Directed by Joshua Logan
Screenplay by Paul Osborn, from the novel by James Michener
Starring Marlon Brando, James Garner, Red Buttons, Miiko Taka, Patricia Owens, Ricardo Montalban, Miyoshi Umeki
In the early 1950s, two airmen (Brando and Buttons) are pulled out of Korea and reassigned to a base in Japan. One (Brando) would rather not go, because reasons. The other (Buttons) is happier for the change of locale, because he can finally marry his Japanese girlfriend (Umeki), even though this marriage will go against the wishes of the Air Force brass and racist US policies. Unexpectedly, Brando falls in love with a Japanese woman as well (Miiko Taka) and decides to marry her. Tragedy ensues as people stand up to, and buckle, under the racism invited by their decisions. Oh, and they see a fair amount of Japanese theater along the way.
I’m gonna be honest – Marlon Brando is not a good actor. Yes, he’s a hell of a screen presence, but screen presence does not exactly equate to skill as an actor. It does not matter he won two Oscars, because the Oscars have never actually been an indicator of quality or skill in the field of cinema. It also does not matter he was a huge star in the 1950s, because fame and skill generally don’t cross paths. And with respect to his fame, this is easily explained away – I think – as the product of being so different than what everybody else around him was doing. That he was, in essence, a novelty. After all, the 1930’s and 40’s were a more stylized time, the era of the mid-Atlantic accent. When I picture the 30’s and 40’s I picture Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant.
Obviously, Marlon Brando flies in the face of all that.
As an actor, Brando is the ur-text of masculine, not overly-literate men, and his acting style, if you can call it that, seems more rooted in physicality, brooding, and mumbling than actual acting. And because this was so different from what went down before, and he was so magnetic doing it, he was like a bomb going off.
But when people consider Brando and his fame, and the success of his style, they don’t give enough credit to having deployed that style in roles specifically suited to it. After all, Brando’s greatest successes of the era were as Stanley Kowlaski and Terry Malloy, parts that required a physical, brooding, and mumbling presence.
That presence being Brando.
And just as insufficient attention is given to Brando being cast in the right roles and how that led him to fame, insufficient attention is also given to roles where he was completely wrong. In roles that requirement a certain sense of refinement he is completely out of his depth and he winds up looking like an ape trying to understand his own existence. This is not to say he’s unwatchable, just that he’s not good.
Consider two of his later-career roles. For his work on The Godfather he won an Oscar, but why exactly? Was it for having given a stellar performance? Or what it for having made a comeback in a big hit after he’d spent much of the prior decade in the professional wilderness? When you think about his work in that film, ask yourself what he does that’s so special. In what way does he elevate himself from the rest of the cast, or elevate the material? In what way does he do more than stuff his cheeks with tissues, pet a cat, and mumble – that’s the true hallmark of a Brando performance. The mumbling. But at least in that take on the material he gave director Francis Coppola something to work with. Or around. And working around Brando is the right way to think about it, because The Godfather is Michael and Sonny’s movie (Al Pacino and James Caan), while Vito (Brando) is no more than a featured player who can be cut in, or cut out of, the movie will little consequence to the end result.
But while Brando’s role could be worked around in The Godfather, there was no such luck for what he gave in Apocalypse Now. There he’s to play a high-ranking military man who suddenly goes native. Turns a bit wild-eyed and into a pseudo-guru for the natives up the river. When you hear that description you should picture a dynamic person in the mold of Charles Manson, bending people into becoming his followers by force of will and charisma. It’s not a big role, but it is essential, and to work around him, you’d have to recast him. And perhaps they should have recast him – after all, Dennis Hopper was there on set and could have given an interesting take on the material. But they didn’t recast him, and instead of playing it dynamic, Brando goes completely counter to that, owing to having shown up on the set horribly overweight. Then, to make matters worse, he wanted to hide his weight as much as possible, which is why he never really ever emerges from the shadows in any of his scenes. To add insult to injury, he didn’t bother to read his lines, or even learn them. He just preferred to show up, collect his check, and noodle around in front of the camera as he improvised dialog. Honestly, it’s a miracle the film works at all, given his disinterest.
But if we’re honest, his work in The Godfather and Apocalypse Now are no different than anything else he did before. Both performances are laden with his usual tics, it’s just in one of them the tics could be concealed, as they often were in his other films, while in the other they were on full-blown display.
So here it is about Sayonara: in the movie Brando plays Lloyd Gruver, a West Point grad and son of a high ranking general. All his life Gruver has been fated to follow in his father’s footsteps and in the few times he talks about his father we get a sense of the regimentation and precision that would have been required of him. The clarity of thought and speech, and the importance of speaking up, and speaking directly. And to some sense Gruver has followed in his father’s footsteps – he’s an Air Force Major, which is a position one does not simply back into, no matter how powerful their father is. No, that’s a position that takes presentation and political skill.
But while the part calls for presentation and skill, and a certain level of refinement, there is nothing in Brando’s performance that even hints at that refinement. Yes, he has the proper look, and can wear the uniform and the haircut well, but everything else about his performance is a mess. He barely makes eye contact with anybody much of the time, mumbles his words like they’re made of rocks, speaks in the worst sort of caricature of a Good ol’ boy southern accent, and half the conversations he has seem to have him barely paying attention.
