When Marlon Brando turned down the Oscar for his performance in The Godfather (1972), it was to protest the depiction and treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood westerns. He even sent a friend of his, Sacheen Littlefeather, along to the Academy Awards to reject the statuette on his behalf and to read a rather lengthy statement he had prepared. The young woman was not allowed to read the statement on camera due to television time restrictions, but she did read it to reporters backstage later on.
Few of Brando’s contemporaries were supportive of his stance, nor of his decision to send the girl to bear the brunt of the criticism while he sat at home watching the whole thing unfold on TV. Typical of the cynical responses was that of Clint Eastwood who laconically joked that he would like to record his support, ‘…on behalf of all the cowboys shot in John Ford westerns.’ Michael Caine was a little less flippant: ‘I agree with Marlon’s principles’, he told reporters, ‘but he should have done this himself instead of sending some poor little Indian girl.’ He then added, ‘A man who makes $2 million playing a Mafia Godfather should give half of it to the Indians.’ Indian actor Chief Dan George, who had been Oscar-nominated for Little Big Man, was surprisingly non-supportive, drily stating that Brando’s protest was a decade late; that movies were more accurate today in their portrayal of Indian life than ever before.
In 1973, therefore, it came as a surprise when the same Marlon Brando announced his interest in starring in an upcoming western called The Missouri Breaks. He was strapped for cash, he said, a statement that also raised eyebrows everywhere. After all, hadn’t he made a fortune with The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris? Well, as a matter of fact he had, but he had also squandered a pile in a property venture in Tahiti and had sunk considerable finances into his pet political cause, the American Indians. His alimony payments to two ex-wives were bleeding him dry as well and there was a battle with Anna Kashfi over custody of their thirteen year-old son Christian. The resultant court case cost him a bundle financially, not to mention the emotional damage done by the airing of a lot of dirty family linen in the process.
Brando as Lee Clayton Nicholson as Tom Logan
This movie was one of those new ‘package deals’. Distributors were tending to be only interested in partnership packages, so one that paired the legendary Brando with the latest ‘rebel’ sensation, Jack Nicholson, promised all kinds of success. Marlon agreed to a payment of $1 million for five weeks work, plus 11.3% of the gross receipts in excess of $10 million. Jack accepted $1.25 million for ten weeks work, plus 10% of gross receipts over $12.5 million. Negotiations were not quite completed on Brando’s contract by the first scheduled day of shooting, so he refused to work. Cast and crew spent that day playing football. The haggling came about because he initially asked for $500,000 a week for the duration of the shoot, but ultimately realized that the eventual agreement could net him $3 million or more if the picture was a success. It wasn’t. Critics and the public alike detested the thing and it only grossed $14 million overall. Some say it has improved with age, but I watched it again recently and it is still a ‘dog’.
The two stars were actually neighbours back in Los Angeles, although they had never met until this picture. On the set, right from the start, they did not like each other one little bit. Consequently, they were content to not have very many scenes together. When that was unavoidable they were usually shot separately, rather than together. Much of Nicholson’s disillusionment was due to Brando’s continuous use of cue cards. Jack kept losing concentration whenever Brando’s gaze shifted to one of the cards which were stuck or hung everywhere, even on the foreheads of the occasional bit player! When Jack asked someone why such a prominent actor used them, he was told: ‘Because he hasn’t learned his lines, that’s why.’ On another day shooting was cancelled for the day after a strong gust of wind blew away some of the cards. Brando’s bizarre behaviour was another source of concern. Each day he would ride off alone to chase, net and study – grasshoppers! It was also common knowledge on the set that, for reasons known only to him, he had ‘bitten into’ a live frog!
Brando and his nasty little invention
Brando also drastically altered the character he was playing by inventing a weapon, a combination harpoon-mace kind of thing that he decided to use to do his killing instead of a gun. ‘I always wondered why in the history of lethal weapons’, he cheerfully mused, ‘no-one invented that particular one. It appealed to me because I used to be very expert at knife-throwing.’ His determination to use his invention in the movie meant the writers had to ‘adjust’ the script and do away with some of the gun-fighting. He also improvised his lines throughout which proved a frustration for nearly everyone.
Before shooting even commenced his ego caused friction everywhere. He wanted wholesale changes made to the script, and promptly unfolded his own copy of it, which was covered with notes and crossed out lines over which he had written new ones. Nicholson was flabbergasted when Brando made it clear that he wanted Jack to play his part as an Indian. In keeping with his well-publicized backing for Native Americans, Marlon also wanted to include propaganda that supported the Indian cause. Screenwriter Tom McGuane and director Arthur Penn were incensed by his demands. Brando quietly informed them all that he was most unhappy with their lack of cooperation with his suggestions. Penn might easily have said that he was ‘most unhappy’ with his costly, difficult star arriving on the set weighing in excess of 250 pounds, looking nothing like a slick gunfighter and remarkably like a beached whale, but he was too much of a gentleman to bring it up.
The America Humane Association (AHA) placed The Missouri Breaks on their ‘unacceptable’ list, and rightly so. The picture’s producer refused to allow an AHA rep on location at Billings, Montana. By the time filming had been completed, one horse had drowned during a river crossing and a second had been crippled when brought down by a ‘running W’ trip-wire, a practice that was outlawed decades earlier. Several small animals were also deliberately killed.
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