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It's sad to say, but one has a hard time writing about the production of any film that starred Marlon Brando without focusing on the actor's attempts to drive everyone who worked with him stark raving bonkers. Joshua Logan's Sayonara (1957) is no exception, although it's one of those pictures that gloriously survived Brando's grating degree of self-satisfaction. Brando's crew and co-stars somehow weathered the storm to make it one of the more probing films about racial prejudice to be released in the 1950s and it became a major hit.
Brando plays Maj. Lloyd Gruver, a U.S. Army soldier who's stationed in Japan during the Korean War. Gruver is engaged to the daughter (Patricia Owens) of an Army General (Kent Smith). But his best friend, an enlisted man named Joe Kelly (Red Buttons, who won an Oscar® for his role) has created a controversy by falling in love with a beautiful Japanese woman (Miyoshi Umeki). The Army brass frowns upon interracial romances, and they do everything they can to drive a wedge between Kelly and his true love. Gruver is also somewhat prejudiced against the Japanese, but that all changes when he meets and falls hard for a traditional dancer named Hana-ogi (Miiko Taka). This sets off a powder keg of institutionalized racism that leads to both tragedy and romance.
Logan's original intent was to convert James Michener's popular novel, Sayonara, into a Broadway musical. But, when that didn't pan out for legal reasons, he aimed to adapt it into a straight-forward drama. For a while, there was talk of getting Rock Hudson to star, but Logan had wanted to work with Brando for some time, so, against his better judgment, he approached the mercurial actor with the script.
During his first meeting with Brando, Logan got a taste of what he was in for- Brando spent virtually the entire meeting pontificating on Hollywood's often stereotypical portrayal of Asians. He finally told Logan that he would consider the role, then they could meet again at a later date. "He was perfectly right," Logan wrote in his autobiography, Movie Stars, Real People, and Me, "except that I wondered if he would ever listen to anyone else talk but himself." At their next meeting, Brando took special interest in the fact that Logan stopped to pick some dead leaves off of a sickly plant. He then sniffed the air around Logan and asked him if he was wearing "lemon scent." When the surprised Logan explained that, yes, his cologne probably had a lemon base, Brando quickly excused himself and left the meeting!
Brando's willful eccentricities forced Logan to consider casting a "name" female lead as a counter precaution. The only problem was that there weren't any Asian performers who carried that kind of clout, and Logan's only other choice, Audrey Hepburn, politely declined, saying that people would laugh at her trying to inhabit such a character. So, it was back to Brando, who Logan's producing partner, William Goetz, now referred to as "Lemon Scent."
After more dilly-dallying, which led to Logan loudly issuing an ultimatum, Brando accepted the part, saying that he was impressed when Logan took time out of their second meeting to tend to a sick plant...and that he didn't know Logan wore lemon scent. But, aside from a few instances of carefully-applied charm, that was as agreeable as Brando would ever get. He proceeded to argue with his sensitive, pleasantly aromatic director throughout the shoot, most of which took place on location in Japan. Logan felt that Brando often tested him to see if he was really committed to making a good film. But Brando, as was the case with so many of his other pictures, also took special interest in perpetrating practical jokes on anyone who tried to make him act like a mature person, and that included producer Goetz.
Filming was no easy task, since the slightest lapse in etiquette could offend the producers' Japanese hosts (it also didn't help matters that a little troublemaker named Truman Capote was on hand, ready to skewer the entire enterprise for a magazine back in the states). One evening, after Logan and Goetz had held a press conference announcing the movie, Goetz received a phone call from an American reporter who accused him of being drunk before the media. Goetz was mortified by the totally unfounded accusation, knowing that such an event would reflect very badly on the production. After an intense bout of shouting, the reporter revealed himself to be Brando, who was just having a little "fun" with the boss.
But Brando saved the best for last. On one of the final days of filming, he appeared on the set looking deeply depressed - with his right arm in a sling. Brando explained to Logan, who was properly mortified by the sight, that a stand-in was horsing around with him and accidentally dislocated his shoulder.
Everyone, Logan included, was anxious to get home, and Brando was in many of the remaining shots. Most importantly, though, this sort of thing would be extremely time-consuming and expensive, with camera set-ups that would have to be re-blocked to keep Brando from having to use his injured arm, if that were actually possible. In a panic, Logan asked Brando if he could at least move his fingers. Brando weakly replied that he could, then added, "The only thing I can't do is this," at which point he raised his perfectly healthy arm high above his head and slapped his bicep.
Director: Joshua Logan
Producer: William Goetz
Screenplay: Paul Osborn (based on James Michener's novel) Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Editing: Philip W. Anderson, Arthur P. Schmidt
Music: Franz Waxman
Songwriter: Irving Berlin
Production Design: Edward S. Haworth
Set Design: Robert Priestley
Costume Design: Norma Koch
Choreography: LeRoy J. Prinz
Principal Cast: Marlon Brando (Maj. Lloyd Gruver), Red Buttons (Joe Kelly), Miyoshi Umeki (Katsumi), Ricardo Montalban (Nakamura), Patricia Owens (Eileen Webster), Miiko Taka (Hana-ogi), Martha Scott (Mrs. Webster), James Garner (Capt. Mike Bailey)
by Paul Tatara