Marlon Brando

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          When Marlon Brando went to Hollywood his challenging style of acting became the controversial symbol of new hopes for American culture. From the Fifties onwards, he brought to the screen a range of memorable characters - from Stanley Kowalski to Superman's father

        For many years in the 60s and 70s, one approached a performance by Marlon Brando with a certain trepidation. You would go to see him perform in his latest movie and the questions were thus: will he have bothered to learn his lines, or will he pin bits and pieces of the script to the set, so that the problem of memorization will not, as he claimed, interfere with the process of creation? Will he be merely overweight, or will he be completely grossed out - as he was in Apocalypse Now (1979)? Will he focus his full concentration on the role, or will he content himself with what amounts to self-parody?...

        Marlon Brando

        Marlon Brando - Apocalypse Now, 1976
        Marlon Brando autographs, photographs and more @ (direct link to signed items) - just checked and a bigger selection than I have seen everywhere else

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        It seemed for a short time in the early Seventies, after The Godfather (1972) and Ultimo Tango a Parigi (1972, Last Tango in Paris), that he had not merely returned to form, but attained a new one - an ability to literally act his age - and that such tense questions might finally be rendered moot. Ah, foolish optimism! How could we have forgotten that the very basis of his screen character, the source of its fascination, lied in his childishly erratic, entirely anarchical nature.

        Brando would not be Brando if you could count on him. From the beginning we attended his work not in search of seemless technical perfection, but as we do a thrill act at a carnival. We went to see him dive down into the depths of himself, to see if he surfaced with some new pearls of existential awareness or a heap of rusting mannerism or, more likely, a couple of the former mixed with a lot of the latter. If you could not stand the sometimes instantaneous alternations between exasperation and exhilaration which he thus induced, then you had no business at a Brando film - which was, of course, a position many have adopted.

        About the deepest sources of his wild ways one can only speculate. But about one of the matters that drove him crazy, right from the start of his career, there can be no doubt. That is his unsought position as a hero of a special modern sort, a cultural hero, burdened with the large, if ill-defined, hopes of at least two generations for the renewal of American acting, and through it, of the American theatre, American films, perhaps even of American culture. It was not a role he sought! It was, indeed, a role he fought. And yet, somehow, it settled upon him.


        Brando, a high-school dropout, came more or less accidentally to acting, and he enjoyed an early success in it before developing a sense of vocation. He was thus forced to confront the personal and public demands of his profession without an aesthetic or a sense of cultural tradition. This gap was filled by the 'Method', that American variation on Stanislavky's theories, which was very much in the air in New York when Brando was breaking into the theatre. Emerging from small parts into the unforgettable glory of his Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, he was seen as the personification of 'Method' principles (though, in truth, he had passed only briefly through its cathedral, the Actors' Studio). And since his own instinctive method - a search through memory for psychological truth, a rejection of classic manner and technique, squared with the 'Method', ('You have to upset yourself! Unless you do you cannot act'), the role of leader in a generational revolt was imposed upon him. American provincialism was to be shaken off: English acting standards would no longer go unchallenged.

        Many in the older generation were appalled, but if you were young and cared about the mystery of acting, then Brando's singularity - there really never had been anyone quite like him - exercized a powerful symbolic hold on your imgination. Indeed, some part of you became his forever. And when he went out to Hollywood, hope mingled with fear over what would result. Would he revolutionize the place, or succumb to it. In the event, he remained . . . himself. That is to say, volatile and difficult, brilliant and indifferent. But there was no gainsaying the impact of his work in those first films, which were widely variable in their overall quality: the crippled war veteran in The Men (1950), the brutal Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire (1951), the Mexican revolutionary in Viva Zapata! (1952), the motorbike rebel in The Wild One (1953) and the ex-boxer in On the Waterfront (1954) - in these pictures he gave us moments which had never been seen on the screen before. For young people his sullen, inarticulate rebelliousness won them to him forever. Even when he was playing brutes and dummies you sensed his vulnerability, his tentativeness, and, even, his underlying sweetness and sense of comedy. He was the first movie star who showed, right there on the screen, the truth behind the image - the insecurity and the nagging, peculiaarrrlly American fear that acting may not be suitable work for a grown-up heterosexual male. He was exploring what no-one else had explored.

