Beginning with his early career in the films of the 1950s, through his powerful roles in such classics as On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Godfather, Marlon Brando (born 1924) has captivated the American public with his intense on-screen presence, as well as with his personal life of controversy and excess.
Before James Dean, Marlon Brando popularized the jeans-and-T-shirt look, with and without leather jacket, as a movie idol during the early 1950s. The theatrically trained actor began to turn away from his youth-oriented persona with such movie roles as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar (1953). After winning an Academy Award for Best Actor for On the Waterfront (1954), he portrayed a wide variety of characters on-screen, garnering popular acclaim and critical consensus as one of the greatest cinema actors of the late twentieth century.
Brando was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on April 3, 1924. He grew up in Illinois. After expulsion from a military academy, he dug ditches until his father offered to finance his education. Brando moved to New York to study with acting coach Stella Adler and at Lee Strasberg's Actors' Studio. While at the Actors' Studio, Brando adopted the "method approach, " which emphasizes characters' motivations for actions. He made his Broadway debut in John Van Druten's sentimental I Remember Mama (1944). New York theater critics voted him Broadway's Most Promising Actor for his performance in Truckline Cafe (1946). In 1947 he played his greatest stage role, Stanley Kowalski—the brute who rapes his sister-in-law, the fragile Blanche du Bois—in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. As The New York Review surmised, "The rest is stardom and gossip and a small handful of wonderful films."
Hollywood beckoned to Brando, and he made his motion picture debut as a paraplegic World War II veteran in The Men (1950). Although he did not cooperate with the Hollywood publicity machine, he went on to play Kowalski in the 1951 film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, a popular and critical success that earned four Academy Awards. His next movie, Viva Zapata! (1952), with a script by John Steinbeck, traces Emiliano Zapata's rise from peasant to revolutionary to president of Mexico. Brando followed that with Julius Caesar and then The Wild One (1954), in which he played a motorcycle-gang leader in all his leather-jacketed glory. Next came his Academy Award winning role as a longshoreman fighting the system in On the Waterfront, a hard-hitting look at New York City labor unions.
During the rest of the decade, Brando's screen roles ranged from Napoleon Bonaparte in Désirée (1954), to Sky Masterson in 1955's Guys and Dolls, in which he sang and danced, to a Nazi soldier in The Young Lions (1958). From 1955 to 1958 movie exhibitors voted him one of the top ten box-office draws in the nation. During the 1960s, however, his career had more downs than ups, especially after the MGM studio's disastrous 1962 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, which failed to recoup even half of its enormous budget. Brando portrayed Fletcher Christian, Clark Gable's role in the 1935 original. Brando's excessive self-indulgence reached a pinnacle during the filming of this movie. He was criticized for his on-the-set tantrums and for trying to alter the script. Off the set, he had numerous affairs, ate too much, and distanced himself from the cast and crew. His contract for making the movie included $5, 000 for every day the film went over its original schedule. He made $1.25 million when all was said and done.
Brando's career was reborn in 1972 with his depiction of Mafia chieftain Don Corleone in The Godfather. He refused his Academy Award for Best Actor as a protest of Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans. Brando did not appear at the awards show to personally deny the trophy. Instead, a Native American Apache named Sacheen Littlefeather read his protest. However, in September of 1994, Brando told the broker in possession of the award, Marty Ingels, that he now wishes to own it. Ingels would not return it.
Brando proceeded the following year to the highly controversial yet highly acclaimed Last Tango in Paris, which was rated X. Since then Brando has received huge salaries for playing small parts in such movies as Superman (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979). Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for A Dry White Season in 1989, Brando also appeared in The Freshman with Matthew Broderick. In 1995, he costarred in Don Juan DeMarco with Johnny Depp. Young people who have not seen Brando's amazing efforts in his early films will not find the same genius in his later movies. The small roles he has played do not demand the acting range for which he had once achieved so much praise. Janet Maslin of the New York Times, in her review of Don Juan DeMarco, wrote, "Mr. Brando doesn't so much play his role as play along." The critic added, "Don Juan DeMarco verges on the sad when its subject is vitality, since Mr. Depp's so clearly eclipses that of his co-star."
