BRANDO IN REXDALE
SALAH BACHIR ( he/ him)
“For my generation it was always Marlon Brando and it will always be Brando.” — Jack Nicholson “He acted with an empathy and an instinctual understanding that not even the greatest technical performers could possibly match.” — Laurence Olivier “I’m angry at Marlon because he does everything so easily. I have to break my ass to do what he can do with his eyes closed.” — Paul Newman “WHAT CAN I GET YOU?” MY MOTHER ASKED MARLON Brando, without being clear on who he was, other than a new friend I had brought over for lunch. She would have asked the same of anyone. In our family and Lebanese culture, one of the ways we show our love is with food. Brando got his barbecue on the everyday china, just like everyone else, and sat on one of the metal folding lawn chairs with fabric strips in the backyard around a picnic table. Our pear and peach trees on one side, and a wall of flowers with vegetables growing to disguise the chain-link fence that separated our house from its neighbour. The vegetables were heavy on tomatoes, Lebanese cucumber, and kousa — similar to zucchini, also known as Lebanese squash. There was plenty of marjoram, sumac, and the summer savories one can eat green or add to salads or dried for za’atar — a Lebanese spice blend that is suddenly the latest, greatest thing all over North America. My father knew Brando from the movie On the Waterfront, but seemed unaware of his stature as he poured him an Arak drink in his yard, near the flowering fruit trees. “Did you know that your name is English for the Lebanese name Maroun?” he asked Brando. “St. Maroun, yes! I love that,” exclaimed Brando, to everyone’s amazement. “The patron saint of the Maronite Church.” It was not the first time Brando surprised me by coming out with something seemingly obscure. “We’re not Maronites, we’re Greek Orthodox,” my father clarified. “We’re not here to talk about religion,” I interceded, heading off a conversation that, knowing my father, could become endless. Dad did not need to know that his guest was one of the most revered actors of all time, a two-time Best Actor Oscar winner — for On the Waterfront and The Godfather, not that I put any stock in awards shows — to be already in love with him. We were all instantly in love with Brando. And why not? He put everyone at ease and tasted everything Mom made, complimenting her lavishly. A couple of times he asked in French how to call certain foods in Arabic. It had always been Brando for me. He was one of the most exciting film actors to watch. I had heard Elizabeth Taylor say that everyone who met him, male or female, straight or gay, felt the attraction. Playwright Arthur Miller wrote that when Brando appeared in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway in December 1947, “it caused such a sensation that he seemed like a tiger on the loose. A sexual terrorist. Brando was the brute who bore the truth.” At the moment the brute was in my childhood backyard in Rexdale, talking horse racing and cards with my dad and eating my mom’s homemade mamoul and fruit jams for dessert. Brando famously did not do interviews, but the head of publicity for Columbia Tristar Home Video had called to tell me it was an outside possibility that I could get one with Matthew Broderick if I visited the set of the new movie the two were filming, The Freshman. The 1990 comedy was written and directed by Andrew Bergman and stars Brando along with Bruno Kirby, Frank Whaley, and Penelope Ann Miller. Broderick plays a strapped New York City film school student who takes a job with mobster Jimmy the Toucan smuggling a rare Komodo dragon in a scheme to offer exotic dining fare at “The Gourmet Club” to high rollers with specialized tastes. The running gag is that Jimmy the Toucan bears a suspicious resemblance to one of Brando’s most enduring characters, Vito Corleone of The Godfather. Brando played a Mafia chieftain. The Komodo dragon, which Broderick had to lug around for the majority of the movie, was played by a selection of Asian water monitors. I said I would love to interview Broderick, who was very hot after Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but the publicity head told me with great sadness that I would have to get myself somehow to this unknown, misbegotten place where the movie was filming in Toronto. Maybe I could look it up on a map. It’s called Rexdale. Rexdale! That’s where I had grown up from the age of 10 when my family immigrated to Canada from Lebanon. The Freshman would go on to shoot at several locations dear to my heart, including a particular gas station, now a Petro Canada, where the Komodo dragon gets loose. They also shot at the Woodbine Centre mall on Rexdale Boulevard, where I often would drop my mom to go shopping and where the creature goes swimming with the bumper boats at the indoor Fantasy Fair amusement park; near the Woodbine racetrack, which my dad frequented; and at the Weston Arena, where I often played goalie in hockey and lacrosse and where Brando unhappily learned to ice skate for the role. With my meeting with Broderick secured, I then used every contact I had, called in every chip, to get some face time with Brando. I befriended him, and every couple of weeks during the film shoot, I took him to dinner and introducing him as my “cousin George from Lebanon” so no one would make a fuss and make it impossible for him to relax. On a couple of occasions, people said, “Yes, I can see the resemblance,” because at the time I did bear a close physical resemblance to him, so much so that friends who later saw the skating scenes in The Freshman could swear it was me. Brando and I even joked that I could serve as his stunt double, and maybe it wasn’t even a joke, because Marlon did not have an easy time of it on blades. We talked about everything: politics, olive oil, Native rights, Lebanon, gay rights … the guy was a walking encyclopedia, and not just of dry information, but of limitless curiosity and a deep appreciation for things you would never guess he’d even heard of. He was familiar with Indigenous Canadian painters. He had a keen appraiser’s eye for sculpture. So that I wouldn’t embarrass myself, I nervously boned up on Canadian art the night before I took him to the McMichael art gallery on 100 acres of forested land along the Humber River north of Toronto. The director there walked us through the galleries showcasing the Group of Seven and a vast collection of Aboriginal art. They more than other artists, are how the world identifies Canada. At the end of the tour, the director said, “I hope your cousin George enjoyed his trip here!” Brando and I had many talks and dinners while he was making The Freshman. I took him to Bistro 990, not far from his hotel. We went to Orso’s and Jamie Kennedy’s and to an Indian buffet on Rexdale Avenue. Friends who knew I was showing a celebrity around my hometown often wanted to know one thing: what was Marlon Brando really like? Well, he was one of the most charming and engaging people, as you might expect. But the real question isn’t what Marlon Brando the famous actor was like. It’s about who he was as a person and not as a function of his day job or weight fluctuation or sexual history or reputation on the set. Brando invited others to confide. I found myself opening up to him about body image. He and I had this in common — we had both been in great shape at one point. Brando’s weight famously ballooned over time, and it cost him in his career. He wanted to do a lot more, but they didn’t offer him the good parts. Here he was, considered one of the great actors and he couldn’t get work because of his size. Like so many of us in the world, they judged him by the pound. It was the same for Orson Welles and Elizabeth Taylor. Size became a source of huge rage for Brando, how people chose to define him in a way he could not change or control. What was Brando really like? He was interested in and knowledgeable about so much. He could talk native art with a museum director, civil rights with activists and horseracing with my dad. He was an olive oil aficionado and loved the special brand from my family groves. He was eager to talk about politics and Palestinian refugees. That’s why I get so furious with people who claim he was some kind of monster. For me, he just wanted to learn about everything. If you didn’t challenge him, he’d get bored and dismiss people, and then those people who couldn’t keep up with him would turn around and trash him, personally and professionally. They did it to promote themselves by putting down someone more famous. At the end of the Lebanese barbecue in my mom’s backyard, we were all stuffed. Nevertheless, it was time for Mom’s homemade mamoul, a pastry with dates, walnuts or pistachios in it. She also put out a platter of kaak, a sesame-seed encrusted cookie. Because that’s how you treat friends. They are not friends because they are stars. They are stars simply because they are your friends.