Marlon Brando

Greatest screen actor of his generation whose later roles were unworthy of his talent
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The Independent Online

Marlon Brando, actor: born Omaha, Nebraska 3 April 1924; married 1957 Anna Kashfi (one son; marriage dissolved 1959), 1960 Movita Castaneda (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1968), (one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased, by Tarita Teriipaia, one daughter by Christina Ruiz, one adopted daughter); died Los Angeles 1 July 2004.

Marlon Brando was the greatest screen actor of his generation. He was also the most versatile of actors, his roles including Mark Antony and Sky Masterson, Stanley Kowalski and Don Vito Corleone, Zapata and Sakini, Fletcher Christian and Napoleon Bonaparte: not a feat easily attempted by Laurence Olivier, say, or even Robert de Niro.

Brando's finest performance was as the unintelligent, tormented stevedore Terry Molloy in On the Waterfront (1954), directed by Elia Kazan. For this moving study of filial betrayal he became the youngest actor ever to win the Best Actor Academy Award (overtaken only by Richard Dreyfuss in 1977 and, last year, by Adrien Brody). But, despite a flurry of revival some 20 years later, Brando confirmed Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that "there are no second acts in American lives", and like other prodigies - John Barrymore, Orson Welles, Elvis Presley - led a strange, singular, tragic existence, taking roles unworthy of his talent, his body bloated with over-indulgence, his personal life in tatters and his soul barely at rest.

Marlon Brando (his real name; friends called him "Bud" from childhood) grew up acting. Born in 1924, in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of a philandering father and an alcoholic mother, he was sent to Shattuck Military Academy at the age of 16 to learn discipline. There he appeared in the school drama group production of A Message From Khufu - his début - and in the vacation he appeared with his drama-coach mother in local repertory.

At the suggestion of his actress sister Jocelyn Brando, he enrolled at Erwin Piscator's dramatic workshop of the New School for Social Research in New York and studied the Constantine Stanislavsky "Method" under Stella Adler. He was to be the most famous perpetuator of this particular style of naturalistic acting, often unfairly pilloried or caricatured for his notorious "mumbling" and "scratching", but the reality was that Brando was continually searching for a way to find the truth in a role: and more often than not he found it, guided by his natural talent and instinct - that talent that was to burst forth in a stage role first turned down by both Robert Mitchum and John Garfield, the brutish and inarticulate rapist Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Stripped to a T-shirt, Brando electrified Broadway.

He was a revelation. Nothing in his earlier stage work, whether Marchbanks to Katherine Cornell's Candida in Shaw's eponymous play or his brief fling with Tallulah Bankhead in The Eagle Has Two Heads (both 1946), had prepared a post-war audience for the power and the sheer sex appeal of his Stanley Kowalski. Brando redefined stage acting with Streetcar, and he was to do so again on screen.

Marlon Brando's movie début was not in Streetcar but as a paraplegic war victim in the director Fred Zinnemann's sensitively handled The Men (1950), and it was to be the beginning of Brando's conspicuous social commitment, whereby he was able to use his celebrity to draw attention to causes such as civil rights in the United States or apartheid in South Africa. He drew excellent reviews for his role, but The Men was not a film likely to evoke mass appeal.

The bowdlerised screen version of A Streetcar Named Desire arrived in 1951, directed, as was the play, by Elia Kazan, a director with whom Brando established a particular rapport, and with whom he would achieve his greatest successes. He lost out at the Oscars to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, but A Streetcar Named Desire made Brando world-famous and characteristically he rebelled at such fame by flaunting his new-found stardom: he controversially wore jeans and a T-shirt in public, insulted Hollywood's venerable columnists and rode a mean motorcycle, and in so doing influenced generations of young actors. He became the first screen rebel, and it was an image that he sustained all his life.

A Streetcar Named Desire proved that the camera, alongside the public, loved Marlon Brando: that stage presence seemed doubly electric on the screen; the angelic good looks seemed made for celluloid, the Method throwaway technique revolutionary in an era of well-groomed movie leading men. Brando was in a position now to pick and choose his future roles, and he established a remarkable career pattern - by not signing a long-term studio contract he could take risks with every film.

Next, in 1952, again for Kazan, came Viva Zapata! from a John Steinbeck screenplay, a daring left-wing movie directed by a former Communist, and then an impressive Mark Antony for MGM and the director Joseph L. Mankiewicz in an all-star Julius Caesar (1953), a thoughtful and articulate performance that confounded contemporary reviewers, who thought Marlon Brando and Stanley Kowalski were one and the same.

The rebel Brando persona was cast for ever in The Wild One (1954), a biker movie initially banned in Britain, in which the leather-clad and frankly over-age Brando uttered the immortal reply to Mary Murphy's question "What're you rebelling against, Johnny?" The answer: "Whaddya got?"

Today On the Waterfront may seem unfashionable: an apologia for informing, a hysterical melodrama involving thugs and priests. But On the Waterfront was never meant to be watched in comfort on the television screen. In the cinema it remains a powerful, mesmerising work, containing unequivocally the finest performance by any actor in the history of American cinema: Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy. "I could have had class. I could have been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let's face it. It was you, Charlie . . ." The "contender" dialogue, created by Marlon Brando from a brilliant series of improvisations, was in a scene shared by his fellow Method actor Rod Steiger.

