“Marlon had an expression, he’d say: Let’s go out and jiggle the molecules.”
– Quincy Jones
Throughout the history of art, there have arguably been only a handful of artists in any medium that reconfigured the way we perceive life and our place within it. Painters Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso famously challenged our sense of sight with Cubism. Jazz musicians and composers Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis did nothing less than create such individualistic time signatures, sounds and tones with their music as to scrambled then rearrange the listener’s preconceived notions of time and space.
Marlon Brando, a farm boy from Omaha, Nebraska, came to New York City in 1943 to study acting with legendary teacher Stella Adler, and within three years would change not only the way the art of acting would be approached by generations thereafter, but would challenge the world’s own perception of what “good” acting could possibly be, on stage and in film, thus challenging our own perceptions of how we perceive the human experience.
Once thought of as an entertaining if exaggeratedly representational art form that sought to indicate the human experience through voice and body and the words of the dramatist, Marlon Brando would almost single-handedly transform Acting into an art form capable of being a transcendent experience, where the theater and filmgoer would witness, alas experience, actual human behavior functioning inside the safe confines of an imaginary given circumstance. In simpler terms, to merely “represent” the human experience on stage would soon be perceived as false. Only the actor that strove to “be” his character on stage, to go through an actual emotional experience would satisfy. Brando was the epitome of this actor.
Brando ushered in a new era of psychological realism with his acting where from here on out the Actor was either expected to bring his or her own life’s past experience and present behavior to inhabit a character. Even those actors that chose not to engage in the Stanislavsky-based “method” of psychological-physical realism taught by New York’s Group Theater in the 1930’s had to eventually adjust their representational style to fit this new perception of dramatic reality.
But Brando’s acting was so new, his approach so revolutionary, it was not immediately welcomed and was in fact first met with derision and confusion. Some critics and colleagues alike dismissed him as a sloppy, mumbling young man, lost on stage. When Pauline Kael, the late great film critic, first saw Brando’s searing performance as a murderous war veteran in Maxwell Anderson’s play “Truckline Café” she thought the poor young man was having a seizure on stage.
“Embarrassed for him, I lowered my eyes, and it wasn’t until the young man who’d brought me grabbed my arm and said ‘Watch this guy!’ that I realized he was acting.” The late character actor Charles Durning said at the time that he thought they had pulled someone off the street as an emergency replacement. He was certain he wasn’t an actor. He returned to the theater to see this same young man acting. “He couldn’t have been an actor, he was too good!”
Brando created such a seismic shift in perception that audiences and critics alike went from denouncing him as the worst actor in comparison to his counterparts, to doing a complete one hundred and eighty degrees: He wasn’t the problem, it was the entire rest of the cast that needed to catch up.
Legend has it that when Elia Kazan sent Brando to Tennessee Williams’ rented summer home to read for the part of Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Williams thought he was the electrician he had called and directed him towards the faulty wiring (which Brando promptly fixed, along with the plumbing.) Falling in love with the “local electrician” Williams called Kazan wondering when his actor would show up, elated to find out he already had.
By 1947, the year “A Streetcar Named Desire” premiered on Broadway, there would be no more confusion; Marlon Brando was an actor extraordinaire, one that would completely reinvent the art form from the inside out. While he was following in the paths of such established Stanislavsky-based talents as Montgomery Clift (his friend and whose acting he greatly admired) and John Garfield, Brando’s animalistic, sexualized, fearless approach would burn its way into the audience’s psyche like no other actor had before or since.
Beginning with the Stanley Kramer produced wartime drama “The Men,” a middling movie save for Brando’s excellent portrayal of a paraplegic veteran’s return from the war, Brando began a film career whose first five film performances would rocket him into the stratosphere of the art-form, transforming forever how we not only perceive acting, but in turn how we perceive ourselves. As his friend Quincy Jones said about him, the man had the innate ability to “jiggle the molecules” as he played his own body rhythms and behavior like the drums an instrument Brando was particularly gifted at.
While Brando’s film career was perhaps as wild and careening as the man himself (“The Godfather” is often voted the best film of all-time by most critic lists, “Candy” often ranked as one of the worst) here is a list of fifteen films, listed chronologically, that are essential viewing for any fan or for anyone not yet initiated to the late actor’s work. And if you fall into the latter category, welcome to the birthplace of everything you have come to know as modern acting.
1. A Streetcar Named Desire (Dir. Elia Kazan, 1951)
While 1950’s “The Men” (Directed by Fred Zinnemann) was Brando’s first foray into film, it was Elia Kazan’s 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “Streetcar” (which Kazan directed on Broadway) that truly lit the world on fire and served as an introduction to the force of nature that was Marlon Brando and to a new approach to screen acting. Williams has said his original intention of the play was for the audience’s sympathies to lay squarely with the fallen, fractured heroine of Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh on screen, Jessica Tandy on Broadway).
But in Brando’s incendiary, humane, psychologically rich performance, completely free of the usual actor’s judgment when called upon to play a “bad guy,” the play became something altogether different, richer, more complex, and more heart wrenching to experience because of it. If it were possible to read the play without having Brando’s performance in mind, one couldn’t possibly perceive this drunk, card playing, rageful child-man, one who eventually rapes Blanche, to be anything except a disgusting, awful human being. In the approach of Brando, he indeed is that brute, but so much more, bringing to mind Jean Renoir’s famous line from his film “The Rules of the Game” that in the end… “The truly terrible thing is that everybody has their reasons.