        Marlon Brando

        Marlon Brando - Apocalypse Now, 1976
        Marlon Brando autographs, photographs and more @ (direct link to signed items) - just checked and a bigger selection than I have seen everywhere else

        In his first great role, that of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, people identified Brando with the image he played. Few heard him when he said:

          'Kowalski was always right, and never afraid ... He never wondered, he never doubted. His ego was very secure. And he had that kind of brutal aggressiveness I hate ... I'm afraid of it. I detest the character.'

        Stanley was crass, calculating and materialist - a type who was a factor in every aspect of American life in this century. The power of Brando's performance derives from his hatred and fear of the character, though manifestly there is something of Brando's own egotism and rudeness in Stanley too.


        Brando found Hollywood - a town always full of Kowalskis - in a state of transition. The reliable mass market was slipping away to television; the factory system, ruled by a handful of industry 'pioneers', was losing its sovereignty to stars and directors who were, with the help of powerful agencies, creating their own packages. Brando had a long-term contract with Fox, but he fought the studio constantly and, unlike the older generation of stars, had the option to make independent films, so he could not be disciplined by suspensions or blacklisting. In addition he did not dress like a star, could not be coerced into interviews or publicity gimmicks he found demeaning. He declared:

          'The only thing an actor owes his public is not to bore them'

        The men who ruled Hollywood, quite rightly, distrusted Brando. They might talk about his manner and style (or lack of it) but deep down, they knew he was on to them, was parodying them on the screen. Still, through On the Waterfront an uneasy truce was maintained between Brando and Hollywood, if only because until that picture was finished - and they rewarded him with an Oscar - he stuck close to the type they had decided was correct for him and which was easily saleable - brooding, capable of brutality, yet gropingly sensitive and rebelious. Indeed, Terry Malloy, the ex-boxer, betrayed by his brother in On the Waterfront, seemed to many at the time a painfully accurate projection of Brando's own mood. When he says 'I could have been a contender . . . instead of a bum', some took this as an admission that the great roles were not for him. Others saw it as a generational lament, a declaration of betrayal not merely by an institution, but by the whole society in which humane, liberal values now seemed inadequate to a monstrously complex age.

        Nevertheless, he won an Academy Award for On the Waterfront and continued to maintain himself as his contemporaries hoped he would-- an inner-directed man in an other- directed world. There was, however, one big change in him. He no longer wanted to play roles that were projections of himself or even of his earlier image. In Terry Malloy he had achieved a kind of apotheosis; he now wanted to prove he could submerge self in characters. He undertook a staggering variety of roles from 1954 onwards: a Damon Runyon gambler in Guys and Dolls (1955); Napoleon in Desiree (1954); Sakini, the Japanese interpreter in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956); the Southern soldier fighting his own racial prejudice in Sayonara (1957): the German soldier undergoing self-induced de-Nazification in The Young Lions (1958); the vengeful good-bad man in One Eyed Jacks (1961) and Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty (1962).

        Some of these pictures were successful at the box-office; some were not. There was a steady muttering about his waste of himself in subjects that, for the most part, were drawn from the less exalted ranges of popular fiction. In fact, he was playing a higher risk game than the critics knew, for his price was now something like a million dollars a picture in return for which he was supposed, by his presence, to guarantee a profit. What other actor would have risked that status in roles which were deliberately off-type and which caused him to use weird makeups and strange accents?

        Marlon Brando

        Marlon Brando - Apocalypse Now Poster, 1976
        Marlon Brando autographs, photographs and more @ (direct link to signed items) - just checked and a bigger selection than I have seen everywhere else

        Gillo Pontecorvo, who directed him in Queimada! (1969, Burn), declared:

          'I never saw an actor before who was so afraid of the camera.'

        His hatred of publicity, his desire to hide-out in roles was based, in part, on simple shyness. Moreover, the kind of acting he was now doing demanded less of him emotionally, if more of him technically. As he said:

          'There comes a time in one's life when you don't want to do it anymore. You know a scene is coming where you'll have to cry and scream and all those things, and it's always bothering you, always eating away at you . . . and you just can't walk through it ... it would be disrespectful not to try to do your best.'

