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Marlon Brando: The Godfather of American Actors

Brando, Gore Vidal, Karl Malden, Marc Antony

Marlon Brando is widely acknowledged to be the greatest movie actor of all time, yet, in America, there is still a lingering sense of disappointment in his career, the feeling that he did not extract the most from his phenomenal talent and thus, had cheated his audience. (In their feelings of cultural inferiority vis-à-vis Europe, Americans also were disappointed that Brando did not challenge, and best, Britain’s claimant to the heavyweight title of acting, Sir Laurence, later Lord Olivier.) As Gore Vidal said of Orson Welles’ critics, Americans have the erroneous idea that if a genius is not continuing to put out work of the caliber that made their reputation, they are no longer a genius. Americans are so focused on the “What have you down for me lately” point-of-view, it makes them consider an artist’s brilliant successes of the past to be evidence of failure in the here and now. It is the syndrome encapsulated by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Yet, Brando did have a second act, then chose to walk away from it all. That is not something the American psyche easily can deal with.

The young Brando’s performances as a stage actor in Maxwell Anderson’s Truckline Café and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire are the stuff of legend. Like his contemporary Richard Burton, he stunned audiences with a preternatural stage presence that utterly dominated the rest of the cast, the audience, and the play itself. Brando was the first great, pure actor since John Barrymore to achieve superstar status, and after making his bones in Hollywood in the early ’50s, he never returned to the stage, except for a brief stint in summer stock with friends. As his star dimmed with a string of box office failures in the 1960s, Brando was criticized for not going back on stage and recharging his batteries, but it was a false analogy for, though the films themselves might be weak, Brando was doing some of the best acting of his career in what was proving to be flop after flop at the box office. Is there any wonder that the intelligent and sensitive Brando, when given a second shot at superstardom with the twin successes of The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris in 1972 and ’73, turned his back on it? He did, in the time honored American fashion, “take the money and run”, but a second round of movie superstardom did not beguile him. Many critics and fans never forgave him, just as many earlier hadn’t forgiven him for not becoming the “American Olivier”.

No actor ever exerted such a profound influence on succeeding generations of actors as did Marlon Brando. More than 50 years after he first scorched the screen as Stanley Kowalski in the movie version of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and a quarter-century after his last great performance as Col. Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), all American actors are still being measured by the yardstick that was Brando. It was if the shadow of John Barrymore, the great American actor closest to Brando in terms of talent and stardom, had dominated the acting field up until the 1970s. He did not, nor did any other actor so dominate the public’s consciousness of what WAS an actor before or since Brando’s on-screen portrayal of Stanley made him a cultural icon. Brando made Barrymore obsolete, just as he made obsolete the playing of Hamlet as a prerequisite of acting prowess. Brando eclipsed the reputation of other great actors circa 1950, such as Paul Muni and Frederic March. (Only the luster of Spencer Tracy’s reputation hasn’t dimmed when seen in the starlight thrown off by Brando.) However, neither Tracy nor Olivier created an entire school of acting just by the force of his personality. Brando did.

The “Godfather” of American acting was born Marlon Brando Jr. on April 3, 1924, in Omaha, Nebraska and nicknamed “Bud” by his family. His father, Marlon Brando, Sr., was a calcium carbonate salesman, and his mother, the former Dorothy Pennebaker, was artistically inclined and enjoyed acting. Bud Brando was the youngest of three children, and the only boy. His oldest sister Jocelyn Brando also acted, taking after their mother, who engaged in amateur theatricals and mentored a then-unknown Henry Fonda, another Nebraska native, in her role as director of the Omaha Community Playhouse. Frannie, Brando’s other sibling, was a visual artist. When the family moved to Libertyville, Illinois, Marlon met and befriended a young Wally Cox, who became his life-long friend and a surrogate brother.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” wrote Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. The Brando family was an unhappy one, destabilized by the alcoholism of both parents. (“I come from a long line of Irish drunks,” Brando would tell the court during his son Christian’s murder trial.) Dottie Brando blamed her husband, Marlon, Sr., for the stymieing of her acting aspirations. Both Brando sisters contrived to leave the Midwest for New York City, Jocelyn to study acting and Frannie to study art. They were joined for long stretches of time by their mother, who would bring along the family dog, a black Great Dane bitch yclept “Dutchie” whom Bud would immortalize in a bedroom riff in Last Tango in Paris thirty years later.

