“What do you think you two are? A pair of queens?”
I understand that time is a river, and that rivers aren’t circular, and that in internet time, the subject I’m addressing here is essentially precambrian. However.
Vulture published David Marchese’s “In Conversation with Quincy Jones”—which, according to Columbia Journalism Review, was read (or at least clicked on) by 1.5 million people within 48 hours—last Wednesday, a week ago. I have achieved one or two small tasks in the interim. I wrote some things for work, bought some groceries, walked the dogs, practiced piano, saw Black Panther, finally watched the rest of season one of Fargo, et cetera.
But at no point during the past six days have I stopped pondering the image of Marlon Brando fucking Richard Pryor. Or maybe it was Pryor fucking Brando? Or maybe conceiving of “fucking” as a transitive verb anymore is retrograde, and they merely had sex. Please tell me they didn’t “make love.” But what, as ’80s Heart reminds us, about love?
Did they kiss? Did they cuddle? Did they giggle? Were circles drawn lightly with lazy fingers in chest hair flecked with perspiration? Was it impulsive? Planned? Was it a dare? Was it rough? Was it sweet? Was it both? Was it gnarly? Was there seduction? Was there courtship? Was there longing? Was it once? Was it every time they saw each other? Did one or the other or both contrive to be at the same parties? Was it, oh, hey, I was just passing by your place on the way to pick up some potato salad at Nate and Al’s and thought I’d see if you were hungry? Was it obsessive? Was it compulsive? Was it no big deal?
And also, when was it? Was it in the early ’60s, before Pryor had his mustache? Was it the late ’70s after Brando had already begun to let himself go? Was it more like Call Me By Your Name or Prick Up Your Ears? Was it some totally other kind of erotic scenario that cinema and lore have not yet represented?
Or was it just—as Pryor’s widow Jennifer Lee suggested when she “confirmed” the “incident” to TMZ—a function of cocaine and a general laissez-faire attitude to bisexuality among massively successful Hollywood geniuses?
In case you missed the interview, or the roughly 49,000 “news” stories it occasioned, Quincy Jones was promiscuously controversial throughout. He slammed the Beatles as “no-playing motherfuckers” (as any jazz wizard might rightly—though obviously wrongly—consider them); intimated that Jimi Hendrix was too chicken to play with real jazz killers like Toots Thielemans, Herbie Hancock, Hubert Laws, and Roland Kirk (as any rock guitarist might rightly be); and claims that Michael Jackson stole credit for bits of songs he didn’t write (which he plainly did sometimes).
Though he is unquestionably a musical giant and citizen of the world, Jones is also wrong about a lot of stuff in that interview. The Beatles were a musical revolution. Jimi Hendrix was, too. And Oprah Winfrey probably knows at least a thing or two about running a company. (And see, I didn’t even have to disparage “We Are the World” to get there…)
But I digress.
LL QJ Brian Ach/Getty Images
You can keep Jones’s weird gloating over having “dated” Ivanka Trump 12 years ago and how great her legs are and what a “fine motherfucker” she is, his disses of Oprah and the Clintons, his intriguing plaudits for Paul Allen’s guitar chops and Ed Sheeran’s songwriting, and the fact that he claims to know for certain that Sam Giancana had JFK killed. This is a man who has been everywhere, known everyone, and done everything. He is, if nothing else, entitled to hold forth in an effort to plug the new Netflix documentary about him, and the TV special in honor of his 85th birthday, and Qwest TV, the “musical Netflix” that “everybody is excited about,” and which is surely doomed to fail, as are all mass market music delivery systems.
But this thing with Brando and Pryor. The exact quote is this:
“Brando used to go cha-cha dancing with us. He could dance his ass off. He was the most charming motherfucker you ever met. He’d fuck anything. Anything! He’d fuck a mailbox. James Baldwin. Richard Pryor. Marvin Gaye.”
All right. To begin with, the idea of Brando’s bisexuality is not news. There have always been rumors—about him and James Dean, about both Dean and Brando with Elia Kazan, about him and Tennessee Williams, his former roommate Wally Cox, and several other uncorroborated legends.
