I have long been fascinated by the decisions leading men in films must make as they grow older. More recent examples are Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis, both of whom have evidently decided to continue to play action heroes, albeit older ones, in sequels and remakes. Two who had to make the same decisions 40 years ago are, in my opinion, great actors: Marlon Brando and Richard Burton. And I also want to address an experience of viewing films performances by older actors--specifically Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper--who had delivered wonderful comedy performances when they were younger, abandoned comedy in mid-life, and tackled it again, however briefly, when they were older.
Brando and Burton were born a year apart. By 1968, the 43-year-old Burton was in the midst of a string of successful and critically well received films--The V.I.P.s (1963), Becket (1964), The Night of the Iguana (1964), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), Who''s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), and Where Eagles Dare (1968)--for which he received three Academy Award nominations, while the 44-year-old Brando, who had had a similar number of successes in the 1950s, was struggling with middle age and an uneven series of recent films--Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), The Ugly American (1962), Bedtime Story (1964), Morituri (1965), The Chase (1966) The Appaloosa (1966), A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967).
In 1968, both actors appeared eager to deliberately break away from their younger roles. In 1968, they both appeared, in separate segments, in Candy, a film version of Terry Southern's satiric novel of a young woman encountering a series of male lovers. Brando, who had just appeared with Burton's wife, Elizabeth Taylor, in Reflections, agreed to make the film as a favor to the director and asked Burton to do it too. It was an all-star effort and, in a way, much like the 1960s tv series Batman in which stars took on brief cameos just to be part of a satiric hit. Brando parodied himself, playing a lascivious guru, and Burton parodied both himself and his late friend, the poet Dylan Thomas, as a drunken poet on the prowl. Candy was critically savaged, but made $16 million against a $3 mllion production budget. Brando went from Candy to three unusual and unsuccessful films. In The Night of the Following Day (1969), an eccentric kidnapping film, Brando disparaged it during and after filming and it was heavily censored on release. Today, it has a quirky energy, and Brando, who later in life would get quite fat, appears remarkably think and even lithe as one of the kidnappers. In his next film, Burn! (1969), Brando took on the part of the real-life mercenary Sir William Walker, who instigates a slave revolt on the Caribbean island of Queimada in order to improve British sugar trade. It was an unglamorous role. The socially-conscious Brando accepted the part because the U.S. was in the midst of the Vietnam war, and he saw the film as a commentary on involvements in the affairs of other countries. The director, Gillo Pontecorvo, was Italian, and the film was released in a U.S. and a longer Italian version. It was a troubled shoot, and United Artists heavily edited the film for U.S. distribution. Burn! wasn't a success, but Brando later said it contained the best acting he had ever done on film. He followed Burn! with The Nightcomers (1971), another unusual choice in that it was a prequel to Henry James' ghost story "The Turn of the Screw" that took on the task of telling the tale of where the ghosts in James' story came from. Portraying a brutish man named Quint who seduces a prim schoolteacher, distracting her from the precocious children in her care with tragic results, the film failed at the box office, although, once again, Brando liked it. The next year, the 48-year old Brando finally regained success by playing a middle-aged Mafia don in The Godfather. He sought out the role and auditioned, and the film was a mammoth hit. He garnered generally excellent reviews and won the Academy Award for best actor, although he declined the award. He next shook up his image even more by appearing as a man in his 40s who is having an affair with a younger woman in the sexually-explicit and extremely controversial Last Tango in Paris (1972).