Young Bud suffered from dyslexia, and he eventually was exiled to his father’s alma mater, Shattuck Military Academy, where he was tested and found to have a slightly below average I.Q of 91. (Richard Burton, an acquaintance via Brando’s friendship with his wife Elizabeth Taylor, wrote in his diaries that Brando was, in fact, very highly intelligent, but tried to mask it.) Bud managed to escape the vocational doldrums forecast for him by his cold, distant father and his disapproving schoolteachers by getting thrown out of Shattuck in his senior year for being an incorrigible discipline problem. He tried to join the Army, but a knee injury suffered while playing football at Shattuck exempted him from serving in World War II. With nowhere else to go, nothing else to do, he struck out for The Big Apple in 1943, determined to follow Jocelyn into the acting profession. (Years later, when his friend George Englund urged him to play Lear on Broadway, he dismissed the suggestion out of hand. “Georgie, you know I only went to acting school to get laid.)

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Acting was the only thing he was good at, for which he had received praise, so he was determined to make it his career: As a high-school dropout, he had nothing else to fall back on. He had segued into acting as a young boy, trying to attract the attention of his mother when she was drunk, which was frequent. He would make faces and act out scenarios in order to amuse her, a process which likely ensured that acting would always be linked to intense personal pain and a feeling of worthlessness and vulnerability, a reason he likely walked away from acting in the late 1970s.

His salesman father was often away on the road, and mother Dorothy — often intoxicated to the point of stupefaction — was exceedingly neglectful, but he loved her fiercely. As a boy, he had had to go down to the police station to pick up his mother, who was in the drunk tank, shorn of clothes. It was a nightmare that encouraged a retreat into the fantasy of play-acting. He would always compliment his mother for instilling in him a love of nature, a feeling which informed his character Paul in Last Tango in Paris, when in an autobiographical riff based on an improvisation, the character recalls his childhood for his young lover Jeanne.

“I don’t have many good memories,” Paul confesses, and neither did Brando of his childhood.

Brando would later write, “When you are a child who is unwanted or unwelcome, and the essence of what you are seems to be unacceptable, you look for an identity that will be acceptable.” Acting enabled him to try on new identities to compensate for the feelings of worthlessness engendered by his parents.

His Viva Zapata (1952) co-star Anthony Quinn later told Brando’s first wife, Anna Kashfi, “I admire Marlon’s talent, but I don’t envy the pain that creates it”. The pain experienced by the traumatized boy may very well have been the grains that irritated the oyster of his talent, producing the pearls of his performances. If this is true, then one can understand the contempt Brando later had for acting.

To learn the craft, Brando enrolled in Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop at New York’s New School, and was mentored by Stella Adler, a member of the famous Yiddish Theatre acting family sired by Jacob Adler, one of the greatest actors produced by the United States. Through her association with the left-wing Group Theatre, Stella Adler helped introduce to the New York stage the “emotional memory” technique of the Russian theatrical actor, director and impresario Konstantin Stanislavsky, whose motto was, “Think of your own experiences and use them truthfully.” Although Stanislavsky had long been known to the anglo-American stage — Laurence Olivier had studied Stanislavsky as a tyro actor in London during the 1920s — Adler’s translation of his techniques yielded a philosopher’s stone where American acting would be transmuted into gold.

Adler was the true creator of Method acting, not Lee Strasberg, who would later claim the title. The Method was rooted in Adler’s study at the Moscow Art Theatre of Stanislavsky’s theories, subsequently introduced by her to the Group Theatre. It was a more naturalistic style of performing, as it engendered a close identification of the actor with the character’s emotions. Essentially, Adler’s method emphasized that authenticity in acting is achieved by drawing on inner reality to expose deep emotional experience. Her method’s naturalism and truth made it ideal for the progressive dramas that the Group Theatre was dedicated to presenting. Adler took first place among Brando’s acting teachers, and socially she helped turn him from an unsophisticated Midwestern farm boy into a knowledgeable and cosmopolitan artist who one day would socialize with the President of the United States. (He dated Adler’s daughter, and their embrace of the Protestant-born Bud Brando enabled him to absorb the Adler family’s wisdom via osmosis. I’m all Jew,” he would say 30 years later, as a way of honoring them.) The results of this meeting between actor and teacher would revolutionized American acting and culture.

