As I sit at the foot of my Marlon Brando shrine and try to construct a list of my favorite Brando performances, I can’t help but think how frivolous the task would appear to the man himself. But then ‘Brando the man’ means almost nothing to my appreciation for ‘Brando the actor,’ so I’ve decided to forge on and stack up my favorite Brando roles.
For starters, let’s be clear that comparing these performances and trying to determine which may be “better” than the next is absurd. From the beginning (first Broadway shows Truckline Cafe and Candida, first film The Men) Brando was a perfect study of 100% authentic human behavior. Sure, he ‘studied’ at the famed Actor’s Studio with the likes of Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, but trust me – and they’d be the first to admit it – they didn’t ‘teach’ Marlon much, if anything. So holding these roles up against each other is a bit like trying to determine which Van Gogh you like more. Or which Fellini film is more profound. I mean really, folks, is there a “better” film than Fellini’s La Strada? I don’t think so.
But today I’m in the kitchen with Brando, so here is a baker’s dozen of the Godfather of Modern Acting’s most spectacular and inspirational performances.
On the Waterfront ‘Terry Malloy,’ the punch drunk ex-boxer, the go-along to get-along dockworker with connections high up, the pigeon lover with a soft heart and a fierce loyalty to his brother. Brando’s work in On the Waterfront (1954) is invisible. Brando the actor is buried so deep beneath the callused skin of this union goon, this simpleton who knows in his heart he “…coulda been somebody.” That scene in the cab is the stuff of legend, as is his chivalrous walk through the park with Eva Marie Saint’s ‘Edie.’ I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that moment (where he picks up her glove) described to me by acting teachers, and for good reason – it’s vintage Brando. But for me the moments come so fast and furious it’s like trying to choose which child you love more. The way he tosses the peanut shell on the ground when Pat Hingle’s ‘Mack’ mentions his boxing loss at the saloon – “I hope he got bettah dice than me.” Or the way he waves off ‘Edie’ with such a sad hand gesture after he finds his pigeons dead in their coop, not even showing his face. How about the two snoops that approach ‘Terry’ on the dock in the beginning of the film. Brando chooses to go the long way, looking over his right shoulder instead of his left to address the one questioning him from behind. “Well, never’s gonna be too much soon for me, shorty.” Tough line made easy. Did he turn that way because he only hears out of that ear? Sign of disrespect? Who the hell knows. Brando sure didn’t know. Only ‘Terry’ knew. It took more effort to turn the way he did – ‘Terry Malloy’ did everything the hard way. Brando’s genius in the performance is in the simplicity with which he attacks the difficulty – making every intention a game of mental gymnastics. ‘Punchdrunk’ to Brando didn’t mean dumb or slow, it meant nothing comes easy and every moment taxed his battered brain. It’s that process and dedication to his character’s condition that makes possible a line like “You was my brother, Charley. You shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me – just a little bit.” In the cab, at that moment in the story, it took all of ‘Terry’s’ logic and resolve to confront his brother. All that hard thinking, of reflecting. “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…it was you, Charley.” Brando won the Oscar for On the Waterfront.
A Streetcar Named Desire What could I possibly write here about ‘Stanley Kowalski’ that hasn’t been written before? Not much, so I’ll just say this. What Brando did internally to create ‘Terry Malloy’ he did externally to create ‘Stanley Kowalski.’ Look at him chomping on a piece of bologna explaining in his best legalese to poor ‘Stella’ “It looks to me like you been swindled, baby, an’ when you get swindled under the Napoleonic code I get swindled too, an’ I don’t like getting swindled.” He then proceeds to rifle through poor Blanche’s suitcase like an orangutan “What is this article? That’s a solid gold dress, I believe.” To simply call him a ‘brute’ or a ‘caveman’ doesn’t do justice to how fully Brando embodied this character, an ability born of his innate confidence in both his masculine and his feminine side. For certain that is what Tennessee Williams saw in the young actor and it’s that duality that makes ‘Stanley’s’ physical and sexual presence in Streetcar (1951) so hypnotizing. Humphrey Bogart won the Oscar in ’51 for African Queen. Good film, solid performance, but it ain’t “Stella!!! Stella!!!!”
Right about now I can hear Brando telling ol’ Lars Beckerman “How about cuttin’ the rebop!!!”
The Godfather The story of how Brando secured this role, against the studio’s better judgement, and after having to go in for a screen test, is well publicized, but still such a fascinating piece to the puzzle that became ‘Vito Corleone,’ one of the most imitated, beloved and iconic screen images of all time. The cotton in the jowls, the cat on his lap, the dapper attire – anybody else and it would have veered off into campy town. But in the hands of Brando, where he was at that point in his life, the stakes again high enough to demand his best, he settled in to ‘The Don’ and all of his gravitas rushed back into every syllable – “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” The rest of us got to settle in and watch the master in complete control. A bravo performance that earned Brando his second Oscar and The Godfather (1972) Best Picture.
