Born: April 3, 1924, Omaha, NE
Died: July 1, 2004, Los Angeles, CA
With Brando, you feel something smoldering, explosive, like a furnace door opening, with the heat coming off the screen.
By the time famed acting coach Lee Strasberg dissolved his Group Theatre in 1940, he was the monarch of the modern “method,” having learned it straight from a Moscow disciple of its originator, Konstantin Stanislavsky. The Stanislavsky method was a series of techniques used to invoke the emotional experiences and life memories of an actor to add authenticity to a role. When Broadway director Elia Kazan and his cohorts decided to stage experimental plays under the name Actors Studio, Inc., they lured Strasberg as their artistic director. From 1948 until his death, Strasberg’s New York workshop was home to an exclusive membership of dedicated recruits. The most famous of these was Marlon Brando.
But Brando’s roots in method acting actually started in 1943, when he enrolled in the Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research. His teacher was Stella Adler, another Stanislavsky teacher, who trained many of Hollywood’s finest actors, including Robert De Niro. Brando became Adler’s greatest pupil, developing the distinctive performances that characterized the method as highly improvisational and raw. After a few brief appearances in Broadway plays, Brando left the Dramatic Workshop for the Actors Studio, where he first rubbed elbows with filmmakers. Though actor John Garfield had brought the method to Hollywood years earlier, it was Brando’s role as Stanley Kowalski in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) that drew attention and praise to the performance style. Alongside the theatrics of Vivien Leigh, his brooding intensity and teeming sexuality painted him as a rough-hewn primitive and struck chords in both male and female audiences. The plaintive screams of “Stella!!!” and the deflated muscular figure draped by a ripped T-shirt created an indelible moment in cinematic acting.
Editor’s note: The essays of Scott Smith’s 1998 book, The Film 100, are being republished in their entirety here on Keyframe, not so much as the last word on cinema, but as a starting point for further discussion. Please join the conversation. To view the entire Film 100 list and find links to all the essays, please visit Reintroducing the Film 100.
Brando became an overnight celebrity, accosted at every turn by curious and crazed fans. Immediately, Hollywood tabloids began reporting on his unusual preparation for roles and his rebellious sex life. But the paparazzi didn’t distract Brando from his work. Including Streetcar, he received four consecutive Oscar nominations for earthy, visceral performances, in Viva Zapata (1952), Julius Caesar (1953) and On the Waterfront (1954). His magnificent role as a punchdrunk boxer in Waterfront guaranteed his place in film history with the oft-quoted “I coulda been a contender” and won him the Oscar. For a new wave of actors—Anne Bancroft, Rod Steiger, Patricia Neal, Sidney Poitier, Marilyn Monroe and legions more—the method’s value had been confirmed.
So natural and charismatic was Brando that a riveting turn in The Wild One (1954) made his strong portrayal of a vulnerable rebel the symbol of post-World War II angst before James Dean came along. As a sexually charged antihero, the moody Brando perched atop a motorcycle wearing a leather jacket and riding cap and spoke for all youths. “What are you rebelling against?” a character in the film asks him. “Whaddaya got?” replied Brando. This rebellious spirit had a significant influence on the way teens were portrayed in films for nearly two decades.
A decade of mercurial performances and studio wrangling began with One-Eyed Jacks (1961) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962). By the time these films had reached the theaters, both the method and Brando’s temper were labeled by film executives as bad for business. Brando was apparently more concerned with exploring the depths in his film characters than with the films themselves, and his peculiarities soon added up to costly delays on a number of projects. As his reputation became a source of ridicule, he became sullen and retreated to an island home in Tahiti to live the life of a recluse.
Good roles eluded him until he heard that the young director Francis Ford Coppola was making a movie about an organized crime family from a bestselling novel by Mario Puzo. He pestered Coppola for a shot at The Godfather (1972). Originally, Coppola was interested in Laurence Olivier, but after Brando sent a videotaped audition, which featured large cotton balls shoved deep into his cheeks, Coppola was convinced. The film brought Brando another classic line in “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse” and another Oscar. At the Academy Awards ceremony that year, he did not accept the award for Best Actor, sending instead a young squaw to announce Brando’s refusal as a way of protesting the treatment of American Indians.
Last Tango in Paris (1973) gave Brando the opportunity to use his experiences as a disenchanted American expatriate to add nuances to his character. Playing a lonely, self-loathing man who plays juvenile sexual games to mask his own insecurities, Brando claimed the emotional strain of the method nearly killed him. The film was an internationally recognized success, reaping several awards and the highest critical praise. Brando’s roles in the 1970s had a tremendous impact on the acting styles of Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffmann and countless others. Establishing himself once again as a sensation, Brando held out for enormous salaries for bit parts in Superman (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979).
His last Oscar nomination, for A Dry White Season (1989), renewed interest in Brando for a whole new generation and sparked a recent flurry of undistinguished work, including a superficial role in Don Juan DeMarco (1995) and a bizarre title part as an androgynous mad scientist in a remake of the H.G. Wells story The Island of Doctor Moreau (1996). But Brando’s unique and surprising characterizations continue to influence the best work offered by today’s American film actors; Jason Patric’s animalistic pugilist in After Dark, My Sweet (1990), Sean Penn’s confessional killer in Dead Man Walking (1996) and Nicolas Cage’s self-destructive drunk in Leaving Las Vegas (1996) all borrow the brooding intensity and self-examination that made Brando’s acting such a mesmerizing experience for filmgoers.
Marlon Brando represents the highest-ranking performer on this list who didn’t make his mark by establishing a character cliché in a cinematic genre. His impact on fellow actors took shape in his portrayal of diverse characters in a wide variety of films. Better yet, Brando seems to transcend his most memorable parts to symbolize a style of performance, a feat that few actors ever achieve; he is the embodiment of method acting, a form that initiated sweeping changes in the way screen actors communicate.
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