Marlon Brando was the most celebrated and influential actor of the 20th century. Employing the famed Method style of acting, Brando was a powerful and mesmerizing presence on the screen, but combative and enigmatic behind the cameras.
His career spanned across six decades, though his best work came in the 1950s and often in collaboration with director Elia Kazan. His career hit the skids the following decade, though he saw a brief resurgence in the 1970s.
Brando was ridiculed later in life for being massively overweight and for his strange rambling interviews. Regardless, he was idolized by fans and copied by numerous actors throughout the decades, from James Dean to Robert De Niro to Leonardo DiCaprio.
’s screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Broadway smash made Brando a star and earned him the first of five Academy Award nominations in the decade. Brando – reprising his Broadway role – played Stanley Kowalski, a brutish factory salesman whose vicious temper leads to abusive fights with his wife, Stella (Kim Hunter), and a battle of wills with her aristocratic sister, Blanche Du Bois (Vivien Leigh). Their final confrontation ends Stanley raping Blanche and sending her to an institution following her breakdown. Brando’s tour de force performance announced him as a major talent, but he lost the chance for his first Oscar to Humphrey Bogart
in The African Queen
20th Century Fox
Brando earned his second Academy Award nomination in this fictional portrayal of turn-of-the-century Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, who launched a fight to regain land rights for poor farmers, only to find corruption at every turn and a ruthlessly bloody end. Directed by Kazan from a script written by novelist John Steinbeck, Viva Zapata was a rousing – albeit romanticized – account of Zapata’s rise from poverty to folk hero whose named lived on throughout the century. Though often overshadowed by his other work, Brando’s performance in Zapata ranked among his best.
Certainly one of Brando’s most iconic roles and also one of his most controversial. He played the viciously amoral biker, John Strabler, whose gang of two-wheeled miscreants rebel against the social order and terrorize a small town with unrelenting violence. Turns out, of course, that the townsfolk are little better, as a vigilante mob incites its own riots against the misunderstood Stabler, who has fallen for the sheriff’s daughter (Mary Murphy). With any other actor playing the role, this film may have been long forgotten. But the image of a leather-clad Brando hunched over the handlebars of his Triumph Thunderbird became one of cinema’s most iconic poses.
MGM Home Entertainment
Despite his immeasurable gifts, Brando was surprisingly lacking in Shakespearean experience. That’s why his casting as Marc Antony in Joseph L. Mankiewicz
’s star-studded adaptation of Julius Caesar
was greeted with healthy skepticism. But as he would prove time and again, Brando defied logic and his critics to deliver a standout performance opposite his more classically trained costars, John Gielgud and James Mason. Once again, the actor earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor – his third in a row – and again he went home empty-handed. But that would change with his next performance.
In On the Waterfront
, one of the most seminal movies of the 20th century, Brando played Terry Malloy, a washed-up, slightly dimwitted boxer working the docks in Hoboken whose unwitting complicity in the hit of a fellow longshoreman compels him to testify against the mob. Prodding him along a local priest (Karl Malden) and the girl he loves (Eva Marie Saint
) – who’s also the sister of the slain dockworker. Often seen as Elia Kazan’s response for having testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, On the Waterfront
was a masterful film that won eight Academy Awards, including one for Brando who finally took home a statue after three consecutive losses. His scene with Rod Steiger where he reminds him that “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody,” went down as one of the most famous scenes in movie history.
Brando earned his fifth Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal as an American officer stationed in Japan during the Korean War, who overcomes his racial prejudices when he falls in love with a beautiful Kabuki dancer (Miiko Taka). As a result, he faces the increasing disapproval of the U.S. military and sees his best friend (Red Buttons) commit suicides with his own Japanese wife following a series of retributions from a racist officer. A widely acclaimed film, particularly for its performances, Sayonara marked the beginning of Brando’s slide in box office stature, which declined heavily in the 1960s and was revived over a decade later.
Following a near decade-long slump where he saw his box office stature wane, Brando returned triumphantly to the fore with one of his most iconic roles, playing Don Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic crime saga. Though Coppola had wanted Brando to play the head of the Corleone family from the start, Paramount Pictures wanted either Ernest Borgnine or Danny Thomas for the role. Brando’s reputation for causing delays in production and in general being disruptive on set were well known. In order to win the role, Brando took a cut in pay, performed a screen test and put up a bond stating that he wouldn’t delay production. Coppola’s determination paid off and Brando delivered what many critics consider to be his greatest performance. He earned his second Oscar for Best Actor, which Brando famously refused due to Hollywood’s depiction of Native Americans in movies.
Paramount Home Video
Having found his career revived with The Godfather
, Brando felt comfortable falling back into old habits by nearly derailing a movie for no other purpose than to have his own way. Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
was set during the Vietnam War
and featured Brando as the mad Colonel Kurtz, who has gone AWOL in the Cambodian jungle with an army of local warriors. An almost equally troubled army captain (Martin Sheen) is sent upriver to “exterminate” Kurtz “with extreme prejudice.” With principal photography underway in the Philippines, Brando showed up extremely overweight and unprepared to play the role. Coppola was forced to shoot around Brando’s weight and even changed the ending of his movie because of it. Brando even refused to learn his lines, which prompted Coppola to film long stream-of-consciousness improvisations by the actor. The result was nothing short of brilliant; Brando’s long ramblings were the perfect instrument to display Kurt’s descent into madness. Apocalypse Now
was one of Brando’s last great performances and began a two-decades slide that featured few quality films and numerous late night jokes about his increasing girth.