Last Tango In Paris Last Tango (1972) can be tough to watch. You definitely have to be in the right mood. I’ve found rainy days to be good, maybe a leftover pasta dish from a really good restaurant the night before. Turn your phone off. No tweets. It’s an intensely and perversely intimate and personal examination of man’s more banal characteristics and desires. Director Bernardo Bertolucci was granted an exclusive one-time only pass into the emotional psyche of Brando and what resulted was possibly some of the most honest and painful moments any actor has ever put to film. I would rank it right alongside Gena Rowlands superbly naked work in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974). There are many revealing and autobiographical moments in this picture, but to really appreciate how much Brando lets us in look no further than the scene where he stands over his wife’s dead body layed out in a casket. After you rewind it and watch it a second time, ask yourself if you’ve ever seen another actor quite as honest.
Reflections In a Golden Eye It’s certainly not a great film. The screenplay is clunky and the style and feel of the film (directed by John Huston) doesn’t hold up real well. It’s dated. But Brando’s ‘Major Penderton’ is yet another exquisite portrayal of a complex man under complex circumstances. One moment alone confirms recognition of this performance. My actor friends can go fix a snack or do some facial expression exercises, but come right back, I’ll make this quick. The master Stanislavski called it ‘public solitude,’ the act of doing something utterly private in public (i.e. on stage or in front of a camera). There is a moment in Reflections In a Golden Eye (1967) where ‘Major Penderton’ pauses in front of a mirror in his foyer. It’s a defining moment in the film and in the arc of the character, but it could have easily ended up on the cutting room floor. Brando’s fixed gaze, admiring himself in full uniform, “don’t ask, don’t tell” be damned, all at once confident, proud, troubled, ashamed, defiant, melancholy. Ok, I’ll stop now. My actor friends can come back. I apologize if I went all actor goofy, self-indulgently babbling on about method madness. But I won’t apologize for loving that moment in this flawed film. You won’t find many examples of successful ‘public solitude’ (Naomi Watts in the brilliant Mulholland Drive comes to mind). Not gonna say Brando made it look easy. But it sure didn’t look much like acting.
The Fugitive Kind Adapted from the Tennessee Williams play Orpheus Descending and directed by Sidney Lumet, Brando’s work in The Fugitive Kind (1960) blows me away. Playing the overly earnest and tragically soft-spoken drifter, ‘Valentine ‘Snakeskin’ Xavier,’ Brando is a revelation here – at times almost laughably buried knee-deep in the difficult language of the script, but always searching for something tender. Shot beautifully by cinematographer Boris Kaufman and aided by rich performances from Italian star Anna Magnani and character actor Victor Jory, this is a film that you need to sit with and allow to consume you. I’m convinced it was an inspiration for both David Lynch and Nicolas Cage in their Wild at Heart (1990) collaboration.
Apocalypse Now “You’re an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.” Who else but Brando could have cast such an ominous shadow as the much talked about but barely seen ‘Colonel Kurtz’ – the madman waiting for our hero at the end of the river? To know anything about Apocalypse Now (1979), is to know what director Francis Ford Coppola went through to complete it, from the budgetary issues (many involving Brando), to the location and weather difficulties, to the health concerns of his lead (Martin Sheen), to dealing with a whacked out Dennis Hopper. But he did it and we have it on our DVD shelves to absorb for eternity. Brando’s ‘Kurtz’ is so dangerously cryptic and demented in such a wounded, almost effete way, that we aren’t quite sure what we’ve found at the end of the river. But we know it’s Brando, and we know not only can we not stop watching, but it was worth the trip. “Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies.”
Mutiny On the Bounty Another infamous boondoggle in the history of over-budget Hollywood pictures (I blame The Wild One) that left a bad taste in the mouths of nearly everyone involved. But hey, at least Brando got an island out of it. And a wife. And half a dozen Tahitian children. But, as my wife would say, that’s for another Oprah. Brando’s ‘Fletcher Christian’ is fun to watch. Probably even more fun knowing how much Brits Trevor Howard and Richard Harris hated the overpaid and self-indulgent movie star from Omaha, Nebraska. Nonetheless, settle in to this epic (nearly 3 hours) and drink in the lush Tahitian visuals, the exotic women that Brando fell in love with (ala Gauguin), and you’ll agree with your pal Lars B that this Bounty (1962) performance is more connected and sincere than either Gable’s or Gibson’s.
Julius Caesar “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not praise him.” Taking the challenge head on, getting in and mixing it up with such heavyweights as Sir John Gielgud, James Mason, and Louis Calhern, tackling (and owning!) the Bard’s text, Brando is a dynamic ‘Mark Antony.’ When he comes upon the fallen ‘Caesar’ and takes in the bloody corpse, new life was breathed into the words “O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth that I am meek and gentle with these butchers. Thou art the ruins of the noblest man that ever lived in the tide of times. Whoe to the hand that shed this costly blood.” Some really good work in Julius Caesar (1953). Challenge accepted – and conquered. Brando could do Shakespeare.
