Movie Stars: Brando–Greatest Actor, Reluctant Star

April 3 marks the birthday of Marlon Brando, the greatest American actor in Hollywood’s history.

TCM is celebrating the event with a marathon of his best pictures.  It’s a must-see for all film lovers.

This is what we wrote over a decade ago!

It may seem peculiar but I’ve spent most of my career wondering what I’d really like to do. Of course, I’ve had to make a living, but acting has never been the dominant force in my life.

Brando’s career is a few moments worth all the millions.
–Shelley Winters

Actors like Brando come up once in a century.
–Anthony Hopkins

It’s ridiculous. As soon as you become an actor, people start asking you questions about politics, astrology, archeology, and birth control. And
what’s even funnier, you start giving opinions.


a_Streetcar_Named_Desire_1_brandoThese four quotes capture the essence of Marlon Brando’s fascinating enigma as an actor, star, celeb, and political activist.

Brando’s life was full of paradoxes, neuroses, and contradictions. His career represented a unique mnge of scandal and excess, myth and fact, use and abuse of talent. But Brando’s acting benefited from his demons and neuroses. In many ways, his work was driven, and even empowered by them.

Brando projected his offscreen fame and politics directly onto his screen roles. Gradually, it was impossible to separate between Brando’s eccentric offscreen activities and his screen acting, one facet feeded the other. Take Brando’s infamous stint at the 1973 Oscar ceremonies, when he sent Sacheen Littlefeather (actually, an aspiring actress Maria Cruz) in his place to protest the mistreatment of Native Americans, on and offscreen.

As the most celebrated actor of the century, Brando altered the very way we think and talk about acting. Brando glamorized screen acting like no other actor before him, not even Gable or Bogart. No other performer has exerted such powerful influence on so many actors: James Dean, Robert De Niro Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Sean Penn, and Johnny Depp, among others.

a_Streetcar_Named_Desire_3_brandoHowever, from the start, Brando was reluctant to accept the duties that go along with stardom. He was never comfortable with being an actor, even after his triumphs in “The Godfather” and “The Last Tango in Paris”. Brando remained ambivalent toward his profession, disdainful of his stardom, and critical of his own achievements until his very death, in July 2004, at the age of 80.

Brando was criticized throughout his career for not having fulfilled his prodigious promise. The Broadway and Hollywood communities chided him for betraying his talent, for denying his obligation to become the greatest American actor. For his part, Brando countered that he had never had real desire to become an actor, and that acting brought him little joy.

Was he genuine? I’m not sure.

the_wild_one_stanley_kramer_2Through the combination of shrewd casting, sheer talent, and circumstances, the timing was right for a new type of screen actor in the post-WWII era. Brando is credited with creating the rebel hero but he was not the first actor to embody this image. The first anti-authoritarian heroes were played by James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Paul Muni in Warner’s crime-gangster movies of the Depression era. The rebel image was later embodied by John Garfield, a transitional figure, who served as a bridge between the gangster heroes of the 1930s and the rebels of the 1950s: Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean. Garfield died very young, in 1951, the year Brando became a star.

In the early 1950s, Brando’s raw masculinity, ferocious nakedness, and ravishing eroticism were shockingly new. There was freedom and force to his acting, which was fearsome yet humble. Brando had the courage to be irreverent, unpredictable and dangerous. His approach to acting was physical yet emotional, exploratory yet definitive.

When Tennessee Williams saw Brando’s interpretation of Stanley Kowalski in Kazan’s stage production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”, he was struck by the fact that Brando’s bravura animalistic performance shifted the play’s emphasis from its intended heroine, Blanche DuBois, to his role. The same thing, only more so, happened in Kazan’s 1951 screen version.

Brando’s Screen Image

the_wild_one_stanley_kramer_1Of the 1950s stars who offered electrifying magnetism and inward exploration, Brando was the most introverted and the purest rebel. He played lonely, self-centered men who cherished their independence. Audience responded to Brando because they, too, cherished his independence and irrepressible yet undirected energy.