The “I happen to know that Hollywood star X was secretly gay” genre of gossip has been a mainstay of showbiz reporting since before talkies. By this point in history, it feels almost quaint, except for the vindictive tang that always accompanies someone being outed—particularly by someone else who really can’t know the truth.
Here was Brando, speaking to biographer Gary Carey in the 1976 book The Only Contender: “Homosexuality is so much in fashion it no longer makes news. Like a large number of men, I, too, have had homosexual experiences and I am not ashamed. I have never paid much attention to what people think about me.”
Even if that second sentence is true, the last one is definitely not. Nor should it need to be.
“It was you, Charlie.”
The private lives of famous, beautiful geniuses do not belong to the members of their audience, no matter how loyal, no matter how curious they/we might be. However, the fantasy of those private lives—in which we reconcile the person we presume to know with the person we wish we really did know—well, no one has ever managed to build a fence around that.
Let’s start with Brando and James Baldwin. Easy to imagine. There’s even an image of the two of them together at the March on Washington (a gathering Baldwin was invited to address, then disinvited when his homosexuality became a controversial issue) in the recent Baldwin documentary, I Am Your Negro, that communicates a great deal of warmth and admiration between them. Brando’s right arm is draped over Baldwin’s shoulders. To speculate a bit, the image also seems to indicate two very particular strains of emotion related to show business, no doubt elevated by the adrenaline of standing in the V.I.P. section of history.
In Baldwin, you see that big, wonderful smile he so often concealed (was he self-conscious about his teeth? Is that yet another thing to love about him?), revealing excitement about being so close to the consummate movie star of the era, who also happened to be one of the most brutally beautiful men who ever strode the planet, and in the shadow of the truly awe-inspiring memorial to Abraham Lincoln. In Brando, you see the thrill that only an actor can feel about being taken seriously by people who actually were intelligent—as opposed to wanting to seem so for the sake of an image that might differentiate him from common Hollywood, or even Broadway trash.
There he was, only a few years out of Omaha, having been christened the greatest living exponent of a profession he despised, now regarded (because of his fame) a serious enough person to stand next to one of the finest writers—finest minds—of the era, who was also a beacon of righteous fervor in the Civil Rights movement.
This is what Brando told journalist James Grissom in 1990:
“If you wish to ask me what I cared about most now—if you ask me to state what was important or lasting—it would have to be that I walked and sat and dreamed next to a man named James Baldwin. James—or Jimmy—knew how to analyze, place, describe, repair, and destroy things—all in the right way and for the right reasons. Baldwin, as I liked to call him, taught me to think in a piercing way about things far more important than scripts or contracts or poems—he taught me to look into and understand people and their motives and their identities. And I didn’t always like what I saw, but it led me toward something that might be called freedom.”
Brando and Baldwin together encapsulate a very interesting spectrum of male human beauty, internal and external. In a very real sense, why wouldn’t they fuck?
The Idea of Marlon Brando and Marvin Gaye ain’t that peculiar.
Next: Marvin Gaye. I don’t know enough about Gaye’s private life—aside from the lurid and tragic bits that everyone knows—to weigh in here. Differing reports about his “effeminate” tendencies (reportedly shared with his horrible father) and troubled first marriage to Anna Gordy present a blurry picture.
But let’s be serious for a second. This is the laureate of the unembarrassed sex song. This is the voice of “Let’s Get It On, ” of “Sexual Healing,” and about 739 other amazing tunes before and between. He was also a rare beauty. See also: cocaine. Again, if you feel like I feel… We’re all sensitive people… Giving yourself to me can never be wrong if the love is true, etc.
But Pryor and Brando is a harder image to shake from one’s imagination, and a harder tableau to picture, particularly if you’ve spent your entire life revering both men’s work, and hungrily reading as much gossipy garbage about both of them as you could get your hands on. (I mean, I saw Jojo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling in the theater, so don’t tell me.)
Pryor often spoke elliptically about his sexual history—disclosing an early sexual assault he suffered while growing up in the brothel where his mother worked—but it’s hard (and in a sense pointless) to know where autobiography and comic invention collide. Still, he indicated many times that he wasn’t simply straight.
