The magic: by the end of the fifties Brando had already made several films that defined the art of screen acting. A Streetcar Named Desire (51), inventing the screen rebel (The Wild One), and giving the screen’s most famous improvised dialogue performance in On The Waterfront: ‘I coulda been a contender. I coulda had class.’
In the sixties he directed his only film, One Eyed Jacks and acted in films which didn’t quite match with his method techniques.
Then came The Godfather, 1972, and one of the most mesmerising of screen performances. The difficult gestation of The Godfather is one of the most interesting film productions. Nobody at Paramount thought the film would be a hit. Nobody wanted Brando in it. Yet the film became the high most successful of all time, and is surely the finest gangster film. Brando’s Vito Corleone died at the halfway line, showing how to die quietly, not in a hail of bullets but drinking wine in an olive grove and playacting with his grandchild (that scene was improvised).
Until Marlon Brando filled his cheeks with cotton wool, no actor showed such unconventional methods, and none went so far to create their character. The same year he was also in The Last Tango In Paris, going further in screen eroticism than anyone else. When Brando won the Academy Award for The Godfather, he sent an American Indian woman in his place to collect the award.
A sure sign of his contempt for film acting, yet there was more: the disastrous Missouri Breaks (76), Superman (78), and Apocalypse Now. And then what? By this point in time, the movie brats had taken over. It was the age of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. These were really kid’s films, nothing wrong in that at all but who was making adult masterpieces like Apocalypse Now or The Godfather? No-one, at least not on that scale, although Woody Allen made several small scale human comedies in the over the top eighties.
Brando’s weight. He looked like an athlete, muscle toned and powerfully masculine in Streetcar, or in motorcycle leathers in the Wild One. Vito Corleone was the most cultivated gangster, sinewy, as though the years of crime had hollowed him out from the inside. Seven years later he was being filmed from the waist up to hide his rapidly expanding bulk. He hadn’t gone as far as Orson Welles, in weight-gain, but it was still shocking.
The women: Brando was the prototype of the primitive modern male in his films. He didn’t do much better in real life. He married actresses Anna Kashfi, Movita and Tarita Tarripaia. His relationships with his children seemed to involve either abandonment or over-possessiveness. He fought bitterly with Kashfi over the custody of their son Christian. He was tried for the killing of his half sister Cheyenne Brando’s boyfriend, but died of pneumonia in 1998. After years of mental instability she hanged herself in 1995.
Brando was close friends with Michael Jackson, and appears in the thirteen minute video of You rock My world. The day after September the 11th, Brando and Jackson decided to flee New York State, along with Elizabeth Taylor. Disguised in sunglasses and hats, they borrowed a car and managed to travel unrecognised across the state, stopping for KFC along the way, the sheer implausibilty is hard to believe.
He spoke of his disdain for acting: –
“Acting is an empty and useless profession.”
“Acting is the expression of a neurotic impulse. Quitting acting is the sigh of maturity.”
“I’ve never had any respect for Hollywood. It stands for bad taste, but you work for three months, then you can do as you please.”
Others have paid tribute:
He was deeply rebellious against the bourgeois spirit, the over-ordering of life. – Elia Kazan.
An angel as a man, a monster as an actor. – Bernardo Bertolucci