Marlon Brando: America’s Greatest Film Star
Movie star, acclaimed actor, and cultural icon, Marlon Brando is considered by many fellow actors and movie critics to be the greatest American film actor of all time. From A Streetcar Named Desire to The Godfather, Superman to Apocalypse Now, Brando stunned audiences with his dynamic performances, while becoming the model for every aspiring actor to follow. Brando brought a level of authenticity to movies never seen before, and may never be seen again.
Considered one of the most neurotic, complex, and by some descriptions, psychotic actors ever to appear on film, Marlon Brando is widely recognized as the greatest American actor of the 20th century (and for many, the greatest movie actor of all time). Having crossed the line from obscurity to fame by his twenty-fourth birthday in 1948, Brando became a matinee idol the likes of which is usually only attributed to rock stars, while becoming the model for every aspiring actor virtually from the moment he first appeared on screen. His performances literally stunned fans and colleagues alike, and neither Hollywood nor the public has ever seen anything like him before or since.
Image via Wikipedia
Born on April 3rd, 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska, acting was a skill “Bud” Brando began honing at a very young age as the lonely son of alcoholic parents. With his father away on frequent business trips, and his mother most often intoxicated to the point of incoherency, Bud would perform for her to gain her attention. Often having to pick his mother up from the police station after she’d spent the night in the drunk tank, trauma became Brando’s constant companion and may well have contributed to the angst and pain he brought to his characters.
Brando enrolled in Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop at New York’s New School, and was mentored by the famous acting coach Stella Adler, a member of a renown Yiddish Theatre acting family who introduce to the New York stage the “emotional memory” technique of Russian theatrical actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski, whose motto was, “Think of your own experiences and use them truthfully.” The results of this meeting of minds and talents prepared Marlon for a life in the theater which led to an astonishing career in American film.
In 1951, Brando made his first major motion picuter, A Streetcar Named Desire, for which he received the first of his eight Academy Award nominations. This was followsed by a string of Academy Award-nominated performances in Viva Zapata! (1952), Julius Caesar (1953), and the performance that made both the movie industry and the public at large stand up and take serious notice in On the Waterfront (1954). For his dynamic portrayal of longshoreman Terry Malloy who “coulda been a contender,” Brando won his first Oscar.
Image via Wikipedia
During this period of American film-making, Brando’s acting style and mystique virtually transformed Hollywood, spawning many imitators such as James Dean (who modeled both his acting and lifestyle after Brando), Paul Newman, and Steve McQueen. After Brando, every up-and-coming star with genuine acting talent and a brooding personality was hailed the “New Brando”–the greatest accolade an actor could receive. World famous actor and director John Huston is quoted as later saying, “Seeing his performances was like seeing the door of a furnace opened in a dark room.”
Becoming only the second actor in film history to receive $1 million for a film, Brando made 19 films between 1954 and 1972, starring with every famed actor of the period from Yul Brenner to Montgomery Clift, Sophia Loren to Elizabeth Taylor, delivery one riveting performance after another. Dubbed the “Chameleon” by his fellow actors, he became Napoleon Bonaparte in Desiree (1954), Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), Sheriff Calder in The Chase (1966), and Major Penderton in Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967). (An often over-looked film and performance of this time is his portrayal of the suave and volatile bank robber Rio, in one of the best Westerns ever made, One-Eyed Jacks .) And then came the film that would set him apart from all other actors for the remainder of his personal and professional career, the iconic blockbuster, The Godfather (1972), in which the 48-year-old Brando played 60-something mafia crime lord, Vito Corleone. By all accounts, his portrayal changed forever the expectations of what a true actor can deliver, with The Godfather becoming the highest-grossing film up to that time, and raising the bar higher than the film industry ever imagined possible.
Cover of The Godfather (Widescreen Edition)
That same year, Brando went on to appear in the most controversial film of his career, and in fact, the most controversial film in the history of the movie industry, the X-Rated Last Tango in Paris. With gritty and raw explicit sex scenes, Brando portrayed American-in-Paris Paul, a tortured and sexually aggressive expatriate whose wife has just committed suicide, and begins a tawdry three-day sexual tryst with Jeanne, played by French actress Maria Schneider, a young woman he plans to rent an apartment from. Shocking audiences with its stark and too-realistic sex scenes, Brando became known as an actor of integrity for whom no role or topic was off-bounds.
On March 27, 1973, to no surprise, Brando was awarded the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Don Corleone. But to everyone’s surprise, Brando used this spotlight to protest the American film industry’s consistent portrayal of Native Americans as villains. But instead of taking the podium himself, he sent in his stead a young woman named Shasheen Littlefeather to deliver a 600-word statement condemning not just the industry’s degrading and insensitive attitude, but America’s general demeaning treatment of minorities. She accepted the Oscar in the name of world “brotherhood.” Though this action shocked fellow industry members, they has to later admit that it was classic Brando.
After a three-year hiatus, Brando took on just one more major role for the next 20 years, as the eccentric bounty hunter sent after Jack Nicholson in Arthur Penn’s quirky Western, The Missouri Breaks (1976). From 1976 to the end of his life, Brando appeared in twelve more films: Superman, the Movie (1978) for which he was paid a reported $3.7 million for just two weeks’ work, Apocalypse Now (1979), Roots: The Next Generation (1979), The Formula (1980), A Dry White Season (1989), The Freshman (1990), Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992), Don Juan DeMarco (1995), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), The Brave (1997), Free Money (1998), and The Score (2001), leaving his indelible influence on the likes of Martin Sheen, Johnny Depp, Val Kilmer, and Edward Norton.
Cover of The Missouri Breaks [Region 2]
Marlon Brandon died on July 1st, 2004 at the age of 80. In 2007, the 165-minute biopic, Brando: The Documentary, produced by Mike Medavoy (the executor of Brando’s will) for Turner Classic Movies, was released.