In his 1995 memoir Pryor Convictions, he wrote about a brief relationship with someone who would likely be called trans today:
One evening I was at the Candy Store, a club in Hollywood. I spotted her standing beside the dance floor. She told me her name was Mitrasha and she was beautiful and exotic as her name, a dead ringer for a young Josephine Baker.
After a night of drinking, flirting, kissing and dancing, I took Mitrasha home, where we did cocaine and got down to business.
The next time we were together, Mitrasha forgot to do the tuck and fold. When I reached down, I discovered that she was actually a he. For some reason, I didn’t care. Either I wanted the nut too badly, I was too high to object, or I was as sexually confused as Mitrasha. It was probably a combination of all three reasons.
Mitrasha and I carried on for several weeks. We even went out dancing at the Daisy. I never kept him a secret.
My best friend for instance, knew I was fucking a dude, and a drop-dead gorgeous one at that. I even admitted doing something different was exciting. But after two weeks of being gay, enough was enough and I went back to life as a horny heterosexual.
Pryor Convictions, and Other Life Sentences, by Richard Pryor and Todd Gold (Mandarin Books, $17.95)
Back before anyone was willing to admit that sexuality and gender were fluid elements of the human experience, this combination of candor and backpedaling was common among celebrity attempts to disclose secrets without alienating less tolerant fans. But candor—or at least the willingness not to shrink from the ugly elements of human nature—was what made Pryor a revolutionary artist. A childhood full of horrible abuse made him horribly abusive, as has been extensively chronicled, which makes the unmistakeable tenderness that comes through in his best stand-up one of its most revolutionary facets.
But revolutions, in art or anywhere else, are neither pretty nor uncomplicated.
In 1977, Pryor was booked at the Hollywood Bowl, headlining a benefit show for Save Our Human Rights, an early gay rights organization that formed in opposition to the notorious Floridian/Anita Bryant anti-gay rights coalition. Anyway, it didn’t go well.
Pryor reportedly chafed at the onstage atmosphere of piety and euphemism (gay references were adamantly discouraged by the organizers; when they said “human rights” they meant a polite, de-sexualized version) and the backstage evidence of blatant racism by the union stagehands toward some of the dancers in the show. He would have none of it.
“I came here for human rights,” Pryor said when he took the stage, “and I found out what it was really about was about not getting caught with a dick in your mouth.” This apparently loosened up the predominantly male crowd of nearly 17,000, so he rolled with the theme.
“You don’t want the police to kick your ass if you’re sucking the dick,” he told the crowd, “and that’s fair. You’ve got the right to suck anything you want!” More cheers, obviously. As Scott Saul wrote in the 2015 Guardian piece I’m getting all these details from, this hunk of material indirectly shamed the organizers’ efforts to be respectable in the eyes of straight America. “By stripping away the airy talk of ‘human rights,'” Pryor “had brought into the open the basic demand of the gay struggle: sexual freedom in the face of police harassment.”
But then he went way deeper:
“I sucked one dick,” Pryor told the audience. “Back in 1952. Sucked Wilbur Harp’s dick. It was beautiful, but I couldn’t deal with it. Had to leave it alone. It was beautiful because Wilbur has the best booty in the world. Now I’m saying booty to be nice. I’m talking about asshole. Wilbur had some good asshole. And Wilbur would give it up so good and put his thighs against your waist. That would make you come quick. I was the only motherfucker that took Wilbur roses. Everybody else was bullshitting. I took Wilbur [the roses] and said, ‘Here, dear.’”
Here was maybe the most audacious gambit ever offered by a famous comedian, and on a gigantic stage. He had confessed not only gay sex, but tenderness, affection, love. Was it factual? Only Pryor and Wilbur Harp would know for sure. But it rang true. He had the audience spellbound.
Then he turned on them.
“How can faggots be racists?” he asked. After telling the story of what he’d seen backstage, his diatribe continued: “I hope the police catch you motherfuckers and shoot your ass accidentally, because you motherfuckers ain’t helpin’ n***ers at all.”
If there was anyone left in the audience for him to lose, his next line did the job:
“Motherfuck women’s rights,” he said. “The bitches don’t need no rights. What they need to do is pay the people on welfare.”
Now the arena was overwhelmed by angry booing. If they weren’t booing they were leaving. Pryor was fine with that.
