“I coulda been a contender” Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront
This line is one of the most famous movie lines of all time. It is used by people who in all likelihood have never seen the film, or any Brando film for that matter. Hell I know the line but only recently saw the actual film because like many I know Brando, or rather the cultural icon that is Brando, more than I know his films or him. I have seen The Godfather and Apocalypse Now yet it is the movie stills for The Wild One I associate him with – the rebel in the black leather motorbike jacket sitting on his ride ready to give two fingers to society, the law, to anybody who tries to tell him what to do. Incidentally in his autobiography Brando admitted that it was Johnny from The Wild One the character he most related to and because of this, he “played him as more sensitive and sympathetic than the script envisioned. There’s a line in the picture where he snarls, ‘Nobody tells me what to do.’ That’s exactly how I’ve felt all my life” A quick overview of Brando’s life will tell you that yeah that about sums him up. He appeared to do exactly as he pleased which led to a rather unconventional life and career. Tales of his behaviour both on and off screen are legendary and are the reason we all feel we know him better than we do.
So back to the aforementioned lines and the scene in which they take place. Brando as Terry Malloy and Rod Steiger as Charley, his older brother and the local mob-connected union boss’s right hand man are sitting in a taxi. Charley is trying to convince Terry not to squeal to the authorities about the activities of said union boss ,he must abide by the ‘D&D’ code – he heard nothing and he says nothing.But Terry has developed a bit of a conscience and isn’t sure what he should or will do. Charley, frustrated, pulls a gun on him. Terry reacts not with anger or fear but disappointment, he gently moves the gun to the side, and reminds his brother that he should have looked out for him, that it was him who forced him to ‘throw’ a fight so the Boss could rake in the dosh, and then he launches into his famous ” I coulda been somebody” speech. Charley realises that thanks to him Terry is ‘a bum’ , a washed up boxer on the fast track to nowhere when he could have achieved so much more, and hands over his gun. In doing so he has effectively signed his own death warrant but has at least redeemed himself and is finally acting responsibly towards his younger brother.
The scene resonated with Brando as much as it did with everyone who has either seen the film or just heard the clip. And what is that we all see and hear? Why are these lines quoted so frequently and by so many? Brando maintained it was because we all feel like that in some way we have failed, we have not reached our full potential, that we could have done so much better and feel a sense of loss about this. He felt that way himself and was very critical of his own acting skill; he thought he was a huge failure in the role despite the accolades and the Oscar. Now some of his insecurity stems from his parents, or his dad anyway, who regularly informed him that he would never amount to anything, but some of it I believe stems from the universal feeling of not quite living up to one’s own expectations. We may not all see ourselves as ‘bums’ but do we see ourselves as the success stories, the best versions of ourselves, we hoped for? Brando’s life would suggest he struggled with this idea himself, that despite his success on the screen he was never fully satisfied with his life. Acting, Hollywood, love, family, politics – I think he was disappointed by them or his performances in all. Perhaps it is that we expect too much. Brando wanted a lot – he wanted his cake and to eat it too – which he did hence he is almost unrecognizable as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, who by the way was supposed to be emaciated as per the script, but once Brando arrived onset it was obvious that wasn’t gonna happen. In fact, Brando’s eating habits are almost as legendary as the man himself but that’s a whole other entry – suffice to say his appetite for food and for sex was insatiable and by all accounts nothing was off the table or left on it!
But back to unmet expectations. I wrestle with this idea, this sense of disappointment, that things are just never as much fun as you think they will be or that I am doing my utmost to live life to the fullest. Too often I have thought “Is this it? I thought it would be more ____(fill in the blank as appropriate). I have been told by a number of reliable folks that I expect too much from myself, from others , from life. That it would be a lot less frustrating for them and me if I just lowered the bar . For certain situations it works, for example friends and family and how I deal with them, but I am not yet to concede the idea in other areas of my life. Like Oliver I want more and the only way I see that happening is if I continue striving to “be somebody” – not always quite sure who or what, and it can be exhausting and difficult, but for now I will continue with my great expectations. Ever the optimist, ever chasing, albeit with older, arthritic knees, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the cloud with the sparkly glittery lining.
** Interesting movie fact – Sinatra was slated to play Terry Molloy !!!!! I can’t even begin to imagine anyone but Brando in this role.