‘Marlon Brando broke my jaw’: Ron Galella
Updated: Apr 4, 2022
Marlon Brando broke his jaw, and Jackie Onassis filed a restraining order against him: photographer Ron Galella got up close and far too personal with celebrities for half a century, becoming one of the world’s most controversial snappers. These are the unguarded moments he captured on the pavements and in the nightclubs of New York and Los Angeles. Often uninvited, sometimes welcomed, Galella’s snapshots helped to shape the idea of modern celebrity.
Piercing the sheen of the Hollywood glamour shot, Galella embraced the no-holds-barred attitude of Europeans like Tazio Secchiaroli or Marcelo Geppetti, inspirations for Federico Fellini’s Paparazzo in La Dolce Vita. Brigitte Bardot had Galella hosed down by her boyfriend; Richard Burton sent people to steal his film; Steve Rubell threw him out of Studio 54 twice. The photographer – who is now 91 – describes his encounter with Sean Penn, while he was in a relationship with Madonna: “He started spitting and fighting with my nephew. But it was just a boxing match. Nobody got hurt. Madonna was yelling ‘Oh, stop, stop!’ at the door.”
In 1973, Galella followed Marlon Brando to a restaurant in New York’s Chinatown when the actor snapped, knocking out five of his teeth with a single punch. Galella sued Brando, settling for $40,000 (£26,262) – in a 2010 documentary he said “I don't want anyone to think they can go around punching me if I am taking their picture. Get that story out, not the money.” The next time he photographed Brando, Galella wore a football helmet emblazoned with ‘Ron’.
Galella became so fixated with the former Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis that she won a restraining order keeping him 25 feet (8m) away. The photographer broke it repeatedly, however, before she sued a second time and he stopped photographing her. Despite their history, Jackie offered up a smile in one of his most famous shots, known as ‘windblown Jackie’, which he compares to the Mona Lisa. Galella was in a taxi. “I rolled down the rear window and shot two profiles of her walking. She did not see me or hear the shutter click due to the noisy New York traffic. Suddenly and without me asking, at the corner of Ninetieth Street, the cab driver blew his horn. Jackie turned and I pressed the shutter release for the third time… Jackie responded casually, not knowing it was me, as my camera covered my face.”
Galella had a friendly relationship with Ali McGraw – in 1971, he’d received a note from her thanking him for “marvellous photographs” – but when he flew out to Jamaica in 1973, she had just begun an affair with Steve McQueen, who was there to film the movie Papillon. Galella describes what happened after he left a note at the studio gates requesting a picture of the pair: “Steve, not Ali, came to the gate and declared there would be no interviews and no visitors. Being streetwise, he threatened to send his posse of friends after me if I did not leave … I did not want to go home without any photos, so I asked for a fifteen-minute photo-op of him alone and then I would leave. He agreed only after I signed an agreement, and stated, ‘I’ll give you 15 minutes of me provided you leave on the next plane out of Jamaica.’”
"After grabbing a plate of food from the buffet at Sardi’s, I sat at a table with an unknown man sitting across from me. He said, ‘Someday you will be taking my picture.’ I did take two shots of this confident, handsome young man. Later, after Mean Streets and The Godfather Part II were released, I found out the unknown man was now-legendary actor Robert De Niro.”