the seas, as the people moved away and let him be. I embraced him, and felt as if we'd been through a dozen wars together. He told me I was looking great, and asked me what was keeping me young, was it my brain, or what? I told him it was my brain and embraced him again. He was damn fat, but it didn't seem to matter. I wanted to tell him how much he'd meant to me over the last twenty years. I wanted to see his sweet smile. I wanted to say something ridiculous to make him laugh. I heard the emcee introduce me, and went out into the wind to face the microphones and sixty thousand screaming and yelling people.
After my set I broke through the lines and was with Marlon again. I looked at him carefully as we shouted to each other over the noise of the rock group which was now on stage. Veils fluttered past. I saw the lines at the corners of his mouth, the tiny straight teeth, the eyes I'd gazed into a thousand times in big theaters and small theaters and even once in person. We were standing in wreaths of time. We were encased in years. We were talking all the while about the crowd, about the causes, about this and that. It was impossible to complete a thought because we couldn't hear each other. I wanted to ask him why he'd decided to get old so early. I wanted to ask him how he felt, how his life was and had been, who he thought he was now, and if he was happy. Marlon may have been a ghost of the former screen hero, but he was dignified and even a little wise. Marlon was like an old lion. He was still king of the jungle.
I don't give up a lifelong love very easily. I leaned toward him and talked in his ear. I told him that he'd been a big part of my life, and that I often dreamed about him, though sometimes he didn't show up, even in the dreams. I thanked him for everything he'd been to me. He looked confused, a little distant, as though he didn't really understand me. The day was so loud, and so cold and confusing, and now I saw that we were surrounded by photographers, so I just smiled at him. I was full of love. Perhaps people don't thank old lions enough for having given away their entire youth to a million eyes they will never see.