“I thought it would be interesting to play a gangster, maybe for the first time in the movies, who wasn’t like those bad guys Edward G. Robinson played, but who is kind of a hero, a man to be respected. Also, because he had so much power and unquestioned authority, I thought it would be an interesting contrast to play him as a gentle man, unlike Al Capone, who beat up people with baseball bats.”
– Marlon Brando on The Godfather
American actor, director and activist, Marlon Brando had a reputation for being difficult to work with, a reputation which almost saw him dismissed from some of his most iconic roles. Born on April 3, 1924 to Marlon Brando Sr and Dorothy Julia, Brando had two older sisters. His mother was considered unconventional for the time, an actress herself, she smoked, wore trousers and drove cars. She was a theatre administrator, credited for helping Henry Fonda begin his career, and an alcoholic. His parents separated when he was eleven but reunited in 1937 and moved back in together. Around this time Brando worked as an usher at the town’s only movie theatre, The Liberty.
Brando was a mimic from his youth, absorbing the mannerisms of kids he played with, and he was later expelled from Libertyville High School for riding his motorcycle through the corridors. He was sent to Shattuck Military Academy where he excelled at theatre but would eventually drop out and begin work as a ditch – digger.
Brando decided to follow his sisters to New York and studied at the American Theatre Wing Professional School. He became an avid student and proponent of Stella Adler from whom he learnt the techniques of the Stanislavski System which encouraged actors to explore their own feelings and past experiences to realise the character they were portraying. This technique is commonly referred to as method acting.
From the beginning, Brando established a pattern of erratic, insubordinate behaviour in the shows he starred in early on in his career. In 1944 he made it to Broadway in I Remember Mama and A Flag is Born in 1946. The year before, Brando’s agent recommended he accept a co-starring role in The Eagle Has Two Heads with Tallulah Bankhead, who had turned down the role of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, which Tennessee Williams had written for her. Bankhead recognised Brando’s potential and despite her disdain for the method acting he employed, she agreed to hire him even though he auditioned poorly.
The two actors clashed badly and after several weeks of touring the production they landed in Boston, by which time she was ready to dismiss him. This proved to be one of the greatest blessings of his career as it freed him up to play the role of Stanley Kowalski in Williams’ 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan. Despite their animosity, Bankhead had recommended Brando to Williams for the role, feeling he would be perfect. Despite originally wanting John Garfield for the role and reservation about Brando’s inexperience and youth, Williams’ wrote too his agent:
“It had not occurred to me before what an excellent value would come through casting a very young actor in this part. It humanises the character of Stanley in that it becomes the brutality and callousness of youth rather than a vicious old man … A new value came out of Brando’s reading which was by far the best reading I have ever heard.”
In 1947 Brando performed a screen test for an early Warner Brothers script for the novel Rebel Without a Cause, which bore no relation to the film produced later in 1955.
The actor’s first screen role was in The Men (1950) which was positively received by critics. It was around this time that he had a long standing knee injury fixed which allowed him to enlist in the Army. At the induction he answered the questionnaire by saying his race was “human” and his colour was “seasonal-oyster white to beige”. Brando never served in the military during the Korean War.
Brando brought his portrayal of Stanley Kowalski to the silver screen in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and this role is widely considered to be one of his greatest. The reception of his performance was so positive he quickly became a Hollywood sex symbol and earned his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. He was also nominated the next year for Viva Zapata! (1952).
His next film in 1953 was as Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar which received highly favourable reviews. While many acknowledged Brando’s talent, some critics felt his “mumbling” and other idiosyncrasies betrayed a lack of acting fundamentals, which was not aided by the fact that the actor insisted on cue cards with his lines on them, a method he preferred to learning his lines. Many critics did not hold much hope for his long term prospects as an actor. In 1953 Brando also starred in The Wild One, riding his own Triumph Thunderbird 6T motorcycle. The film inspired teen rebellion and made him a role model to the rock ‘n’ role generation, much to Brando’s puzzlement, with the sale of leather jackets and jeans skyrocketing.
