film history: Film Stars 06/50 | Marlon Brando
Sidney Lumet fondly recalls Marlon Brando in his book Making Movies as a headstrong, “suspicious fellow” but one who had a uniquely no-nonsense approach to the art of film acting. He explains how Brando would test directors on the first day of shooting by performing two seemingly identical takes. On one take, Brando was “working from the inside”, giving a genuine performance demonstrating his emotional talent while the other was only “an indication of what the emotion was like”. If the director chose the latter of the two, Brando would make their lives hell for the duration of the film-making process. As Lumet observes, “He didn’t want to pour out his inner life to someone who didn’t know what they were doing”. This single line encapsulates the tour de force power that was Marlon Brando in the 50s and 60s, a raw, powerful cinematic figure whose naturalistic and rebellious approach to screen acting sent a monumental wave of influence through the industry upon Brando’s 1951 entrance as Stanley Kowalski in the adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, a role that Brando had previously dominated on Broadway from its opening in 1947.
Brando was born in 1924 to a talented photographer father and a mother who while an alcoholic, was involved in acting (kick-starting a young Henry Fonda’s career) and an early feminist. Brando was influenced by his mother’s interest in the theatre and displayed talent from a young age, miming the mannerisms and behaviour of the adults around him with remarkable accuracy for a young child. Expelled from school and military academy for insubordinate behaviour, Brando nevertheless excelled at theatre and after multiple small jobs and plans to join the army he eventually followed his sister Frances to New York, first working as a salesman with support from his father but later quitting to join the American Theatre Wing Professional School, where he met Stella Adler, his most important tutor. From Adler, Brando learned the skills of the Stanislavsky Method, a technique learned and refined by Adler from her time with the acting guru that went on to define Brando’s realistic and grounded approach to playing roles throughout his career.
After his theatre education Marlon Brando honed his skills with a number of minor roles among the theatres of New York, before he heard of the role of Stanley going in the new play Streetcar… and actively sought out Tennessee Williams at his summer role to audition for the part. Williams later said he decided on Brando the moment he opened the door. Acclaimed for his performance as Stanley Kowalski on Broadway, Brando starred in his first film The Men in 1950, a role that he prepared extensively for using his Method skills learnt from Adler. It was the adaptation of Streetcar that was his major breakthrough role however, and after the phenomenal success of the film Brando became the hottest young actor in Hollywood and went on to star in a string of major films in the 50s including Viva Zapata! (1952), Julius Caesar (1953), On The Waterfront (1954) and his iconic leading part as motorcycle gang leader Johnny Strabler in The Wild One (1953), a role that proved extremely influential on rising teenage culture in the 1950s and made Brando a legendary teen icon along with another young actor of the time, a huge Brando fan named James Dean. These first films cemented Brando’s status and won him countless awards, along with the admiration of a whole wave of new actors who were swept away with the powerful new style introduced by him in his animalistic, masculine leading roles.
Brando’s success continued throughout the 50s and into the early 60s, where he experimented with a host of unique and new roles, including that of both the director and lead actor in One-Eyed Jacks (1961) and a oppressed gay army official in Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967). Brando’s arrogance and difficult offscreen personality slowly condemned him in the late 1960s however, and his career hit a rut halfway after developing a negative working reputation among film producers. It was his role as Don Corleone in Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) that reinstated his talent as an actor, receiving universal acclaim and winning him an Academy Award that he went on to refuse and later boycotted the ceremony with a representative based on his views of Native American portrayal in the media. Despite another acclaimed performance in The Last Tango in Paris (197), Brando became increasingly dissatisfied with the industry and his career, fighting with executives and refusing to turn up to roles during filming. He demanded huge sums for his supporting role in Superman (1978) and later Superman II (1980), before giving his final acclaimed major role as Colonel Kurtz in Coppola’s legendary Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now in 1979, before officially retiring from acting in 1980 (although he continued to appear carelessly in disastrous supporting roles). Despite the derailment of his later career, Marlon Brando remains to many the most influential and important actor in the history of cinema, a figure who radiated an unparalleled power and magnetism through his passionate performances on-screen and changed the entire approach to preparing and performing a role during the turning point of the industry midway through the century. And yet his approach was the simplest of styles, using his most natural instinct to play even the most unnatral of roles. Brando is explained by his mentor and tutor Stella Adler with a simple story:
Adler spoke about teaching Brando, saying that she had instructed the class to act like chickens, then added that a nuclear bomb was about to fall on them. Most of the class clucked and ran around wildly, but Brando sat calmly and pretended to lay an egg. Asked by Adler why he had chosen to react this way, he said, “I’m a chicken - What do I know about bombs? (x)