Sheila Heti

Testing The Beauty Of Brando


Marlon Brando, “Screen Test” (1947)

This video of a young Marlon Brando gets particularly interesting around 3:50. He stands there, a rising star in the theatre, perhaps never before tested by the screen, perhaps eyed by the cameras for the very first time.

We see him follow the instructions of a disembodied female voice that bids him turn, show his profile, now can they see the back of his head?

He follows these commands easily, supressing a grin, innocent of any criticism that could be levelled against his beauty. He knows simply, without shame or modesty, exactly what he’s got, and that it’s something no one could find any flaw in. This is not irritating or sickening, but wonderful! We agree with him. Darling, you’re incredible! You’re absolutely right!

Have you ever seen pride expressed as sublimely as it is here? He makes the sin seem like a charming, irresistably beckoning quality; just a happy, off-hand way of sharing the gifts of God’s great earth. If this was all we knew of humans, we’d surely classify pride among the seven heavenly virtues.

But so when is pride a virtue? How does he effect this trick? Can beautiful people get away with anything, like Dorian Gray; be forgiven what the rest of us cannot? Can beauty turn what’s sour sweet? Or is this not vanity on display at all? Is it just the wholesome confidence of an apple-seller who plucked good apples from the orchard that day?

- Sheila Heti

  • Amy Ponomarev

    Sheila I always love the things you say — I’d be inclined to go with the apple-seller who picked good apples, but he was so tragic. A beautiful racehorse doomed to break his legs before they opened the gate. I think the confidence in his beauty is a performance, just like the extraordinary scene prior to it. FWIW

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Sheila Heti is the author of "The Middle Stories," "Ticknor," and "How Should A Person Be?" —  chosen by The New York Times as one of the 100 Best Books of 2012. She's also published an illustrated book for children, "We Need a Horse," featuring art by Clare Rojas, and a book of "conversational philosophy" called "The Chairs Are Where the People Go," with Misha Glouberman. She works as Interviews Editor at The Believer and has contributed many interviews with writers and artists to the magazine. She is also the creator of the Trampoline Hall lecture series and The Metaphysical Poll, which collected the sleeping dreams people were having of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primaries (It was clear from the dreams that Obama would win). More Sheila Heti here.