A series of major screen roles followed: walking out on The Egyptian (he didn't like the script) in 1954, he repaid Fox by portraying Napoleon instead in Désirée (1954). He was superb singing (with his own limited voice) in Guys and Dolls (1955), again directed by Mankiewicz, and was excellent in two forays into post-war Japan in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) and Sayonara (1957), and outstanding as the Nazi Christian Diestl in The Young Lions (1958) and in a part based upon the young Elvis Presley in Tennessee Williams's The Fugitive Kind (1961).

He took over the directorial reins from Stanley Kubrick for One-Eyed Jacks (1961), and, chastened, never directed again. And then abruptly this first great surge of his career dashed on the rocks of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), the MGM epic that disgorged directors, and ran up a dangerously high budget, allegedly all because of Marlon Brando.

Brando's performance as the mutineers' leader Fletcher Christian was underrated at the time, but his behaviour on set had made him almost unemployable and he spent the next decade aimlessly in average films, ranging from the ambitious (Arthur Penn's The Chase, 1966; John Huston's Reflections in a Golden Eye, 1967; Gillo Pontecorvo's Queimada!, 1967) to the wretched (Christian Marquand's Candy, 1968; Michael Winner's The Nightcomers, 1971). A bout with Charles Chaplin in A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) was disastrous for both parties.

But Marlon Brando's career and box-office appeal were revived by two films in 1972, two adult movies that he managed to turn into personal artistic statements. The second, Last Tango in Paris, was semi-improvised, semi-autobiographical, and deeply controversial: it achieved both art-house and spillover success. But The Godfather was a roaring popular hit that brought Brando his second Oscar as the fictional Mafia don Vito Corleone. Too young in actuality for the role, Brando achieved a marvellous quasi-realism by stuffing Kleenex in his cheeks and speaking in a growl. Characteristically, he sent a small-part actress posing as a Red Indian to reject his Academy Award, drawing attention to the plight of Native Americans.

The twin glories of becoming a bankable star and a cultural icon were not sustained. The immediate result of the Oscar was a huge increase in Brando's salary demands, and he earned $1m and 10 per cent of the gross for only five weeks' work on the unpopular western The Missouri Breaks (1976). As Superman's father, Jor-El, he brought a fine, if spurious, dignity to the 1978 comic-book epic, infamously earning $3.7m for 12 days' work, his financial demands scuppering his appearance in the sequel. Reunited with the Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola, he provided a fittingly neurotic coda to Apocalypse Now (1979), as Kurtz in a Vietnam version of Conrad, reissued with more Brando footage in 2001 as Apocalypse Now Redux, and all the better for it.

Additionally, in 1979, Brando made a television appearance in the mini- series sequel to Roots called Roots: the next generations, in a 10-minute section in which he played the part of the American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell. He achieved viewing figures of 66 per cent of the total audience - 130 million viewers - and won a supporting Emmy.

Films took a back seat to his private life. He was ever attracted to exotic women and Mutiny on the Bounty had given him an interest in exotic places. He bought an island, and after divorcing the actress Anna Kashfi he married first Movita, whom he had first met as Maria Castaneda in Viva Zapata!, and then, at least in a local ceremony, Tarita (Tarita Tariipaia), his co-star in Mutiny on the Bounty.

His children from this last marriage caused him much grief: his daughter's lover was shot dead by his own son, and the daughter later committed suicide. The attendant publicity drew Marlon Brando back into the limelight, and he cut an ungainly figure: overweight, and clearly out of touch with reality.

Maybe reality never concerned him - his performances aspired to another dimension, his intuition working on a level far above that of any other performing artist, his self-deprecating, quirky sense of humour allowing him to distance himself from the mundane. A few bizarre film appearances dotted his last years. An Oscar-nominated co-starring role in A Dry White Season (1989); reviving Don Corleone in spirit in the misbegotten but amiable The Freshman (also 1989); a grotesque Torquemada, acting in a vacuum in the abominable Christopher Columbus: the discovery (1992); and then suddenly, and surprisingly, the lead as a psychiatrist in a sweet 1995 vehicle for Johnny Depp, Don Juan de Marco.

He established a good rapport with Depp, but of their two later ventures Divine Rapture (1996) ran out of money and ceased shooting, never to resume, and Depp's directorial début, the deeply disturbing The Brave (1997), was considered unshowable. Over The Island of Dr Moreau (1996) and Free Money (1998), it is best to draw a veil.

After the appearance of a slew of overwritten, gossipy alleged biograpies, Brando himself decided to tell the whole truth in a 1994 autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me. Eagerly awaited, it disclosed little, and was swiftly remaindered.

But the book's photographic illustrations tell a different story: they show a handsome, dynamic performer, an actor with the world at his feet, a movie star who changed the way actors thought about acting, despite the fact that he himself seemed to have nurtured a contempt for his profession, squandering that immense natural talent from choice, ever-reliant on cue cards instead of memory, invariably choosing a role for its fee rather than its worth. His last film was The Score (2001), playing a mastermind very much in the camp manner of Sydney Greenstreet. He was third-billed to two successive generations represented by Robert De Niro and Edward Norton, but you could not take your eyes off him: resplendent in bulk, magnificent in talent.

To find his own personal truth Brando retreated to his Tahitian island, or behind the gates of a Beverly Hills mansion, but for everybody else the real truth that was Marlon Brando existed in a quite extraordinary body of film work that will endure as long as there is cinema: the finest-ever English-language screen actor, bar none.

Tony Sloman