Brando debuted on the Broadway boards on October 19, 1944, as the Norwegian-American boy Nels in I Remember Mama, a great success. Subsequently, Brando was invited by talent scouts from several different studios to screen-test for them, but he turned them down because he would not let himself be bound by the then-standard seven-year contract. Brando would make his film debut some time later in Fred Zinnemann’s
Men (1950) for socially-conscious producer Stanley Kramer, one of the great liberals of Hollywood. Playing a paraplegic soldier, Brando brought new levels of realism to the screen, expanding on the verisimilitude brought to movies by Group Theatre alumni John Garfield, the precursor closest to him in terms of the raw magnetism he projected on-screen.

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Ironically, it was Garfield whom producer Irene Mayer Selznick had chosen to play the lead in a new Tennessee Williams play she was about to produce, but negotiations broke down when Garfield demanded an ownership stake in A Streetcar Named Desire. Burt Lancaster was next approached, but couldn’t get out of a prior film commitment. Then, director Elia Kazan (also a Group Theatre alumnus) suggested Brando, whom he had directed to great effect in Maxwell Anderson’s play Truckline Café, in which Brando co-starred with Karl Malden, who was to remain a close friend for the next 60 years.

During the production of Truckline Café, Kazan had found that Brando’s presence was so magnetic, he had to re-block the play to keep Marlon near other major characters’ stage business, as the audience could not take its eyes off of him. For the scene where Brando’s character re-enters the stage after killing his wife, Kazan placed him upstage-center before his entrance, partially obscured by scenery, but where the audience could still see him as Malden and others played out their scene within the café set. When he eventually entered the scene, crying, the effect was electric. A young Pauline Kael, who would go on to become the greatest movie critic in America, had arrived late to the play; she averted her eyes when Brando made this entrance as she believed the young actor on stage was having a real-life conniption. She did not look back until her escort commented that the young man on stage was a great actor. (He won the Donaldson Award for the 1945-46 season for the performance.)

The problem with casting Brando as Stanley was that he was much younger than the character as written by Williams. However, after a meeting between Brando and Williams, the playwright eagerly agreed that Brando would make an ideal Stanley. Williams believed that by casting a younger actor, the Neanderthalish Kowalski would evolve from being a vicious older man to someone whose unintentional cruelty can be attributed to his youthful ignorance.

During the out-of-town tryouts, Kazan realized that Brando’s magnetism was attracting attention and audience sympathy away from Blanche to Stanley, which was not what the playwright intended. Kazan knew that the audience’s sympathy should be solely with Blanche, but many spectators were identifying with Stanley. Kazan queried Williams on the matter, broaching the idea of a slight rewrite to tip the scales back to more of a balance between Stanley and Blanche, but Williams demurred, smitten as he was by Brando, just like the preview audiences. (This young man, indeed, was a great actor, and many would resent it, when he left the stage, as they relished the idea of seeing that greatness in the flesh again.)

Brando ultimately was dissatisfied with his performance, though, saying he never was able to bring out the humor of the character, which was ironic as his characterization often drew laughs from the audience at the expense of Jessica Tandy’s Blanche Dubois. Brando himself believed that the audience sided with his Stanley because Tandy was too shrill in the part. He thought Vivien Leigh, who played the part in the movie, was ideal, as she was not only a great beauty but she WAS Blanche Dubois, plagued as she was in her real life by mental illness and nymphomania. (Brando was enormously attracted to Leigh, but he demurred from trying to seduce her as the thought that “Larry” Olivier, he husband who had accompanied her to Hollywood to watch out for her, was such a nice guy, he didn’t deserve another fox raiding “his chicken coop”.)

Brando’s appearance as Stanley on stage and on screen revolutionized American acting by introducing “The Method” into American consciousness and culture. Brando didn’t like the term “The Method,” which quickly became the prominent paradigm taught by such acting gurus as Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. Much later, Brando denounced Strasberg in his 1994 autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me, saying that he was a talentless exploiter who claimed he had been Brando’s mentor. The Actors Studio had been founded by Strasberg along with Kazan and Stella Adler’s husband, Harold Clurman, all Group Theatre alumni, and all political progressives deeply committed to the didactic function of the stage. Brando credits his knowledge of the craft to Adler and Kazan, while Kazan in his autobiography A Life claimed that Brando’s genius thrived due to the thorough training Adler had given him.

