Jewish World Review July 9, 2004/ 20 Tamuz, 5764
The first report I heard on Marlon Brando's death referred to him as "actor, Marlon Brando ." Later in the day, Brando's passing was reported as, "America's greatest actor has died ." Still later that same day I heard the media refer to him as, "the man who redefined acting as we know it." Then a radio station that afternoon called Brando, "the originator of modern Method Acting." I figured if I waited long enough one of these newscasts will ultimately say that Brando was the inventor of acting, period.
It may come as a surprise to news reporters, but Brando wasn't the one who created method acting. He certainly did popularize the "method" style, but that came out of the Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg schools in New York after World War II. - it wasn't Brando's invention. Although Marlon Brando was never one of my favorite actors, I recognize that he was one of the biggest stars of his generation. As to whether Brando was America's greatest actor, that is a matter of personal opinion.
One thing is for sure, Brando has become one of the anointed ones. He is among the handful of American celebrities that have gone beyond actor; beyond movie star; even beyond historical figure, into what we call "the immortals." I don't mean the immortals of mankind's truly great like Moses, Einstein, Washington, and Shakespeare. The immortals I refer to are the popular icons of modern celebrity. Brando was an immortal even before he died. Now that he's dead he will take his place to reign alongside James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Elvis Presley, and Judy Garland.
The immortals club is a small and quite exclusive group. Being a member of the immortals club does not necessarily mean that you were one of the most talented people who ever lived, or that you were even the best at what you did among your peers. To make the cut one needs to have in some major way touched an emotional cord with the masses. Tragedy seems to play a part in the selection process, but it is not always a guarantee. While Garland, Presley, Monroe, and Dean certainly qualify on the basis of tragic lives and deaths, Bogart and Brando don't really fit into that scenario. In fact, it could be argued that the lives lived by those two are the exact antithesis of tragedy. Those guys lived full, rich, high energy lives. They pretty much did what they wanted to do and had no regrets or emotional hang-ups about it.
Entertainers, although the most prominent, are not the only ones who have joined this exclusive club. Other cultural icons that have made the grade include John Kennedy, John Kennedy Jr., and Princess Di.
What's even more interesting than the people who make the leap to "immortal," are the ones who, for one reason or another, don't quite make it. Jackie Kennedy Onasis, while garnering more publicity than just about anyone else in the world while she was alive, has not really made the jump into the immortal icon society that her first husband and son have attained.
One might think that the tragic deaths of beloved celebrities such as Princess Grace, Rock Hudson, and John Lennon would qualify them as members in good standing, but it doesn't appear to have happened for them. Why James Dean and not Montgomery Clift? Why Bogart and not Gary Cooper? Why Judy Garland and not Carol Lombard? Why was Brando (when still alive) already considered part of the immortals and Paul Newman not?
So who will be the cultural "immortals" of tomorrow? There are lots of names in contention; Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Madonna, Bill Clinton. Whether any of these people achieve that plateau may depend on how soon and under what circumstances they die. But since there is no assurance even under the most tragic of demises, who's to know? Maybe it will be someone we don't even know about yet. Or someone who is not all that hot right now but will be elevated in status through some yet unforeseen tragedy. Perhaps there simply isn't any more room left for another "immortal" - you know, like choosing a jury. Once you've got the number you need you stop calling the names.
I've got a feeling, though, that there will be others. The need for people to elevate other people to immortality will always be, and I can understand it . sort of. What I can't understand is the selection process. James Dean? Marlon Brando? I don't know, maybe it's the mumbling thing.
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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a
letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.
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© 2004 Greg Crosby