People might cite The Godfather, A Streetcar named Desire, On the Waterfront or Apocalypse Now as Marlon Brando’s greatest films, and while they’re remarkable movies, I have to say that one of my favourite Brando films is none other than Don Juan DeMarco. Now I know it’s just a fluffy, cheesy, romantic comedy and not at all like the gritty, powerful and dramatic aforementioned films in Brando’s repertoire, but I think it’s a really great film!
Watching Brando in Don Juan DeMarco was like watching him lighten up, let loose and be relatable. It was a great role because it was a departure for Brando in its simplicity. It wasn’t dark, demanding or complex, but that’s why I like it so much. Brando playing the charmingly down-to-earth husband and psychologist, Dr. Jack Mickler, was seeing him outside the Mafia, free of languish and torment, devoid of savagery and defiance, and stripped of all the macho bravado. I think this is one of his most charming performances. It’s clear that Brando didn’t just show up on set and mail it in every day. He appeared to be having fun playing Jack and was completely engaged in the role, and I think the film benefits from the presence of Marlon Brando.
Dr. Mickler is a simple guy approaching retirement, comfortable in his routine and living contentedly with his wife. When he has to talk down a 21-year-old man who claims to be the world’s greatest lover from committing suicide because he’s lost his one true love, a spark is ignited in Dr. Mickler’s life. Don Juan (Johnny Depp) is placed on a 10-day psychiatric hold and he must prove to Dr. Mickler that he’s not delusional. Besides his claims that he’s seduced over 1,500 women, he dons a mask like Zorro. Despite Don Juan’s unbelievable tales, Dr. Mickler finds himself intrigued by the masked young man and bemusedly plays along with him. Though realizing the preposterousness of Don Juan’s tales, he’s touched by them and grows increasingly skeptical about what the truth really means. He gives clinical diagnoses of Don Juan’s delusions, yet he also questions whether it’s better to live inside a make believe world bright with passion over one that’s real, but mediocre and empty. Don Juan believes that looking at life merely for what it is, is uncreative.
Inspired by his patient, Dr. Mickler starts working out and begins romancing his wife. Treating Don Juan livens up Dr. Mickler’s marriage and he begins to live vicariously through the stories his patient tells. Faye Dunaway plays Brando’s wife and together they are a perfect onscreen pair. Mrs. Mickler asks her husband, who is Don Juan really? Is he a just a guy telling grandiose tales about the life he believes he’s led and about the person he believes himself to be, and does that really even matter? If we fool ourselves into believing that we’re something we’re not, what harm does it do if in the end it makes others happy? Dr. Mickler considers all of this and through the treatment of Don Juan experiences revelations of his own. Perhaps it’s not a question of sane or insane, but rather that it’s the rest of us who lack imagination.
The interaction between Brando and Depp is wonderful in this film. They bring a playfully warm and charming touch to a script that would have sunk in other hands. And the teasing and self-deprecating way that Brando plays the doctor and the way that he digs into the confrontations between Dr. Mickler and Don Juan are truly magical as the older, cynical man begins to catch Don Juan’s passion. No one holds the screen like Brando, and even here, with a much older, weightier version of the great actor, the way Dr. Mickler’s spirit gradually awakens is positively palpable because Brando’s performance renders it so. Not everyone was swept away and entertained by Don Juan DeMarco, but I was, completely, thanks to the notion of a universal desire to live in a swirl of romance that was so convincingly conveyed by Brando’s memorable portrayal of suddenly amorous Dr. Mickler.