The Chase With the recent passing of director Arthur Penn, I could not overlook this often overlooked, star-studded film. The Chase (1966), adapted from a play by the great Horton Foote, is a dense portrayal of race relations and class warfare with Brando stuck in the middle, doing his damnedest to maintain law and order, much like Brando the activist did in his philanthropic social effort to bring not only attention but civility to the Wounded Knee standoff six years later in South Dakota. What I love so much about Brando’s performance as ‘Sheriff Calder’ is his seemingly bored, nonchalant physicality. It’s not just Brando playing the region, the good ol’d boy Sheriff, he’s navigating the territory like a river boat captain, looking for crocodiles or wombats. The reluctant hero swimming with sharks. It’s a role that again capitalizes on Brando’s unique ability to be both masculine and feminine, aggressive but compassionate.
One Eyed Jacks To this day, the only western ever shot along the coastline of California, filmed up and down scenic Monterey. The making of this film, with Brando taking the helm as director for the first (and only) time, is not a pretty story. Over budget, over schedule due to meandering shot lists, over on its running time delivery, and not able to ultimately find an audience. But One Eyed Jacks (1961) has moments of stunning cinematography, a wicked performance by the amazing Karl Malden (also in Waterfront and Streetcar), and, of course, Brando – chewing up the scenery and delivering some wonderfully soft-spoken and poetic moments. His jail cell confrontation with Malden’s sadistic ‘Sheriff Dad Longworth’ is sublime, two great actors and longtime friends going toe-to-toe in the listening department. “You’re a one-eyed jack around here, Dad. I seen the other side of your face.” Wow. So good. Not a great film, but Brando’s never looked better.
The Wild One This is always a tricky one to single out as being special, but almost impossible not to due to the lasting image of ‘Brando the biker’ – seated on the Triumph motorcycle, hat at an angle, all attitude in leather jacket and gloves. This is second to his Godfather image in terms of immediately identifiable Brando iconography. The hard part for those of us who have done a little reading on the actor is the back story of this film, and how the end product of The Wild One (1953) was not the pitched project Marlon had signed on for. Consequently, I find it to be a somewhat lackluster performance with some undeniably “biker cool” moments; the best being “Whatta ya rebellin’ against, Johnny?” To which Brando replies and every teenager in America pounds his chest to: “Whatta ya got?”
The Men Making his big screen debut, Brando is great in The Men (1950). Playing a wounded G.I., paralyzed below the waist, right out of the gate Brando showed immense vulnerability and range, probably one of his most dramatic character arcs as an actor. It was a relatively small film with a big declaration. Brando’s combative and prideful scenes with his fiancée (Teresa Wright) are exceptional and profoundly announced the arrival of a new leading man on the scene. A must see for Brando fans.
The Freshman Sure, it’s a send-up. But as far as send-ups go, The Freshman (1990) is a coup, only made possible by Brando’s admiration for director Andrew Bergman’s film ‘The In-laws,’ which Brando adored. All of the gags in The Freshman work, the uncanny resemblance to ‘Vito Corleone – the Godfather‘ is relentlessly amusing, and Brando is clearly having a blast playing each and every scene. The scene I go to over and over to remind myself that acting is reacting is when Brando’s ‘Carmine Sabatini’ visits Matthew Broderick’s ‘Clark’ in his college dorm room. ‘Carmine’ asks ‘Clark’ to recite one of his dead father’s poems. ‘Clark’ complies. Watching Brando sink into his seat, folding his arms across his girth, listening so closely to the poem and then responding with such delicate and thoughtful approval – it gets me every time, and reminds me why I love acting so much. It’s all about listening and nobody listened better than Marlon Brando. As he gets up to leave the cramped dorm room, he pauses in the center of the space, taking in the surroundings, and says with perfect resolve: “So this is college, huh? I didn’t miss nuthin.”
I sure miss Marlon Brando (1924-2004). I was fortunate(?) enough to be in the courtroom the day Brando took the witness stand to testify on behalf of his son, Christian, who stood trial for murdering his sister’s boyfriend, Dag Drollet. Brando’s testimony that day has been refered to by many as his “greatest performance ever.” When I hear that, the dig is not lost on me. The fact that he was “acting” heartbroken and sincere, doing everything he could do to wield his power and influence to lessen the sentencing of his troubled and tragic son. I get that. Actors carry that burden of having their sincerity questioned when the chips are down in real life, for obvious reasons. What I saw that day was a father throwing himself on his sword, trying to explain to the judge, the jury, his son, the father of the murdered Dag Drollet, and maybe the world, that he was a failed father and a failed man and his son was a victim of neglect and emotional abuse. When he turned and spoke in fluent French to the Tahitian father of Drollet, it was truly heartbreaking, made even worse by the fact that Mr. Drollet refused to look at the crumbling screen star, the two-time Oscar winner, the Mulholland Drive eccentric and recluse. I’ll never forget that day. I was there to pay my respect to the man who gave me a reason to value acting as a craft, and while he may have disagreed, it is a noble endeavor – and there will never be another Brando.