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Marlon Brando is dead

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Marlon Brando sleeps with the fishes. CNN says it’s from “unknown causes,” but anyone who has watched his weight balloon over the past few decades knows better. The legitimate news outlets can do Brando a proper obit better than I ever could, so I will leave it to them to do the chronologies, rave about his career, and wonder at his eccentric behavior. I have some thoughts of my own.

Of all the actors of his generation, Brando understood the power of raw physicality better than anyone; he used his entire body as an expressive instrument. His first roles capitalized on his ability to project untamed raw violence and sexuality with an undercurrent of confusion and rage. His best early work, “The Wild One,” “On The Waterfront,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” all benefit from this talent. Entire books have been written on John Wayne’s physical vocabulary, and his conscious nods to classical statuary. But where Wayne, for all his grit, could throw a hint of effeteness into the mix when required (don’t believe me? Look at how he stood! Hip to the side!), Brando was never less than a bull. Even in their prime, noted overactors like heirs Al Pacino and Robert De Niro could more than echo the ferocity of Brando’s rages.

But the bull learned to be subtle too. Building on his Method roots acting on the stage, Brando came to understand that the camera sees everything. A mere twitch of Brando’s massive eyebrow could reveal entire universes below the surface, and the hunch of his shoulders could connote rage, confusion, self-loathing, defensiveness, or weariness. The same man who played Stanley Kowalski as an inferno played Vito Corleone as a smolder.

For a striking example of his versatility in this regard, compare Corleone to Colonel Kurtz. With nothing more than some cotton in his cheeks, Brando played Vito Corleone as a hunched old man who, though once physically powerful, was now terribly weak. Kurtz, on the other hand, emanated sheer black menace. Using the same set of postures—even sitting the same way—Brando managed to convey two completely opposite characters. Many under-actors, Ed Harris, Kevin Costner, David Duchovny, sometimes act entirely with their faces, and sometimes only with their eyes. Brando could act with his scalp— “Apocalypse Now” proves it.

It is ironic that the greatest body actor ever to walk a silver screen got larger as his talent waned, as if he was cloaking his talent in fat and ego until he was a waddling joke in a muu-muu, grunting his way through embarrassments like “The Island of Dr. Moreau” as if his mere presence was enough to lent gravity to the silliness. And now, fittingly, his body is all that’s left.

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About John Owen

  • Chris Kent

    This was a great read Johno and you know your stuff. A sad day.

    I have never been entirely convinced Brando gave a very good performance in Apocalypse Now. From what I’ve read, he showed up late, drunk and could barely deliver his lines, just about sending Coppola over the edge. But a part of the appeal of that wild, trippy war flick is the legend of Brando, his presence hidden in darkness, delivering lines that make little sense.

    Who’s to say if the role had been taken by, say Jack Nicholson, or Al Pacino (two actors in the running for that role) it would have made Apocalypse Now any better? The film is madness, with an unforgettable psychedelic closing that is now motion picture history. I don’t think Brando really helped the film, but considering what it eventually became for Coppola, a trip through near-madness, I suppose his performance is oddly appropriate.

    I’m inclined to think Brando’s greatest work was during the 1950s and early 1960s when he was still interested in the craft. His performance in On the Waterfront is easily the greatest performance in the history of films. When I first heard of his death this morning, I immediately thought of Brando’s final scene in that film, bloody, exhausted, standing on the waterfront……..

  • Brady

    Hey World,
    as much as I hate to should anyone, everyone should be mourning the death of Marlon Fucking Brando right now. Sure he could be hyperbolic in his causes and tirades, but goddamm if he didn’t give a damn! He was the best actor ever – better than that wooden Olivier – and the most interesting to boot. People like to slag off his later work and his weight, but leave him the fuck alone! He is the innovator, the manifestation of Stella Adler’s expert teaching and Stanislavsky’s genius. Let’s praise this man who brought film into the realm of art like so few ever did and none before or hence will. As long as great cinema lives, Marlon Brando lives. Thank you, Brady.

  • Chris Kent

    No diserespect to the odd man and brilliant actor, but he was not a God by any means.

    He was just an actor, who mocked the very profession that made him wealthy and famous during the last two decades of his life…….

  • Eric Olsen

    very striking thoughts and analysis Johno; fairly remarkable, really, that Brando made it to 80. He had a lot of misery in his last 20 years, much of it brought upon himself, but now that he’s gone it won’t be long before tht is forgotten and the greatness will remain

  • Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    I think i’ll watch superman tommorow.

  • geekgirl2

    He seemed like a self-indulgent fart – sorry he’s dead and all but his lifestyle sort of made it inevitable sooner rather than later.

  • Justene

    All of our lifestyles make it inevitable sooner rather than later.

  • Mac Diva

    Good point, Justene-:).

    I fear Geek is going off on the ‘has to be a perfect person to deserve admiration’ track. Marlon Brando was the ultimate talented and imperfect person. I am disinclined to tax his talent because of his imperfection.

  • Chris Kent


    Speaking of unforgettable psychedelic films….


    “An actor is at best a poet and at worst an entertainer.”

    Marlon Brando


    Good bye Marlon Brando hopes you rest in peaces … I just a teenagers and just played your godfather games in the ps2 3 years ago and now in the wii … So sad that you have left already then huh … Byes …