Marlon Brando (1924 – 2004)

“The close-up says everything. It’s then that an actor’s learned, rehearsed behavior becomes most obvious to an audience and chips away, unconsciously, at its experience of reality. In a close-up, the audience is only inches away and your face becomes the stage."

It was a stage that Marlon Brando commanded for fifty years that moviegoers couldn’t get enough of. The actor didn’t like to talk about acting, but when did he showed that few understood the craft better than he did. Granting a rare interview with Larry King, the aging Brando was deliberately obtuse and tried to steer the conversation away from show business. Brando, looking like a beached whale, stretched out barefooted at his island compound summed it up, telling King, “As long as I convinced you, I’ve done my job.”On Method acting, Brando simply said, “Unless we look inward, we will never be able to look outward.”

His father, Marlon Sr., a businessman, and mother, Dorothy, an unemployed actress, were both alcoholics and unloving parents. Brando wrote about his brutal childhood in his autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me and undoubtedly tapped into that experience as a source, using his dramatic early life to bring emotional realism to his roles. His career was just one aspect of real drama in his life, including failed marriages, famous dalliances and publicized troubles with some of his nine children.

Decades after his greatest film triumphs, the faded star could still command millions, whoring himself in minor films.But, from the start, Brando called all of his own shots — win, lose or draw.He reviled the industry’s backscratching and backbiting and even viewed acting as a worthless pursuit in a world with monumental problems.He was committed to many causes including working for the black civil rights struggles of the 1960’s and the rights of Native Americans. He also acknowledged in his autobiography and publicly that “like many men I too have had homosexual experiences, and I am not ashamed."

After turbulent teen years, Brando studied the acting techniques of the Russian master Konstantin Stanislavsky in New York at the New School’s Dramatic Workshop and the Actor’s Studio.The legendary drama teacher Stella Adler, who coached Brando, said that, techniques aside, “Marlon never really had to learn how to act. He knew…right from the start he was a universal actor. Nothing human was foreign to him."

Brando first appeared on Broadway in I Remember Mama (1944) and then revolutionized the way actors approached parts with his thunderbolt performance as Stanley Kowalskiin Tennessee Williams’ 1947 masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan.In Hollywood he recreated the role opposite Vivien Leigh as Blanche and Kim Hunter as Stella in Kazan’s 1951 film version, a version that toned down some of Williams’ sexual content, but retained all the rawness and inferences that were in Brando’s physical and interior performance.Onstage, opposite Jessica Tandy as Blanche, he was a key part of a drama that was so vital to the American stage that nothing was the same afterwards; onscreen he made the part a thundering American archetype. When Kowalski grills Stella about the contents of Blanche’s trunk, Brando says, “Since when are you giving me orders, ” as he lights a match on his backside.That moment and countless more constructed Brando’s iconic screen presence. In addition to his unconventional voice, Brando had the commanding physicality of a dancer, shown brilliantly in parts like Kowalski and even to minimalist grand effect later as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather.

Brando followed up Streetcar with the epic story of a Mexican revolutionary, Viva Zapata! (1952), built on Brando’s rebellious nature and image. His brooding, unbombastic take as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar (1953), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, upstaged such classically trained heavyweights as John Gielgud and James Mason. Brando was accused of mumbling the Bard’s lines, but his unconventional acting brought 1950’s teens and American audiences to appreciate Shakespeare.

The next year he won his first Oscar as the whistleblower boxer Terry Malloy who busts up the corrupt unions on the gritty New York docks in On the Waterfront and has a tender love affair with Eva Marie Saint. Opposite fellow Actor’s Studio alumnus Rod Steiger, playing Brando’s brother who sells him out, he utters the famous lines, "Oh, Charlie, oh, Charlie…you don’t understand. I could have had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody, instead of a bum–which is what I am."

After conquering Broadway, Brando was Hollywood’s hot new property, but the new star refused to bow at the feet of studio heads or such industry sideshows as columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. He wouldn’t meet with them and other actors subsequently snubbed the gossip columnist’s brand of publicity busting up their manipulative influence.He was iconoclasm and complexity to American cinema and had the goods to back it up.

Even in the 50s, Brando was viewed as the actor’s actor of his generation, credited with changing the art form forever. He looked like no one else and sounded like no one else.Two generations were influenced by Brando’s approach to screen acting.Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift and James Dean and later, post 1950’s, leading men like Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Johnny Depp, all emulate Brando’s legacy. On hearing of his death, Jack Nicholson told the New York Times that Brando was "a genius who was the beginning and end of his own revolution." In an interview he said: "There’s no one before or since like Marlon Brando. The gift was enormous and flawless, like Picasso’s." Nicholson, who starred with Brando in The Missouri Breaks (1976) added "I was in high school when I saw The Wild One. He changed my life forever."

Brando’s natural physicality and piercing eyes burned the screen up in and such roles as leather-clad biker Johnny in The Wild One showed his ability to reveal the dimensions of a character that might not be fully apparent from the dialogue.In roles like The Men, where he played a paralyzed soldier, Brando exuded sex appeal. Through the 1950’s he was a top screen star even in such questionable fare as Desiree (1954), Guys and Dolls (1955), andThe Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), but he was brilliant as the disillusioned Nazi commander in Edward Dmydryk’s The Young Lions (1958).He returned to Tennessee Williams as the eternal drifter in The Fugitive Kind in a haunted performance opposite an operatic Anna Magnani.

Brando directed One-Eyed Jacks (1961) and turned in a foppish performance as Fletcher Christian in an ill-conceived remake of Mutiny on the Bounty. He continued to play a variety of wide-ranging roles, showing only fragments of his prowess, yet he was obviously wasting himself on such parts as the repressed homosexual sergeant opposite Elizabeth Taylor in John Huston’s Reflections of a Golden Eye.

By the 70s he seemed washed-up as an actor and then came The Godfather and Apocalypse Now both directed by Francis Ford Coppola.He played the Mafia boss as a fading emperor, who, like Lear, only lowered his guard among his family.It is one of the perfect screen performances in American cinema and it brought him his second Oscar, an award he refused to pick up to protest Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans.In Apocalypse Now Brando was spellbinding as the deranged demigod, Colonel Kurtz, in an updated version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

After The Godfather Brando exploited his screen image in Bernard Bertoluccci’s overwrought sexual drama Last Tango in Paris, a film about which Brando wrote, “To this day I can’t say what Last Tango in Paris was about.”The actor, speaking in French, was unleashed in Bertolucci’s fantasy exploiting the allure of European cinema for American audiences.Brando gave himself physically and emotionally to Bertolucci’s pretensions.New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael was so taken in that she treated Tango like a landmark cinematic event, while others viewed it as intellectual camp verging on pornography.Brando’s desperate ex-American patriot says, “What a steaming pile of horseshit.”before he sings ‘On the good ship Lolly-Pop.”You get the feeling he’s giving the audience more than a wink.Brando essayed raw sexuality, intelligence and emotion again and it was his last fully realized performance, which proved a controversial coda to a singular career.

Lewis Whittington


Philadelphia ,
Lewis Whittington writes about the performing and film arts for many publications. He is a renegade dance, theater and opera queen, a jazz-head and a civil activist.