Marlon Brando Biography
He was the actor who famously said on screen:
"I coulda been somebody" whilst off-screen he was already on the path to legendary status. His meteoric rise to fame was unprecedented for its speed covering a wide scope of roles that were alien to the studio star system so used to type casting leading men. His name was Marlon Brando, the actor who rode his streetcar named desire to the top of Hollywood hill and beyond.
Before his long line of Academy Award nominations for best actor, Marlon Brando honed his thespian skills on the stage. A promising Broadway debut in 1944 gave an indication of what was to come. By 1947 he was starring in one of most critically acclaimed plays of the twentieth century, A Streetcar Named Desire penned by Tennesse Williams.
Brando, who had suffered a troubled youth, tapped into his pent-up emotion for his role as Stanley Kowalski and the audience felt the intensity of passion amidst the backdrop of a steamy New Orleans script. Producers and directors alike took note, this was a man who gave it all, he left nothing on the stage as he created an atmosphere of tension in his actions and words.
Streetcar ran on Broadway until 1949. The timing suited Brando who already cast his eye to the west coast for his move into movies. There were offers and Marlon went for a role as a paraplegic in the 1950 film "The Men". The movie and Brando received some positive reviews. But, the best was yet to come.
One year later Brando would reprise his role as Kowalski as Warner Brothers released a cinematic version of "A Streetcar Named Desire". It was a box office runaway success that scooped four Oscars. Although nominated for Best Actor, the coveted Academy Award would, for now, prove elusive for Brando.
The Streetcar success on the silver screen was the first in a run of four Academy Award nominations for best actor. But Brando did not follow any tried and tested role models for stardom. He mostly chose leading roles that were as diverse as they were contradictory.
A Mexican revolutionary was a far cry from the sorrowful paraplegic, but, "Viva Zapata!" proved another box office hit in 1952 and garnered him an Academy Award nomination. A toga clad Brando playing Mark Anthony in the Shakespearian adaption of "Julius Caesar" (1953) was another step into the unknown where Marlon illustrated his versatility with a third Oscar nomination for best actor. 1953 saw Brando delve the depths of 50's depravity with his starring role as a badass biker in "The Wild One". Then came the multi award winning "On The Waterfront" in 1954 that turned his best actor nomination into his first win.
Marlon Brando Method Acting
No actor in the history of Hollywood had achieved such a diverse résumé of successful movie roles in such a short time as Marlon Brando. He had, for every aspiring actor, become the man to emulate. Indeed, and he was not shy to exploit this versatility as Marlon Brando was quoted as saying:
"Humphrey Bogart played himself in every movie. Clark Gable always played Clark Gable".
It was no secret that Marlon Brando would immerse himself in the character he was to play before each movie. His adopted 'method acting' would be the elixir of screen auditions for generations to come. Making the surreal real became the goal. Back in the day, Brando was an acting phenomenon bar none.
By the mid-1950's, it seemed Marlon Brando could do no wrong. Afterall, what could possibly go wrong with such a dramatic rise to fame and acclaim? Well, genius usually comes with a price to pay. With Brando there were always rumblings on-set. Marlon had a unique voice that often maundered in mumbles. He often improvised his own dialogue much to the chagrin of screenwriters and directors alike.
Ego's were at stake. Brando was good and he had an extraordinary sense of character perception which he insisted on using. He was often disrespectful of directorial opinion and of his acting peers. Very quickly, Marlon garnered a reputation as one of the most challenging actors to work with in Hollywood.
Marlon Brando The Ambivalent Genius
Brando could be very ambivalent towards acting and fame. He could be dismissive of its importance yet in the next breath he would passionately promote a purpose of reaching the true nature of any given character. Quite often, great genius carries a conflict of confusion to crazy confines. The mind recognises this with a cloak of counteraction borne of subconscious self-preservation. It begs the question, did Marlon Brando get swept away by his success? Or, did success sweep away the barriers of protection from a fragile mind?
Either way, the decline in good Brando movies would begin in earnest. He chose to involve himself with some questionable scripts that rarely attracted a co-star of his equal. It was a downward spiral of spontaneous self-causation eclipsed by attachment to causes that comforted the minds of the discriminated. In the absence of adoration he found peace of mind with societies most disadvantaged as he supported the Civil Rights movement and the American Indian Movement.
