Biography - PROFESSIONAL
"An actor's a guy who, if you ain't talking about him, ain't listening."
Brando is widely recognized as the greatest American actor ever, declared a genius by peers such as Elia Kazan, Bernardo Bertolucci, Tennessee Williams, and Laurence Olivier. During the 2008 American Presidential Campaign, Barack Obama and John McCain agreed on at least one thing, their favorite actor, “Brando.”
While Brando has been labeled a product of the Actors Studio and a Method Actor, both classifications are mistaken. Brando never studied at the Actors Studio or with Lee Strasberg: he was a full-fledged actor on Broadway before the Studio opened in 1947, and was utterly skeptical about the category of “method acting.” Brando’s schooling as an actor lasted one year (1943-1944), at the New School for Social Research where he took classes with Stella Adler, daughter of the great Yiddish actor Jacob Adler, and member of the Group Theatre, who was steeped in European dramatic history and theory. Adler, Brando later noted, “had a gift for communicating her knowledge,” but the teacher admired the pupil even more: “I taught Marlon nothing. I opened up possibilities of thinking, feeling, experiencing, and as I opened those doors, he walked right through.”
Brando benefitted from working with Paul Muni in Ben Hecht’s A Flag is Born (1946). Brando called Muni’s “the best acting I have ever seen,” praise that was echoed in Muni’s reaction to Brando: “How the hell can an actor like that come from Omaha, Nebraska?” Brando’s breakthrough as a homicidally depressed World War II veteran in Maxwell Anderson’s Truckline Café, earned him the “Donaldson Award,” for best supporting actor on Broadway (1945-1946).
Truckline Café, Brando said, “changed my life”; the role of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams 1947 Broadway play, A Streetcar Named Desire catapulted the 23-year old to worldwide fame. Directed by Elia Kazan, whom Brando also viewed as critical to his professional development, the play was a huge success both on Broadway and in its 1951 film adaptation (for which Brando received his first Academy Award nomination). His decision to leave Broadway for Hollywood was motivated by the desire to reach wider audiences, have greater access to significant parts, and more control over conditions of production. Brando knew better than anyone the camera’s power to capture deep emotions, and there was no actor whose face the camera loved more.
Brando’s first Hollywood role, as a paraplegic veteran in Stanley Kramer’s low-budget social problem picture, The Men (1950) signaled his commitment to making films that satisfied humanitarian as well as artistic criteria. Four of his next five performances--Streetcar; Viva Zapata (1952); Julius Caesar (1953); The Wild One (1953); and On the Waterfront (1954)--were nominated for Academy Awards (he won for Waterfront). Brando was also nominated for Sayonara (1957), the first American film to feature, at Brando’s insistence, a cross-cultural (American-Japanese) marriage.
Throughout the sixties and to the end of his life, Brando chose projects that were artistically challenging and satisfied his intellectual curiosity and idealism. The Ugly American (1963) prophesied, and Apocalypse Now (1979) chronicled, American missteps in Vietnam; A Dry White Season (1989, which garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor) treated the plight of Blacks in South Africa; Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992) and The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) the colonization of the New World, and scientific invention.
Over a fifty-year career in films (his last role was in The Score, 2001) Brando was unique as a star who remained above all a character actor, creating his own makeup and costumes, and developing different accents (he was a gifted mimic), gestures, and facial expressions for a wide variety of roles, and ethnic identities. Among these were, the Okinawan interpreter in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956); the Nazi in The Young Lions (1958); the Italian Don Corleone (1972) and the Irish assassin in Missouri Breaks (1976).
Brando is as much cultural icon as actor, defining an ideal of failure and
redemption in On The Waterfront and a
model of patriarchy in The Godfather,
his other groundbreaking performances have been neglected. But Brando’s role, for example, as Rio in One Eyed Jacks (1960) the great western
and only film he directed, or as Fletcher Christian in the 1962 MGM remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, were celebrated at the time and
continue to influence filmmakers and actors.
Moreover, Brando was an innovator, the first major actor to play a
homosexual (in Reflections in a Golden
Eye). His roles in Burn (1969) about slave uprisings in the
Caribbean colonies, and then in Last
Tango in Paris 1972), promoted serious reflection on the liberating
potential of 1960’s politics.
Biography by Susan Mizruchi, Professor of English, Boston University and author of the soon-to-be released book, "Brando's Smile: His Life, Thought, and Work," to be published by W.W. Norton & Co.
It's Marlon Brando's Birthday!
This Day in Brando History - March 27, 1973