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The Wild One:
an ode to Marlon Brando and the
Golden Age of movies

by Brenda G. Wooley

I coulda been a contender

Brenda says: I am a former social worker and office manager and now write full time. My work has appeared in Southern Hum, SouthLit, Amarillo Bay, 5th Story Review and River Walk Journal. I have lived in Illinois and Michigan and now make my home near Paducah, Kentucky, where I am at work on a novel.

Marlon Brando died in July, 2004. He was 80 years old, fat and bald, eccentric and elusive in his later years, but to me he will always be the dark and brooding young man whose simmering-just-under-the-surface sexuality jumped from the screen and turned my heart into a pounding, throbbing mass of raw emotion.

I was 14 years old the first time I saw Brando on screen. It was at The Strand Theater on Main Street in Beech Grove, Kentucky, where my younger sister, Libby, and I got to go on Saturday or Sunday afternoons if we were lucky. We didn’t know what was showing that day; we didn’t care, we just wanted to go to the picture show.

The poster outside The Strand showed a young man in a black leather jacket and cap, leaning casually against a motorcycle.  Above his handsome face was the caption, “Hot feelings hit terrifying heights in a story that really boils over! Banned in England!”

The name of the film was “The Wild One,” and it was based on a true story about a gang of motorcycle punks who ride into a California town and take it over. When Mary Murphy, the female lead who played a good-girl waitress, said, “What are you rebelling against,” and Brando replied, “Whatever you got,” I felt as if I were on fire.

As Libby and I walked out of the theater, I wanted do something wild, like raise a ruckus, tell my teacher to shut up, or run down Front Street in my underwear. Anything.  Just as long as it was shocking.

I began spending all of my allowance on movie magazines, pouring over them with one goal: to find pictures of Brando. I dreamed of him day and night. The boys at school looked like children compared to the wild Brando, with his smoldering dark eyes, saying and doing anything he wanted. Every time I walked by my dresser, I paused to look in the mirror, wishing I were old enough to go straight to Hollywood and meet him. I had decided long ago that I was going to be an actress.

“I just hope some other girl doesn’t snap him up before I get there,” I said.

“Why don’t you come on outside,” Libby said as she rushed out the door, “we need another player.”

I didn’t have time for such things. Playing baseball was childish, and I was almost grown. I stood at the mirror, piling my hair on top of my head, turning from side to side, trying different looks on my face to see if there was any way I could look older and more sophisticated.

I began cutting all of Brando’s pictures out the movie magazines. He was already becoming elusive; there weren’t many pictures of him, and when I did find one, he either had his hand in front of his face or was turning away from the cameras, an Asian girl clinging to his arm.

It was the summer of 1955 when “On the Waterfront” finally made it to The Strand, and Libby and I were at the front of the line to get tickets. The film was just as exciting as “The Wild One.” It was about an ex-prizefighter-turned-longshoreman and his struggles to stand up to the corrupt union bosses.

My heart melted with empathy when Brando broke down, “You don’t understand. I could-a had class,” he said to his Rod Steiger, who played his brother, “I could-a been a contender; I could-a been somebody, instead of a bum, which I am!”

I envied Eva Marie Saint, who played Edie Doyle, the sister of the young man whom Brando had set up to be killed.  I thought she was too plain; he deserved better, someone like Elizabeth Taylor, Debbie Reynolds or Connie Stevens.  

The rest of the crowd spilled out of the theatre, talking and giggling, as if the movie they had just seen was just like any other. Libby and I had a long discussion after we got home about art and talent and how the kids around Beech Grove had neither class nor any sense of what a good actor was.

Since Brando was nominated for best actor the following year, Libby and I eagerly awaited the Academy Awards show on TV, but when the big night arrived and we had fought the whole family for a chance to watch the show, he didn’t show up. He sent a beautiful Asian girl to pick up his Oscar.

“That is an insult,” I said.

“Yeah,” Libby said, “the least he could do is come himself.”

“Well, maybe he was sick,” I said, “or something like that.”  

Through the years Brando made more movies, but, to me, he never topped those two films. The only time he came close was 20 years later when he played Don Vito Corleone, the mafia godfather in the Francis Ford Coppola film, “The Godfather.” The irony of it all is when I saw, “The Godfather,” I was quite taken with Al Pacino, the actor who played Brando’s son, Michael Corleone. He has been my favorite actor since, not in the fantasy-producing swooning way of my youth; well, to be truthful, I did swoon a bit when I saw Pacino in “The Godfather,” and later in “Scarface,” but those intense feelings and emotions of youth come only once in a lifetime. 

In a 1995 interview with Larry King, responding to a question about life after death, Brando replied, “I think you’ll close your eyes and wake up and say, ‘What in the hell was that all about?’”

What was that all about?  It was about the vulnerable “I-could-a-had-class” guy, the unobtainable rebel in his black leather jacket, cap and boots, dark smoldering eyes and insolent manner, the boy with an attitude, who rode his quivering, vibrating motorcycle into that California town and scared the daylights out of everyone. The boy who pulled up those first overwhelming adolescent feelings and urges, feelings and urges I didn’t even know were there. The best actor who ever graced the silver screen. That’s the Brando I will remember, and that’s what the hell it was all about. 

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