“Yeah, get mad,” he taunted. “’Cause you’re going to be madder than that when [LAPD chief] Ed Davis catches you motherfuckers coming out of here in the lot.”
And he just kept going: “I wanted to test you to your motherfuckin’ soul,” he declared. “When the n***ers were burning down Watts, you motherfuckers were doing what you wanted on Hollywood Boulevard, didn’t give a shit about it.”
He turned on his heels, mimed offering his ass for the audience to kiss, and exited the stage.
But lest you mistake this provocation of—to use a term no one in that Bowl would have been likely to use, or even to have heard—”intersectionality” to be the only time Pryor got into the subject of non-hetero coupling onstage, check out his 1971 album Craps After Dark, which contains, near the end, the telltale bit “Fucking the Faggot.” (As in, in his old neighborhood, he was the only one who would.)
That same year, Pryor was filmed (for the first time) at the NYC Improv doing a set of stand-up that wouldn’t be released until 1985, as Live and Smokin’.
After a brief interlude about his days fetching “douche powder” and tampons for the women in the “whorehouse,” he offers a word of advice to the “American male persons” who might one day be watching the film: “Never fuck a faggot,” he begins. “Because they will lie. They always say ‘I won’t tell.’ They lie! They can’t wait till you finish fucking ’em. [pantomimes phone call,] ‘Guess who was here, honey!'”
The bit draws nervous laughter. He goes deeper:
“Don’t ever give a faggot head,” he says. “‘Cause you’ll really be low down, then.”
“Y’all act like you ain’t never sucked a dick or something. Y’all be like [affects caucasian voice that will subsequently be stolen by every black comic for the next 25 years] ‘Nosiree, bob! We never, ever touched a penis in our lives! We’re real men!’ [back to his own voice] I sucked a dick. You can get a habit from sucking dick. You can become a dick junkie. You can only do it maybe three times. You do it more than that, you get a habit. You be: [caucasian junkie voice] ‘I gotta have a dick!'”
The end of the bit is extra audacious:
“I used to give head to dudes and always say, ‘Don’t, don’t come in my mouth!'” Five second pause as a few people in the crowd put it together, then he shifts gears into another bit.
Richard Pryor Live and Smokin’: More layers than we might care to admit.
Watching Pryor in this formative period—he had clearly transitioned out of the early, crowd pleaser phase of his career—“For about a year I was Bill Cosby,” is how he characterized it—but had not yet transformed into the shockingly frank, radical shapeshifter he would become after walking offstage in Las Vegas in 1967 and beginning the process of reinventing the entire form he worked in.
Live and Smokin’ is like opening the oven before the bread has had time to rise. You can see Pryor’s coltishness. He’s nervous, partly because he’s kind of bombing, but more because he seems to know he’s onto something he hasn’t yet mastered—using himself, the self, as the font of invention. Using facts like a fiction writer, running countless variations on them until “truth” is revealed as the subjective value it has always been.
Everyone knows this was where Pryor started swearing a lot, and making prodigious use of the N-word (a formulation he would have sneered at, even after refusing to use the word anymore in 1979). The use of black and blue language was traditionally assailed as a gimmick that proved a comic would say anything to get a laugh. But look at that 1964 Pryor footage again. That’s saying anything to get a laugh. Swearing, and speaking about other taboo subjects—that was making music out of the way he spoke offstage.
Even in this context, the “confession” that he’d had had sex with men is audacious for the times. For any times. But it’s also an evasion, because the grammar of the jokes is no different from the way he might have previously talked about opening a can of coffee. It had only been a year or two since saying words like that would have gotten you arrested—cf Lenny Bruce and “cocksucking.” It hadn’t been any longer than that since the idea of a black man speaking with any kind of frankness was dangerous, shocking, unheard of. Now here’s a black man not only acknowledging the existence of male-on-male oral sex, but admitting to having given it, and, in fact, being prepared to disclose the grace notes that attend the exchange.