Back in Tinseltown many industry insiders had written him off. The critics were wiping blood stained words from their steely pens whilst searching for their next victim to be built up and summarily cut back down to size. Meanwhile, inside the mind of the iconic Marlon Brando the superstar still lurked. Yes, it was pained, but, it was yearning to be unleashed.
In 1972, and in true Hollywood style, the greatest cinematic comeback of the century was unfolding. An argument was being fought to get Marlon Brando cast in the leading role of Don Vito Corleone in the gangster movie aptly named "The Godfather". Paramount (the studio) resisted, citing some of his recent failures. The novel's original author Mario Puzo was also the screenwriter and he wrote to Brando asking him to consider the role. Francis Ford Coppola (the director) was supportive and backed Puzo in his pursuit of Brando. Paramount eventually agreed after a screen test and the rest, as they say, is cinematic history.
Brando, The Godfather and The Oscar of Abstract Declination
The Godfather dominated the 45th Academy Awards in 1973. Amongst the 10 nominations; Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Actor were all scooped up. However, there was to be a twist to this tale. Marlon Brando declined his best actor Oscar (by proxy). His rationale for non-acceptance pointed the finger at the detrimental Hollywood depiction of American Indians in movies and on TV.
Uproar ensued. Brando had also been nominated for Best Actor in 1972 for his role as Paul in "Last Tango In Paris". Declining his Oscar was frowned upon as a petulant act of insubordination and deemed outrageous in Tinseltown circles of influence. The talking heads would tut, tut, but Marlon was his own man. The Godfather was the highest grossing movie of 1972 and is considered one of the greatest movies of all time.
Actions speak louder than words. Despite what any critic can say, Marlon Brando is now the Godfather.
Continuing the paternal theme, Brando played the role of Superman's dad in the 1978 movie of the same name. His character Jor-El, perished in the destruction of the planet Krypton but his spirit lived on in Christopher Reeve's character and the $50 million dollar lawsuit seeking a larger share of box office profits. Never a dull day in the acting life of Marlon Brando.
One year later saw Brando reunited with Francis Ford Coppola in the psychological war thriller "Apocalypse Now". Playing the unhinged role of the protagonist Colonel Kurtz suited Marlon. It afforded him the opportunity to escape his demons. The manic glee was for all to see as he plumbed the depths of barbaric desperation to believably create the fear and loathing required to terrorise an enemy. He felt truth in the actions of a warrior suffering post traumatic stress disorder.
The Brando book was closing, he skipped through a series of B movies with grand poise but less purpose. There was to be one remaining swansong, the highly acclaimed "A Dry White Season" (1989) for which he received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. Little surprise that he didn't win, but, it was a particularly good movie.
The Brando bandwagon had run its course. His career was as colourful as it was controversial. It was no oversight that Marlon Brando received top billing in every movie regardless of whether he was cast in the starring role. He became as demanding to the studios as audiences were to see his iconic look in celluloid.
His personal life proved as polemic as his professional life. Brando fathered 11 children and betrothed his way through three marriages whilst embracing a multitude of lovers. There were rumours of a romance with Marilyn Monroe and when his affair with Rita Moreno ended she overdosed on sleeping pills.
There was an element of pathos to the private life of Marlon Brando. His son, Christian, was charged with murdering his half sister's (Cheyenne) boyfriend. In a plea deal the charge was reduced to manslaughter and he spent 5 years in jail. During the trial Marlon took to the stand and spoke in mitigation for his son as he admitted:
"I think that perhaps I failed as a father". Cheyenne committed suicide shortly before Christian was released from prison.
The Legacy of Marlon Brando
The muscular frame of Brando bearing his brooding good looks entered stage left with grit in his teeth and a smouldering appeal of a legend to-be who was always destined for greatness. For Brando to exit stage right with a girth as grand as his genius filled with a résumé thwarted by turkeys would seem preposterous to a 1950's critic drooling over the potency of his screen presence.