Interestingly, Kazan believed that Brando had ruined two generations of actors, his contemporaries and those who came after him, all wanting to emulate the great Brando by employing The Method. Kazan felt that Brando was never a Method actor, that he had been highly trained by Adler and did not rely on gut instincts for his performances, as was commonly believed. Many a young actor, mistaken about the true roots of Brando’s genius, thought that all it took to create great acting was to find a character’s motivation, empathize with the character through sense and memory association, and regurgitate it all on stage, in essence, becoming the character. That’s not how the superbly trained Brando did it; he could, for example, play accents, whereas your average American Method actor could not. There was a method to Brando’s art, Kazan felt, but it was not The Method. (The whole reduction ad absurdum of The Method to motivation was lampooned on a 1959 episode of The Twilight Zone, in which a boorish Method actor played by Brando look-alike Burt Reynolds repeatedly queries, “What’s my motivation?”)

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Reprising Stanley Kowalski on screen created a huge cultural phenomenon, with many a tee-shirted young swain yelling “Stella!” to impress the local mademoiselles. Brando received the first of his eight Academy Award nominations for the role (and was the only principal in the cast who didn’t win), then presented his audience with three more Oscar-nominated performances, in Viva Zapata! (1952), Julius Caesar (1953) (yes, the young American acting genius could play Shakespeare), and the summit of his early career, Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). For his Waterfront portrayal of meat-headed longshoreman-cum-snitch Terry Malloy, the washed-up pug who “coulda been a contender,” Brando won his first Oscar.

He peppered this impressive string of performances with his iconic performance as the rebel-without-a-cause Johnny in The Wild One (1954) (“What are you rebelling against?” Johnny is asked. “What have ya got?” is his reply), creating a character who made the rebels played by Brando’s first-and-still-greatest acting disciple James Dean seem like school boys in comparison in terms of its masculinity and a sense of menace. The first wave of his career was, according to Jon Voight, unprecedented in its audacious presentation of such a wide range of great acting. Director John Huston, who would work with in the mid-’60s, said his performance of Marc Antony was like seeing the door of a furnace opened in a dark room, and Julius Caesar co-star John Gielgud, the premier Shakespearean actor of the 20th century, invited Brando to join his repertory company. (More than a decade later, when his career was in the doldrums, Laurence Olivier, the director of Britain’s National Theatre, would try to entice Brando to come to London and play Hamlet. Such was the respect even the great knights of the stage had for Brando. Circa 1972, Olivier said that Brando was the greatest actor in the world, an accolade often reserved for the great Sir Laurence himself.)

It was this period of 1951-54 that revolutionized American acting, spawning such imitators as Dean, who modeled his acting and even his lifestyle on his hero Brando, and Paul Newman. After Brando, every up-and-coming star with true acting talent and a brooding, alienated quality would be hailed as the “New Brando,” such as Warren Beatty in Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961). “We are all Brando’s children,” Jack Nicholson explained in 1972. “He gave us our freedom.”

When the Academy Awards ceremony was held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles on March 30, 1955, the success of the revolution was not yet evident. Bing Crosby, who had won an Oscar 10 years earlier for playing a priest in Going My Way, was the sentimental favorite to cop the Best Actor Oscar that night, for his turn as the alcoholic actor in The Country Wife. Yet it was Brando, on his fourth straight nomination, whose name was read out by presenter Bette Davis. Brando, who had been chewing gum the whole night, took the gum out of his mouth, got up, shook hands with Der Bingle, then went on stage to accept the statuette.

Two-time Oscar-winner Davis, well known for rebelling against the studio system, told the press that she was thrilled Brando had won. “He and I have much in common,” she said. “He too had made many enemies. He too is a perfectionist.” Davis was, arguably, the greatest acting talent that the American cinema had produced until the emergence of Brando. Greta Garbo, the greatest star to grace the American screen in the first half of the 20th Century, was awarded an honorary Oscar that night. The torch had been passed. He was truly “The Godfather” of a new generation of American actors, and he was still just 30 years old.

“I can’t remember what I was going to say for the life of me,” Brando said as he grasped the Oscar. “I don’t think ever in my life that so many people were so directly responsible for my being so very, very happy.”

Brando’s mother had not lived long enough to see him win the Academy Award, and the happiness he had felt with the acting life was to prove short-lived. Although he did attend the Oscars in 1958 (he had been nominated for Sayonara), he did not win; by the next time he was nominated, a generation later, he was ready to tell Hollywood to take its Award and shove it. While some played the rebel onscreen, it was role that Brando actually lived.