Marlon Brando

Icons of the Century

When Marlon Brando died July 1, 2004, the obits were filled with praise for the seismic shift he brought to acting and remorse for the squandered talent that reflected Brando’s ambivalence toward his own profession. The irony is that Brando elevated acting to such a degree that scores of acolytes emulated his at-times extreme approach to inhabiting a role, from James Dean’s tormented, Oedipal thrashing in “East of Eden” to Robert De Niro gaining 40 pounds to pummel his way through “Raging Bull.” If Stanislavsky’s writings became the bible for anyone serious about digging deep for a character’s essence, then Brando became the poster boy for the Method.

In his autobiography “A Life,” Elia Kazan described Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in the 1947 staging of “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway: “every word seemed not something memorized but the spontaneous expression of an inner experience — which is the level of work all actors strive to reach.” Kazan added of Brando’s tough-but-tender Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront”: “If there is a better performance by a man in the history of film in America, I don’t know what it is.”

And if it became increasingly difficult to visit those dark places essential to his genius, Brando’s inventiveness and range cannot be underestimated in such films as “Julius Caesar,” “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “Last Tango in Paris.” But what added to Brando’s mystique went beyond his leather-clad pose in “The Wild One” and his authoritative rasp as “The Godfather” — his obsessive need for privacy, his activism on behalf of Native Americans, and his ability to turn the tables on a Hollywood that would just as soon turn him into a product as indulge his artistic leanings would be parroted by scores of bad boy actors in his wake.

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