Brando reacted against the postwar climate of security, conformity, and materialism of the Eisenhower era. He relieved Americans of the predictability and boredom of the organization men with the gray flannel suits, who dominated the 1950s, in the films of Gregory Peck and William Holden, both contemporaries of Brando.

While Brando’s heroes were not men of ideas who could rationalize their anger, they could feel and express that rage. Their anger and passion transcended their soul-searching. For the first time in American film, men were allowed to be sensitive and to express their feelings. Brando showed that it was all right to be shaken and insecure. Driven inward, his heroes embark on a journey, at they end of which, they reemerge stronger with a heightened consciousness.

Viva_Zapata!_5_quinnIn Brando’s 1950s roles, he portrayed heroes who had to become men despite physical, social, or intellectual deficiencies. In “The Men”, Brando was paralyzed from the waist down, struggling to remain a man despite his handicap. “The Men” explored explicitly the then taboo issues of loss of manhood and sexual impotence. Brando’s heroes allowed themselves to cry, to express their pain openly, in short, to depart from the prescribed societal obligation of suppressing their anguish in the manner of the older and quieter stars, Gable and Cooper.

Brando represented a new version of the free and rather primitive American man. In “Viva Zapata!” (1952), he added earthy, primitive sensuality to his screen persona that didn’t conflict with his character’s quest for social justice. Brando’s simplicity and sensuality always allowed him to be close to his real feelings.

Brando portrayed the rebel as a positive hero, a man whose isolation from conventional norms was necessary to maintain moral integrity.  Beneath the outward show of strength, however, there is tenderness waiting to be released by the right woman, or right cause.

Feminine Touch

reflections_in_a_golden_eye_posterIn his work, the differences between males and females blur. Each gender is capable of similar sensitivity fears, and cruelty. He held that men too should play flawed characters, weakened by physical, psychic, or social limitations.

From his first film, Brando set out to redefine the parameters of masculinity, by consciously and unconsciously) tarnishing the previous models, embodied by the likes of Gary Cooper and Clark Gable.

Brando thought that Gable’s refusal to be seen tearful in “Gone With the Wind,” because “real men” don’t cry, was ridiculous and phony.  In his best films, Brando’s screen males protest against a society that had denied them meaningful outlets for their untamed and subversive feelings.  His masculinity seemed to arise from the admission of some failure, of weaknesses.

Wild One

In “The Wild One,” which helped shape the Brando screen persona, he played Johnny, the leather-jacketed leader of a gang of rampaging motorcyclists. In this film, Brando brought to the screen the 1950s alienated youth, his confusion, his lack of self-worth. When the defiant Johnny is asked: “What are you rebelling against” he simply answers, “What have you got. Johnny doesn’t know who or what he is, except for his credo, ‘Nobody tells me what to do.’ He thinks only of himself, Me, I’m with me.” His heroes also differ from their own group of outsiders. As a protagonist, the Brando of the 1950s had no code, only his instincts, yet he’s capable of intimacy and softness.

2ortsoh3scoIn Kazan’s “On the Waterfront”, Brando’s Terry Maloy begins as a brooding, confused, and uneducated loser, abused by the union’s thugs for dirty jobs. But the uninvolved docker eventually accepts and suffers the penalties of moral responsibility. At the end, Terry assumes leadership and rallies the longshoremen.

Later in his career, Brando played men who undergo moral awakening as a result of a personal or collective crisis.  Even when he played killers and depots, he was able to humanize them, show their weak and vulnerable sides.


Military Roles

Brando’s career was built on characters torn by conflicting tendencies and inner tensions.  He played many military or paramilitary figures, official representatives of the established order who nonetheless were tormented by and alienated from it.

In “The Young Lions,” he played a disillusioned Nazi officer who turns against Hitler and at the end loses his life.

In Reflections in a Golden Eye,” Brando played latent and tormented homosexual military, married to a shrill wife (Elizabeth Taylor).

In Burn! a racist colonialist with a conscience. In Missouri Breaks, a Western assassin disguised in a dress.

In Apocalypse Now, Brando gave a mythic performance of another larger than life monster (a performance that ironically benefited from his own large size).

Please read Part 2.