The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


Marlon Brando
Brooding, raw, honest, he was unlike anyone audiences had seen before. Now the mark of his style is in descendants from De Niro to DiCaprio
By RICHARD SCHICKEL for Time Magazine


RIDE OUT BOY AND SEND IT SOLID. FROM THE GREASY POLACK YOU WILL SOMEDAY ARRIVE AT THE GLOOMY DANE. Tennessee Williams' heartfelt (if politically incorrect) telegram to Marlon Brando, on the opening night of A Streetcar Named Desire 51 years ago, got it right and got it wrong. The young actor, in his first starring role, sent it solid all right — sent it immortally. His performance as Stanley Kowalski, later repeated on film, provided one of our age's emblematic images, the defining portrait of mass man — shrewd, vulgar, ignorant, a rapacious threat to all that is gentle and civilized in our culture. He gave us something else too, this virtually unknown 23-year-old actor. For when the curtain came down at the Ethel Barrymore theater on Dec. 3, 1947, our standards for performance, our expectations of what an actor should offer us in the way of psychological truth and behavioral honesty, were forever changed.

But Brando, that heartbreakingly beautiful champion of the Stanislavskian revolution in acting, never arrived at Hamlet. Never even came close. He would go on to give us a few great things, and a few near great things, but eventually he would abandon himself, as every tabloid reader knows, to suet and sulks, self-loathing and self-parody. The greatness of few major cultural figures of our century rests on such a spindly foundation. No figure of his influence has so precariously balanced a handful of unforgettable achievements against a brimming barrelful of embarrassments.

And yet the reverence in which he is held by his profession is unshakable. His sometime friend and co-star Jack Nicholson said it simply and best: "He gave us our freedom." By which he meant that Brando's example permitted actors to go beyond characterizations that were merely well made, beautifully spoken and seemly in demeanor; allowed them to play not just a script's polished text but its rough, conflicting subtext as well.

Stanley Kowalski, for example, may be a brute. But he's also a funny brute, slyly, sexily testing the gentility and hypocrisies by which his sister-in-law, Blanche DuBois, lives as they contend for the soul of Stella, his wife and her sister. Streetcar's director, Elia Kazan, loved this performance because of the way Brando "challenges the whole system of politeness and good nature and good ethics and everything else." It was, of course, this rebelliousness that made Brando a hero to kids growing up in the '50s — and made him a star.

But there was more to his gift than his sometimes mumbled challenge to convention, both middle class and theatrical. Had to be, or he would have been no more than a momentary phenomenon. Kazan found in the man-boy he made into a star "a soft, yearning, girlish side ... and a dissatisfaction that can be dangerous." There's "a hell of a lot of turmoil there," he said. "He's uncertain about himself and he's passionate, both at the same time." The performances that defined Brando's screen character, and that somehow articulated the postwar generation's previously inarticulate disgust with American blandness and dishonesty, its struggles to speak its truest feelings, are powered by that rough ambivalence. The rage and self-pity of his grievously wounded parapl egic in The Men, the rebel angel of The Wild One, above all On the Waterfront's Terry Malloy, the dock walloper struggling for transcendence — these roles informed our aching hearts at the time, and go on tearing at us when we re-encounter them.

All these movies were small, intense, black and white, ideally suited to the psychological realism of the Stanislavskian Method, as it came to be known; ideally suited, as well, to Brando's questing spirit. But in the '50s, as he reached the height of his powers, Hollywood sank to the nadir of its strength. Competing with TV, it embraced color, wide screen, spectacle — and was looking for bold, uncomplicated heroes to fill its big, empty spaces. Brando looked (and felt) ludicrous in this context.

Worse, his own admirers kept piling pressures on him. An actor and friend named William Redfield spoke for them all when he said, "We ... believed in him not just as an actor, but as an artistic, spiritual and specifically American leader." But this was not a role that suited him, for there was nothing in his nature that he could draw on to fill it out. The son of alcoholics — a stern taciturn father; a sweet, culturally aspiring mom — he had drifted to New York City and into acting when he was expelled from the military school that was supposed to shake the flakiness from his soul.

His first and most influential acting teacher, Stella Adler, thought him "the most keenly aware, the most empathetic human being alive," yet thought his commitment to acting was, at best, "touch and go." But the work, the community he found among New York's eager young actors, gave shy, sly Bud Brando two things he never had before — a sense of identity and a sense of direction.

So he had found himself in his work. But he had not been looking for a cause to lead. It was a historical accident that he appeared to those idealistic rebels against theatrical tradition, the Stanislavskians, as the messiah they had sought for decades — the genius-hunk who could sexily take their case to the starstruck public, help them reform not just acting technique but the whole corrupt Broadway-Hollywood way of doing business.

