”So bad it’s funny” is the most overused, under-true phrase in the Hollywood lexicon. The Avengers? So bad it’s not funny. The Postman? See if you’re still laughing (or conscious) after three hours. Showgirls? Nope: A great bad movie has to have had some ambitions in the first place. Genius happens in the chasm of demented oblivion that yawns between the movie its creators thought they were making and the one you’re watching. Ladies and gentlemen, for your consideration: Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau.

From the moment Brando glides on screen — covered in whiteface and wrapped, Christo-like, in muslin, using that prissy, quasi-British accent he mothballed after Superman and looking like Divine playing Bette Davis imitating Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen — you know greatness is within reach. Brando mutters; he blithers; he gesticulates; he wears a bucket on his head (just because); he spurts non sequiturs; he eats (a lot); he drifts. In other words, he acts with the untrammeled lunacy of someone who has finally realized that nobody is ever going to say no to him. Close by his side is Nelson de la Rosa, the tiny (28-inch, 22-pound) adult actor cast, with typical sensitivity, as a freakazoid monkey boy. Brando reportedly took a shine to his colleague during production; perhaps he mistook him for a snack, or an Oscar. The two wear matching muumuus throughout and duet, sublimely, on piano. Need I explain that one piano is huge and one is tiny?

I know. It’s wrong to enjoy this. It’s profoundly disrespectful to a man who helped Tennessee Williams invent Stanley Kowalski, who brought film acting into the modern age with On the Waterfront, whose performance in The Godfather has become part of our cultural vocabulary. And it’s really wrong to mention how fat he is. But to love Marlon Brando is to embrace not just the genius but also the loopy, hammy, uncorseted, screw-it-all high priest of histriono-gastronomic excess that he’s become. He is our greatest actor and greatest bad actor. Take his work in Dr. Moreau as what it is: a feature-length aria called ”I’ve Gotta Be Me.” You won’t be sorry.


The Island of Dr. Moreau
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