I first heard of Marlon Brando’s death in July 2004 while sitting in a cafe a few blocks from my former home in Oakland, California. My daughter, Alana, and I were just getting ourselves settled at our favorite table, and I was making some kind of small talk, when her face darkened in a manner unusual for a seven-year-old—it was a weighty look, a look of concern—and she said, “Daddy, Marlon Brando died.”
I was silent for a few bewildered moments. I was bewildered less, I think, by what I’d heard than by how I’d heard it. That Brando had died was, on the face of it, no big surprise for anyone who knew even a little about him. He was in his late seventies, terribly overweight, and generally in poor health, and he had, late in life, endured several of the sort of family tragedies that can exact a devastating toll on anyone’s body and spirit. But even when its arrival is fully expected, death somehow retains its capacity to startle and confound, and so part of my being nonplussed was probably just the natural, almost inevitable response to news of the final passing of someone whose life had in some way touched my own. The bigger thing, though, was that, early on a lovely summer morning, over French toast and orange juice and blueberry muffins, one simply doesn’t expect to hear such things out of the mouths of babes. Yet there it was.
“What do you mean, he’s dead?” I said. It made no sense. We had just arrived, and Alana had not been out of my sight for more than a few seconds, so how had she come by such information? Maybe she meant something other than what she actually said. Kids say the darnedest things, and maybe this was just one more darned thing. That it was a macabre thing would be, for Alana, pretty much par for the course.
Alana was about three when my wife, Liz, and I began to notice that the story-time characters who most captured our daughter’s imagination were the villains, that the stories she most enjoyed were the scariest ones, and that she was absolutely fascinated by death. Liz and I were unsure just what to make of this, but the actual effects of jettisoning Goodnight Moonand Beatrix Potter for much darker fare seemed positive. My best guess at the cause—and I still think it was a pretty sound one—was that Alana loved frightening stories for reasons not unlike those of anyone: they gave form—and thus meaning and a measure of control—to her own childhood terrors. Plus they were fun. In any case, by the time she was in kindergarten, she and I had a regular Friday night TV date to watch the old classic horror and monster films on Creature Feature, and it wasn’t long before she insisted, with characteristic stubbornness, that I tell her for her bedtime story the tales of Dracula or the Wolf Man or Frankenstein. So as Professor Van Helsing steeled himself to plunge a wooden stake into the breast of the sleeping vampire count or an army of angry middle European townsfolk pursued Dr. Frankenstein’s monster with pitchforks and torches, my little girl’s eyes would flutter shut and she’d drift off happily to her dreams. When she reached first grade, and I heard that she had lobbied for a class trip to the Oakland morgue, I began occasionally to call her by the nickname Wednesday, after the daughter in the Addams Family.
But this was not the sort of thing Alana would make up. There were certain people—Tolstoy, Billie Holiday, and Willie Mays are among those who come immediately to mind, though there were at least a dozen others—whose names carried for her father an almost talismanic power, and while Alana knew almost nothing about Marlon Brando, she did know that he was one of those iconic figures. She also was aware that just several weeks previously another member of the group, Ray Charles, had passed away. So she would have known, in the way that one can know something without having the words for it, that this was not something her dad would be up for joking about.
When I asked how she had heard that Brando had died, she pointed to a table about ten feet away, saying that the two men there were talking about it. They both appeared to be in their mid-thirties, fit and trim and wearing spandex biking outfits. From the snippets of conversation that drifted our way, it was soon apparent that they were indeed talking about Brando’s death. Most of their comments were about his weight.
“Did Marlon Brando die from being fat?” Alana broke in.
“No, but it couldn’t have helped,” was the best I could manage. I really didn’t feel like answering at all. I was angry. Not at Alana, and not really at the two bicyclists, though I was glaring at them poisonously. It was at the dawning recognition that, in the minds of many, Marlon Brando would be remembered less for his brilliant work than for his weight problems. I picked up a newspaper from a nearby chair. There it was in black and white.
“Daddy, are you crying?”
“No. I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Are we going to light incense?” That was our routine, our ad hoc household tradition. When a relative or friend or honored personage died, we would perform a small ritual I’d pieced together from traditional Zen Buddhist liturgy: an incense offering, chanting thePrajnaparamita mantra and a couple of dharanis—one for the bodhisattva Kuan Yin and one to keep the deceased safe during his or her journey—a dedication of merit and blessing to the departed and all beings, and then closing bows. These were informal occasions, which might involve the whole family, just two of us, or I might just go it alone. Alana was usually an eager participant, and my guess is that she liked the ritual, at least in part, for reasons similar to those for which she liked Creature Feature.
Ritual and narrative have always served complementary roles, whether they have gone hand in hand or their separate ways. The latter gives shape and richness to the chaos of life’s events; the former is a way of enacting and sharing that experience of coherence with others. I think we, children and adults alike, have a natural affinity for story and ritual, for we humans are the creature whose feature is to live by and through the ability to grasp meaning. After all, isn’t religion, or at least the kernel of religion, what you get when a group’s deepest sense of what the world means is given a narrative form that is then transmitted through various types of ritual? We might look for coherence in the craziest places, and in our lurching, twisted, and boneheaded fashion, we often find truly bizarre ways of sharing the experience, but look and share we must. For narrative and ritual contain and quicken the life of the spirit, and are, in fact, essential to it. Given our species’ predilection for religious mischief, finding ways to approach our guiding stories and their forms of enactment more graciously, congenially, and with greater aplomb is, it seems to me, one of the better ways we might find to spend our time. And that’s what we, Alana and I, in our own small, muddling way, set about doing.
It must have been a weekend or a day off of some kind, and having nowhere else either of us had to be, we went home and chanted for Marlon Brando. Afterward, though, I felt the need to do something more, to convey to Alana why this was important to me. So I sat her down and ran through the Brando basics—his dazzling originality, his defining performances, how he’d revolutionized his art and influenced later generations of actors, and so forth. I was trying to keep it short, but still, I could see my spiel was going over like the 1962 remake ofMutiny on the Bounty. Alana had lost all patience with this biographical boilerplate, and I was about to abandon the plan entirely when inspiration struck.
“Hey, you want to watch a Marlon Brando movie?”
This was more like it. Watching films together was one of our favorite things to do—at times a ritual itself—so I put in the video of my very favorite Brando performance, as the washed-up boxer Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. As was our routine, I’d pause the film when necessary to explain difficult plot points and then we’d have our little critic’s corner.
As I’d feared, the story, with all its moral contradictions and ambiguities, was too complex for Alana to really appreciate in any full sense. But by the conclusion—that amazing confrontation with Lee J. Cobb’s crooked union boss Johnny Friendly—I had the feeling she was starting to get what this Brando guy was about. This was confirmed several days later, when things started heating up in one of our regular room-cleaning arguments and she used on me what must be among the weirdest adaptations of one of the great actor’s most famous lines.
“Daddy, Daddy,” she said, turning aside my scolding voice like Terry turning aside his brother Charlie’s revolver, “you don’t understand. I wanna play Barbies! I wanna have my toys out! I just wanna be a contendah!”
It was completely absurd, and obviously very funny, although to Alana, this was as serious as testifying before a waterfront crime commission. I saw no point in continuing the argument, so I stood in the doorway and tried to think of a worthy response. It took a few seconds, but I didn’t have to look far. Making just a small emendation, I took the next line, from Rod Steiger’s Charley the Gent: “Okay, kid. I’ll tell Mommy I couldn’t find you. Ten to one she won’t believe it.”
A contender: I did understand. I turned and left the room. This was her night.▼
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