Marlon Brando died Thursday at 80. Many have called him the greatest actor of his generation. I’m not sure what that means exactly, but his greatest work rises to the level of myth, and myth is remembered most deeply of all. In fact the mythology is so strong that when I heard of his death, my first reaction was a vision of the Grim Reaper appearing at Brando’s door, Brando shooting him a sideward glance, mumbling “Are you an assassin?” – the sibilance a stinging rebuke.
- In the nearly 60 years since Mr. Brando first won acclaim, on Broadway and then in films, younger audiences came to know him as a tabloid curiosity, an overweight target for late-night comics, not as what he once was: a truly revolutionary presence who strode through American popular culture like lightning on legs. Certainly among the handful of enduringly great American film actors – some say the greatest – he has also been, without question, the most widely imitated. Virtually all of the finest male stars who have emerged in the last half-century, from Paul Newman to Warren Beatty to Robert De Niro to Sean Penn, contain some echo of Mr. Brando’s paradigm.
Simply put, in film acting, there is before Brando, and there is after Brando. And they are like different worlds.
Yet, like Orson Welles – another famous prodigy who battled Hollywood only to balloon into a cartoon version of his early brilliance – Mr. Brando’s had a legend built on a surprisingly small number of roles.
There is his epochal Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s “Streetcar Named Desire,” a role he created on Broadway in 1947, at age 23, and then played on film in 1951. And there is his performance as the fatally noble Mexican bandit in “Viva Zapata!” in 1952. And then two crucial roles, as the first in a long line of leather-clad mixed-up teenagers in “The Wild One” (1953) and in his Oscar-winning turn as Terry Malloy, the boxer who could have been a contender, in “On the Waterfront” (1954), which many consider his finest performance.
After that explosion of creative fire, there followed a huge gap of years filled with intermittently compelling but largely unmemorable roles – and more than a few outright disasters – before a stunning return to form with “The Godfather” in 1972 and “Last Tango in Paris” in 1973.
….And more often than not, he would express contempt for the craft of acting. “Acting is the least mysterious of all crafts,” Mr. Brando once said. “Whenever we want something from somebody or when we want to hide something or pretend, we’re acting. Most people do it all day long.”
He described himself as a lazy man, and he was notoriously lax about learning his lines. “If a studio offered to pay me as much to sweep the floor as it did to act, I’d sweep the floor,” he said. “There isn’t anything that pays you as well as acting while you decide what the hell you’re going to do with yourself. Who cares about the applause? Do I need applause to feel good about myself?”
Yet no one was better at finding brilliant touches that brought a character to life. Many have pointed to a scene in “On the Waterfront” during which he delicately put on the dainty lace glove of the young woman he was awkwardly trying to court, a seemingly unconscious gesture that fills the moment with heart-breaking vulnerability.
….Mr. Brando was not the first actor to bring to the screen the style known as the Method – an internalized acting technique promulgated in Russia by Konstantin Stanislavski in the 1920’s and then popularized in New York in the 40’s by evangelists like Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner – and Stella Adler, Mr. Brando’s beloved teacher. But Mr. Brando was the first to make clear how truly powerful and culture-shaking the Method could be, in the right hands.
“His brutish explosions of anger, his displays of vanity onstage were seen by pretentious and unpretentious reviewers alike as having an immediacy new to the theater,” wrote Harold Brodkey in The New Yorker in 1994.
….His anti-authoritarian streak was like catnip to the generation that came of age right after World War II. In “The Wild One,” Mr. Brando’s reluctantly sensitive biker is asked by a small-town matron what it is that he’s rebelling against. “What’ve you got?” he responds. That line, that attitude, galvanized the emerging postwar youth culture.
….Mr. Brando was born on April 3, 1924 in Omaha. In his 1994 autobiography, “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” he described a painful childhood. His father, Marlon Brando Sr., was an abusive alcoholic, he said, who never seemed to find anything good to say about his only son. His mother, Dorothy Pennebaker Brando, was also alcoholic, he said, more interested in drinking than in caring for her family. The boy was nicknamed Bud to distinguish him from Marlon Sr.
