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Razzies for Thanksgiving: Marlon Brando in 'The Island of Dr. Moreau'

November 17, 2009 | 12:02 pm

IslandofDrMoreauStory Just in time for Thanksgiving, we recall the films and performances with that special blend of outlandishness, eccentricity and straight-ahead awfulness that have earned the industry's lowest honor: the Razzie Awards.

1996: worst supporting actor, Marlon Brando, "The Island of Dr. Moreau"

When we first see Marlon Brando in "The Island of Dr. Moreau," John Frankenheimer's ill-fated adaptation of the H.G. Wells science fiction classic, we are almost sure that it is really him. He emerges from the jungle of a South Pacific island behind the wheel of an enclosed vehicle, not unlike the Popemobile. His face is painted Kabuki white with sunscreen and his prodigious frame is swathed in a gauzy caftan ("like Bea Arthur," as Gary Morris notes in his acid review from Bright Lights Film Journal). He startles David Thewlis, as a U.N. observer marooned on Moreau's atoll, and the audience itself into stunned silence (actually, members of the Aug. 15 opening-weekend audience at Grauman's Chinese Theater, where I saw the film, emitted several variations of noises that suggested disbelief or disorientation). Could it be a Brando impersonator, another plus-sized performer doing a particularly solid if surreal imitation? But then he opens his mouth, and out comes the Brando Voice, layered with a decidedly fruity British accent, and then one realizes: Yeah, it's really him.

And therein lies the reason behind Brando's Razzie. His Moreau isn't a terrible performance, although it's never even going to sniff at the heels of his greatest screen turns. The problem is that he's clearly bored. Watch him converse with Thewlis or Val Kilmer, whose turn as Moreau's addled right-hand man is a wonder of oddities unto itself, and you see the machinery required to act on-screen -- he says his lines, he moves his body and he gives the impression of engagement -- but as in "Superman" (1979), "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery," "Free Money" and any number of late-inning Brando roles, he's just not there. One cannot blame him for being disinterested -- at this point, did Brando have anything left to  prove? -- but instead of merely slumping through the picture, Brando adds what can only be called flourishes to Moreau that elevate his performance from offbeat to truly and completely bizarre. There is the aforementioned makeup and costumes, which later include a variety of doo-rags (as pictured), but there are also a host of flouncy mannerisms and tics -- startled exclamations, tone drops, stammers -- that turn Moreau into an Ealing comedy matron a la Margaret Rutherford. There is the scene in which Moreau, in an attempt to beat the sweltering heat of the tropics, puts a large, bucket-like contraption on his head, into which his panther girldaughter (Fairuza Balk) pours ice cubes. And in the film's most jaw-dropping moment, there is the scene in which Moreau plays a piano duet with his rat-man homunculus (2-foot-4 Nelson de la Rosa), which served as the berserk inspiration for both Mini-Me in the "Austin Powers" franchise and Kevin, the "little monkey guy" to  Dr. Alphonse Mephisto, on "South Park." 

Moments like these transcend the accepted notions of Good and Bad in film criticism and enter the entirely different and nebulous realm of Weird, a middle ground between light and shadow inhabited by Timothy Carey and Klaus Kinski and post-"Barfly," pre-"Wrestler" Mickey Rourke. There's no reason for Brando to make these choices -- they are apropos of nothing, motivated by pure capriciousness and ego and push a film that struggles in every frame to achieve some sort of stability and measured tone into camp surrealism. His performance, in fact, seems at times to be part of an entirely different picture altogether -- we see him and Val Kilmer and Thewlis and Balk in the same frame, yet he does not appear to actually participate in the same cinematic reality as they do. The effect is completely polarizing -- you are either repulsed or fascinated by his performance here, though the fascination has the unhealthy patina of the carnival about it.

Most critics and viewers fell on the repulsed side of the debate. Though "Moreau" did well in its opening weekend, word-of-mouth about Brando's perverse turn, as well as the host of production problems it endured sank the film within a few weeks. (In short: Original writer-director Richard Stanley was unceremoniously axed, star Rob Morrow fled the production, Kilmer caused endless production delays and created a mortal enemy in Frankenheimer; and endless rewrites threw the film into chaos.)  Few of its principals cared to discuss their experience on the film in print. And despite its six Razzie nominations (worst picture, worst supporting for Brando and Kilmer, worst director for Frankenheimer, worst screenplay and worst screen couple for Brando and De la Rosa), the film has its moments: Frankenheimer wrings some tension out of the confrontations between Thewlis and Moreau's man-beasts, Gary Chang's score is evocative, Balk achieves the right mix of feral and sympathetic, and the conclusion is appropriately anarchic. But it's Brando's performance that casts the largest shadow (no pun intended) over the film, and that's what it will be remembered for. It's so far afield from Brando's career -- afield from anyone's career, really -- that one almost wishes there was a Razzie for most unusual screen choice, but alas, worst will simply have to do.

-- Paul Gaita

Photo: Marlon Brando in "The Island of Dr. Moreau. Credit: Getty Images

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