"Hey, Johnny. What are you rebelling against?" "What've you got?" (Marlon Brando as Johnny Strabler in The Wild One, 1953).
Leaning languidly on his motorcycle's handlebars and dressed in the iconic leather jacket of his role as the menacing and rebellious biker-gang leader Johnny Strabler in The Wild One, Andy Warhol's portrait of Marlon Brando celebrates the brooding image of the actor that set the style for an entire generation. Taken from a publicity still of Brando for this highly influential and controversial 1953 film, Warhol's appropriated figure occupies the right-hand edge of the deliberately unprimed canvas. Adopting the dark undercurrent of Warhol's other celebrity portraits, Brando personifies violence, volatility and anti-establishment subversion. As exemplified in Marlon, Brando's machismo is reflected in Warhol's use of the unprimed canvas. The inherent rawness of his chosen support combined with the clarity of this particular screen produces an image that, after nearly five decades, still has unrivalled power and presence. Through the terseness of his own dialogue, Brando's character embodies some of his own Warholian traits. Evident none so much as in perhaps the film's most famous line, when Kathie (the film's heroine) asks, "What are you rebelling against?" to which Brando's 'Johnny' opaquely replies, "What've you got?" Johnny's all-out, motiveless, empty war on the status quo has parallels in the gauntlet that Warhol himself would take up with Pop almost a decade later. With this painting, Warhol not only celebrates the glamour and excitement of the silver screen but also taps into an intoxicating age during which time the phenomenon of the American teenager was born.
With the deafening sound of a dozen motorcycles at full throttle, the leather-clad members of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club roar into the sleepy town of Wrightsville, California (a name chosen with delicious irony to emphasize the 'wrongness' of the Brando's character and his gang) ready to wreak havoc on its unsuspecting population. With this dramatic opening sequence, Lázsló Benedek's 1953 film The Wild One became a classic of American movie making and confirmed Marlon Brando as one of the industry's greatest young stars. Brando played 'Johnny,' the leader of a brutal biker gang that terrorizes this small Californian town and falls for Kathie, an all-American girl whose father just happens to be the town policeman. Together with James Dean's Rebel Without a Cause (released two years later in 1955), The Wild One cemented an entire genre of Hollywood movies that depicted the troubled and misunderstood American teen, rebelling against the status quo and desperately searching for their place in the new post-war society. While the film was well received by critics, it was viewed with concern by others; British Board of Film Censors banned it for 14 years over fears that Brando's character was an unsuitable role model for impressionable youngsters. Yet it was exactly for this reason that 'Johnny,' along with his iconic leather jacket, distinctive peaked cap and Ray-Ban sunglasses, becomes the icon for an entire generation of disaffected youth-the generation that created the culture of 'cool.'
As such, Brando became the perfect subject for Warhol's astute cultural observations. Just as 'Johnny' was rebelling against the accepted norms of behavior for young adults, the clean lines and mass-media aesthetic of Warhol and his Pop counterparts were rebelling against the supremacy of Abstract Expressionism that had dominated the art world until the early 1960s. With his unconventional and deliberately popular selection of subject matter, Warhol went in a different direction. Taking commercial products here, dollar bills there and celebrities as well, Warhol created an engaging canon of images that managed to brashly and boldly enshrine 'Low Art' symbols in 'High Art' formats.
Brando made his first trip to Hollywood in 1949 to star in his debut motion picture, The Men. Even at this early stage in his career Brando saw himself as something of a rebel, refusing to conform to the norms of the Hollywood movie making machine. Truman Capote, in his 1957 New Yorker profile of the actor, noted that, "He was accused, at the time, of uncouth social conduct, and criticized at the time for his black-leather-jacket taste in attire, his choice of motorcycles instead of jaguars, and his preference for obscure secretaries rather than movie starlets; moreover, Hollywood columnists studded their copy with hostile comments concerning his attitude toward the film business, which he himself summed up soon after he entered it by saying, 'The only reason I'm here is that I don't yet have the moral courage to turn down the money'" (T. Capote, "The Duke in his Domain," New Yorker, 9 November, 1957, p. 49).
By 1966, when Warhol painted Marlon, Brando had been one of Hollywood's most acclaimed actors for over a decade. Brando first became a box office star in the 1950s, during which time he racked up five Oscar nominations as Best Actor, along with three consecutive wins of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role. He came to public prominence for reprising his role as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951, a Tennessee Williams play that had established him as a star on Broadway during its original 1947-49 stage run. He was also recognized for his Oscar-winning performance as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, 1954, as well as for his role in The Wild One, a role which turned him into one of the most famous figures in popular culture. These roles earned him financial as well as critical success, placing him in the Top Ten Money Making Stars lists of 1954, 1955 and 1958.
