Was he an actor, or a cultural eruption, an all-American zeitgeist with two legs, one swinging dick, and the appetite of a tartar? For the hungry heart of the 20th century, Marlon Brando was the world’s most important and influential movie performer, a rock ‘n’ roll re-personification of the national self-image. There’s no underestimating how rupturous his 1950 movie arrival, from Broadway and Tennessee Williams, was—in an industry inhabited by glamour-pusses, mascaraed macho men, Anglo-fetishists, and chintzy-showbiz specialists, here came a seething reality, a thinking man’s troglodyte, to mix up the placid Hollywood waters and initiate a value shift (alongside the Italian neorealists) that would end up distinguishing the entirety of post-war cinema. Without him, youth culture would’ve been a self-pitying fad, and the world’s new waves might never have happened.
True, it’s a lot to put on a man who has maybe five great performances in a filmography oven-stuffed with fuckups, and who became visibly disenchanted with fame and acting almost as soon as he became a box office monster. But Brando was a paradigm for cultural truth-telling—his influence rivaled the confessional revolution in American poetry—when movies were thought of as being wholly escapist. (It’s clear that Brando’s debut, 1950’s The Men, realigned Montgomery Clift’s approach, and gave James Dean a countryside to gambol around in; before them, who was interested in acting as authenticity?) The 1960s were a dumping ground for Brando’s career, and he gave up caring as soon as he could, after Francis Ford Coppola and Bernardo Bertolucci briefly motivated him by holding the ring high enough.
Since then, Brando, the only thespian to ever buy himself an island, had decided to be the laziest marquee name in the world, regarding movies as a brothel and himself as a reluctant, top-shelf whore. All in all, there’s a case to be made that he shouldn’t have stuck it out to 80, that, like Jim Morrison (who so resembled Brando in cynical spirit), he should’ve checked out before the bills piled up. It’s a case for new generations studying the Brando of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and not the Brando—who was that guy?—of The Score (2001). MICHAEL ATKINSON
Following Marlon Brando’s rejection of the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for The Godfather in 1973, The Village Voice‘s Molly Haskell wrote a nine-part examination of the actor’s roles and his contradictory public persona. Haskell’s piece ran from Jun 14, 1973 to September 20, 1973.
Here are some choice excerpts:
On Brando the Activist:
“If we occasionally wish Brando would get off his minority-group hobbyhorse, we may have to recognize the other side of the coin: that this compulsion to do something is one of the sources of his fascination as an actor, the ambition of Terry Malloy and Johnny, to be something more. He may, like Zapata, be the ultimate contradiction—a man ‘of the people’ who towers above them, a man in constant tension with his own myth.”
On Brando’s Craft:
“Brando belittles acting with a choice expression—’a craft, like plumbing’—that reduces it to the elemental-physiological level.”
On Brando’s Essence:
“His essence is contradiction, conflicts, that can never come to rest in resolution, and he will therefore frustrate and disappoint all those who travel society’s single track. His coarse language and brute force are not the impulses of a boor but the masque of a poet, the cry of rage against the imprisoning niceties of civilization.”
On Brando’s Anti-Fame:
“Brando refused to play the game, the Hollywood Swimming Pool Brown Derby Pecking Order Be-Nice-to-Luella-Parsons Beverly Hills Limousine game. His appeal—crystallized in the parts with which we most closely identify him—was to stand out against the materialistic bullshit of ’50s America, epitomized in the trappings of Stardom.”
On Brando’s Physicality:
“He is intensely physical, strong, sensual, and yet there is a stillness, the hesitation of a troubled soul. He watches like nobody else watches, and behind the glare is a mind that knows more than it will ever, can ever utter.”
On Brando’s Legend:
“What is the legend and how has it managed to stay alive through all these years of dubious achievements? It is written in a word: BRANDO. Like Garbo. Or Fido. An animal, a force of nature, an element; not a human being who must as a member of society distinguish himself from other members with a Christian name and an initial as well as a surname. There is only one Brando the actor. . . Whatever Marlon Brando might be doing or not doing, Brando was still a name whose potency was undiminished, a name to excite, to ignite, to conjure with. . .”