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Brando, Marlon (1924—)

Brando, Marlon (1924—)

Marlon Brando remains unchallenged as the most important actor in modern American Cinema, if not the greatest of all time. Though a number of mainstream critics were initially put off by his slouching, brooding "method" style, he was nominated for an Academy Award in only his second film, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and went on to repeat the accomplishment with each of his next three performances: Viva Zapata (1952), Julius Caesar (1953), and On The Waterfront (1954), with the latter performance finally resulting in the Oscar for best actor.

Handsome enough to be a leading man and gifted enough to lose himself in his characters, Brando brought an animalistic sensuality and rebelliousness to his portrayals unseen in Hollywood before. Not content with simply learning his lines and playing the character as written or directed, the actor became the author of his portrayals. He maintained the view throughout his life that actors cannot achieve greatness without holding a point of view about society, politics, and personal ethics. This has been reflected both in the characters that he has chosen to play (rebels on the fringes of society) and in the shadings that he has brought to them (ethical conflicts about living within or outside the law).

This philosophy was initially ingrained in Brando through his stint at New York's Actor's Studio where he studied with Elia Kazan and Stella Adler, who taught him "The Stanislavsky Method," a style of acting in which the performer internalizes the character he is playing to literally become one with his subject. This was considered a major revision of classic acting styles during the 1950s. Before The Actor's Studio, performers externalized their characters, merely adopting the physical features and gestures conducive to portraying them. Up-and-coming actors including Brando, Paul Newman, and James Dean shocked traditional actors and theater critics with the new style, but there was no argument that it was effective, as Brando was selected Broadway's most promising actor for his role in Truckline Café (1946).

As early as his first motion picture acting stint in Fred Zinneman's war film The Men (1950), Brando prepared for his part as a wheel chair-bound veteran by spending a month in a hospital viewing first hand the treatment and experiences of paraplegics. Based on his observations, he played his character as an embittered social reject straining against the restraints of his daily existence. From this point on, his performances came to symbolize the frustrations of a post war generation of Americans trying to come to terms with a society that had forgotten them.

His subsequent characters, including Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar and Terry Molloy in On the Waterfront, to cite two, were literally drawn from the ash heap of society. Brando's interpretation of the two men's speech patterns—though decried by critics as mumbling—actually conveyed a hint of innate if not animalistic intelligence as well as a suppressed power which threatened to erupt in violence. The force of this power is best seen in The Wild One, in which Brando plays Johnny, the rebellious leader of an outlaw motorcycle gang that takes over a small town in Northern California. Based on an actual 1947 incident in which a gang vandalized the town of Hollister, California, over the Fourth of July weekend, the story was the perfect vehicle for Brando to display his menacing, barely-controlled rage. When Brando is asked what he is rebelling against, he responds with the now famous, "What have you got?"

His rage seems more compelling when played against the overt violence of the other bikers because he appears to be so angry that he can't find the words. The audience dreads what will happen when he finally lets go. The interesting thing about the characterization is the fine line that Brando is walking. He is at once the protagonist of the film and, at the same time, potentially the villain, reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart's ambivalent Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936). As long as the violence bubbles beneath the surface, it is possible for the Brando character to be both sympathetic and menacing at the same time, as was Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar and the young Nazi officer in The Young Lions (1958).

Brando's interpretation marked a turning point in American films and effectively launched the era of the "rebel." Following the film's 1954 release, a succession of young outlaws appeared on the screen: James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955); Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock (1957) and a string of low budget biker films. Even Peter Fonda's hippie rebel character in 1969's Easy Rider and Charlie Sheen's rebel pitcher in 1989's Major League can trace their roots back to Brando's performance.

In his more finely modulated performances, the violence is translated into a brooding passion that is inner directed and reflects his characters' disillusionment with having whatever idealism and ideological purity they began with tempered by a reality that they are powerless to control. This is the Brando of Viva Zapata, The Godfather (1972), Last Tango in Paris (1972), and Quemada! (1969). In the first three, he is a man living outside the system who is battling in his own way to preserve his manhood and to keep from being ground beneath mainstream society's rules. In the final film, he is a man who has lost whatever idealism and freedom he once maintained and has learned that in order to survive he must not only play by but enforce the rules even though he is unhappy doing so.

In Zapata, Brando confronts the dilemma of an individual torn between spontaneous rebellion against injustice versus a full scale revolution to promulgate an abstract ideal. His Zapata is a contradictory character; on one hand full of zeal to right the wrongs that the government has done to the people and fighting for agrarian land reform; on the other, ill at ease with the larger issues of social reform and the institution of a new system of government. The character's inner naiveté is revealed in one particularly sensitive scene preceding Zapata's meeting with President Madero in which he confides to his new bride that he is ill at ease because he does not know how to read. The two sit on the edge of the bed and she begins to teach him in one of the most emotional moments in the film. This scene is reminiscent of Johnny's attempt at making love to Kathie in The Wild One in which he displays a conflicted vulnerability and allows the woman to take charge.