It was the wrong role for him. He could talk their talk and walk their walk, but he wasn't truly a Method actor; he was much more an observer of others than an explorer of his own depths. And even that was hard for him. "There comes a time in life when you don't want to do it anymore," he once said. "You know a scene is coming where you'll have to yell or cry or scream and ... it's always bothering you, always eating away at you." Besides, as Kazan said, "it's not a natural thing for a man to be an actor," especially, he thought, in the "trivial" climate of that moment. There was no way Brando was going to add cultural heroism to the rest of his burdens.

By the '60s, Brando's interviews — and his work — were growing more cynical. Acting, he said, was the expression "of a neurotic impulse," a "self-indulgence." Any pretensions to art he may have harbored were now just "a chilly hope." Far from being a culture's hero, he became its Abominable Snowman, flitting through the shadows of bad movies, becoming a blur on the paparazzi's lenses. Twice he paused in his flight to remind us of the greatness that might have been — with his curiously affecting menace in The Godfather, with the ruined grandeur of Last Tango in Paris. That was more than a quarter-century ago, but in a way, that was enough. For the passing years have taught us this: refusing to rally a revolution, Marlon Brando still managed to personify it. His shadow now touches every acting class in America, virtually every movie we see, every TV show we tune in. We know too that the faith vested in his example by all the De Niros and Pacinos, and, yes, the Johnny Depps and Leonardo DiCaprios, was not misplaced. Marlon Brando may have resisted his role in history, may even have travestied it, but, in the end, he could not evade it.






Marlon Brando was quite simply one of the most celebrated and influential screen and stage actors of the postwar era; he rewrote the rules of performing, and nothing was ever the same again. Brooding, lusty, and intense, his greatest contribution was popularizing Method acting, a highly interpretive performance style which brought unforeseen dimensions of power and depth to the craft; in comparison, most other screen icons appeared shallow, even a little silly. A combative and often contradictory man, Brando refused to play by the rules of the Hollywood game, openly expressing his loathing for the film industry and for the very nature of celebrity, yet often exploiting his fame to bring attention to political causes and later accepting any role offered him as long as the price was right. He is one of the screen's greatest enigmas, and there will never be another quite like him.

Born April 3, 1924, in Omaha, NE, Brando's rebellious streak manifested itself early, resulting in his expulsion from military school. His first career was as a ditch digger, but his father ultimately grew so frustrated with his son's seeming lack of ambition that he offered to finance whatever more meaningful path the young man chose to pursue. Brando opted to become an actor -- his mother operated a local theatrical group -- and he soon relocated to New York City to study the Stanislavsky method under Stella Adler. He later worked at the Actors' Studio under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg, and his dedication to the principles of Method acting was to become absolute. After making his professional debut in 1943's Bobino, Brando bowed on Broadway a year later in I Remember Mama; for 1946's Truckline Cafe, the critics voted him Broadway's Most Promising Actor.

Brando's groundbreaking star turn in the 1947 production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire delivered on all of that promise and much, much more; as the inarticulate brute Stanley Kowalski, Brando stunned audiences with a performance of remarkable honesty, sexuality, and intensity, and overnight he became the rage of Broadway. Hollywood quickly came calling, but he resisted the studios' overtures with characteristic contempt -- he was a new breed of star, an anti-star, really, and he refused to play ball, dismissing influential critics and making no concessions toward glamour or decorum. It all only served to make Hollywood want him more, of course, and in 1950 Brando agreed to star in the independent Stanley Kramer production The Men as a paraplegic war victim; in typical Method fashion, he spent a month in an actual veteran's hospital in preparation for the role.

While The Men was not a commercial hit, critics tripped over themselves in their attempts to praise Brando's performance, and in 1951 it was announced that he and director Elia Kazan were set to reprise their earlier work for a screen adaptation of Streetcar. The results were hugely successful, the picture winning an Academy Award for Best Film; Brando earned his first Best Actor nomination, but lost despite Oscars for his co-stars, Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter. Again with Kazan, he next starred in the title role of 1952's Viva Zapata! After walking out of the French production Le Rouge et le Noir over a dispute with director Claude Autant-Lara, Brando portrayed Mark Antony in the 1953 MGM production of Julius Caesar, sparking considerable controversy over his idiosyncratic approach to the Bard and earning a third consecutive Oscar bid.