        So he settled for imitations of life, which was not only easy for him, but fun. Acting at this level, he has been heard to say, is:

          'a perfectly reasonable way to make your living. You're not stealing money, and you're entertaining people.'

        Other pressures came from the financial expectations of the industry. Directing One Eyed Jacks, he went way over budget, perhaps because he thought directing was a way of making an artistic statement without exposing so much of himself. The result was a lovely and violent film but still, to most people, just another Western.


        He might have escaped that set-back unscathed had he not followed it with Mutiny on the Bounty. There was a certain logic in the casting - Brando, the famous rebel, playing Fletcher Christian, the famous rebel. The trouble was that Brando insisted on playing Christian, not as a he-man of principle, as Clark Gable had, but as a foppish idler, with homosexual overtones, a character whose previously dormant sense of class difference, the basis of order in the British navy, turns torpid under Tahiti's tropical skies. It was not at all what the producers had in mind for a multi-million-dollar film on which MGM was depending for survival.

        They claimed it was Brando's temperament that cost them an extra S10 million, but he was, in fact, taking the rap for all kinds of mismanagement, which included sending cast and crew off to shoot in the rainy season without a finished script in hand. Of course, Brando was angry and of course he turned as mutinous as Christian himself had.

        What got lost in the resulting controversy was the fact that Brando's Christian was one of his finest sustained performances, a daring attempt to blend the humorous with the heroic, a projection of a modern, ironic sensibility backward into history. There was nothing cool or held back in this characterization: Brando took it right up to the hot edge of farce. If he was out of key with the rest of the players and the square-rigged plot, he actually did what a star is supposed to do, hold our interest in a big dumb remake - while risking comparison with the remembered performance of a beloved actor in a beloved rule.

        Marlon Brando

        Mary Ellen Mark: Marlon Brando Kurtz (Apocalypse Now) 1976
        Marlon Brando autographs, photographs and more @ (direct link to signed items) - just checked and a bigger selection than I have seen everywhere else

        After Mutiny on the Bounty, came the deluge - poor parts, not a few of which he walkeeddd out on. In some of these films one can see the germ of the idea that attracted Brando: the chance to confront comedy directly in Bedtime Story (1964) and A Countess From Hong Kong (1967); the opportunity to make social comments he considered worthy in The Ugly American (1963), The Chase (1966) and>b> Queimada!; even roles that matched his gift, despite their flawed context, notably that of the repressed homosexual army officer in Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967).

        There are in these films isolated moments where Brando shines through. There is the scene in Sayonara, for example, when he confesses to his commanding general (and would-be father-in-law) that he is throwing over his fiance for a Japanese girl. He conveys his anguish over this decision by picking up a cushion and concentrating on it the entire time they talk - a perfectly observed banal gesture. In Reflections in a Golden Eye, there is the scene when he thinks Robert Forster is coming to pay a homosexual call on him and he absurdly pats down his hair and smiles vainly to himself. Then there is The Nightcomers (1971) in which he hides out behind an Irish brogue and spends s lot of time indulging a bondage fetish with the governess, when, in the midst of it, he tells the children a long tall story and suddenly he's alive and playful and inventive, giving himself pleasure and making us share in it.

        But it was The Godfather that provided the long-awaited proof that he could still do most of it as an actor. He went after the part; even submitted to the indignity of a test. The result was a sustained characterization that depended for its success on more than a raspy voice and a clever old man's makeup. There were in his very movements, the hints of mortality that men in their forties begin to feel no matter how youthfully they maintain their spirits. His manner epitomized all the old men of power who had leaned across their desks to bend the young actor to their will - their wile and strength sheathed in reasonableness, commands presented in the guise of offers it is hard to refuse. It was the culmination of his second career as a character man.