In early 1996 Brando costared in afilm called The Island of Dr. Moreau. Entertainment Weekly reported that the actor was using an earpiece to remember his lines. His costar in the film, David Thewlis, told the magazine that he was nonetheless still impressed by Brando. "When he walks into a room, " Thewlis noted, "you know he's around."
A Life of Turmoil and Self-Indulgence
There have been countless pages of print written about Brando's reclusive and self-indulgent lifestyle, including two books released in 1994: Brando: The Biography, by Peter Manso, and Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, by Marlon Brando with Robert Lindsey. The book by Marlon Brando is obviously the one he authorizes, but Manso's book is a result of seven years of research and interviews with more than a thousand people. Time magazine, though, questioned Manso's ethics in conducting such excessive research: "Driven to possess another man's life, Manso becomes the literary version of one of the late 20th century's scariest specimens, the celebrity stalker."
It has been observed that Brando has perhaps loved food and womanizing too much. His best acting performances are roles that required him to show a constrained and displayed rage and suffering. His own rage may have come from parents who did not care about him. Time magazine reported, "Brando had a stern, cold father and a dream-disheveled mother—both alcoholics, both sexually promiscuous—and he encompassed both their natures without resolving the conflict." Brando himself wrote in his autobiography, "If my father were alive today, I don't know what I would do. After he died, I used to think, 'God, just give him to me alive for eight seconds because I want to break his jaw."'
Brando's acting teacher, Stella Adler, is often credited with helping him become a brilliant actor. Brando said in a reprint of Manso's book presented in Premiere magazine, "If it hadn't been for Stella, may be I wouldn't have gotten where I am—she taught me how to read, she taught me to look at art, she taught me to listen to music."
Although Brando avoids speaking in details about his marriages, even in his autobiography, it is known that he has been married three times to three ex-actresses. He has at least 11 children ranging in age from two to thirty-eight. Five of the children are with his three wives, three are with his Guatemalan housekeeper, and the other three children are from other affairs. One of Brando's sons, Christian, told People magazine, "The family kept changing shape. I'd sit down at the breakfast table and say, 'Who are you?"' Christian is now at a state prison in California serving a 10-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter in the death of his sister's fiancee, Dag Drollet. He claimed Drollet was physically abusing his pregnant sister, Cheyenne. Christian said he struggled with Drollet and accidentally shot him in the face. Brando, in the house at the time, gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to Drollet and called 911. At Christian's trial, People reported one of Brando's comments on the witness stand, "I tried to be a good father. I did the best I could."
Brando's daughter, Cheyenne, was a troubled young woman. In and out of drug rehabilitation centers and mental hospitals for much of her life, she lived in Tahiti with her mother Tarita (one of Brando's wives whom he met on the set of Mutiny on the Bounty). People reported in 1990 that Cheyenne said of Brando, "I have come to despise my father for the way he ignored me as a child." After Drollet's death, Cheyenne became even more reclusive and depressed. A judge ruled that she was too depressed to raise her child and gave custody of the boy to her mother, Tarita. Cheyenne took a leave from a mental hospital on Easter Sunday in 1995 to visit her family. At her mother's home that day, Cheyenne, who had attempted suicide before, hanged herself.
Brando's years of self-indulgence are visible—he weighed well over 300 pounds in the mid-1990s. To judge Brando by his appearance and dismiss his work because of his later, less significant acting jobs, however, would be a mistake. His performance in A Streetcar Named Desire brought audiences to their knees, and his range of roles is a testament to his capability to explore many aspects of the human psyche. Brando seems perfectly content that his best work is behind him. As for his fans, they must accept that staying power is not what confirms the actor's brilliance.
Further Reading on Marlon Brando
Gary Cary, Marlon Brando: The Only Contender (London: Robson, 1985).
Christopher Nickens, Brando: A Biography in Pictures (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1987).
Richard Schickel, Brando: A Life in Our Times (New York: Atheneum, 1991).