Brando's rise to fame had a profound effect on both the motion picture industry as well as the wider cultural landscape. Elia Kazan, the director who introduced Brando to a cinema-going audience in A Streetcar Named Desire acknowledged that Brando was "just the best actor in the world" (E. Kazan, quoted by T. Capote, ibid. p .54). The American Film Institute has defined the art of acting as having two great periods--before Brando and after--and acknowledged that while Konstantin Stanislavski may have developed the theory of 'method acting,' it was Brando who showed the world its power. Part of Brando's success as an actor was due to the fact that he was able to tap into and capture a wider cultural phenomenon. The legendary American film critic Pauline Kael said Brando "represented a reaction against the post-war mania for security. As a protagonist, the Brando of the early fifties had no code, only his instincts. He was a development from the gangster leader and the outlaw. He was antisocial because he knew society was crap; he was a hero to youth because he was strong enough not to take the crap... Brando represented a contemporary version of the free American" (P. Kael, "Marlon Brando: An American Hero," The Atlantic, March 1966). His portrayal of Johnny Strabler in The Wild One became an iconic image, used both as a symbol of rebelliousness and a fashion accessory that includes a Perfecto style motorcycle jacket, a tilted cap, jeans and sunglasses. Johnny's haircut inspired a craze for sideburns, followed by James Dean and Elvis Presley among others, indeed Dean copied Brando's acting style extensively and Elvis used Brando's image as a model for his role in Jailhouse Rock.
Like many of his fans, Warhol's adoration of Brando was probably initially sparked by a physical attraction rather than an intellectual one. Indeed, in the early 1950s Warhol was said to have carried around a picture of Brando in his pants, as his close friend at the time Charles Lisanby, a production designer and former assistant to Cecil Beaton, explained, "I do remember Andy coming to the display department once, and he said he said, 'I was just at Harper's Bazaar, and he gave me a picture of Marlon Brando. Would you like to see it?' And I said, 'Sure, Andy. Yeah,' And he went into his pants and he had it in there..., and he showed the photo to me. Then he put it back in. And he was walking around New York with Marlon Brando in [his pants]" (C. Lisanby, quoted by P. Smith, Andy Warhol's Art and Films, Ann Arbor, 1986, p. 11).
In many ways, Marlon Brando was perhaps the person that Warhol always wanted to be. Well known for being painfully shy and uncomfortable about his own appearance, Warhol must have admired the tough, confident characters that Brando portrayed and secretly wished that he could have some of Brando's charisma. Yet ironically, Warhol may have had more in common with Brando than he first thought. Just as Warhol became a popular cultural figure who surrounded himself with an entourage of friends, acquaintances and other peripheral hangers-on, Brando too was someone who always seemed to be surrounded by a constant retinue of assistants and acquaintances, but in truth found it difficult to find people with whom he could build strong personal relationships. Joshua Logan, the director of Brando's 1957 film Sayonara recalled that despite weeks of working closely with the actor, he still didn't really know who he was, "Marlon's the most exciting person I've met since Garbo," he told Truman Capote in 1957, "A genius. But I don't know what's he's like. I don't know anything about him" (J. Logan, quoted by T. Capote, op. cit. p. 56).
Warhol's decision to immortalize Brando, alongside his other gods and goddess of the silver screen, was both a prophetic and a personal one. Obsessed with the movies from an early age, Warhol had long looked to Hollywood for his heroes as well as his artistic inspiration. Some of his most celebrated images are those stars who found themselves part of Warhol's hallowed beatification-like process. So it was only natural that, in 1963, Warhol should turn to Marlon Brando to induct into his Hollywood 'Hall of Fame.' His first rendering of Marlon was painted in 1963 and executed with a silver background, mimicking the color of the 'silver screen,' and it was three years later that he began his definitive series of Marlon paintings using raw, untreated canvas to devastating effect. Warhol's decision to use the canvas in its natural state adds to the subversive nature of the painting, enhancing the feeling of masculinity and edginess and adding another layer to the depiction of the counter-culture that is already contained within the image itself. This aesthetic effect is further enhanced by his inclusion of a large swath of canvas which has been left untouched along the left hand portion of the composition, forcing the image's black inks into stark relief and heightening the awareness of the sensuality of the canvas itself.
Warhol once said, "Fantasy love is much better than reality love. Never doing it is very exciting. The most exciting attractions are between two opposites that never meet" (A. Warhol, quoted by P. Smith, op. cit., p. 10). Warhol desires Brando here, and convinces the viewer to join him in this longing. Thus Brando is transformed into an object of infatuation in a sense that echoes capitalism. On the one hand, Warhol's use of this movie-poster image has become a work of devotion, a modern equivalent to the religious paintings of the Old Masters featuring one of the new gods, and yet at the same time the very act of using this commercial image becomes a wry criticism of the capitalist process and of the factory era. By using the circulated publicity picture of an actor, someone who has adopted a guise, Warhol has commented on the superficiality of the world of sales, on the importance and hollowness of appearances. The image Warhol appropriated was a commercial object in its own right, part of the same process that characterizes the United States, that is embodied in Coke bottles, dollar bills, Campbell's Soup and celebrity. Marlon also celebrates another American institution--the teenager. The Wild One, and Brando's character in particular, would come to embody an entire generation of disenchanted youth and become the template for bad boy characters for decades. Just as his role as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire had created a vogue for plain white tees, so too did Brando's leather jacket become the must-have garment for wannabe rebels throughout the United States. Once more, Brando had defined cool, and his brooding performance, sheer beauty and minimal morals would echo down the decades as a template for the anti-hero that is still valid today.