Marlon Brando, who changed not just the face but the mind and soul of movie acting with a series of revolutionary performances in the 1950s, died Thursday at age 80 of lung failure at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.
In his five decades on screen, Mr. Brando fundamentally altered Hollywood's image of a leading man, bringing out an unprecedented emotional rawness in hard-guy characters such as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire and Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, then, improbably, reviving his career a generation later as courtly Mafia don Vito Corleone in The Godfather.
The actor's off-screen life was as tumultuous as any of his characters'. He was married three times, fathered (reportedly) 11 children and became the owner of a Tahitian island, as well as an estate on Mulholland Drive. In 1991, he saw his son Christian convicted and sent to prison for killing the boyfriend of his half-sister, Cheyenne, who later took her own life.
Mr. Brando's attorney, David J. Seeley, said funeral arrangements would be private. If Mr. Brando was anything like the eccentric gunslinger he played in The Missouri Breaks (1976), cremation would be unthinkable. "I'd like almost anythin' better 'n' bein' burnt up," cracked that cross-dressing gunman.
For many fair-weather fans, the Method actor's real agony merged with his personae.
Yet the chaos of his off-screen life never tainted the respect of his fellow artists - he won two Academy Awards - and even seemed to prove the authenticity of his persona as an untamable rebel. The Wild One (1954), his smash-hit biker movie, might not have been his best film, but it gave him a key line. A girl asks him, "What're you rebelling against?" and he responds, "Whaddya got?"
"Walt Whitman transformed the language of poetry, Marlon Brando transformed acting. ... He made it more natural, more sexy, more psychologically alive and dangerous," said Peter Manso, author of a merciless 1994 biography of Mr. Brando.
"Brando has towering importance as an icon," says Mr. Manso. "This was the archetypal rebel. You wouldn't have punk today were it not for Marlon Brando. He's the one that made sex dangerous on the big screen."
Francis Coppola, who directed him in The Godfather, said, "Marlon would hate the idea of people chiming in to give their comments about his death. All I'll say is that it makes me sad he's gone."
Mr. Brando's creation of his signature antisocial persona was all the more amazing because it grew out of an all-American background. He was born in Omaha, Neb., in 1924 and got his first taste of theater at the Omaha Community Playhouse. His father sent him to a military school that expelled him. At age 19, he made his way to New York and studied with Method acting legend Stella Adler.
It didn't take long for him to get noticed. His performance in his first Broadway play, Maxwell Anderson's Truckline Cafe (1946), made his reputation. Film critic Pauline Kael was in the audience, and later illuminated Mr. Brando's extraordinary gifts as a stage and screen performer.
"We all know that movie actors often merge with their roles in a way that stage actors don't, quite, but Brando did it even on the stage," Ms. Kael wrote.
" ... I looked up and saw what I thought was an actor having a seizure onstage. 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."
Steve Vineberg, professor of theater at the College of the Holy Cross and the author of Method Actors, expressed the unusual blend of shock and grief that news of the actor's death triggered in stage and screen artists everywhere.
"I thought he'd live forever," Mr. Vineberg said, "maybe because of the immediacy of his performances. They haven't dated a bit. I think he's the greatest of all American actors."
To this day, the cliche idea of a male movie star is that he's someone guys want to be and women want to be with. Mr. Brando was a star for a different reason. When he was in his zone, whether as a boxer in On the Waterfront (1954) or a homosexual Army officer in Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), you felt that you were him.
Brando biographer and film historian and critic David Thomson said yesterday that Mr. Brando's early success in Streetcar fed the impression that he squandered his talent: "His Stanley in Streetcar was a stunning performance, and he really never did another thing on the stage. That was a huge loss."
Still, the marriage of Mr. Brando and Hollywood was, at first, artistically ecstatic. Mr. Brando swiftly showed his versatility on screen. In his debut movie, The Men, he used all his extraordinary physicality in the role of a paraplegic Word War II veteran, giving his character an aura of checked energy. The trademark hems and haws that began punctuating his dialogue reflected the music of his innermost being.
With the movie version of Streetcar, directed by Elia Kazan, the actor's horizons seemed limitless. He was incendiary in Kazan's visually exciting Viva Zapata! (1952) - it's his most uncomplicatedly stirring, and macho, performance - and he showed his range with his ferociously eloquent Mark Antony in Joseph L. Manckiewicz's production of Julius Caesar (1953).
Said British critic Alexander Walker: "None of us was prepared for the twist Brando gave the famous line, 'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.' He shouts it. He bawls it. He bellows it above the crowd, like a maitre d'hotel bringing restaurant gossip to a stop for some announcement. ... This is a Mark Antony who has lost his temper."
