Today is the birthday of the late Marlon Brando, one of the great American actors in the entire history of cinema, who crafted a kind of acting style based on a term called method, and wound up parlaying that boundless craft into some of the biggest and renowned Hollywood films of all time, like On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, 1978’s Superman, where he played the biological father of the Man of Steel, and of course the larger than life titular character of The Godfather, a film that has as much iconic status as the man himself, still has a influential shadow and presence over any actor who pushes himself to limits no acting schools could have ever have taught them.
There’s definitely two kinds of Marlon Brando that most people remember. One is a mumbling and reckless outlaw style figure, an original bad boy who later contemporaries like Mickey Rourke and Brad Pitt would attempt to emulate in their worlds away from the Hollywood soundstage, who sported a voice that was endlessly imitated, but with a passion that ran as high as the peaks of Mount Everest; then there’s Brando the actor, who went to areas in his acting styles where he literally morphed into his characterizations, with a brash, bold, fearless ego that ran to the rafters, kind of like from the camp of a Richard Burton, but without much of that man’s excess. Marlon Brando almost blended the raw nerves of the most naked theater portrayals of honest, anguished characters and fused them with a verve and confidence that made anything he did, especially in his early years of his career, so magnetic and powder keg rich, that he stood way above a Golden Age of actors pack.
There was no one like him, and most everyone who followed him, emulated some sort of Brando quality in their works; it’s safe to say that people like Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, and their ilk and Hollywood brethren would not have existed, or at least in the memorable forms that they are best known for in the best work they are known for, without tipping their acting caps to the mindblowing and eye-opening craft of Marlon Brando. It’s like the craft before him, as great as many actors who preceded him in Tinseltown were and remain, is like one big piece of granite, which, by the time Brando got to it, was able to chisel it and shape it into a form, a tool, which became the absolute rule book that most everyone in his wake devoured and studied, like a biblical tome.
But Brando never saw it like that himself. His sly wink and sharp mind never let him let his guard down. He always downplayed his craft and art, never acknowledged what he was. Instead, he kind of remained like a mythological icon high atop on a marble pedestal, decked in robes and silently sitting there. He let his presence do the talking, his visage, a stunningly handsome one in his early years, and it didn’t matter what kind of role he was playing, be it the down-on-his-luck loser who still hasn’t lost his confidence Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (which sports one of the most classic lines in film history when Brando as Malloy talks about how he “could have been a contender”), or Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, or the reckless I-am-a-juvenile-delinquent in The Wild One (not to be confused with Sam Peckinpah’s later apoplectic Western The Wild Bunch, which a lot of people have been wont to do), the sheer powerhouse image of Marlon Brando was a typhoon on the screen, a force that couldn’t be reckoned with, the axis to every other person who shared the screen with him.
His career dipped a bit as the 1960s went on, and then he was almost “rescued” from oblivion when he took on the role as Don Corleone in the film adaptation of Mario Puzo’s smash pulpy Mafia fictionalization, The Godfather, in 1972. That film cemented Brando’s status in Hollywood, brought him to the A-list again, in fact, even higher somehow, back on that pedestal again of adoration amongst his peers, and the most amazing feat was the fact that he didn’t have much screen time in the film, but the enigmatic patriarchal character of Corleone mirrored the real man, and like him, still had a looming presence that covered the entire film, even scenes he wasn’t present in. The success of The Godfather, and notoriety he suffered when he refused the Best Actor Academy Award he won the following year, protesting the generous prize given to him because of the industry’s shabby treatment of the American Indian, a cause he would obsessively manifest for the rest of his life, only strengthened the Brando legend.
Films like the sensual and risk taking Last Tango in Paris, The Missouri Breaks, and his role as Jor-El in Superman, in which by that point, it would have seemed unthinkable that anyone but him could have successfully played Superman’s father, and as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, kept him in the public eye and were roles that continued to challenge him. He continued to make films as the years went on, and even if the quality of them started to die down, his legend didn’t. And even though he may have exhibited some bizarre behaviors later in life, and gained weight which almost made the Brando of the halcyon days of the 1950s seem like they were made by another human being altogether, no doubt caused by family tragedies that occurred at the time, he still remained a luminary in his industry that was still the benchmark and high water mark for many of his colleagues and the newer generations of fans who discovered him via home and cable mediums. By the time of his death in 2004 at the age of 80, and then for much after it up until this present day, Marlon Brando remains one of the true iconic figures and status symbols for what an actor can achieve within himself and on the screen, of all time.
There’s no escaping the man’s image anyhow, and luckily for us, there never will be an option to, as The Godfather still remains one of American cinema’s greatest achievements, Marlon Brando contributing as much to that success as anybody else importantly connected with that film. It seems to have a life of its own, and like Gone With the Wind, remains a fan favorite for all eternity. It almost is like an event when the picture is going to be aired on a cable channel or a viewer is about to watch it in their own home from their own personal collection. What it also solidifies, among many of his other classic works of cinema, is that Marlon Brando will always be in our collective consciousness, not because his image is there, as strong and memorable in the same manner as Marilyn Monroe’s or James Dean’s are in terms of iconic mythos, but also transcending all consciousness, because he was an actor who raised his own art and sensibilities as high as he could and when he got there, somehow stretched it even further.