The audacity didn’t lie in the disclosure of behavior, but in the willingness, the compulsion, to submit himself—the self—to the audience’s speculation. It might have been true, or sort of true, or not true at all. But he wasn’t afraid to use it. The result was a new language for comedy, which begat, in part, a new language for the colloquial discussion of masculinity, sexuality, and race. And more broadly, the way all three of those traits contain more layers and contradictions than we were prepared to admit.
Which necessarily means that the confession was also a means of denial.
Blow job jokes weren’t new. Gay jokes weren’t new. (See also: Lenny Bruce’s meta comedic masterpiece, The Palladium—”I didn’t even do my ‘Fag at the Ball Game’ yet!”) But a framework in which those elements existed not only without traditional scorn for the transgressors, but further, with the open admission that the head in question might be given by someone you least expect, that was new.
So new that the crowd at the Improv in 1971 wasn’t ready for it. Not even close, really. With only a couple of vocal exceptions, they don’t even seem to fully understand the words he’s saying. The film shows Pryor making flash calculations about how much further to press the subject, how much longer to keep talking about it. His transition out of it is sudden and not that effective, but the bit was out there, and with it, Pryor’s bold, unprecedented experiment in vulnerability, which would launch him to levels of showbiz success he hadn’t even imagined.
In this sense, he was like the Brando of stand-up—seizing his moment in the collective gaze to invert the expectations of that gaze, and thus, to transform the craft so thoroughly that everyone who comes after can be seen as a reflection of him.
Pryor in 1964. “In those days, I was basically lying to myself about what I was doing. I kept asking myself, ‘How can I do this, how can I do this?’ I saw how I was going to end up. I was false. I was turning into plastic. It was scary… so I did what I had to do — get out that situation. I was blackballed by most of the industry for two or three years after that.”
Pryor in 1972
THANK YOU ON BEHALF OF MARLON BRANDO
Side note: I’m not delving into this stuff out of a prurient interest. I do it because it is astonishing that any performer would have had the nerve to even address bisexuality, much less identify with it, at the time Pryor was working.
Two years after Pryor’s set at the Improv was filmed, and his album Craps was released to little fanfare, Marlon Brando shocked the world by sending Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache who served as President of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, to decline the Oscar he won for his appearance in The Godfather, beating out a crowded field of rivals like Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Peter O’Toole, and Paul Winfield.
Even people who hadn’t yet been born remember the gesture, though few among even those who were watching recall that Littlefeather’s speech was an effort to communicate Brando’s anger about the “treatment of American Indians today by the film industry—” a couple of loud boos interrupt her, before being drowned out by supportive applause—”and on television, in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.” (The notorious occupation of the South Dakota town by members of the Oglala Lakota tribe was only a month old on March 5, 1973, the night of the Oscar ceremony.)
She addressed the gathering of the world’s most famous and fabulous stars with an attitude of melancholy contrition, and an expression of intense discomfort on her face—this wasn’t the kind of scolding tone that would become so familiar to 21st century audiences. The note Littlefeather sounded was in the register of a plea. Even her final words were prostrate: “I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening and that we will, in the future, our hearts and our understandings, will meet with love and generosity. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando.”
The vitriol was reserved for Brando’s entire statement, which Littlefeather was enjoined from reading on TV due to time restrictions, but which the NY Times printed the following day. In read, in part:
When they laid down their arms, we murdered them. We lied to them. We cheated them out of their lands. We starved them into signing fraudulent agreements that we called treaties which we never kept. We turned them into beggars on a continent that gave life for as long as life can remember. And by any interpretation of history, however twisted, we did not do right. We were not lawful nor were we just in what we did. For them, we do not have to restore these people, we do not have to live up to some agreements, because it is given to us by virtue of our power to attack the rights of others, to take their property, to take their lives when they are trying to defend their land and liberty, and to make their virtues a crime and our own vices virtues.
But there is one thing which is beyond the reach of this perversity and that is the tremendous verdict of history. And history will surely judge us. But do we care? What kind of moral schizophrenia is it that allows us to shout at the top of our national voice for all the world to hear that we live up to our commitment when every page of history and when all the thirsty, starving, humiliating days and nights of the last 100 years in the lives of the American Indian contradict that voice?