This fundamental contradiction in Brando's characters is evident in his depiction of Don Corleone in The Godfather, in which he presents a Mafia chieftain who is comfortable killing men who oppose him and yet can express the deepest tenderness toward the downtrodden and those that he loves. Corleone is no less of a rebel than Zapata. Living on the outskirts of a system that he routinely circumvents for profit and, in a strange way, to achieve justice for the lower echelons of society, he is still, at heart, a rebel. Brando carries this portrayal a step farther in Last Tango in Paris when his depiction of Paul not only reveals a man's internal conflicts but actually questions the idea of animal masculinity that typified his characters in the 1950s.

Yet, between his dominant performances in the 1950s and what many consider to be his re-emergence in 1972, his career was sidetracked, in the opinion of many critics, by some dubious roles during the 1960's. Such films as One Eyed Jacks (1961), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), The Ugly American (1962), The Chase (1966), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), however, still indicate his concern for social injustice and display his characteristic shaping of his characters to reveal the basic conflicts inside all men.

In what a number of film scholars consider to be Brando's real renaissance, 1969's Quemada! (Burn), directed by Italy's revolutionary filmmaker Gilo Pontecorvo, he gave what may arguably be his finest performance as a conflicted anti-revolutionary. In his previous film, Battle of Algiers (1965), Pontecorvo established a film tantamount to a textbook both for initiating and defeating terrorism. But in Burn, through the character of British Governor Sir William, Pontecorvo establishes the premise and the practice for effecting a revolution and at the same time shows why it could never succeed. Brando's performance as a man who, as a youth, shared the idealism and concepts of social freedom promulgated by the revolutionaries, but who now knows why such movements must necessarily fail, is a tour de force. He comes across as a man who is still a rebel but who is also aware of the path of military history. Emotionally he is storming the barricades but intellectually he knows what the inevitable outcome will be. On the latter level, his manner reflects the attitude of his earlier character, Major Penderton (in Reflections), but on the former level he is the emotional voice crying out to the deaf ears of imperialists as in 1963's The Ugly American.

Brando's social sympathies can be seen in his own life as well. For example he had an American Indian woman pick up his second Oscar for the Godfather and make some remarks about the treatment of native Americans in the United States. He lives outside of the Hollywood milieu, sometimes in the South Pacific working on environmental concerns, other times in the San Fernando Valley. He works only infrequently and expresses a disdain for the type of material currently being produced in Hollywood, although he does emerge every so often for outrageous sums of money if a role that interests him presents itself. He usually imbues these characters with qualities and social concerns that were not in the original scripts and tends to play them a bit "over the top" (see Superman [1978] and Apocalypse Now [1979]). Yet, he is also not above poking fun at himself as he did in 1990's The Freshman, in which he reprised his Don Corleone role, albeit in a satirical manner.

Marlon Brando is one of the few actors of his generation whose entire body of work—both good performances and those of lesser impact—reflect his social concerns, his celebration of the downtrodden, and his examination of the nature of man and the exercise of power. In this respect, he is a true auteur in every sense of the word, shading all of his portrayals with the contradictions inherent in the individual and in society itself. As Mark Kram stated in a November, 1989, Esquire article: "there are people who, when they cease to shock us, cease to interest us. Brando no longer shocks, yet, he continues to be of perennial interest, some of it because of what he did on film, some of it because he resists definition, and maybe mostly because he rejects, by his style of living and his attitudes, much of what we are about as a nation and people. He seems to have glided into the realm of folk mystery, the kind that fires attempts at solution."

—Steve Hanson

Further Reading:

Braithwaite, Bruce. The Films of Marlon Brando. St. Paul, Minnesota, Greenhaven Press, 1978.

Brando, Anna Kashfi. Brando for Breakfast. New York, Crown, 1979.

Brando, Marlon. Songs My Mother Taught Me. New York, Random House, 1994.

Carey, Gary. Marlon Brando: The Only Contender. New York, St.Martin's Press, 1986.

Frank, Alan G. Marlon Brando. New York, Exeter Books, 1982.

Grobel, Lawrence. Conversations with Brando. New York, Hyperion, 1991.

Higham, Charles. Brando: The Unauthorized Biography. New York, New American Library, 1987.

Kram, Mark. "American Originals: Brando." Esquire. November1989, 157-160.

McCann, Graham. Rebel Males: Clift, Brando, and Dean. NewBrunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Schickel, Richard. Brando: A Life in Our Times. New York, Atheneum, 1991.

Schirmer, Lothar. Marlon Brando: Portraits and Stills 1946-1995 with an Essay by Truman Capote. New York, Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1996.

Shipman, David. Brando. London, Macmillan, 1974.

Webster, Andy. "Marlon Brando." Premiere. October 1994, 140.

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