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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 July, 2004, 14:59 GMT 15:59 UK
Brando: The talent and the torment
By Paul Ryan
Brando biographer

When Andrew Bergman's 1990 comedy The Freshman was shown to preview audiences, several younger members wrote such comments as, "Who's the old guy? - He's great!" on their preview cards.

Marlon Brando
Younger audiences asked: "Who's the old guy - he's great!"
The "old guy" was Marlon Brando, playing a comic variation on his Godfather persona, and his greatness had once been unchallenged.

Brando's impact and influence on generations of film actors has been so profound that it is difficult for modern filmgoers to realise how fresh and original his talent was when it first burst onto the screen more than half a century ago.

From the beginning - as Ken Wilocek, the disabled war veteran in The Men (1950) - Brando did not appear to be performing so much as behaving on camera.

He did not seek to please the audience and he did not shy away from his character's ambiguities; his absorption in the role was so complete that it came, as Sight and Sound magazine put it, "like a blood transfusion into cinema acting."

Over the next few years, Brando demonstrated that his astonishing debut was no fluke.

In A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) he revisited his stage role as Stanley Kowalski, a sexually-magnetic brute in a sweat-stained tee-shirt; in Viva Zapata! (1952) he was a convincing Mexican revolutionary; his Marc Antony in Julius Caesar (1953) showed that he could handle the classics; and his portrayal of the rebellious biker in The Wild One (1954) gave the world an iconic pin-up image that endures to this day.

Marlon Brando in 1977
Brando's talent offered no comfort for his private torment
This run of success culminated in the Oscar-winning role that fully mined Brando's extraordinary gift for naturalism - as the slow-witted stevedore Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1955), Brando gave a performance that remains a benchmark of screen acting.

His eyes are continuously on the move, searching out the truth in others or else reflecting his own inner confusion; his hands fill the gaps when words fail him; his body constantly shrugs as if to rid itself of some invisible burden.

He smiles a great deal, sometimes defensively but always with a touching openness - even the brief flashes of machismo, as when Terry outlines his "philosophy of life" ("do it to him before he does it to you"), are more poignant than threatening.


Brando's portrayal crystallised elements from his earlier appearances: the self-examination of Wilocek; the anger of Kowalski: the martyrdom of Zapata; the righteousness of Antony; the posturing allure of Johnny - all are blended together in seamlessly crafted and tirelessly sustained performance that is a peak of screen naturalism.

All of Brando's appeal, and much of his significance for other actors, can be found in his portrayal of Terry Malloy. His subsequent career had, inevitably, a feeling of anti-climax about it.

Marlon Brando
His performance in Last Tango in Paris answered his critics
He made a few stabs at comedy but with little success (although he was brilliantly funny as Fletcher Christian in the early sections of the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty); he directed one film, the allegorical western One-Eyed Jacks (1961) but it was a costly failure; and he never again worked with Elia Kazan who had directed his so effectively in Streetcar, Zapata and Waterfront.

By the time he worked with Britain's Michael Winner on The Nightcomers (1971), a strange "prequel" to The Turn of the Screw, Brando appeared to be a spent force.

But in 1972, he came back with a vengeance in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and in Bernardo Bertolucci's controversial Last Tango in Paris.

Last glimpse

The first of these films re-established Brando as a Hollywood "player" (and gained him his second Oscar) but it was the Bertolucci film that revealed his richly textured talent to be wholly undiminished - his performance as Paul, a self-loathing widower exiled in Paris, was frighteningly truthful and spat in the faces of those critics who had written him off.

But it was to be the last glimpse at the shining brilliance of Brando's talent at full beam. The remaining films confirmed the notion that Brando had acquired a distaste for his craft, that he found it insignificant whose injustices troubled him so much (one of his most passionate commitments was to the rights of Native Americans).

His private life - always messy - took a tragic turn in his last years: his son Christian was jailed for killing his sister Cheyenne's boyfriend, and Cheyenne herself later committed suicide. These terrible events cost Brando dearly, emotionally and financially.

His talent offered no comfort. To the end, Brando played down his gifts and gently mocked his admirers. "I'm just another sonofabitch sitting in a motor home on a film set," he once said, "and they come looking for Zeus."

Now that Brando is no more, the necromancers who attach themselves to the shades of Monroe, Dean and Clift will again come looking for Zeus.

Just occasionally, when watching Brando's image on the screen, they may believe that they have found him. Good night, sweet prince.

  • Paul Ryan is the author of Marlon Brando: A Portrait (Plexus)

    The BBC's David Willis
    "A giant wreath has been laid on his star in Hollywood's walk of fame"

    Which was Marlon Brando's greatest film performance?
    Apocalypse Now
    A Streetcar Named Desire
    Last Tango in Paris
    The Godfather
    On The Waterfront
    26462 Votes Cast
    Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion


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