Such criticisms are now commonplace on the left-leaning side of society, but in 1973 they hadn’t yet become canonical. As for the gesture itself, Brando (or his ghostwriter—either way, someone owes at least a tonal debt to James Baldwin) wrote:
Perhaps at this moment you are saying to yourself what the hell has all this got to do with the Academy Awards? Why is this woman standing up here, ruining our evening, invading our lives with things that don’t concern us, and that we don’t care about? Wasting our time and money and intruding in our homes.
I think the answer to those unspoken questions is that the motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile and evil. It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.
Recently there have been a few faltering steps to correct this situation, but too faltering and too few, so I, as a member in this profession, do not feel that I can as a citizen of the United States accept an award here tonight. I think awards in this country at this time are inappropriate to be received or given until the condition of the American Indian is drastically altered. If we are not our brother’s keeper, at least let us not be his executioner.
He went on to write that he would have liked to say these things in person, but “I felt that perhaps I could be of better use if I went to Wounded Knee to help forestall in whatever way I can the establishment of a peace which would be dishonorable as long as the rivers shall run and the grass shall grow.”
In closing, he asked that the audience not look upon his choice to send an emissary “as a rude intrusion, but as an earnest effort to focus attention on an issue that might very well determine whether or not this country has the right to say from this point forward we believe in the inalienable rights of all people to remain free and independent on lands that have supported their life beyond living memory.”
Brando’s decision to deputize a young woman to carry the news for him can be read in many ways, not all of which reflect well on him (though a lot of people still consider it an heroic act of protest). But there’s no mistaking that the gesture itself—forswearing an Oscar, calling out a deep strain of racialist and imperialist ugliness trailing in the wake of the genocide that was the cornerstone of the country itself—reveals a desire to be on the correct side of history, or at least a slightly more correct one, and an utter disregard for the laws of decorum that polite society demands.
Six years earlier, when his career was in a tailspin, Brando appeared in John Huston’s adaptation of the Carson McCullers novel Reflections in a Golden Eye. He played Major Weldon Penderton, a closeted gay man who came in for contemptuous ridicule from his frustrated wife (Elizabeth Taylor), who strips naked, daring him to have sex with her and knowing he won’t, and later beating him with a riding crop in front of a houseful of guests.
The film is bad in about 27 ways, but there’s something in Brando’s performance—that irreducible, involuntary greatness that radiated off him even in his very worst films, even years later when he had forsaken his body, or when he overacted or intentionally tanked it—that demands dignity for a man forced by society, career, even nature itself, to remain muted.
Or maybe it’s fear. It was probably somewhat brave for Brando to take such a part in 1967, but the movie was lousy, so it cost him very little. Unless it was part of the imaginary Brando conspiracy calculus, which holds that the 19 films he made between On the Waterfront in 1954 and The Godfather in 1972 reveal the actor’s intention not merely to challenge his audience, but indeed to drive them away.
Brando and Taylor in Reflections in a Golden Eye
There are some okay movies in there—he’s better than he gets credit for as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls (1955); The Young Lions (1958) is worth it just to see him with Montgomery Clift; The Fugitive Kind (1960) is minor Williams, but again, worthwhile just for the way Brando says the name of “Lead Belly” and for the work of a young Sidney Lumet—but generally speaking, the pendulum swings between overcooked studio fare like Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and Night of the Following Day (1969), ill-advised comedy attempts like Bedtime Story (1964) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) or well-intentioned but misbegotten message pictures like The Ugly American and Burn! (1969).
These were films and roles that, to one degree or another, forced the audience to grapple with Brando’s particular brand (o) of liberal ideals, sexual more pushing, and masculinity interrogation. The idea was that they wanted the Brando of On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire: virile, rapacious, ungovernable. In its place, he gave them the Brando of I Am the Biggest and Best Movie Star in the World, So I Can Be Whatever I Want, which meant being: inscrutable, unpredictable, unknowable.
Louder than any of his professional choices was the amazing line from Truman Capote’s 1957 Brando profile in The New Yorker. Six years after his triumphant breakthrough, and three after his most celebrated performance, the consummate actor expressed shame for continuing to act in films. “The only reason I’m here,” he told Capote, “is that I don’t yet have the moral courage to turn down the money.”
The moral courage.
Brando and Maria Schneider in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, an objectively horrible film.