2. Julius Caesar – (Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1953)
Brando was quoted as saying he was embarrassed to be acting alongside actual English Shakespearean actors as Sir John Gielgud, James Mason and producer John Houseman. Even the spear-carriers had more experience with iambic pentameter than Brando! But Brando’s performance as Mark Anthony, lieutenant and cousin of the assassinated Roman leader Caesar, is so flawless and filled with genuine outrage, one would think he was born at the original Globe Theater. Brando was so believable as the warrior and Roman orator capable of subtly raising the ire of the crowd against the “honorable men,” that Gielgud himself would later say in interviews he thought Brando’s Anthony was the best he’d ever seen, and for years he and Houseman pursued Brando to tackle a stage production of Hamlet with Brando in titular role.
Brando’s turn as Mark Anthony would also put to rest any notions that his acting was a one-trick “mumbling” pony, and would spread his and the Stanislavsky-based approach beyond America and directly challenge the English based representational style, which focused more on the technical aspects of voice, movement. Actors as notable as Christopher Plummer and Anthony Hopkins have since cited Brando’s Mark Anthony as a turning point whereby they and other English actors sought to combine the technically proficient English representational style with the more emotionally rich, inside-out approach of the Stanislavsky System.
3. The Wild One – (Dir. Lazlo Benedek, 1953)
One of Brando’s most iconic roles was ironically in one of his more forgettable movies. As the emotionally wounded bad-ass motorcycle gang leader Johnny Boy, the film is as quotable (“What are you rebelling against?” “What d’ya got?”), as it is easy to mock (the opening caption warns: “This is a shocking story…it is a public challenge not to let it happen again.”) Yet there is no denying the cultural importance of this movie as it cemented Brando as a pop culture icon for the ages.
With his leather-bound look and mercurial menace, every woman wanted him, every man wanted to be him (and certainly, many men wanted him as well.) The leather jacket and t-shirt look would define a generation of disaffected youth for years. And though the film’s script is over-wrought with moralizing and hep-cat phrases past their prime even at the time (“cool it Daddio”) you’ll still find the great maelstrom of conflicting emotions raging within the young actor’s performance. But it wouldn’t be until his next film that the perfect marriage of script, actor and director would bring his talent to its fullest fruition.
4. On The Waterfront – (Dir. Elia Kazan, 1954)
Arguably the greatest screen performance of all-time, “On The Waterfront” is still the benchmark for what film acting could possibly be, by Brando as well as by other “method” trained actors such as Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Martin Balsam and in her screen debut, Eva Marie Saint. While filming on location is not seen as anything special by today’s standards, this film paved the way with director Elia Kazan insisting to the incredulous Columbia Pictures executives that he film not at the lot, but at the shipping docks of Hoboken, New Jersey during the icy months of February and March.
Winner of eight Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Brando and best Director for Elia Kazan, this tale of Mob corruption at the shipping docks, and the one man who had the guts and tortured conscious to do the right thing is as powerful a film as has ever been produced by a major Hollywood studio. While controversy ensues to this day as to whether this film was meant by Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg as an allegory in defending their own positions for testifying to House of Un-American Activities Commission and “naming names” during the dark days of McCarthyism, it should be seen upon its own merits as quite simply, one of the best films ever made.
There are too many extraordinary, gut-wrenching, emotionally resonant moments in this film to single any out. So instead, here is a modest yet equally brilliant one: Watch for the moment Eva Marie Saint’s Edie walks with Brando’s longshoreman Terry Malloy through the park. As they walk and talk, getting to know one another, Eva Marie Saint accidentally drops a glove, and in a brilliant improvised moment, Brando picks up her glove. But instead of returning it to her, sensuously, playfully, tries to fit it on one his hands as they effortlessly continue their talk, one of awkward, blossoming flirtation. Not an ounce of extra attention is made of it, it just happens – unplanned, in the moment, real behavior within an imaginary circumstance. If there is only one film from this list you are able to watch of this extraordinary artist’s work – this is the one.
5. Guy and Dolls – (Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955)
That’s right, for those keeping score, Brando does an American Classic, Brando does Shakespeare, Brando does Biker-flick, Brando does gritty realism, and here… Brando sings! And you know, he’s not half bad, but he’s no Sinatra, who just so happens to be in the film as well! With incredible songs by Frank Loesser, even if you don’t like musicals, “Guys and Dolls” is a complete piece of pure Technicolor entertainment, and Brando is once again the epitome of cool as the Damon Runyon-esque master gambler Sky Masterson.
6. The Young Lions – (Dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1958)
Brando is a sympathetic German soldier in World War II who truly believes in the cause but whose belief is chipped away piece by piece as the truth of Germany’s malevolent ways reveals itself. Also of note is the performance of Montgomery Clift, who along with John Garfield was one of the original ‘Method’ screen stars before Brando. After Clift had a motorcycle accident in which his face was badly disfigured then fixed with plastic surgery, he became a virtual Hollywood pariah.
Brando insisted Clift should star as the Jewish private who fights against the anti-Semitism from his own brothers in arms on the American side of this World War II tale. A highly under-rated film, and a beginning taste of what would later become Brando’s interest to not only choose films aligned with his own social-political leanings, but then taking the role that most challenged those beliefs.
7. One Eyed Jacks – (Dir. Marlon Brando, 1961)
Brando re-teamed with his friend and co-star of “Streetcar” and “Waterfront” Karl Malden and took his first and only turn at the helm in this absorbing Western that became as much about Brando’s own real-life tortured relationship with his father than was originally meant to be in Sam Peckinpah’s original screenplay (later given a page one rewrite by Guy Trosper and Calder Willingham.)
Stanley Kubrick was initially slated to direct, but reportedly dropped out after asking Brando during script discussions what he felt the film was really about. Brando replied: “It’s about three million dollars in back taxes.” A shame to go without a Kubrick/Brando collaboration, but thankfully the actor stayed with it, because “One Eyed Jacks” winds up being a beautiful, elegiac Western which director Terry Gilliam claims is one of his favorite films of all-time.