….The young boy suppressing his anger against his father was seen by Mr. Brando and many critics as the wellspring for many of his performances. In 1935, his parents separated and Mr. Brando and his two older sisters, Florence and Jocelyn, moved with their mother to Orange County, Calif. Two years later, his parents reconciled, and the family moved to the northern Chicago suburbs, first to Evanston and then to Libertyville, where the teenager came of age.
….There was another battle taking place in the Brando household, between the values of his father, a middle-class businessman, and his mother, a disappointed actress. By the time the boy was kicked out of military school, his sisters had moved to New York to forge acting careers. Mr. Brando stayed in Libertyville for a while, then followed his sisters to New York in 1943. A bad knee exempted him from the draft.
In New York, Mr. Brando enrolled in the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research. He seemed to understand the Method instinctively, how to use his own reservoir of memories and internalized emotions to find moments of truth. Indeed, some of his fellow students said that teaching him the technique was redundant.
“Marlon’s going to school to learn the Method was like sending a tiger to jungle school,” Elaine Stritch once said.
….In 1946, Mr. Brando appeared in several Plays – “Truckline Cafe” by Maxwell Anderson, “Candida” by George Bernard Shaw, “A Flag Is Born” by Ben Hecht – before a young director named Elia Kazan recommended him for the role of Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
In 1947, in that role, he exploded onto the stage. Although the play was largely the story of Blanche DuBois, the quintessentially neurotic Southern belle, played brilliantly by Jessica Tandy, Mr. Brando was all anyone could talk about.
….In the early 50’s, movie stars were expected to be models of glamour when they appeared in public. Mr. Brando went around in T-shirts and bluejeans. He was often spotted driving down Sunset Boulevard in a convertible wearing a fake arrow that seemed to penetrate his head.
….Finally, in 1954, in “On the Waterfront,” he won his first Oscar. The role of Terry Malloy, more than any other, is emblematic of the power and reach of the style of acting Mr. Brando brought to the screen.
“If there is a better performance by a man in the history of film, I don’t know what it is,” said Mr. Kazan, his director again.
….”Is Brando Necessary?” asked Film Comment magazine in 1969.
Hollywood didn’t think so. By the time the director Francis Ford Coppola was casting about for an actor to play the role of Vito Corleone in his 1972 adaptation of Mario Puzo’s “Godfather,” Mr. Brando’s wasn’t anywhere on the studio’s radar.
Paramount Pictures was considering Burt Lancaster, Orson Welles, George C. Scott, even Edward G. Robinson. When Mr. Coppola told them he wanted Mr. Brando, studio officials refused. Brando was trouble, they said.
So Mr. Coppola, fearful that Mr. Brando would refuse to submit to a full-blown screen test, asked him instead to do a “makeup test,” and to his astonishment, the actor agreed. Mr. Coppola described how he took his film crew to Mr. Brando’s Mulholland Drive estate and quietly set up one morning. The actor, Mr. Coppola said, at first ignored them and then sat down and began to transform himself into Don Corleone. He put Kleenex in his cheeks, slicked back his hair, affected a raspy voice.
….When Mr. Coppola showed studio executives the astonishing transformation, they agreed to sign Mr. Brando for the part – but only at a salary of $250,000, a fraction of what he had earned a decade earlier.
The movie was a major critical and box-office success, acclaimed as a classic almost from the moment it was released. It also reminded critics and audiences of Mr. Brando’s powerful screen presence. So no one was surprised when he was nominated for a best actor Oscar.
“Marlon Brando has finally connected with a character and a film that need not embarrass America’s most complex, most idiosyncratic film actor,” Vincent Canby wrote in The Times.