In 1954, The Wild One was another curve ball, casting Brando as the rebellious leader of a motorcycle gang and forever establishing him as a poster boy for attitude, angst, and anomie. That same year, he delivered perhaps his definitive screen performance as a washed-up boxer in Kazan's visceral On the Waterfront. On his fourth attempt, Brando finally won an Academy Award, and the film itself also garnered Best Picture honors. However, his next picture, Desiree, was his first disappointment. Despite gaining much publicity for his portrayal of Napoleon, the project made a subpar showing both artistically and financially. Brando continued to prove his versatility by co-starring with Frank Sinatra in a film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Guys and Dolls. Another Broadway-to-screen adaptation, The Teahouse of the August Moon, followed in 1956 before he began work on the following year's Sayonara, for which he garnered yet another Oscar nomination.

In 1958's The Young Lions, Brando co-starred for the first and only time with Montgomery Clift, another great actor of his generation; it was a hit, but his next project, 1960's The Fugitive Kind, was a financial disaster. He then announced plans to mount his own independent production. After both Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah both walked off the project, Brando himself grabbed the directorial reins. The result, the idiosyncratic 1961 Western One-Eyed Jacks, performed respectably at the box office, but was such a costly proposition that it could hardly be expected ever to earn a profit. In 1962, Mutiny on the Bounty underwent a similarly troubled birthing process; Brando rejected numerous screenplay revisions, and MGM spent a record 19 million dollars to bring the picture to the screen. When it too failed, his diminishing box-office stature, combined with his increasingly temperamental behavior, made him a target of scorn for the first time in his career.

The downward spiral continued: Brando himself remained compulsively watchable, but suddenly the material itself, like 1963's The Ugly American, 1966's The Chase, and 1967's A Countess From Hong Kong, was self-indulgent and far beneath his abilities. His mysterious career choices, as well as his often inscrutable personal and professional behavior -- he was quoted as declaring acting a "neurotic, unimportant job" -- became the topic of much discussion throughout the industry. He continued to push himself in risky projects like 1967's Reflections in a Golden Eye, an adaptation of a Carson McCullers novel in which he portrayed a closeted homosexual, but the end result lacked the old magic. While Brando still commanded respect from the media and his fellow performers, much of Hollywood began to perceive him as a bad and unnecessary risk, a perception which features like 1968's Candy, 1969's Queimada!, and 1971's The Nightcomers did little to alter.

The Brando renaissance began with 1972's The Godfather; against the objections of Paramount, director Francis Ford Coppola cast him to play the aging head of a Mafia crime family, and according to most reports, his on-set behavior was impeccable. Onscreen, Brando was brilliant, delivering his best performance in well over a decade. He won his second Academy Award, but became the subject of much controversy when he refused the honor, instead sending one Sacheen Littlefeather -- supposedly a Native American spokeswoman, but later revealed to be a Hispanic actress -- to the Oscar telecast podium to deliver a speech attacking the U.S. government's history of crimes against the native population. Controversy continued to dog Brando upon the release of 1973's Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci's masterful examination of a sexual liaison between an American widower and a young Frenchwoman; though critically acclaimed, the picture was denounced as obscene in many quarters.

Despite his resurrection, Brando did not reappear onscreen for three years, finally resurfacing in The Missouri Breaks opposite Jack Nicholson. Although he had by now long maintained that he continued to act only for the money, the eccentricity of his career choices allowed many fans to shrug off such assertions; however, never before had Brando appeared in so blatantly commercial a project as 1978's Superman, earning an unprecedented 3.7 million dollars for what essentially amounted to a cameo performance. His next appearance, in Coppola's 1979 Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now, was largely incoherent, while for 1980's The Formula, he appeared in only three scenes. And for a decade, that was it: Brando vanished, living in self-imposed exile on his island in the Pacific, growing obese, and refusing the few overtures producers made for him to come back to Hollywood.

Only in 1989 did a project appeal to Brando's deep political convictions, and he co-starred in the anti-Apartheid drama A Dry White Season, earning an Academy Award nomination for his supporting role as an attorney. A year later, he headlined The Freshman, gracefully parodying his Godfather performance. Tragedy struck in 1990 when his son, Christian, killed the lover of Brando's pregnant daughter, Cheyenne; a long legal battle ensued, and Christian was found guilty of murder and imprisoned. Even more tragically, Cheyenne later committed suicide. The trial placed a severe strain on Brando's finances, and he reluctantly returned to performing, appearing in the atrocious Christopher Columbus: The Discovery in 1992. He also wrote an autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me. Don Juan DeMarco, co-starring Johnny Depp, followed in 1995, and after 1996's The Island of Dr. Moreau, Brando starred in Depp's directorial debut The Brave. In 1998, he appeared in Yves Simoneau's Free Money, headlining a cast that included Donald Sutherland, Mira Sorvino, Martin Sheen, and Charlie Sheen.