For his part, after Candy, Burton in 1969 took on the lead in Tony Richardson's film version of Vladmir Nabokov's novel Laughter in the Dark. Richardson had directed Burton to great acclaim in Look Back in Anger (1959) and the 1960 BBC television drama A Subject of Scandal and Concern. Much in demand, Burton was often late to the set. After two weeks, Richardson, who had won the Academy Award as best director for Tom Jones (1963), fired Burton on Burton's yacht after an argument about the actor's tardiness and then had to beg Burton to have someone take him back to shore. The recast film received mixed reviews, was not a success, and was the start of Richardson's critical decline as a director. Burton then went to an unconventional role: this well-known cinematic and actual Casanova played a prissy homosexual lover of the more flamboyant Rex Harrison, also a well-publicized lothario, in Staircase. Regarded as a stunt, the film bombed at the box office and Harrison is said to have hated it. But it was critically well received. I remember to this day a review in the New Yorker in which the critic said that if any student actor wanted to know what a subtext is he or she should see Burton's performance in Staircase. The basis for this critical observation is that Burton was an actor who actually listened when other actors spoke. You can see it in his eyes. I read a recollection by the director of King John at the Stratford Playhouse in England in which Burton played Faulconbridge, the bastard son of Richard the Lionhearted. The director thought it would be interesting to have Burton remain on the stage throughout the play and serve as a choric figure, the audience's eyes and ears, its surrogate. The director found out very quickly that the audience was looking at Burton and not the other actors. Burton wasn't doing anything to upstage them. He was listening to them, and he was such a riveting presence that the audience couldn't take its eyes off him. The director decided to abandon this approach and bring Burton onstage only when the script required. Although it was daring and controversial then, Staircase today is a dated and even stereotypical look at homosexuality. But it's an example of Burton trying to break the mold and push the acting envelope.
Burton quickly reverted to the more conventional, for him, playing Henry VIII in Anne of a Thousand Days (1969). It was relatively undemanding, again, for him, but his performance won him his sixth Academy Award nomination. He lost to John Wayne for his performance as a one-eyed western fat man in True Grit. Wayne. The pair had a bet that the loser would buy drinks, and the two went on a legendary bar hop afterwards at Wayne's expense. In 1970, Burton tried comedy with a turn on Lucille Ball's tv show Here's Lucy playing himself and was surprisingly funny. Burton then alternated several serviceable war movies with three film that pushed the envelope, one that returned to what was conventional for him, and two that pushed the envelope backwards. He played a cockney gangster in Villain (1971), a bloody British crime movie in the same vein as Get Carter. For those who sometimes complained Burton relied on his remarkable voice too much, here he employs a rasping, snarling cockney accent throughout, and it's startling not to hear his melodic tones. He stays in character, he envelopes the character. The film was very successful in Europe but had limited release in the U.S. He reverted to type again with a film version of his friend Dylan Thomas' radio play Under Milk Wood in which he had participated for the BBC. As a play for voices, it really didn't need to be filmed, but Burton read the First Voice and also financed the movie so that his friend's legacy could reach a wider audience. He then worked for two famous directors in atypical parts. He starred in Joseph Losey's The Assassination of Trotsky (1972). It seemed like a good bet. The film had Losey, an all-star cast, and a sensational subject--the murder of Leon Trotsky, Stalin's rival who was living in exile in Mexico. But Trotsky is a passive figure whose main task is to be assassinated. Burton tempered his great voice and brimming emotion, which only seemed to cause Alain Delon, playing his assassin, to overact. Losey didn't push the movie forward, and it's really dull. The same year, Burton appeared in Hammersmith Is Out (1972) directed by the multi-talented Peter Ustinov that's a modern update of the Faust story with Burton playing the devil-figure. Burton seems on board in this black comedy just he had been with the farce of Here's Lucy. At a barbeque in a chef's outfit, he answers the question, "What's for dinner?" as the devil would: "Little baby pigs." But it's Ustinov who, like Losey, seems held back for some reason as if he's uncomfortable with the subject matter. For his third film in 1972, Bluebeard, Burton tried the horror genre, which turned out to be a giant step backward. He admitted that he pretty much tried to do an impersonation of horror-film-king Vincent Price. The idea of putting a charismatic romantic lead in a film with Raquel Welch, Virni Lisi, and other actresses that his character would kill off may have seemed an idea made in movie mogul heaven, but it quickly was assigned to the other place. In 1974, Burton reached the nadir, playing a southerner with a sporadic accent opposite Lee Marvin in The Klansman, directed by Terrence Young of James Bond fame. It was one of a string of 70's films dealing with race that was dated before it was released. Burton and Marvin, both heavy drinkers, claimed later that they had never met each other.
And so, this period, in which these middle-aged actors tried to find new types of roles, ended with Burton down and Brando up. But Brando, who decided to work infrequently, made just 13 films over 30 years, from 1973 until his 2004 death, with only Superman (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), the comedies The Freshman (1990) and Don Juan DeMarco (1994), and his last film The Score (2001) standing out, along with a short segment in the tv series Roots: The Next Generation (1979) as the neo-Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell. Burton returned to the stage in Equus and a reprise of his 1960 hit Camelot, did a handful of movies including Equus (1978), which earned him his seventh and last Academy Award nomination with no wins, and died in 1984 after having completed a well-received performance in a credible movie version of George Orwell's novel 1984.