Can you imagine the legacy of Marlon Brando if he had departed the earth for the great cinema in the sky after the making of "On The Waterfront"? Think James Dean amplified. Marlon Brando's first five movies confirmed his place in the pantheon of Hollywood legends. More's the pity it took a barren 18 years of thespian turmoil for his next epic movie role in 1972. The Godfather resurrected the career of Brando and afforded him a legacy of immortality in a soulless business based on box office numbers and critical review.
Quotes About Marlon Brando
Marilyn Monroe opined this view of Brando:
"He's very sweet and tender, not at all the Stanley Kowalski rapist people think he is"
The actor Jack Nicholson paid tribute by giving meaning to his legacy:
"We are all Brando's children"
Nicholson later paid this compliment:
"When Marlon dies, everyone moves up one"
The writer Rick Lyman shared this assessment:
"Simply put, in film acting, there is before Brando, and there is after Brando. And they are like different worlds"
The director, Elia Kazan, praised him lavishly:
"To my way of thinking, his performance in On the Waterfront (1954) is the best male performance I've ever seen in my life"
The actor Sean Penn was impressed to say:
"Talking about Marlon is like dancing about architecture. When you tell the stories, the stories would be rich. And everybody would laugh a lot. And then say where does it come from?"
The king, Elvis Presley, put Marlon at the front of the queue:
"I like Brando's acting … and James Dean … and Richard Widmark. Quite a few of 'em I like"
The actress, Bette Davis, shared this comparison after his 1955 Oscar win:
"He and I had much in common. He, too, had made many enemies. He, too, is a perfectionist"
The renowned photographer, Cecil Beaton, gave this description:
"Pallid as a mushroom, smooth-skinned and scarred, with curved feminine lips and silky hair, he seems as unhealthy as a lame duck. Yet his ram-like profile has the harsh strength of the gutter"
The playwright Tennessee Williams described him as:
"the greatest living actor… greater than Olivier"
The actor David Thewlis spoke of his presence:
"When he walks into a room, you know he’s around"
An eminent academic, Susan L. Mizruchi, spoke of the consequences to his family:
"Brando was a part-time father at best. His children lived on different continents, and he was always distracted by his work, his causes, and his endless love affairs"
A director who cast him many times, Francis Ford Coppola, dismissed this Hollywood rumour:
"Marlon was never hard to work with. His behaviour was a little eccentric on the set. He was like a bad boy and did what he wanted. But as an actor he was never hard to work with"
Another Hollywood director, Martin Scorsese, summed up his impact thus:
"He is the marker. There’s ‘Before Brando’ and ‘After Brando.’ And I think it’s time for younger people to go back and understand that, and see those pictures in the order in which they were made"
The actor James Franco shared this appraisal:
"Brando’s performances revolutionized American acting precisely because he didn’t seem to be ‘performing,’ in the sense that he wasn’t putting something on as much as he was being"
The actress Sophia Loren spoke of his inappropriate wandering hands on the set of A Countess From Hong Kong in 1967:
"Don’t you ever dare do that again! Never again! As I pulverised him with my eyes he seemed small, defenceless, almost a victim of his own notoriety. He never did it again but it was very difficult working with him after that"
The actress Tallulah Bankhead spoke of his theatrical prowess:
"There were a few times when he was really magnificent. .... He was a great young actor when he wanted to be"
Bankhead later shared this recommendation to Tennesse Williams:
"I do have one suggestion for casting. I know of an actor who can appear as this brutish Stanley Kowalski character. I mean, a total pig of a man without sensitivity or grace of any kind. Marlon Brando would be perfect as Stanley. I have just fired the cad from my play, The Eagle Has Two Heads, and I know for a fact that he is looking for work"
A NYT critic, Bosley Crowther, described him thus:
"Out of stiff and frozen silences he can lash into a passionate rage with the tearful and flailing frenzy of a taut cable suddenly cut"
Frank Sinatra was not his greatest fan:
"He is the most overrated actor in the world"
Los Angeles magazine talked up his street credibility:
"Brando was rock and roll before anybody knew what rock and roll was"
The critic Jack Kroll spoke of his legacy:
"That will be Brando's legacy whether he likes it or not—the stunning actor who embodied a poetry of anxiety that touched the deepest dynamics of his time and place"
The director Michael Winner shared this revelation:
"Before Brando, actors acted. After Brando, they behaved"