Marlon Brando

Most actors (not movie stars) are fortunate if they’re remembered for one defining moment in their career. Marlon Brando, often christened one of our greatest actors, leaves behind a legacy of defining moments. With Brando’s death last week at the age of 80, history will have a hard time closing the book on an actor who defined cool and took chances.

For a much-in-demand actor, Marlon Brando didn’t make many movies. Since making the leap to the screen in director Fred Zinnemann’s “The Men,” Brando appeared in a total of thirty-nine films. Some were extended high-profile (and big paycheck) cameos in films like “Superman,” “Candy,” and “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery.”

Brando’s simmering sexuality and unbridled angst fueled his early work, especially the tortured Stanley Kowalski in Elia Kazan’s flawless 1950 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” As the distrusting Stanley, who finds himself uncomfortably drawn between his pregnant wife Stella (Kim Hunter) and her conniving yet beautiful sister Blanche (Vivien Leigh), Brando exudes such raw animal magnetism it’s easy to understand why these two women would be drawn to such a lout.

Tossing a leather jacket on top of that trademark T-shirt made Brando a force to be reckoned with in 1952’s “The Wild One,” cementing his reputation as one of Hollywood’s bad boys. That edge made Brando the perfect candidate to play ex-prize fighter Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan’s “On The Waterfront.” Brando was just as incendiary as the material, but with Malloy his vulnerable side caught us off guard.

Then Brando did something that caught even Hollywood off guard. He starred in the big-budget musical “Guys and Dolls,” matching co-stars Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine note for note. Brando sings, not like a pro, but well enough to make the role of ace gambler and womanizer Sky Masterson his own.

Most baby boomers remember Brando for the diverse line-up of characters he played in the 1970’s, most notably the cryptic Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” Superman’s father in “Superman,” and the butter-spreading American widower in Bernardo Bertolucci’s sexually charged “The Last Tango in Paris.”

Still, it is Brando’s Oscar-nominated and winning performances that serve as a testament to his ability to command the screen with complete conviction. Even when he’s reduced to playing a parody of himself, as he did in the flatulent “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” Brando is always watch- able. His performance as the devoted yet beleaguered family man Don Vito Corleone in Coppola’s “The Godfather” remains a masterpiece of nuance and inner turmoil.

1972 was a very good and very brave year for Brando, who also saw the release of “Last Tango” and Michael Winner’s “The Nightcomers,” a ponderous prequel to Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.” “The Godfather” earned Brando his sixth Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and his second Oscar (“On the Waterfront”). As an actor (and not a movie star), Brando dismissed the pomp and circumstance and sent an actress dressed as a Native American to refuse the award as a protest to the treatment of her people.

Pure Brando, a stunt orchestrated by a man whose personal life was just as flamboyant, and at times, as tragic as the characters he played on screen. Brando was notorious for throwing the public and his critics curve balls. He started taking roles for the money, and to show his disdain for the film-making process, refused to learn his lines. Memorizing lines destroyed their spontaneity, he complained, opting instead to read them off cue cards or fed through listening devices.

No one in modern Hollywood would get away with such behavior, but Brando was one of a kind. A lot of people forgot Brando could be funny (check out “Bedtime Story” with David Niven or “Teahouse of the August Moon”) or how many historical characters he has brought to life (Napoleon Bonaparte, Marc Anthony, Emiliano Zapata) throughout his career.

Brando stepped behind the camera only once, the quirky 1961 “One-Eyed Jacks,” but as a great actor managed to work with his share of great directors. His collaborations with Kazan and Coppola serve as serendipitous bookends (discounting most of his post “Apocalypse Now” work) to a career filled with as many highs as lows. After 1980’s gassy “The Formula,” Brando waited nine years before returning to the screen in the anti-apartheid drama “A Dry White Season.” Career suicide for a movie star, a conscientious decision for an actor.

When Marlon Brando died, we lost a great actor. We never expected him to live forever. We’re fortunate he shared his greatness. Even at his most eclectic, Brando demanded that we pay attention. Now he, and we, can rest at ease.

The Wild One’s Last Tango

Marlon Brando was a Godfather among Actors

By John Larsen

Comments are closed.