The method and madness of Marlon Brando
December 30, 2014
It was to be his first film and he was already deep in character. He confined himself to a wheelchair, moving into an army hospital to live with paraplegic War War II veterans. Marlon Brando and his new friends were drinking in a local bar, one night, when a lady from the Salvation Army dropped in to collect some waste paper. Distressed at the sight of the vets and their missing limbs, she threw her arms into the air and bawled: “Oh, Lord, grant that these men may be able to walk again!”
Brando slowly rose to his feet, making tentative steps across the bar. Stunned at what she was witnessing, the Salvation Army lady fainted to a chorus of roaring laughter from the vets.
He would go on to say this is what all actors are: dishonest entertainers. He was always his own fiercest critic. But as much as he maligned or belittled his work, he was a prodigious talent. A performer and a cultural icon without precedent. The catalyst for a new era. Marlon Brando, the heartthrob and the thug, the revolutionary and the squanderer, changed everything.
Many of his movies are landmarks in cinematic history. He also made some shambolic films, its true. And he forced his admirers to look on in horror as he distended into a fitful shadow of his former self. His body of work may not be the strongest, but 42 years after the release of his most famous movie, through endless scandal and tragedy, it's clear Marlon Brando changed the landscape of cinema more than any that came before him.
Brando was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on April 3, 1924. In his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me
, he depicts a miserable childhood. Marlon Brando Sr. was a successful businessman, but an abusive father without a kind word for his son; Dorothy Pennebaker Brando was an amateur actress, creative but forlorn. Both were alcoholics.
Brando took the Method and plundered its darkest depths, transcending all it was and transforming it into something uniquely his.
After Libertyville high school in Illinois, Brando was sent to Shattuck Military Academy where he was expelled in his senior year for smoking and insubordination. He went on, in 1943, to study under acclaimed acting teacher Stella Adler at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research in New York.
In one of those classes, Adler asked her students to act like chickens, adding an atomic bomb was about to fall them. While everyone else ran around clucking and flapping wildly at the sky, Brando sat motionless, perfectly composed, pretending to lay an egg. “I'm a chicken – what do I know from a bomb?” was Brando's retort when Adler quizzed him about his reaction.
“Marlon's going to school to learn the Method was like sending a tiger to jungle school,” Elaine Stritch, the actress who studied alongside Brando, once said. He wasn't the first proponent of the Method – an internalised acting technique based on the system evolved by Russian actor and theatre director Constantin Stanislavsky in the 1920s. It was popularised during the 1940s, in New York, while Brando was still a fledgling actor.
Everyone from James Dean to Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino to Robert De Niro, Daniel Day-Lewis to Johnny Depp has been influenced by the actor who, preparing for his film debut as a paraplegic veteran in The Men
(1950), spent a month living at a veterans’ hospital. So convincing was Brando's performance, many of the film's early audiences believed he was a genuine war casualty hired for the movie.
Brando visited the writer Tennessee Williams at his home, where the electricity and plumbing were out. He repaired both and then read for a part.
Three years earlier, aged 23, Brando gave incendiary stage performances as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire
. The play's producer, Irene Selznick, considered John Garfield or Burt Lancaster for the role. But after seeing Brando in A Flag Is Born
a year earlier, Selznick was “galvanized by his power”, deciding that “however risky, he was bound to be interesting.”
Director Elia Kazan was also keen on the young actor, but the final decision lay with playwright Tennessee Williams. Brando visited the writer at his home on Cape Cod, where the electricity and plumbing were out. He repaired both and then read for the part.
“A new value came out of Brando's reading which was by far the best reading I have ever heard,” Williams wrote to his agent, Audrey Wood. “He seemed to have already created a dimensional character, of the sort that the war has produced among young veterans.”
A Streetcar Named Desire
opened on December 3, 1947. Brando's performances earned ovations lasting as long as 30 minutes. What was witnessed onstage was unlike anything that had gone before it. “There had never been such a display of dangerous, brutal male beauty on an American stage,” one critic later said. The eras most noted actors flocked to watch his performance, straining to see how he did it. Yet he never worked on stage again.
For three years, before accepting the lead in The Men
, Brando turned down countless Hollywood advances. When the time came, he was as insurrectionary on the big screen as he was onstage, if not more so. At a time when actors were almost universally clean-cut, buttoned-down and unequivocal, Brando was sweaty, wild and ambiguous. He spoke in profound mumbles and half-gestures. He brought a lacerating authenticity to whichever role he inhabited. And he was as impossibly good-looking as he was dangerous, as heartbroken as he was hard.