Again absent from the public eye for a spell, Brando made news again in 2001 as health problems forced him out of a cameo role in director Keenan Ivory Wayans' horror spoof sequel Scary Movie 2 (he was replaced on short notice by actor James Woods). Brando made his first film appearance in three years with a considerably more prestigous role in director Frank Oz's one-last-heist thriller The Score (2001). Though the film's production was plagued with the by-then de rigeur rumors of Brando's curious on-set tirades and bizarre behavior, filmgoers remained eager to see the actor re-teamed with former Godfather cohort Robert DeNiro, with Edward Norton and Angela Bassett rounding out the cast. Later that year, director Francis Ford Coppola added to Brando's legend by lengthening his infamously slurred speeches for the director's recut Apocalypse Now Redux.

Absent from the screen for the next three years, Brando passed away suddenly in 2004 of pulmonary fibrosis. While The Score was his last onscreen performance, shortly before his death he recorded voice parts for an animated film called Big Bug Man and a Godfather videogame. A trend that was becoming increasingly popular, the visage of Brando was even resurrected for a "new" performance in director Bryan Singer's big-budget Superman Returns in the summer of 2006. Culled from old outtakes from the first two films, the digitally manipulated clips added to the film's passing-of-the-torch feel.


Beginning with his early career in the films of the 1950s, through his powerful roles in such classics as "On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire", and "The Godfather", Marlon Brando (born 1924) has captivated the American public with his intense on-screen presence, as well as with his personal life of controversy and excess.

Before James Dean, Marlon Brando popularized the jeans-and-T-shirt look, with and without leather jacket, as a movie idol during the early 1950s. The theatrically trained actor began to turn away from his youth-oriented persona with such movie roles as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar (1953). After winning an Academy Award for Best Actor for On the Waterfront (1954), he portrayed a wide variety of characters on-screen, garnering popular acclaim and critical consensus as one of the greatest cinema actors of the late twentieth century.

Early Career

Brando was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on April 3, 1924. He grew up in Illinois. After expulsion from a military academy, he dug ditches until his father offered to finance his education. Brando moved to New York to study with acting coach Stella Adler and at Lee Strasberg's Actors' Studio. While at the Actors' Studio, Brando adopted the "method approach, " which emphasizes characters' motivations for actions. He made his Broadway debut in John Van Druten's sentimental I Remember Mama (1944). New York theater critics voted him Broadway's Most Promising Actor for his performance in Truckline Cafe (1946). In 1947 he played his greatest stage role, Stanley Kowalski - the brute who rapes his sister-in-law, the fragile Blanche du Bois - in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. As The New York Review surmised, "The rest is stardom and gossip and a small handful of wonderful films."

Hollywood beckoned to Brando, and he made his motion picture debut as a paraplegic World War II veteran in The Men (1950). Although he did not cooperate with the Hollywood publicity machine, he went on to play Kowalski in the 1951 film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, a popular and critical success that earned four Academy Awards. His next movie, Viva Zapata! (1952), with a script by John Steinbeck, traces Emiliano Zapata's rise from peasant to revolutionary to president of Mexico. Brando followed that with Julius Caesar and then The Wild One (1954), in which he played a motorcycle-gang leader in all his leather-jacketed glory. Next came his Academy Award winning role as a longshoreman fighting the system in On the Waterfront, a hard-hitting look at New York City labor unions.


During the rest of the decade, Brando's screen roles ranged from Napoleon Bonaparte in Désirée (1954), to Sky Masterson in 1955's Guys and Dolls, in which he sang and danced, to a Nazi soldier in The Young Lions (1958). From 1955 to 1958 movie exhibitors voted him one of the top ten box-office draws in the nation. During the 1960s, however, his career had more downs than ups, especially after the MGM studio's disastrous 1962 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, which failed to recoup even half of its enormous budget. Brando portrayed Fletcher Christian, Clark Gable's role in the 1935 original. Brando's excessive self-indulgence reached a pinnacle during the filming of this movie. He was criticized for his on-the-set tantrums and for trying to alter the script. Off the set, he had numerous affairs, ate too much, and distanced himself from the cast and crew. His contract for making the movie included $5, 000 for every day the film went over its original schedule. He made $1.25 million when all was said and done.

Brando's career was reborn in 1972 with his depiction of Mafia chieftain Don Corleone in The Godfather. He refused his Academy Award for Best Actor as a protest of Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans. Brando did not appear at the awards show to personally deny the trophy. Instead, a Native American Apache named Sacheen Littlefeather read his protest. However, in September of 1994, Brando told the broker in possession of the award, Marty Ingels, that he now wishes to own it. Ingels would not return it.