His impulse to push the barriers of acceptability would be emboldened by the success of The Godfather leading to the corpulent, masturbatory, existential masculinity of Last Tango in Paris. Though Tango has aged worse than any once-major ’70s canon-fodder than maybe Manhattan, it does indicate that the artistic side of Brando’s persona yearned to act out a part of the sexual spectrum that the world might find unsettling. He had done the same with the bondage-lite elements of The Nightcomers (1971) and even in the puerile Candy (1968).
It’s not out of the question to read Last Tango as a muted cry that the world of sex is nothing like films have told us. Deep Throat, which came out the same year, had a similar goal. They both missed the mark, but the repression that people were chafing against had been intense enough to fold both films into the larger sexual awakening that was happening on and off screen.
There is Brando, working out socially unacceptable kinks and convictions in an abstruse, artistic way. There, roughly alongside him, is Pryor, doing the same. (It’s worth mentioning that Baldwin had them both beat, dealing with explicitly gay themes and experiences as early as his 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room.)
Maybe it’s just a coincidence that these men would wind up circling, admiring, and maybe even fucking each other. Or maybe it’s not remotely coincidental. Maybe they were both stifled by a world that had no appreciation for subtle distinctions in the human sexual experience. Maybe they both took up residence in a business that rewarded them with all the money, fame, and admiration they ever wanted, as long as they kept their actual selves hidden. Maybe each man recognized the particular tone of the other’s screams.
Rain Pryor’s Facebook response.
Not everyone was impressed with Quincy Jones’s interview. Pryor’s daughter, Rain, took to Facebook in protest:
Q, was once a brilliant music producer who is losing his mind, and decided to garner publicity for himself with a sensationalized interview; and because y’all think and equate Fame and Money with decency, you ate it up like thirsty dogs, as he spewed out a lie about my father who’s not here to defend himself.
Then on top of it all, my dad’s so called widow validated it, because she needs to keep legitimizing herself and tarnish our dad even after he’s dead. She hated Q and Daddy.
Y’all so thirsty and LOVE THEM but ever know the real source or full story, and you’re gonna wonder how 45 became president? WAKE UP!!!
So read this, I don’t need you as a fan or a friend. I don’t need anyone in my life that thinks a sensationalized interview is relevant and “incredibly well done.” People who lie or share information to raise themselves up are bottom feeders no matter how much money or influence they have. Wrong is still wrong!!! #GTFOH
I’m getting my millions the correct way, with integrity!!!!
Pryor’s longtime colleague and collaborator Paul Mooney (who has also been subjected to public speculation about his sexuality, as well as public ribbing from Pryor on the same subject) posted a slightly more cryptic, but no less passionate response on Twitter:
Day 8 of the 28 day challenge is a legendary trio, my friend Richard Pryor, the great Marlon Brando, geniuses Marvin Gaye and Baldwin,getting too many calls from irrelevant, sick n thirsty gravediggers who’ll do/sell anything for a dime or relevance.
— Paul Mooney (@PaulEalyMooney) February 8, 2018
Brando’s son Miko disavowed the story, too, telling TMZ that “the Marlon Brando family has heard the recent comments by Quincy Jones and we are disappointed that anyone would make such a wrongful comment about either Marlon Brando or Richard Pryor.”
How would he know it was wrongful, though?
Of course, obviously, the only truth is that none of these people is in a position to actually know what actually happened between Brando and Pryor. Not even Quincy Jones. Which makes his interview a consummate example of fake news; it posits a reality that rests at the exact intersection of plausible and im-, credible and in-, which is fundamentally not provable, but which fundamentally alters your perception of a world you thought you knew, for good or ill depending on your disposition.
I like the idea of a universe in which Brando and Pryor were lovers, either privately or otherwise, thanks to drug psychosis or whim or some other rivulet of eros that doesn’t quite fit on the map drawn by the world—either then or now.
I even kind of like the dynamic this idea suggests, which is that reality is nothing like what you assume and that people who are rich, powerful, and talented live lives that ordinary ugly fools like me will never even see the shadows of.
So much this.