….Onscreen, he followed up his “Godfather” triumph the next year with one of his greatest performances, in Mr. Bertolucci’s erotic “Last Tango in Paris,” an X-rated sensation in its day. Many of his monologues, in particular one about being abandoned and humiliated, were drawn from his own childhood experiences.
Mr. Brando told friends he was no longer eager to suffer the psychic damage that good acting required. “‘Last Tango’ required a lot of emotional arm-wrestling,” he wrote in his autobiography. “And when it was finished, I decided that I wasn’t ever again going to destroy myself emotionally to make a movie.”
….In 1990, Mr. Brando found himself back on the tabloid front pages when his son Christian was accused of shooting and killing Dag Drollet, the son of a prominent Tahitian banker and politician whom he thought had been abusing Cheyenne Brando, 20, his girlfriend. Suddenly, Mr. Brando’s dysfunctional family became fodder for the gossip pages.
People magazine in 1995 said that he had at least 11 children – 5 by his three wives, 3 by his Guatemalan housekeeper, Christina Ruiz, and 3 from other affairs. Other reports hinted at still others. Mr. Brando refused to talk about it.
….The actor told Mr. King’s television audience why he loved the South Pacific so much and, in the process, explained something about himself.
He said: “When I lie on the beach there naked, which I do sometimes, and I feel the wind coming over me and I see the stars up above and I am looking into this very deep, indescribable night, it is something that escapes my vocabulary to describe. Then I think: ‘God, I have no importance. Whatever I do or don’t do, or what anybody does, is not more important than the grains of sand that I am lying on, or the coconut that I am using for my pillow.’ So I really don’t think in the long sense.”
Times critic A.O. Scott offers his thoughts:
- It seems fitting that Marlon Brando, an artist rightly credited with single-handedly bringing a new dimension of realism to American screen acting, can be remembered through a series of offhand, apparently unconscious gestures: Vito Corleone in “The Godfather,” idly stroking a cat’s belly; Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront,” playing with Edie’s glove; Colonel Kurtz, at the end of “Apocalypse Now,” splashing water on his face in his firelit cave.
These moments, and dozens more like them that flicker through every one of Mr. Brando’s performances, even in the oddest roles in the worst movies, are more than just mechanical applications of Method. They help to transform our detached, ocular relationship with the man on screen into something like a physical connection. They are the emblems of his presence.
….More than 40 years later – after Sacheen Littlefeather and Larry King and Connie Chung, after “Songs My Mother Taught Me” and “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and “The Score” – those words have the sad ring of prophecy. Much will be written about Mr. Brando’s weight, his eccentricities, his political enthusiasms and his troubled family, but if his later years can be taken as a case study in dysfunctional celebrity, his career also reveals a deeper and more general disorder.
Being a great actor can make you a movie star, but becoming a movie star can be the unmaking of an actor’s greatness. Mr. Brando intuitively understood this, and repeatedly sent his talent into battle against his fame. He was both an icon and an iconoclast, thus unusually and paradoxically self-destructive. He often professed to hate acting, and his best performances at once make nonsense of this claim and prove its accuracy. Hatred is, after all, an intense and unhappy form of passion, and the drive toward honesty in an art form founded on fakery is likely to produce cynicism and disappointment.
….If rebellion was the younger Mr. Brando’s great theme, power was the preoccupation of his maturity. Is there a more complete, persuasive and ultimately enigmatic portrait of patriarchal authority than Vito Corleone? Has the desperate vulnerability that underlies the male drive toward sexual domination ever been explored with the raw precision of “Last Tango in Paris”?
David Thompson adds more on Brando the actor:
- four or five times in his life, he found himself cast in roles that were emblematic of the inner confusions of his nation.
The first such role, of course, was Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Read that play on the page and it is unmistakably a play about Blanche DuBois. Stanley is away a lot of the time. But in our culture now it is a play about the two of them, in large part because the director, Elia Kazan, had to have a male figure with whom he could identify. And so a weird chemistry took effect: Kazan’s heterosexual thrust animated the gay metaphor in Tennessee Williams’s play.