In 1954 Brando starred in On the Waterfront, a role which won him an Oscar and was highly praised by critics and the public. For the famous “I could have been a contender” scene, the actor convinced director Kazan, that the original scripted scene was unrealistic. Brando was allowed to improvise the entire scene and Kazan would later express deep admiration for his instinctive understanding of the role.
Brando’s first six films – The Men, A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar, The Wild One and On the Waterfront – were largely all great successes, setting a standard of excellence that would sustain him throughout his career, but it would be a standard that the actor himself would have difficulty retaining. As the decade continued, his performances continued to be big box office draw cards but critics felt his performances were half-hearted and lacked the intensity of his earlier work.
Unfortunately the 1960s would not prove to be a successful decade for Brando’s career, with the star becoming increasingly more dissatisfied with the film industry. This revulsion reportedly boiled over on the set of the MGM remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) which was filmed in Tahiti. The actor was accused of deliberately sabotaging nearly every aspect of production, with the film nearly capsizing MGM and the accusations haunting the actor for years. Critics began to focus on his difficult reputation and his fluctuating weight.
Acting became a means to an end for Brando and while previously he had only ever signed short term contracts with studios, in 1961 he uncharacteristically signed a five picture deal with Universal Studios. A decision that would haunt him for the rest of the decade. The Ugly American (1963) was the first of these films and while he was nominated for a Golden Globe, it bombed at the box office. All of Brando’s other films for Universal during this period were critical and commercial flops. A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) in particular was a disappointment for Brando, who had looked forward to working with one of his heroes, director Charlie Chaplin. He was horrified at Chaplin’s didactic style of direction and his authoritarian approach.
Throughout the 1960s, Brando had lost much of his critical and commercial appeal and by the dawn of the 1970s he was widely considered “unbankable”, with critics becoming increasingly dismissive of his work. He had not appeared in a box office hit since The Young Lions in 1958, so when he was approached to play Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972) he could not have known what a turning point it would be for his career. The Francis Ford Coppola adaptation of Mario Puzo’s novel put Brando back on top and won him his second Best Actor Oscar.
Perhaps difficult to believe now, but at the time Paramount did not want Brando for the film, with the President of the studio telling Coppola, “As long as I’m president of this studio, Marlon Brando will not be in this picture, and I will no longer allow you to discuss it.” After much negotiation, he was cast on three conditions – that he would accept a fee far below what he typically received, he’d agree to accept financial responsibility for any production delays his behaviour caused and he had to submit to a screen test. Brando was signed for the low fee of $50,000 but in his contract he was given a percentage of the gross on a sliding scale – 1% of the gross for each $10 million over a $10 million threshold, up to 5% if the picture exceeded $60 million. But due to his need of funds, Brando sold back his points in the picture for $100,000. That $1000,000 cost him $11 million.
The actor followed this success with the Bernardo Bertolucci 1972 film Last Tango in Paris. Considered a highly controversial film, it was a great hit and Brando made the list of the top ten box office stars for the last time. He also received his seventh Best Actor Academy Award nomination.
In 1979 Brando once again teamed up with Francis Ford Coppola in the Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now. The actor was paid $1 million for three weeks work, with the film drawing attention for its lengthy and troubled production. Brando had gained so much weight that the ending had to be re-written to accommodate it and many scenes had to be re-shot to hide his size. Upon release the film gained critical acclaim, as did Brando’s performance.
After a few poorly received performances at the beginning of the 1980s, Brando made the decision to retire from acting, returning to the silver screen intermittently for the remainder of his life.
Over the course of his life, Brando married three times and had numerous affairs, including an apparent long term affiliation with Marilyn Monroe. Although the total number is undetermined, at the time of his death on July 1, 2004 from respiratory failure and congestive heart failure, the actor had fourteen children and thirty grandchildren.
Brando will be remembered for some of the most iconic roles in cinematic history, as well as his continued support and active participation in the African-American Civil Rights Movement as well as many other causes. A controversial figure, Brando will forever be known for his powerful performances and unconventional techniques.