But I don’t like the fact that the image has been thrust into my consciousness by an industry I am utterly a part of. The original interview is not the issue: I love a good Q&A, both as a reader and a writer. Quincy Jones is a worthy, interesting figure and his interlocutor, David Marchese, is a respectable journalist. (He told CJR that the piece Vulture published “is kind of like the PG-13 version of what the conversation was actually like.”)
But the franchising of this quote—(first it was the Beatles one, but sex will always top musicology) in an effort to stir the hot take cauldron, and activate the already overactive share gland of the wide readership—feels extra sleazy this time around.
This is where journalism, or maybe publishing, or maybe that’s a meaningless distinction, now lives. The article gets written, and the goal of putting it into the world is to get people speculating (involuntary), judging (inevitable), and generally expressing their omnidirectional outrage (insufferable) about it.
Of course, it helps when the subject is that most common commodity: a celebrity incident that could truly not be any less business of anyone but the celebrities themselves, both of whom happen, in this case, to be dead. They died 18 months and less than 10 miles apart from each other, Brando on July 1, 2004 in Westwood and Pryor on December 10, 2005 in Encino. (Pryor died 15 years and six months to the day after attempting suicide by immolation.)
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And then, like an ocean swell, the interest falls away and we’re on to the next thing. It has made life feel more like an eternal present tense, which I find maddening, but that’s because I have aged out of active participation in most of the cultural things I used to enjoy most. The Quincy Jones interview, which most busy people have already long forgotten, and which most people under whatever age is now considered old probably never noticed in the first place because who the hell ever heard of [QuincyJonesMarlonBrandoRichardPryorTheBeatlesMichaelJackson
JFKBonoShawnFanningMussolini] or any of the other names Jones dropped in that piece.
But I not only remember most of those names; I have things invested in some of them—imaginary things, obviously, but they feel like investments to me. I also do this kind of work, interviewing musicians and writers and filmmakers all the time. I love doing it, too, and have done it professionally for 25 years. The fact that it’s disposable is part of what I like about it.
But the Jones piece seems to be stuck near the top of my esophagus. It’s not like a cry lump. It’s more like when you swallow a handful of vitamins and you haven’t had quite enough water or you’re at an inconvenient angle or you start to gag from the smell and they don’t quite make it all the way down. It feels like they get trapped in a little crenellation of tissue, and once your muscles relax, the whole sticky, smelly bolus will go down to the stomach and dissolve properly.
I’m sort of glad for the occasion to revisit my affection for Richard Pryor and Marlon Brando, and, in a funny way, to consider the possibility of their affection for each other. It’s irreverent, but it’s not blasphemous—mostly because there’s nothing shameful about any two men having sex. To take it a step further, the notion that this particular same-sex interracial coupling could contribute to a broader cultural sensibility about the expansive nature of eros (to say nothing of the unreliability of media marketing) is a pleasing one.
Still, I’m struck by the degree to which, in my lifetime, these two people have been transformed from working definitions of artistic greatness into roundabout methods for drumming up interest in a TV special, a Netflix documentary, and a music streaming platform. It won’t be long now before the follow-ups about how Pryor was a serial abuser of the women in his life (which he indisputably was) and about the decades of plausible alleged sexual improprieties that Brando was accused of in his lifetime. And then the defenses. And then the arguments about what those defenses indicate about the people doing the defending. And then here comes the next one.
Maybe that’s what a legacy is, now: You lead a troubled life, master an art form, and are remembered—if you’re remembered at all—as a gossipy aside in another artist’s desperate looking attempt to remain in public before he dies, and is inevitably forgotten, too.
It’s a grim way of thinking about the lives of people you look up to.
And to think how much better they have it than ordinary people makes it grimmer still.
You could almost say that employing the language of accusation and scandal to what could be a beautiful story—assuming it’s true, which you most assuredly can’t—is a way of making everyone’s life a little more sordid and cheap, and of preserving the indignity that made both Brando and Pryor crazy. Or at least helped. Which is to say didn’t help at all.
And so I’m left with a fascination I can’t quite defend, and this low-level judgment about all these links I don’t yet have the moral courage not to click.
Also, I just remembered they were both in Superman movies, Brando in part one, Pryor in III. I wonder if they ever talked about that.
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