Marlon Brando was a victim of his own talent and success. If he had started slowly, giving a great performance in every three movies instead of exploding onto the scene with such a fiery series of performances, his public image may have survived the box office drought of the 1960s and his self-mockery during the 1990s. George C. Scott, for instance, an extremely well respected and talented contemporary of Brando, was never admonished for taking his Oscar winning talents to mediocre money-grabbers like Bank Shot and The Hindenburg.
There are also the slew of formerly great actors of the 1970s who, try as they might, can’t seem to impair their status in the minds of the general public, no matter what kind of garbage they produce. By 1980, Robert De Niro seemed to be a contender to Brando’s title as the greatest actor who ever lived, and he doesn’t seem to receive anywhere near the vitriol that Brando engendered in his down periods. Are Brando’s appearances in Island of Dr. Moreau and The Score really that much worse than De Niro farces like Grudge Match and Last Vegas?
Of course, Brando didn’t do much to engender compassion or a rooting spirit from the press or even his industry cohorts. His egregiously high salaries for small parts in Apocalypse Now and Superman were widely reported, likely garnering as much hostility in his industry as shock in the minds of the public, something that most actors are spared from. If we ever found out how much Jack Nicholson made for The Bucket List it would probably spark an Occupy Hollywood movement.
Brando also showed brazen contempt for the industry and the occupation of acting itself. In interviews he would degrade the importance of acting and cinema every chance he got. He hated the notion that actors had some special gift, and talked about it as though, at the very least, it is something that anyone can do. When Matthew Broderick appeared on Inside the Actor’s Studio, James Lipton asked him what he learned from working with Brando during The Freshman. Broderick thought for a second and replied, “How not to laugh… (Brando) was very funny.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the great acting legend.
The public image he tried to foster, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, belies the dedication he had to creating good cinema. In this “dark period”, with a handful of exceptions, there is ambition in his choices and performances, even if the end results vary widely in quality. He worked with young, talented directors who would help shape the cinema of late 1960s and 1970s (Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn, Gillo Pontecorvo), as well as highly respected masters (John Huston, Carol Reed, and even Charlie Chaplin). He also tried to make films that he hoped would have political or social relevance, as in The Ugly American, Burn!, and Candy . These films presage a social awareness that caused a sensation during the 1973 Academy Awards, when he famously arranged for a Native American spokesperson to accept his Best Actor award on his behalf. Only a small portion of his work during this period is comprised of effortless, throwaway junk. The rest reveal honest effort, if not artistic or financial success.
Like so many other great movie stars, Brando was able to exploit his persona in his performances. In One-Eyed Jacks, he dons his image of an alienated, rebellious, sexually magnetic outsider, merging the form of the western with the sensibilities of 1950s melodrama. Only a few years later, Brando turns that image on its head in The Chase. The explosive energy and sexual force that made Brando so famous early in his career is replaced by a pudgy, tired-looking, middle-aged sheriff who impotently strives for justice in a devolving society.
His most interesting performance of this festival, though, appears in Burn! Brando, energized by the importance of the film, gives probably best performance of the decade. In Burn!, we see the seedlings for his impending performance in The Godfather. He is heavy, but not just in terms of poundage. With great onscreen force, Brando acts and speaks with every ounce of the weight of his legend, as though his previous ten films had been highly praised masterpieces instead of box-office duds. If his career was to reach perfection two years later in The Godfather, this was his entrant into a new stylistic phase of acting: one that relies on experience rather than raw vitality.
That next step in his style of acting would serve him well throughout the 1970s, though he didn’t work nearly as much. He only appeared in three more films that decade after Last Tango in Paris. One is his supporting role in Apocalypse Now, and another is his ten-minute appearance in Superman. However, continuing his commitment to socially relevant material, he appeared in the epic miniseries Roots: The Next Generation as the head of an American Nazi group, a juicy role that Brando devoured.
Sometime in the late 1990s, Peter Bogdanovich lamented that there are no great movie stars anymore (“Do me an impression of Tom Cruise, do me an impression of Tom Hanks…”). Impressions may be a form of flattery when someone is mimicking the suave Cary Grant or the outlandishly cool Jack Nicholson, but Brando impressions usually center on fat jokes and mumbling. For a rare exception, we must turn to Diane Keaton, of all people:
It may not be definitive, but it is evidence of Brando’s cultural status: a once-great artist who succumbed to fame and fortune, got fat, and wasted the talents to which we audiences were so entitled.
Brando will probably always be stuck between his consecration as the greatest actor who ever lived and the caustic critical outcry against his perceived “wasted” talent. As always, though, reality lies somewhere in the middle. Whether or not he is the best of all time (I would probably argue he is), he is undeniably great. His lowest points are truly low, but even amid mediocrity, Brando is a compelling and singular talent.