Brando, Bunuel, and the Meaning of a “Character”

Marlon Brando upset a lot of people with his specific interpretation of the Nazi officer Lt. Christian Diestl in Edward Dmytryk’s The Young Lions (1958).

The politically incorrect Brando tried to infuse the Dieslt character with a heroic sub-text.

He even suggested that at the end of the movie he should come down from the mountain where he was hiding with arms open, like a Christ figure.

Montgomery Clift, who was playing the American infantryman Noah Ackerman, threatened he would walk off the set if Brando did that.

Years later, during a CBS-TV talk show, Irwin Shaw, from whose original novel Edward Anhalt has adapted the script, locked horns with Brando on that very same issue.

Brando had no right to interpret the Diestl character in a heroic fashion, Irwin argued, because it was his character.

“It’s my character! I created him,” Shaw reacted angrily.

Brando would have none of that.

“Nobody creates a character but an actor,” Brando replied. “I play the role; now he exists. He’s my creation.”

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On the other end of the spectrum is the legendary Spanish director Luis Bunuel and his astonishing work That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) (Cet obscur objet du désir).

Believe it or not, in this movie the leading female character Conchita is played by not one but TWO different actors(Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina).

First you rub your eyes and think you have perhaps dozed off and missed something.

But it happens again and again.

Two actors switch scenes as Conchita. Neither the lead actor Mathieu (Fernando Rey) nor anybody else in the movie react to the bizarre shift. People go about their business in the movie as though it’s a regular daily occurrence for a person to change face and body like a chameleon.

I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s unsettling but also very thought provoking.

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You start to think: what does this mean?

One interpretation floating out there is that these two actors represent different “aspects” of Conchita’s personality. Perhaps.

But I tend to think that Bunuel is after something even much grander. He is basically telling us that the story is about the RELATIONSHIP between the main characters, not the way they look.

By using two actors for the same part he reduces a “character” down to its irreducible core: the words, behavior and the impact on the other characters.

Two radically opposed approaches to what a “character” is or can be…

Brando says a character is whatever an actor makes of it.

To that Bunuel answers: an actor does not mean much as a “character” since he or she can be switched around with somebody else but the story lives on thank you.

Take your pick.


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