He reprised the role of Stanley in Kazan's film version of A Streetcar Named Desire
(1951). Co-star Vivien Leigh won an Oscar for her performance, as did Kim Hunter and Karl Malden for their supporting roles. Brando, nominated for Best Actor, lost out.
He next starred in Viva Zapata!
(1952). Again under Kazan's directorship, and with a script by John Steinbeck, he missed out on an Academy Award while Anthony Quinn took the spoils for Acting in a Supporting Role. 1953 saw him nominated for his performance as Marc Antony – a role which highlighted his range – in a film of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
(1953). Once again, he went home empty-handed.
Finally, with the last of four nominations in a row, Brando had his Oscar, awarded for his portrayal of ex-boxer Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront
(1954). “If there is a better performance by a man in the history of film,” Kazan, his director once again, said, “I don't know what it is.” The movie also gave Brando one of the most indelible lines in cinema history: “I could'a been a contender.”
If his Oscar-winning performance produced his most memorable line, his role as brooding biker Johnny Strabler in The Wild One
(1953) bore his coolest: “What are you rebelling against?” he's asked. “Whadda you got?” came the insouciant reply. It was to be a prescient assertion.
“Nobody, nothing, no amount of money can make him behave,” said a 1954 profile in The New York Times Magazine
. “He's got to be his own master, even though he may not yet have mastered himself.”
Brando become infamous for his mean streak, ridiculous demands and erratic behaviour. It's kind to think of him as an iconoclast, the first and last of dying breed. And to a certain extent this is true. But he was far more complex than that, self-destructive and self-deprecating, carrying the burden of painful past around with him, forcing his misery on others. He was a womaniser, a terrible husband and often found wanting as a father.
His purple patch was over and the 1960s arced from underwhelming to disastrous, save the odd steady performance. At 50, Brando was all but finished – his looks fading and his weight fluctuating. Then, in the early 1970s, he made two very different movies that reiterated his genius and marked a startling revival.
First, he made us an offer we couldn't refuse as principled criminal mastermind Vito Corleone in The Godfather
(1972). Brando won his second Oscar for the role, sending an Apache Indian adorned in buckskin – who, it transpired, was an actress – to refuse the award in protest of the mistreatment of native Americans. His second act of redemption came in Bernardo Bertolucci's film Last Tango In Paris
(1972). Using stark, autobiographical colour from his own tortured past, Brando gives a visceral performance imbued with anguish, spite and self-loathing.
“Last Tango In Paris
required far too much emotional arm-wrestling with myself,” Brando would later say. “When it was finished, I decided I wasn’t ever again going to destroy myself emotionally to make a movie. In doing that role, I felt I had violated my innermost self and didn’t want to suffer like that anymore.”
As quickly as it reappeared, the magic was gone. Brando worked too little and ate far too much. While there was the odd solid turn, the remainder of his career was dominated by subpar scripts, inexplicable cameos and lifeless performances. He became a bloated caricature of his former self. He would eat a gallon of ice cream in a single sitting and have McDonald's burgers thrown to him over the walls of his mansion. He would visit friends in his underwear, get drunk, abusive and fall asleep before he was asked to leave. The punchline to a thousand bad jokes.
There was several marriages and countless affairs. He had at least 15 children and a family life that played out across courtrooms and tabloid pages. In 1990 his son, Christian, shot his half-sister's boyfriend at Brando's Los Angeles mansion. Christian served five years of a 10-year sentence for manslaughter. He died of pneumonia in 2008. Cheyenne, Brando's daughter, committed suicide in 1995. Brando died in 2004, aged 80.
Marlon Brando took the craft of acting and scorched it into an art form that would forever carry his image. He transformed his field irrevocably but ultimately left it with only a handful of truly great performances to remember him by. Perhaps this notion has hardened over time, but it's only against his own high-water mark that his otherwise exemplary work looks distinctly average.
The actress Julie Harris, who starred with him in Reflections In A Golden Eye
(1967), once said, “Marlon was innately brilliant but it was all scattered, almost as if he’d been told early on that he was nothing and worthless. Yet his work was so beautiful and so pure there was no explaining where it came from. Maybe he didn’t love acting, but his gift was so great he could never completely destroy it.” But Brando, however involuntarily, did conspire to destroy his gift.
Yet he remains an icon of cinema that still exerts an overwhelming influence today. He was an anti-actor, a prototype and a blueprint that every great who proceeds him references incessantly. The sensation and scandal will fade over time, and his legacy will be the seminal body of work the apex of career represents.
Remember what Huey Long said – that every man's a king. Marlon Brando is the king of cinema. And we won't forget it.