By Joyce Carol Oates
Because you suffocated your beauty in fat.
Because you made of our adoration, mockery.
Because you were the predator male, without remorse.
Because you were the greatest of our actors, and you threw away greatness like trash.
Because you could not take seriously what others took as their lives.
Because in this you made mockery of our lives.
Because you died encased in fat
And even then, you’d lived too long.
Because you loathed yourself, and made of yourself a loathsome person.
Because the wheelchair paraplegic of The Men was made to suffocate in the fat of the bloated Kurtz.
Because your love was carelessly sown, debris tossed from a speeding vehicle.
And because you loved both men and women, except not enough.
Because the slow suicide of self-disgust is horrible to us, and fascinating as the collapse of tragedy into farce is fascinating and the monstrousness of festered beauty.
Because you lured a girl of 15 to deceive her parents on a wintry-dark December school day, 1953.
Because you lured this girl to lie about where she was going, what she was doing, in the most reckless act of her young life.
Because you lured this girl to take a Greyhound bus from Williamsville, New York to downtown Buffalo, New York, alone in the wintry dusk, as she had not ever been alone in her previous life.
Because you lured this girl shivering, daring to step onto the bus in front of Williamsville High School at 4:55 pm to be taken 12 miles to the small shabby second-run Main Street Cinema for a 6 pm showing of The Wild One – a place that would’ve been forbidden, if the girl’s parents had known.
What might have happened! – by chance, did not happen.
Because inside the Main Street Cinema were rows of seats near-empty in the dark, commingled smells of stale popcorn and cigarette smoke – (for this was an era when there was “smoking in the loge”), and on the screen the astonishing magnified figure of “Johnny” in black leather jacket, opaque dark sunglasses, on his motorcycle exuding the sulky authority of the young predator male.
Because when asked what you were rebelling against you said with wonderful disdain, What’ve you got?
Because that was our answer too, that we had not such words to utter.
Because as Johnny you took us on the outlaw motorcycle, we clung to your waist like the sleep of children.
Because as Johnny you were the face of danger, and you were unrepentant.
Because as Johnny you could not say Thank you.
Because as Johnny you abandoned us in the end.
Because on that motorcycle you grew smaller and smaller on the road out of the small town, and vanishing.
Because you have vanished. Because in plain sight you vanished.
Because the recklessness of adolescence is such elation, the heart is filled to bursting.
Because recklessness is the happy quotient of desperation, and contiguous with shame, and yet it is neither of these, and greater than the sum of these.
Because the girl will recall through her life how you entered her life like sunlight illuminating a landscape wrongly believed to be denuded of beauty.
Because there is a savage delight in loss, and in the finality of loss.
Because at age 23 on Broadway you derailed A Streetcar Named Desire, and made the tragedy of Blanche du Bois the first of your triumphs.
So defiantly Stanley Kowalski, there has been none since.
Because after Brando, all who follow are failed impersonators.
Bawling and bestial and funny, crude laughter of the Polack-male, the humiliation of the Southern female whose rape is but another joke.
Because you were the consummate rapist, with the swagger of the rapist enacting the worst brute will of the audience.
Because you were Terry Malloy, the screen filled with your battered boy’s face.
Because sweetness and hurt were conjoined in that face.
Because you took up the glove dropped by Eva Marie Saint, and put it on your hand, appropriating the blond Catholic girl and wearing her like a glove.
Because you exposed your soul in yearning – I could’ve been a contender! – knowing how defeat, failure, ignominy would be your fate.
Because in 1955 at the age of 31, after having won an Academy Award for On the Waterfront, you were interviewed by Edward R Murrow wreathed in cigarette smoke like a shroud and in your rented stucco house in the hills above Los Angeles already you were speaking of trying to be “normal”. Because you endured the interviewer’s lame questions – “Have you discovered that success can have its own problems?” – “Are you planning a long career as an actor?”
Because you conceded, “I can’t do anything else well.”
Because you said you wanted to sing and dance on screen, you wanted to be “superficial” – you wanted to “entertain.”
Because on the mantel of the rented house was a portrait of your mother at 40, your alcoholic mother who’d failed to love you enough.
Because your discomfort with the interview was evident.
Because you spoke of the fear of losing “anonymity” when already “anonymity” was lost.
Because the awkwardly staged interview ended with you playing bongo drums with another drummer, in the bizarrely decorated basement of the rented house. Because quickly then your hands slapped the drums with a kind of manic precision, your eyes half-shut, a goofy happiness softened your face.
Because at this moment it was not (yet) too late.
Because your beauty seduced you, and made of you a prankster.
Because the prankster always goes too far, that is the essence of prank.
Because you were a prankster, sowing death like semen.
Because all you had, you had to squander.
Because you tried, like Paul Muni, to disappear into film.
Because you were Mark Antony, Sky Masterson, Zapata, Fletcher Christian, Napoleon! You were the clownish cross-dresser-outlaw of One-Eyed Jacks – a film debacle you’d directed yourself. You were Vito Corleone and you were the garrulous bald fat Kurtz of Apocalypse Now, mumbling and staggering in the dark, bloated American madness.
Because as the widower Paul of Last Tango in Paris you stripped your sick soul bare, in the radiance of disintegration. Because you were stunned in terror of annihilation yet played the clown, baring your buttocks on a Parisian dance floor.
Because confounded by the corpse of the dead beautiful wife framed ludicrously in flowers you could hardly speak, and then you spoke too much. Because you were stupid in grief. Because you could not forgive.
Wipe off the cosmetic mask! You hadn’t known the dead woman, and you would not know the dead woman, who had not been faithful to you. All you can know is the compliant body of your lover far too young for you, and only as a body.
The futility of male sexuality, as a bulwark against death.
The farce of male sexuality, as a bulwark against death.
Because nonetheless you danced with astonishing drunken grace, with the girl young as a daughter. On the tango dance floor you spun, you fell to your knees, you shrugged off your coat, you were wearing a proper shirt and a tie to belie drunkenness and despair, fell flat on your back on the dance floor amid oblivious dancers and yet at once in rebuke of all expectation you were on your feet again and – dancing…
And in a drunken parody of tango you were unexpectedly light on your feet, radiant in playfulness, clowning, in mockery of the heightened emotions and sexual drama of tango – as in your youth you’d wanted to be “superficial” and to “entertain” –
And then, lowering your trousers and baring your buttocks in the exhilaration of contempt.
Because the actor does not exist, if he is not the center of attention. Because the actor’s heart is an emptiness, no amount of adulation can fill.
Because after the slapstick-tango you lay curled in the exhaustion of grief and in the muteness of grief, a fetal corpse on a balcony in greylit Paris.
In Hell, there is tango. The other dancers dance on.
Because you made of self-loathing a caprice of art.
Because what was good in you, your social conscience, your generosity to liberal causes, was swallowed up in the other.
Because you squandered yourself in a sequence of stupid films as if in defiance of your talent and of our expectations of that talent.
Because by late middle-age you’d lived too long.
Where there has been such love, there can be no forgiveness.
Because at 80 you’d endured successive stages of yourself, like a great tree suffocated in its own rings, beginning to rot from within.
Because when you died, we understood that you had died long before.
Because we could not forgive you, who had thrown greatness away.
Because you have left us. And we are lonely.
And we would join you in Hell, if you would have us.