By John H. Foote
The motto of our site is “any film you haven’t seen is a new experience.” When the film was made does not matter, you, the viewer is experiencing a particular work of art for the first time. That motto was never more apt than when guiding younger readers to Marlon Brando.
It is a shame most young film nuts know of Marlon Brando as the white-faced, obese guy in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) in which he embarrasses himself. Once they discover him, they will seek out his work in The Godfather (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979) and might, a huge might, venture into the fifties and sixties to experience his early, groundbreaking work. I hope they do, I urge them to do so.
Should they do this, take that journey they will understand the debt every living actor owes to Brando.
Before Brando, screen acting was sometimes forced, meaning you could see the effort of the actors straining to act. They were “acting” and made no bones about it. With Brando, there was a purity that had not ever been there before, a raw realism that shocked audiences and critics. Initially, it was believed he was just portraying an extension of himself, but he silenced his critics with stunning work in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), especially in Julius Caesar (1953) and with which many consider the greatest work of his career, in On the Waterfront (1954). Nominated for four consecutive Academy Awards, he finally won, richly deserved for On the Waterfront (1954). Screen acting was changed forever after Brando emerged, realism became paramount, not just for new actors, but for those established already.
His performances seemed effortless, his immersion into his character was absolute, giving the impression he was speaking and hearing lines for the first time. So much of acting is being present, listening, and Brando had mastered that on stage before he came to film. He brought purity to the art, something near magical in the way he slipped in and out of character. Despite being an actor, first and foremost, his performance in Guys and Dolls (1955) was hugely charismatic, solidifying him as a major movie star.
The first seven years of his career were pure magic, five Academy Award nominations, a win, richly deserved for the aforementioned On the Waterfront (1954) and recognition of being cinema’s finest actor.
After winning that Oscar, on his fourth consecutive nomination he was trapped by the studios to make what they wanted him to make. He was terrifically charismatic in Guys and Dolls (1955), Oscar-nominated again in Sayonara (1957) and directed himself to an excellent performance in One Eyed Jacks (1961), a groundbreaking western. Stanley Kubrick has started directing the film but he and Brando clashed, thus Kubrick, not yet established, was fired. Brando assumed the role of director and made a film far better than the initial reviews stated. Very much a revisionistic western, he was deserving of another nomination, but by this point in his career had become a pariah in Hollywood. Brando was also blamed with the hell that became the shooting of the remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), a critical disaster, and his work through the sixties seemed to be one failure after another. It got to the point no major filmmakers were interested in working with him.
Francis Ford Coppola rescued the forty-seven-year-old actor from career death when he fought for and cast him as a seventy-five-year-old Mafia kingpin in The Godfather (1972). Brilliant as Don Vito Corleone, Brando reminded audiences and critics of his genius, winning a second Academy Award for Best Actor, which he promptly refused. Brando refused the award because of the treatment of the Native Americans on film, one of his many causes. Surpassing that performance a year later with the greatest of his career in Last Tango in Paris (1973) film critics lavished praise on the brave, intense performance and though Oscar-nominated, after refusing the year before, no chance he was going to win. Largely improvised, the performance was raw and visceral, not to mention frankly sexual, bringing film a notorious reputation. Brando won Best Actor awards from both the National Society Of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.
He followed this with a strange western The Missouri Breaks (1976), which allowed him to work with his friend and neighbor, Jack Nicholson, and portrayed Jor-El, father of Superman (1978) in the big budget film. Following Coppola back into the jungles of the Philippines, he was cast as Kurtz in the extraordinary war film Apocalypse Now (1979) his last great film performance. As the enormous Kurtz, looking like a great wounded Buddha with his sweating bald head, Brando was seen in the shadows, which allowed Coppola to take advantage of his mystery. Though critics were divided on his work, most agreed not another American actor could have brought the pain Brando did to the character.
In the years after he was guilty of taking huge salaries and often behaving terribly on sets, making fools of directors and enemies of producers. As his weight ballooned to over three hundred pounds he could not walk well, and rarely acted after the hell that became, because of him, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996). Sadly, that is how a generation remembers him.
I urge them to look back, take the time and explore his films, his career, his early work and his work in the seventies, which was sublime.
Though he has been surpassed as the greatest of actors, without him, without his influence and startling realism, none of the actors who surpassed him would have come close. Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Natalie Portman, and Robert Duvall have surpassed Brando with their work, remaining consistent throughout their storied careers. Without Brando, well, I cannot imagine.
10. His Absolute Passion for His Art
Though Brando often disparaged acting as a silly profession, tapes found in a locker in the years after his death make clear he loved acting. He loved the challenge each new role brought to him, the research he did to find the truth, the decisions of how to portray the character, he loved the art for, in every way. What he despised were pretenders, actors, and directors who had charmed their way into the business, lacking the gifts to bring with them the energies he did. Worse were the suits, how he loathed them. They represented to him, a cancer on the industry, the obstacle to creating art. He speaks with poison about how money had corrupted the industry and he challenged the suits by asking for obscene amounts, knowing they would make ten to twenty times what they paid him. The business aspect of the business he so loved brought about his disappointment with the film industry, however, his passion for his art never left.
9. One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
Brando was initially thrilled that young Stanley Kubrick was directing the film but soon grew weary of the young directors methodical, tiring manner of making the film. We know now that this is indeed Kubrick, but he was not Kubrick yet, and Brando had the power to fire him. He did just that and assumed directing the picture. Karl Malden was delighted, being a good friend of the actor and knowing, as the sadistic killer, he had been handed the role of his life. In hindsight, the film is quite something, especially the Directors Cut which Brando fought to have in theatres, and failed. The studio butchered his film, and only years later could you see what he intended. That he thought enough of the film and story to direct, when he had not before speaks volumes about his dedication to the project. See the Criterion Blu Ray if you can.
8. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Showing up hugely overweight, he shaved his head and claims to have not read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I say bull to that because he then proceeded to give a superb, near improvised performance as a warrior beaten by war, tired of fighting an enemy he knows he cannot beat. Coppola gave him a God-like presence by shooting him in near darkness, so we see flashes of him before we finally see him. Some critics griped but I challenge them, who could have played that role and brought to it what Brando did? No one. Listen to the heartache in his voice when he says about seeing the village after the Viet Cong had come, “And I remember I cried…I wept…”, it is shattering. This was his last extraordinary performance, for which he deserved an Oscar nomination.
7. Julius Caesar (1953)
Challenged, almost dared by John Houseman to portray Marc Anthony in a film version of Julius Caesar, to be populated with British Shakespearean actors, Brando fearlessly accepted. He then proceeded to give the definitive version of Anthony, stunning critics, and audiences, shocking everyone but his fellow actors. Watch his scene with the bloody body of Caesar, “o pardon me thy bleeding piece of earth…” the tenderness with which he speaks, growing angry, leading to “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war”. He then takes command of the funeral, turning the crowd against Brutus and the murderers, gently, wisely with his passionate oration. Brando is superb as a cunning, smart warrior who knows exactly what to say and when to say it. His command of iambic pentameter, Shakespeare speak was perfection, crisp, fine diction. And every British actor involved sung his praises.
6. The Godfather (1972)
The first time we see him it is alarming. Old, holding a cat, under those wrinkles and with the jutting jaw of a bulldog is Brando. Listening to the Undertaker telling him his horrifying story about his daughter, he betrays nothing. We know it is Brando because of the sheer force of his presence, those eyes and that voice, disguised but still, underneath that raspy delivery unmistakably Brando. He gives the character a force, a dark power that only a great actor would do. How does he do this? By portraying Vito as just a father, a husband, a grandpa, and businessman to all who know him. But behind closed doors, with those within the inner circles of power, he is cunning, ruthless, and understands when he orders murder, it is never personal, just business.
5. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Anyone who ever portrays Stanley in this Tennessee Williams play does so in the very long shadow of Brando, who created the role on stage, and repeated that performance on film. Raw, untamed, Stanley is uncouth, even vulgar, but adores his wife who loves him with equal abandon. They have Heat, meaning raw sex appeal with each other and all but set the screen afire. He is a brute in the film, who does not suffer fools, and dislikes being made one. When his sister in law arrives, hiding from her past, lying, filling her sisters head with pretense, he sees it and squashes it. He does indeed violate her, emotionally destroying her, but in losing Stella, was the engineer of his own ruin. The moment he stalked the stage as Stanley, the art of acting was, for all actors, altered. Film acting was forever changed after seeing him portray Stanley, suddenly realism was all that mattered to any actor.
4. On The Waterfront (1954)
Elia Kazan directed this powerful study of corruption on the New Jersey docks, with Brando as Terry, a former fighter who threw a fight for the mob, unknowingly tossing away his career. Never realizing it was his brother who betrayed him, there is a slow dawning through the film, as he realizes he is being used by the mob. In one of the cinema’s greatest acted scenes he and his brother, portrayed by Rod Steiger, come to terms with their relationship in the back of a taxi, with Terry finally telling him what he needs to say. It is the last time Terry sees his brother alive, the next, he lifts him, dead, off a meat hook, and gently, lovingly cradles him. Those years of hurt are dealt with in a few minutes in the back of a cab, the rage explodes after finding his brother dead, knowing they are coming for him. Brando is blindingly brilliant. Many film scholars place this as the greatest male performance ever given, no question it is in the mix.
3. Last Tango in Paris (1973)
A stunning performance in a strange film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, largely improvised by the actors. As Paul, an American suddenly widowed when his wife commits suicide, he is astonishing, giving a performance that captures the intense purity of grief and rage together at once. The paralyzingly monologue he has over her dead body, adorned with flowers is remarkable, powerful and haunting. Never before had the actor given so much of himself to a role, never before with such astounding results. Brando openly drew on his own past, allowing his soul to merge with that of Paul, for the world to see. Yes, he appears naked in the film, but it is his naked emotional vulnerability that allows this to tower over most film performances.
2. Realism and Truth in Acting
Nothing matters but the truth in realist acting, nothing. And the truth was all Brando believed in with his work. It did not matter how he got there just that he did. He challenged the actors with him to go on a journey with him, to find the souls of the characters they were portraying. The director’s job was to keep, and know when to be quiet. John Huston, Elia Kazan, and Francis Ford Coppola each declared Brando a genius, in no need of directing. Their job was finished when casting him.
1.The Method Movement
Founded by Stanislavsky in Moscow in the 1890’s, the Method came to America in the thirties, taught by Michael Chekhov, Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and eventually Elia Kazan. Brando initially fell under the spell of Strasberg but realized the teacher put stock in the actor depending too heavily on him, needing him. Karan’s method evolved past that of Strasberg, and the two made three films together to great acclaim. Kazan had directed him onstage in A Streetcar Named Desire and brought that performance to the screen to thundering acclaim. Method is truth, drawing on your past and life for truth, but Kazan also took it further, asking the actor to study and draw from the text
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.