In film history Brando is looked at as a method actor. A guy that really inhabits the part and mentality of it by literally trying to become the character to a certain degree. Doing this allows him to do more than act – it allows him to find truth. Unfortunately, what tends to come out of Brando isn’t truth, it’s utter boredom. Every choice he makes in this film makes him seem as if he can’t be bothered, and it’s only in the barest few scenes, when the film requires some sort of mischief, or fooling around from him, that he comes alive. As if that’s all he ever wanted to do.
If you watch this movie back-to-back with his scenes from Apocalypse Now, and especially his outtakes, you’ll see exactly what Brando the actor was laid bare. You’ll see that the through-line of his career was Brando giving in to his own worst instincts and self-indulgence, to the exclusion of all else. You see that he was what he always was, and what he always would be. It’s just the sometimes the performance worked, while more often it did not.
Buttons and Umeki
Marlon Brando was nominated for Best Actor for Sayonara, his last nomination for 15 years, an award he would lose to Alec Guinness for his work on The Bridge on the River Kwai. But while Brando went home empty handed, his co-stars Miyoshi Umeki and Red Buttons would not, with the pair sweeping the supporting categories.
In the film Umeki and Buttons play the two halves of the ill-fated couple that really dramatizes the racist tension that runs through the film – they are the American man and the Japanese woman that the law and decorum can’t stand to see married. In the end, rather than be separated in life, they unite themselves in death.
With respect to Umeki, she was the first person of Asian descent to win an Oscar, but if we’re honest she not only shouldn’t have won, she shouldn’t have been nominated. Of the two Japanese women in Sayonara it is Miiko Taka as Brando’s love interest who gives the better performance – Umeki is such a non-descript entity in the film that it seems she was lauded for no other reason than having played the ill-fated woman. Taka, on the other hand, actually carries some dramatic weight in her performance. Unfortunately, Taka was not nominated, Umeki was. And of the women actually nominated for Best Supporting Actress against Umeki, the best of the lot is clearly Elsa Lanchester for Witness for the Prosecution.
With respect to Red Buttons, his win was probably due to having been known primarily as a comedic, or light, actor prior to Sayonara, who’d come up through the burlesque scene and Broadway. So, taking the role of an airman discriminated against for marrying a Japanese woman was a departure for him. In the role Buttons is honest and earnest, and his emotions seem genuine, but on the whole he doesn’t really strike me as doing anything special. He’s not terrible, just not special. Of the other nominees the best of the lot was clearly Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai. His turn as the proud, strong man beaten down by the stubbornness of his opposite (Alec Guinness) is quite marvelous.
Who Had The Better Decade?
Many previous entries of this series have pointed out just what kind of a run William Holden had in the 1950’s, having starred in six films nominated for Best Picture, one of which won the big one:
- Sunset Blvd. (1950)
- Born Yesterday (1950)
- The Country Girl (1954)
- Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955)
- Picnic (1955)
- Bridge on the River Kawi (1957) (Best Picture Winner)
On top of that, Holden was nominated for Best Actor twice during the decade (Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17), winning once (Stalag 17).
Perhaps the only man who could outdo William Holden during the 1950s was Marlon Brando. In all Brando was nominated for Best Actor five times, winning once:
- A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
- Viva Zapata! (1952)
- Julius Caesar (1953)
- On the Waterfront (1954) (Best Actor Winner)
- Sayonara (1957)
Moreover, four of those films were Best Picture nominees (A Streetcar Named Desire, Julius Caesar, On The Waterfront and Sayonara), while one of was a winner (On The Waterfront).
So, while it is my firm belief that Brando sucks – or, at the very least, is wildly overrated – I have to admit that the right answer to the question, Who Won The 1950s?, was Marlon Brando.
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
The main theme song to Sayonara is a song called Sayonara, and you know it’s the main theme because the song is actually called out in the opening credits to the film, with Music and Lyrics credited to Irving Berlin. Despite the film Sayonara being nominated for 10 Oscars, including all the big ones, the song Sayonara did not rate in the Best Song category. Probably has something to do with the lyrics, which open with:
Hardly Oscar-worthy writing from Irving Berlin.
Better Than Best?
Best Picture 1957 was The Bridge on the River Kwai, a rousing adventure yarn about the futility of war and honor. It’s an exceedingly well-made film, near perfect, and is a top 15 movie of all-time for me. While some might say Lawrence of Arabia, or even Brief Encounter, were the crowning achievements of David Lean’s career, for me it’s The Bridge on the River Kwai.
On the other hand, Sayonara is not even the best of director Joshua Logan’s films, none of which were really all that great to begin with. On it’s own Sayonara is rather long and dull, and determined to educate the audience on the evils of racism more than on entertaining them. The only reason it avoids being an all-out screed is, ironically, due to Marlon Brando. After all, through much of the film his performance is so disinterested it is almost somnambulant, dragging the film down with him. And let’s be honest, is it possible to have a somnambulant screed?
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 For On the Waterfront (1954) and The Godfather (1972)
 Yes, I understand the irony of my saying this when this series, and my last, were explicitly Oscar-adjacent.
 Including four in a row
 Despite being about the evils of racism, the film does not hesitate to do a little yellow-face casting, putting Mexican Ricardo Montalban, and his smooth-as-Corinthian-leather accent, into the role of a Japanese man. I guess Hollywood hadn’t yet figured out that just as you shouldn’t paint up white people to play non-white, the various non-white ethnicities are not interchangeable.