Then came The Wild One and On the Waterfront. As Ms. Kael wrote, "He was our angry young man - the delinquent, the tough, the rebel - who stood at the center of our common experience. When, as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, he said to his brother, 'Oh Charlie, oh Charlie ... you don't understand. I could have had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody, instead of a bum - which is what I am,' he spoke for all our failed hopes. It was the great American lament, of Broadway, of Hollywood, as well as of the docks."
But not long after that triumph, Mr. Brando's star began to dull.
It didn't help that his fame mirrored the rise of postwar celebrity culture, with its tendency to trivialize artists and concentrate on their paychecks and peccadilloes. Mr. Brando provided an early pinnacle of self-exposure when Truman Capote interviewed him for The New Yorker. He unloaded about analysis - "I was afraid of it at first. Afraid it might destroy the impulses that made me creative, an artist." And when Mr. Brando said that he was trying to write a screenplay about racial prejudice called A Burst of Vermillion, highbrows ridiculed him - a relic of the days when even New York actors were not considered full-blown artists.
Mr. Capote's profile poisoned Mr. Brando's already mistrustful attitude toward the press. Yet he was ready to give public aid to causes - civil rights, the American Indian, ecology.
His industry influence received back-to-back dents in the early 1960s. When he took a gamble on directing with an idiosyncratic version of the Billy the Kid legend, One-Eyed Jacks, the result bombed at the box office and befuddled critics. But its reputation has soared in recent years.
Director Phillip Kaufman called One-Eyed Jacks "a terrific movie. It fell in between the classic John Ford-Howard Hawks western and the elegiac, operatic Westerns of Leone, and it echoed Kurosawa's Yojimbo."
Coupled with his misbehavior during the shooting of the ruinously expensive 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty, One-Eyed Jacks was enough to ban Mr. Brando from mainstream epic filmmaking. "He starts making trash movies," Mr. Thomson notes, "as if to sort of say, 'If you go over to the movies, you wind up making trash.'"
Not all of them were trash. There was greatness in Reflections in a Golden Eye, and Mr. Brando lent himself to unusual projects, notably Burn! (1969), the anti-colonialist epic from Battle of Algiers director Gillo Pontecorvo. And in 1972, Mr. Coppola cajoled Paramount Pictures into hiring him, and Mr. Brando dominated the culture once again as The Godfather.
Notoriously, Mr. Brando sent actress Sacheen Littlefeather to reject the Oscar he received for the film, and to speak about the plight of American Indians. Maybe that's why Mr. Brando failed in his later years to win any of the career achievement awards routinely given to more conventional talents.
Mr. Brando topped The Godfather with Last Tango in Paris (1972) - an astonishing achievement not merely because of its sexual frankness but also because the director, Bernardo Bertolucci, drew searing autobiographical improvisations out of him. Even Mr. Thomson, who feels that "Brando's work tapered away terribly," considers these two performances, and his opaque, maddening appearance in Apocalypse Now, among the best of all time.
The awards might also have stopped coming because Mr. Brando ballooned physically and became a media clown.
His health had been waning for a decade, and for more than twice as long, the revelations of his personal traumas had swamped appreciation of his artistic accomplishments. In 1982, his lawyer-manager Norman Garey, who had helped him acquire his once-immense wealth, shot himself. Mr. Brando's failed marriages and troubled children moved from tabloids to the front pages of major newspapers.
A living influence
Still, Mr. Brando's art never stopped exerting a living influence that dwarfs anyone else's, inspiring, as Mr. Manso says, "everyone from Jimmy Dean to Johnny Depp." Even Robert De Niro, who plays the young Godfather in The Godfather Part II, probably took an idea of how to parody himself in movies such as Analyze This from the deft, graceful way Mr. Brando did it in The Freshman (1990).
Some critics can look back and wish that Mr. Brando had maintained an even keel and given us a glorious summation, like a stage actor's grand King Lear. But he did it 30 years ago, with The Godfather.
It's astonishing to realize Mr. Brando was in his 40s when he made that film. He relishes the moral ironies of playing a Mafia boss of honor, but he also paints one of the most unsentimental, inspiring screen portraits of old age. He deploys his instincts in epic detail, from the broken conversational voice to the dry gasps of grief that hit him over the calamities of his sons to his second-childhood clowning with his grandson.
For Marlon Brando - for American film - it was a crowning achievement, even if the crown is a fedora.
Sun staff writers Michael Ollove and Chris Kaltenbach contributed to this article. For more coverage of Marlon Brando's death, go to www.baltimore sun.com/brando.
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