The sensation of “Streetcar” – the 30-minute ovations it received on Broadway in 1947 – was never just for Blanche. (Who played Blanche in that first production? It was Jessica Tandy.) It was for this new male figure on stage, so close you could smell the sweat, a brute and a beauty at the same time – and Brando the kid was so beautiful the applause may have nearly overwhelmed the actor sometimes.
But the notion that turbulence and incoherence had within them poetry and passion was not merely the engine to the Method – and all the naturalistic acting that came from it – it was the script that James Dean, Elvis Presley and just about every teenage icon ever since would act out. It is also a horribly American type: so strong, so anxious to be thought powerful, yet so desperate for tenderness.
The other great role that those words could describe is Mr. Brando’s American in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris,” made at a moment when the movies were so intoxicated by their own advances in the portrayal of sexual behavior that they needed a big star to really, truly “do it” on screen. Only an outsider would have taken that part. Only our generosity lets us overlook the fact that Mr. Brando was never as naked or vulnerable in the film as the woman, Maria Schneider.
AP looks at Brando’s influence:
- Regardless of his personal peculiarities, nothing could diminish Brando’s reputation as an actor of startling power and invention.
He was the bridge between the heroic and upstanding screen purity of earlier stars such as Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda and a generation of conflicted anti-heroes played by the likes of Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman.
“He influenced more young actors of my generation than any actor,” longtime friend and “Godfather” co-star James Caan said Friday. “Anyone who denies this never understood what it was all about.”
….His impact on screen acting was demonstrated by Academy Award nominations as best actor in four successive years: as Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951); as the Mexican revolutionary in “Viva Zapata!” (1952); as Marc Anthony in “Julius Caesar” (1953); and as Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront” (1954). Besides his win for “The Godfather,” he also had Oscar nominations for “Sayonara” (1957), “Last Tango in Paris” (1973) and “A Dry White Season” (1989).
And some more from the LA Times:
- The late Laurence Olivier, considered among the greatest actors of all time, thought Brando was the best American actor. He once said that Brando’s secret to greatness was that he acted “with an empathy and an instinctual understanding that not even the greatest technical performers could possibly match.”
Film critic Pauline Kael called Brando “our greatest living actor,” and the curators at the American Museum of the Moving Image described him this way: “With animal intensity and insolent charm, he embodied a new and distinctly American on-screen style. Most significantly, he expressed the inner poetry of inarticulate working-class characters.”
Brando’s acolytes number among the greatest actors of the last half-century.
Jack Nicholson, who starred opposite Brando in “The Missouri Breaks,” on Friday called his longtime neighbor and friend “a monumental artist like Michelangelo or Picasso.”
“He was the beginning and end of his own revolution,” Nicholson told The Times. Although many actors tried to copy Brando, Nicholson said, “There was no way to follow in his footsteps. He was just too large and just too far out of sight. He truly shook the world, and his influence will be there long into the future.”
Actor Robert Duvall, who appeared with Brando in “The Chase,” “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now,” told the Times Friday that Brando was “certainly one of the most unique actors of our time. He had an innate shrewdness, finding ways to do things better than everyone else.
“One of the great tragedies is that Brando never developed his tremendous potential,” Duvall said. “He didn’t think acting was a great way to make a living. He didn’t bring his kids to the set. I always told him he should play ‘Othello’ on stage. But he didn’t want to hear about theater, either. Maybe he had so much adulation so young that he just got bored with it all.”
Filmmaker Warren Beatty noted that Brando was more than a “uniquely gifted and influential” actor.
“He was also an aroused citizen with broad social perspectives. Generous with his friendship and candid personal insights, he was an endlessly entertaining good neighbor. Annette and I will miss him very much,” Beatty said, referring to his wife, actress Annette Bening.
Now it’s time to go back and actually watch some of these movies again. RIP, Bud.