Brando proceeded the following year to the highly controversial yet highly acclaimed Last Tango in Paris, which was rated X. Since then Brando has received huge salaries for playing small parts in such movies as Superman (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979). Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for A Dry White Season in 1989, Brando also appeared in The Freshman with Matthew Broderick. In 1995, he costarred in Don Juan DeMarco with Johnny Depp. Young people who have not seen Brando's amazing efforts in his early films will not find the same genius in his later movies. The small roles he has played do not demand the acting range for which he had once achieved so much praise. Janet Maslin of the New York Times, in her review of Don Juan DeMarco, wrote, "Mr. Brando doesn't so much play his role as play along." The critic added, "Don Juan DeMarco verges on the sad when its subject is vitality, since Mr. Depp's so clearly eclipses that of his co-star."

In early 1996 Brando costared in afilm called The Island of Dr. Moreau. Entertainment Weekly reported that the actor was using an earpiece to remember his lines. His costar in the film, David Thewlis, told the magazine that he was nonetheless still impressed by Brando. "When he walks into a room, " Thewlis noted, "you know he's around."

A Life of Turmoil and Self-Indulgence

There have been countless pages of print written about Brando's reclusive and self-indulgent lifestyle, including two books released in 1994: Brando: The Biography, by Peter Manso, and Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, by Marlon Brando with Robert Lindsey. The book by Marlon Brando is obviously the one he authorizes, but Manso's book is a result of seven years of research and interviews with more than a thousand people. Time magazine, though, questioned Manso's ethics in conducting such excessive research: "Driven to possess another man's life, Manso becomes the literary version of one of the late 20th century's scariest specimens, the celebrity stalker."

It has been observed that Brando has perhaps loved food and womanizing too much. His best acting performances are roles that required him to show a constrained and displayed rage and suffering. His own rage may have come from parents who did not care about him. Time magazine reported, "Brando had a stern, cold father and a dream-disheveled mother - both alcoholics, both sexually promiscuous - and he encompassed both their natures without resolving the conflict." Brando himself wrote in his autobiography, "If my father were alive today, I don't know what I would do. After he died, I used to think, 'God, just give him to me alive for eight seconds because I want to break his jaw."'

Brando's acting teacher, Stella Adler, is often credited with helping him become a brilliant actor. Brando said in a reprint of Manso's book presented in Premiere magazine, "If it hadn't been for Stella, may be I wouldn't have gotten where I am - she taught me how to read, she taught me to look at art, she taught me to listen to music."

Although Brando avoids speaking in details about his marriages, even in his autobiography, it is known that he has been married three times to three ex-actresses. He has at least 11 children ranging in age from two to thirty-eight. Five of the children are with his three wives, three are with his Guatemalan housekeeper, and the other three children are from other affairs. One of Brando's sons, Christian, told People magazine, "The family kept changing shape. I'd sit down at the breakfast table and say, 'Who are you?"' Christian is now at a state prison in California serving a 10-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter in the death of his sister's fiancee, Dag Drollet. He claimed Drollet was physically abusing his pregnant sister, Cheyenne. Christian said he struggled with Drollet and accidentally shot him in the face. Brando, in the house at the time, gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to Drollet and called 911. At Christian's trial, People reported one of Brando's comments on the witness stand, "I tried to be a good father. I did the best I could."

Brando's daughter, Cheyenne, was a troubled young woman. In and out of drug rehabilitation centers and mental hospitals for much of her life, she lived in Tahiti with her mother Tarita (one of Brando's wives whom he met on the set of Mutiny on the Bounty). People reported in 1990 that Cheyenne said of Brando, "I have come to despise my father for the way he ignored me as a child." After Drollet's death, Cheyenne became even more reclusive and depressed. A judge ruled that she was too depressed to raise her child and gave custody of the boy to her mother, Tarita. Cheyenne took a leave from a mental hospital on Easter Sunday in 1995 to visit her family. At her mother's home that day, Cheyenne, who had attempted suicide before, hanged herself.

Brando's years of self-indulgence are visible - he weighed well over 300 pounds in the mid-1990s. To judge Brando by his appearance and dismiss his work because of his later, less significant acting jobs, however, would be a mistake. His performance in A Streetcar Named Desire brought audiences to their knees, and his range of roles is a testament to his capability to explore many aspects of the human psyche. Brando seems perfectly content that his best work is behind him. As for his fans, they must accept that staying power is not what confirms the actor's brilliance.











This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008