        What one really wondered, though, was whether he had it in him to go all the way down the well again, come out from behind the masks and show again the primitiveness and power of his youth. That, quite simply, is what he did in Last Tango in Paris. Brando was playing physically what he was psychologically, an expatriate from his native land. Moreover, he was playing a man passing through the 'male menopause'. Yet in his sexual brutality there is something of Stanley Kowalski, and, like Terry Malloy, he is a one-time boxer, vulnerable in his mourning for lost opportunities. There is also in him something of the youthful, public Brando - self-romanticizing, self-pitying, yet self-satirizing too. All Brando's character Paul does in the film is have a restorative affair with a much younger woman. In the last sequences he is restored to a handsomeness that can be termed nothing less than beauty, a vitality, even a romantic energy, that is both miraculous and moving.

          In the brilliant monologue at his dead wife's bier, perhaps the single greatest aria of his career, it all comes together, talent and technique, to express the violent ambivalence of his relationship with not merely this woman, but with himself and the world at large.

        It was Brando's art, not director Bertolucci's, that made the highly melodramatic ending - in which, for no good reason, the star must die - a triumph. Brando removes the sting of death by the simple act of removing his chewing gum from his mouth and placing it neatly under the railing of the terrace where he takes his final fall - the tiny, perfect bit of actor's business, neatly undercutting the director's strain for a big finish.

        Perhaps only a young director, cognizant of what Brando had meant to his generation, a director who self-consiously stripped from his work all intellectual and artistic traditions other than that of the cinema, could give his age's great movie actor this unprecedented opportunity for self-portraiture.

        Since delivering the two milestone performances in The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, Brando worked less frequently, appearing both in brilliant movies Apocalypse Now (1979) and silly ones Superman (1978); The Formula (1980), based exclusively on a producer's willingness to pay his exorbitant fee. He was again Oscar-nominated in 1989 for A Dry White Season and was been seen in The Freshman (1990, in a comic take off of his Vito Corleone characterization), Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992, as Torquemada), and Don Juan DeMarco (1995).

        His private life was as chaotic and restless as his professional. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1924, he was married three times and had nine children from various relationships. His oldest son, Christian, was arrested for murdering his sister's boyfriend in 1990. He was sentenced to 10 years in March 1991 and released in January of 1996. The sister, in question, Cheyenne, committed suicide in 1995. Brando spent a fortune on his son's legal bills.

          He fought against weight problems for much of his later life.

        Owned a private island off the Pacific coast, the Polynesian atoll known as Tetiaroa, from 1966 until his death. For much of his last years he lived almost reclusively at his mansion in Muholland Drive in Beverly Hills, California. Jack Nicolson was a friend and neighbour.

        He died in of pulmonary fibrosis in Los Angeles on the 1st July, 2004. Despite rumours that he was broke by the time he died he in fact left an estate valued at around $20million.

        He is considered by many to cinema's greatest actor. Certainly, there was no-one with his impact and his influence on succeeding generations of actors is considerable. Moreover, when he was good, well, no other actor before or since can hold a prayer to him.

        But it has to be remembered that between those peaks of greatness there were more bad movies than one cares to remember. The Sixties were a lost decade for Brando. Thus, Brando is rightly considered the greatest actor but the greatest career? No. Others who have come after, who were influenced by him to the very core of their acting being, like DeNiro or Pacino will have more of a claim to that title than the master they owe it all to.

        Recommended Reading:
        Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando


        M A R L O N  B R A N D O




          - Viva Zapata!


          - Julius Caesar
          - The Wild One



          - Guys and Dolls


          - The Teahouse of the August Moon


          - Sayonara


          - The Young Lions


          - The Fugitive Kind


          - One Eyed Jacks (+prod; +dir)



          - The Ugly American


          - Bedtime Story


          - Morituri


          - The Chase
          - The Appaloosa


          - A Countess From Hong Kong
          - Reflections in a Golden Eye


          - Candy
          - The Night of the Following Day


          - Queimada!


          - The Nightcomers (GB)



          - The Missouri Breaks


          - Superman, the Movie



          - The Formula


          - Jericho


          - A Dry White Season


          - The Freshman


          - Christopher Columbus: The Discovery


          - Don Juan DeMarco


          - The Island of Dr. Moreau


          - The Brave


          - Free Money


          - The Score


          - Big Bug Man (voice)

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        Recommended Reading
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