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Marlon Brando at 100 - Mark McGinness

Blog | By Mark McGinness | Apr 07, 2024

Marlon Brando would have turned 100 on 3 April. Mark McGinness salutes him

A transformative figure in film and one of the greatest actors of his time. The New York Times's Rick Lyman saw him as “a truly revolutionary presence who strode through American popular culture like lightning on legs.”

His friend and neighbour, Jack Nicholson, acclaimed his gift as “enormous and flawless, like Picasso.” Elvis and James Dean, Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan would model themselves on him.

And yet, as Lyman observed, like Orson Welles, another acting colossus, here was a legend built on a surprisingly small number of roles.

Born on April 3, 1924 in Omaha, the son of 2 alcoholics: an abusive father - a middle-class businessman - and a disappointed actress mother with the soul of an artist.

He was expelled from the Shattuck Military Academy, Faribault, Minnesota. He learned much from his beloved teacher, Stella Adler, and the New School. His first role there was as Jesus in 1944. Elaine Stritch quipped, “Marlon's going to school to learn the Method was like sending a tiger to jungle school.” He would also acknowledge the genius of Elia Kazan, the director of two of his best roles.

In 1947 he exploded onto the stage as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire - the sweaty t-shirt & tight blue jeans became a uniform for generations. He repeated the triumph on film - with Vivien Leigh as Blanche. He was an actor who came on the scene and changed the history of acting.” All the cast won Oscars - except Brando.

In 1953, ‘Mumbles’ played a credible British Marc Antony beside John Gielgud (as Cassius) and James Mason (as Brutus) in Julius Caesar, for which he was, rather strangely, won a BAFTA for ‘Bets Foreign Actor’.

He was the leather-clad biker in The Wild One, where he is asked by a small-town matron what he's rebelling against. "What'ya'got?" he responds. Now that’s Attitude.

Finally - fourth time lucky after four consecutive nominations - he won his Best Actor Oscar for his tormented stevedore, Terry Malloy, in On the Waterfront.

He impressed with his range - playing Napoleon in Désirée. He even sang ‘Luck Be My Lady’ in Guys and Dolls. He co-starred – unhappily - with Frank Sinatra who called him ‘Mumbles’. Brando said of him, “Frank is the kind of guy, when he dies, he's going to heaven and give God a hard time for making him bald.”

He didn't seem to care what Hollywood thought of him. "The only reason I'm here is that I don't yet have the moral courage to turn down the money."

By 1962 and Mutiny on the Bounty he had ballooned, from 170 to 210 pounds - 'Mutiny of the Body'? Filming was hellish but he fell in love with Tahiti & with his co-star, Tarita Teriipia. Four years later he bought his own atoll — Tetiaroa, a sickle of palm & sand surrounding a green lagoon and for most of the rest of his life, he split his time between the South Pacific and his Los Angeles estate on Mulholland Drive.

Richard Schickel, perhaps his best biographer, suggested that he never felt the true compulsion to go on acting and just“drifted into self-absorption.”

For almost two decades he seemed to do little – but eat. Then in 1972 came a remarkable revival.

Fearful that Brando would resist a screen test, Francis FordCoppola, asked him to do a "makeup test." Coppola and his crew turned up at Mulholland Drive, where Brando seemed to ignore them. He then sat down put Kleenex in his cheeks, slicked back his hair, affected a raspy voice, transforming himself into Don Corleone, The Godfather.

The New Yorker’s legendary critic, Pauline Kael thought him “marvellous.” She had seen him onstage in 1946 in Truckline Café and so extraordinary was he in one scene she thought he was having a seizure (and in fact, so did his co-star). Here as Corleone “…the battered face of a devious, combative old man, & a pugnacious thrust to his jaw. ……..Brando interiorizes Don Vito’s power, makes him less physically threatening & deeper, hidden within himself.” The dying Don she found particularly brilliant, “he gradually takes Don Vito to the close of his life, when he moves into the sunshine world, a sleepy monster, near to innocence again. The character is all echoes and shadings, and no noise; his strength is in that armor of quiet. Brando has lent Don Vito some of his own mysterious, courtly reserve".

Att the the Oscars, he sent an actress, Sacheen Littlefeather, in his place.When Roger Moore attempted to hand the statuette to her, she brushed it aside and said that Mr. Brando "very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award" because of the way American Indians had been treated by Hollywood. John Wayne was furious.

His personal life was more fractured and ultimately more tragic than any role he played.He was said to have had affairs with Jacqueline Kennedy and Jackie Collins, James Dean and (though his daughter disputes it) Richard Pryor. In 1990 one of his sons, Christian, shot and killed the boyfriend of his half-sister, Cheyenne. He was jailed for manslaughter. Cheyenne took her life in 1995.

His first wife, Anna Kashfi, once wrote: “He had the features of a man whose inner turmoil was preparing an organised escape.”

In later years, only his fees would match his weight. In 1978, he took $4 million for five minutes on the screen as the father of Superman. In 1979, he earned $9 million (including a share of the profits) for 15 minutes (one month’s work) as crazy Colonel Walter Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

His last film was The Score (2001), playing a mastermindwhile being third-billed to Robert De Niro and Edward Norton. But, as The Independent’s John Walsh saw it, “you could not take your eyes off him: resplendent in bulk, magnificent in talent.”

Magnus Linklater reflected after Brando’s death, at 80, in July 2004, “Far from being the victim of his own success, he remained, from beginning to end, entirely his own man. Mutinous, scornful of fame, he rejected not only the trappings of Hollywood success but even the legitimacy of his own profession."

Budd Schulberg, who wrote the screenplay for On The Waterfront, spoke to the actor Harry Dean Stanton (for Vanity Fair). Stanton was a neighbour and confidant of Brando's in Mulholland Drive in his last years. "One time Marlon suddenly asked me, 'What do you think of me?,'" Stanton said. "And I said, 'What do I think of you? I think you are nothing. NOTHING!' And Marlon began to laugh, and he went on laughing and laughing."

It seems exactly what he wanted to hear. The man was a mystery - but what a towering talent.