Both actors struggled to find new types of roles as they aged. They failed sometimes, and they succeeded sometimes. But saw the reason to try.
A Coda on Comedy. Brando essayed a few comedies in his career, successfully--Guys and Dolls, The Teahouse of the August Moon, and the two 1990s films listed earlier--and unsuccessfully--Bedtime Story and Countess from Hong Kong. Burton had fewer opportunities--just Green Grow the Rushes (1952) with future Bond girl Honor Blackman, the Here's Lucy episode, and Hammersmith. Two actors who started in films in the 1930s proved to be adept farceurs: Gary Cooper (Design for Living, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Bluebeard's Tenth Honeymoon, Ball of Fire) and Henry Fonda (The Mad Miss Marton, The Lady Eve, The Magnificent Dope, The Male Animal). They stopped making full-blown comedies after the war but had brief re-entries late in their careers.
Cooper at the age of 56 played an aging lothario who falls in love with a young cellist portrayed by Audrey Hepburn, who was 28, in Love in the Afternoon. The film made a profit, albeit a small one, and was nominated for a Golden Globe as best comedy. Cooper said afterwards that he was disappointed that all the reviews commented on the age discrepancy between the two leads because he had worked very hard on his performance and had enjoyed returning to comedy. I had the opportunity to talk to a Cooper family member and commented about his perfect comedic timing in the film. The relative said I was right about his timing but noted that Cooper's wife, agreeing with the critics, said he came across as a dirty old goat. It was Cooper's last comedy before he died in 1961.
The issue of older actors having love scenes with significantly younger actresses came up often after World War II. Joel McCrea, who had starred in some classic screwball comedies in the 1940s, including Sullivan's Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and The More the Merrier (1943), stopped making comedies after 1944 because he felt he was too cold to play a romantic lead. He focused on westerns. Cary Grant kept making comedies through his 50s and got away with it because of his still youthful appearance. By Charade (1963), however, as he was turning 60, he insisted that Hepburn chase him rather than he her. The 55-year old Humphrey Bogart received criticism similar to Cooper's for his role opposite Hepburn in Sabrina (1954) as did the 59-yer old Clark Gable for playing opposite Sophia Loren in It Started in Naples. But Bogart evidenced expert comic timing comparable to Cooper's, Sabrina was a huge hit, and It Started in Naples received a Golden Globe nomination for best comedy. So the public liked what it saw.
Henry Fonda returned to films in 1955 and took roles in a series of dramas in which he mostly played men of stature and integrity. In 1962, he was a nominee for Secretary of State in Advise and Consent and Brig. General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. in The Longest Day. In 1964, he played the U.S. president in Fail Safe and a presidential nominee in The Best Man. The same year, he returned to comedy in Sex in the Single Girl. The film was based on just the title of Helen Gurley Brown's advice book, with a satiric plot spun out of nothing by David R. Schwartz and Joseph Heller, who had written the great satiric novel Catch-22 three years earlier. Fonda later said he had accepted the part for the money and that it was the worst movie he had ever made. It's easy to see why he thought that. It's an atypical role from those Fonda had been taking. He plays a beaten-down, henpecked owner of a hosiery company whose devotion to his business has driven his wife to rage. His performance is effortless and assured. There's a scene where he leaves his house after a fight with his wife and interrupts a tete-a-tete between his neighbor Tony Curtis and his girlfriend. Fonda plops himself down distractedly in a chair. Concerned about his friend, Curtis asks his girlfriend to leave and gives her $20 for a cab, and she walks over to Fonda to say goodbye. "I gave," he says, looking blankly ahead. He bemoans how his competition is "slicing me up like a salami." At the end, Fonda joins the rest of the cast in a car chase on the Los Angeles freeway that puts the screwball comedies of the 1930s on wheels. The film itself may be a trifle, and Fonda evidently felt uncomfortable with his role, but he is the best thing in the movie.
The life span at the time may have been the problem for Cooper, Bogart, McCrea, and Fonda. At the age of 60, Cooper looked like an old man. In 1999, at the age of 69, Sean Connery was a credible romantic lead opposte Catherine Zeta Jones, who was 39 years his junior, in Entrapment (1999), benefitting from the longer life span.
Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino