From The Rumpus:
Everyone worships at the altar of Brando, but Brando never did. Close friend Jack Nicholson said that he was sure Brando considered himself the best actor alive, but Brando also once told Elia Kazan, “Here I am a balding, middle-aged failure, and I feel like a fraud when I act.” It isn’t that he didn’t think he was good; it’s that he didn’t think being good at acting amounted to much. As far as Brando was concerned, he was a genius at an idiotic pursuit.
He approached Hollywood—once he got around to approaching it at all—as if it was “one big cash register,” as he told an interviewer when he arrived in 1950 for his first film, The Men. He wasn’t happy to be there, wasn’t grateful for the opportunity, and didn’t try to hide it. “The only reason I’m here,” he famously said, “is because I don’t yet have the moral courage to turn down the money.”
But Brando didn’t just spend his life doing something he judged worthless—he poured himself into it, tearing off his own thin veneer and exposing his greatest agonies, again and again. Even in his worst performances he dug a finger into his own wounds, not only because this is more or less the foundation of Method acting (a term Brando disdained for various reasons), but also because this was his temperament. His suffering, in both art and life, often seemed willful. Pauline Kael, among others, noted that in nearly every role he ever played, Brando’s character was killed, savagely beaten, or both.
<<<<For the role of Paul, Brando had to do something he’d never done before: play himself. Bernardo Bertolucci had first conceived of the story’s basic set-up—an older man meets a younger woman for totally anonymous sexual encounters—after seeing a beautiful woman in Paris. Paul was to stand in for Bertolucci’s desires and fantasies.
Brando wasn’t Bertolucci’s first choice for the role. The character—American in the finished film—was originally French, and Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Alain Delon had all turned the role down. Brando’s name was brought up by the film’s producer, Alberto Grimaldi, who was then suing the actor for causing delays during the shooting of another of his films, director Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1969 Burn!. Grimaldi offered to drop the suit if Brando would appear in Tango. Brando, who had walked off the set of Burn! to protest the treatment of Colombian extras and was likely to lose the case, agreed.
After signing up for Tango, Brando came to Paris, where he and Bertolucci holed up in an apartment and talked. The talking went on for weeks. Bertolucci laid himself bare, revealing childhood pains, private aspirations, personal secrets. Brando did the same. Brando, who had once broken a paparazzo’s jaw, had always been intensely private, but Bertolucci drew him out. Brando had been in psychotherapy since the 1950s and knew well where his soft spots were, the sources of his depression and instability, even if he never seemed to escape them: his mother was a binge drinker who regularly abandoned Brando and his sisters without warning for weeks at a time; his father was an alcoholic, bullying, emotionally abusive womanizer who quite thoroughly convinced Marlon he was worthless. Psychoanalyzing famous people from the sidelines is a fool’s errand, but it’s almost impossible to consider Brando without doing so. He was defined by abandonment, neglect, abuse, humiliation, and despair, and he wrought those same things throughout his adult life, with wives, lovers, co-workers, children, and most of all himself. As longtime friend Maureen Stapleton succinctly put it: “Marlon—oh, man, you want to talk about pain?”
As Brando and Bertolucci collaborated on the story, the character of Paul stopped being Bertolucci, and started being Brando. In his memoir, Brando writes plainly, “[Bertolucci] wanted me to play myself, to improvise completely and portray Paul as if he were an autobiographical mirror of me.” Bertolucci, who spoke little English and had no grasp of American slang, let Brando write or improvise nearly all his lines. Unlike so many previous roles, the pain in Tango doesn’t just lurk around the edges of the performance. It is the performance.
Last Tango in Paris is about Paul, whose wife has just killed herself in the hotel they owned, operated, and lived in together. When the movie opens, he’s walking under an elevated train platform. As the train roars overhead Paul throws his head back and blocks his ears and lets loose a profane howl of anguish. The tone for the film is set.