He has spoken some of the most famous lines in movie history: "Make him an offer he can't refuse," from Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972), "I coulda been a contender," from Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954), and "Hey, STELLA!!!" from Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).
Marlon Brando turned the acting world on its head the minute he burst onto the big screen as the sweat-stained, rude, violent, but oh-so-sexy Stanley Kowalski in Kazan's Streetcar (based on the 1947 play by Tennessee Williams) in 1951. Brando's Kowalski was something that the American public had never seen. He was rude, violent, and unapologetic. Kowalski took pride in his masculinity and pushed it upon others unrepentantly. David Thomson says in his book, Marlon Brando, "…Stanley is the first juvenile delinquent in American culture, the first kid who wants his space, his meat, and his bowling, and the right to be misunderstood" (45). Joe Morella and Edward Z. Epstein say in Brando: The Unauthorized Biography, "Brando's torn t-shirt became a nationwide symbol of masculinity, and his brooding, seething silences and bursts of mumbled dialogue established a new acting style for films" (37).
Brando followed his ground-breaking (and Academy-Award nominated) Streetcar appearance with another Elia Kazan film, called Viva Zapata! Released in 1952, the movie told the story of real-life Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Patricia Bosworth describes the Zapata role in her book, Marlon Brando: "There's an added dimension to his screen persona, too, that was missing from The Men and Streetcar: Now Brando is the crusader riding a white horse across the dusty hills-an image of male as liberator" (89).
Brando went to lengths he had never gone to before to with the part of Marc Antony in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, released in 1953 and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. He made a tape of himself reciting Marc Antony's famous "friends, Romans, countrymen" speech, which he practiced on his family's Illinois farm (qtd. in Bosworth 89-90). Most in Hollywood were skeptical. No one could imagine Stanley Kowalski, the mumbling, t-shirted, muscle-bound brute as one of Shakespeare's most famous characters. To everyone's surprise, Brando pulled it off tremendously and was once again nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor.
It would be his next role, arguably his most influential and greatest, that would get Brando that elusive Oscar statuette. The role of Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954) would bring Brando his greatest glory. Malloy, an ex-boxer who testifies against the mob (for which his brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), is a hit man) on the New Jersey waterfront, was incredible. The famous taxi cab scene, in which Terry tells Charley, who has been ordered to kill Terry, "You don't understand, I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it," showcases Brando's ability to tap into the vulnerabilities of his characters. The sorrow in Terry's voice, the disappointment, is moving. Kazan said of Brando's performance, "What was extraordinary about his performance…is the contrast of the tough-guy front and the extreme delicacy and gentle cast of his behavior. What other actor, when his brother draws a pistol to force him to do something shameful, would put his hand on the gun and push it away with the gentleness of a caress? Who else could read, 'Oh, Charley!' in a tone of reproach that is so loving and so melancholy and suggests that terrific depth of pain?" (qtd. in Thomson 81).
Brando's movies following On the Waterfront, were not nearly as successful as his previous films. Movies like Desiree (1954, directed by Henry Koster), Guys and Dolls (1955, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz), and The Young Lions (1958, directed by Edward Dmytryk were moderate successes, but none could hold up against Brando's trendsetting earlier films.
Through the late 1950s to the late 1960s, Brando's career was on a downward spiral. During this time, Brando got in a few good performances, such as repressed homosexual Army Major Weldon Penderton in John Huston's Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967). Mostly, however, he made abysmal films like George Englund's The Ugly American (1963), Christian Marquand's Candy (1968), and Hubert Cornfield's The Night of the Following Day (1968). Many regarded such films as a waste of Brando's talent, and thought that they were done specifically for money. Due to Brando's battles with his ex-wife, Anna Kashfi, during this time, that assumption is probably true.
Brando surprised everyone in the early 1970s with two amazing and groundbreaking films. Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, which would earn Brando his second Academy Award, and Bernardo Bertolucci's erotic movie Last Tango in Paris (1972) were heralded as the renaissance of Brando's career. Though the movies differed entirely in genre and theme, both featured some of the best acting ever seen by Brando.
By now, almost everyone has probably seen or at least heard of The Godfather. Brando's performance as mob boss Vito Corleone spawned imitators and admirers alike. Unlike most gangsters, Don Corleone did not shout. He spoke in a barely audible whisper, but exuded authority and commanded respect. David Thomson says of his performance, "Brando has done several great things, several that changed the arts and acting. But in Vito Corleone, he gives us his best American, and an idyllic portrait of how an accomplished man might grow older and die perfectly" (130).
Richard Schickel says of Don Corleone, "There is in his work a marvelous objectivity, a refusal to judge his character…..For what Brando gives us in the Don is a portrait of a man who has distilled his drive for power to its essence and is, of course, the more menacing by the carefully measured reserve with which he deploys the force of his will" (176).
Schickel also says of Brando's Godfather performance, "Brando's Don is in every respect a recognizable man-full of contradictions, full of muted antithetical emotions which are only resolved by his drive for power. And so, while a part of our mind recognizes him as evil incarnate, another part of it must admire both his directness of intention and his delicate indirection of language…." (177).
Brando's other role of 1972 was as Paul in Last Tango in Paris. It was an entire removal from Vito Corleone. Paul is a man dealing with his wife's suicide. While searching for an apartment, he meets a twenty-year-old girl (played by Maria Schneider) and begins an anonymous affair with her. The two do not exchange names but
explore sexual taboos with each other never before seen on screen. Brando's performance was largely improvised, and he drew a lot on his personal life for the role. Brando himself said of the role, "Last Tango in Paris required a lot of emotional arm wrestling with myself, and when I was finished, I decided that I wasn't ever again going to destroy myself emotionally to make a movie. I felt I had violated my innermost self and didn't want to suffer like that anymore. As noted earlier, when I've played parts that require me to suffer, I had to experience the suffering. You can't fake it…….Last Tango in Paris left me feeling depleted and exhausted, perhaps in part because I'd done what Bernardo [Bertolucci] asked and some of the pain I was experiencing was my very own" (426). Brando never again duplicated the power that he had in the roles of Paul and Vito Corleone. He stuck to his word that he would never again explore and expose himself, as subsequent performances showed. However, Brando left a mark on acting that will never be forgotten. He taught actors to be real on stage and screen. Following Brando's
appearance in the acting world, the old theatrical styles were thrown out. They were replaced by realism and naturalism. The audience was to believe that it was not an actor that they were watching, but the character come to life. Try as the Johnny Depps and Leonardo DiCaprios may, there will never be another actor like Marlon Brando.
Brando never again duplicated the power that he had in the roles of Paul and Vito Corleone. He stuck to his word that he would never again explore and expose himself, as subsequent performances showed. However, Brando left a mark on acting that will never be forgotten. He taught actors to be real on stage and screen. Following Brando's appearance in the acting world, the old theatrical styles were thrown out. They were replaced by realism and naturalism. The audience was to believe that it was not an actor that they were watching, but the character come to life.
Try as the Johnny Depps and Leonardo DiCaprios may, there will never be another actor like Marlon Brando.
Brando, Marlon, and Robert Lindsey. Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me. New York: Random House 1994.
Morell Nea, Joe, and Edward Z. Epstein. Brando: The Unauthorized Biography. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. 1973.
Schickel, Richard. Brando: A Life in Our Times. New York: Atheneum (Macmillan Publishing Company), 1991.
Thomson, David. Marlon Brando. New York: DK Publishing, Inc., 2003.