Marlon Brando's extraordinary emotional intelligence expressed itself in every inch of his body for every second - the phrase "being in the moment" might as well have been coined for him.
Of course, other actors in New York and Hollywood had been as physically expressive as Brando (think Cagney) and as naturalistic (think Barbara Stanwyck). But Brando went deeper and further: his urgent sensitivity and imagination gave his performances a poetic dimension that transcended realism. And he had an emotional range that burst the usual stereotypes of "male" and "female." He was forceful, vulnerable, primally canny.
In an interview with The Sun yesterday, Brando biographer Peter Manso said Brando "had the very good fortune of coming along at a time when he ran smack into Tennessee Williams, who in his own way was writing a new American theater that was more psychologically probing and more sexual."
But Brando should get credit for recognizing that he and Williams were a match. John Garfield famously rejected director Elia Kazan's offer to star as that brute Stanley Kowalski in Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, because he thought the play was only about the sad illusions of faded Southern belle Blanche Du Bois.
But Brando knew in his bones that he could make Stanley's drive to conquer her pitilessly and sexually not just horrifying but also sad and oddly funny. He found the doggerel comic eloquence in a limited man's fury at the superiority of a literate female. He connected with the audience so strongly that many directors equal to Kazan, like Tony Richardson, felt that the director and actor had altered the meaning of the play. That's just peer frustration.
What Brando did was set a bar for Stanley that other actors would have to equal or top if they were to realize the play in their own ways. Decades later, no one has matched him in the role.
With his creation of Stanley so early in his brief stage career (ironically, it capped his stage career), and his brilliant transferral of the performance to the screen in 1951 after just one other movie job (his heartbreaking yet white-hot portrait of a paraplegic war veteran in Fred Zinnemann's 1950 The Men) Brando was in the same enviable and risky position of artists who make a big splash early on and are expected to produce a flood of culture-transforming work. He would do a film of a Williams play just one more time - Sidney Lumet's fiasco The Fugitive Kind, a gaudy adaptation of Williams' already garish Orpheus Descending, blessed by an opening sequence in which Brando turns himself into a homegrown, grunting Orphic poet.
But the arc of his career echoed Williams': artistic and financial triumph in the 1950s, followed by mass and critical disenchantment in the 1960s, and rediscovery in the 1970s (with Brando due to The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, with Williams due to revivals of forgotten work like Eccentricities of a Nightingale).
Brando had the additional burden of transforming an entire art that in the popular consciousness was often not considered an art at all: acting. And he had the pressure beyond that of doing it in an American idiom and exploiting non-verbal resources that couldn't be captured on a script page.
Look at the cartoons in any smart magazine of the 1950s and you'd think that he was made up of grumbles and pauses and all manner of animal energy stuffed into a torn T-shirt and worn jeans. But Brando had tapped into profound things: the earthy lyricism of American life beneath the wholesome politesse; a streetwise psychological awareness of how the pressures and fleeting euphorias of youth persist into adulthood.
He did all this so potently and instinctively that without even thinking about it, audiences knew that he had catalyzed a revolution. Movie actors went from merely articulating or adding personality to an author's words or emotions - or doing that and offering interpretation - to contributing combustible creative resources.
Everyone remembers the cab scene between Brando and Rod Steiger as (respectively) the ex-boxer and union-fixer brothers in On the Waterfront. The conflict of an overgrown, semi-corrupt kid on his road to redemption (Brando) and a man too steeped in compromise to change (Steiger) emerge in a rush of accusations and defenses that convey the dashed hopes of decades. Just reading Brando's phrase, "I could have been a contender" brings back the grief and yearning mixed in his voice, the pain and anger in his eyes, the weary noble wag of his head and wave of his hand as if to say, "Who we are is all that matters here."
Yet Brando's scenes with Eva Marie Saint are just as indelible, and may illustrate even more powerfully the character of his genius. She's the sister of a boy he unknowingly set up for murder, and he's immediately drawn to her out of a complex of impulses and emotions (grief, sexual attraction, hope) that are beyond his conscious powers of discernment.
He tries to put her at ease by bringing them back to parochial-school days, and he makes a comical mess of it, saying her braided hair "Looked like a hunk of rope. And you had wires on your teeth and glasses and everything. You was really a mess." But then in the middle of the walk she drops her glove, and rather than return it to her, he puts it on - it's a move that seems spontaneous and improvised. It's urban poetry in motion. It changes the texture of the scene to a more delicate sort of romance and comedy, and gives Marie Saint more to play with, too - suddenly her feelings are all mixed up as well.
No matter how difficult or idiosyncratic Brando could be on a set, when he made moves like that, he liberated his fellow actors and expanded a movie's possibilities. He turned the actor from a glamour-puss or a dream figure in the hands of a director to a full creative partner. He earned the right to throw his often billowing weight around.
But when he did so and the results didn't gel, as in the remake of The Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), moviegoers as well as movie executives turned against him. Maybe fans couldn't handle the sustained feelings of psychic exposure that Brando attained as both an artist-actor and a tormented public figure.
Still, he never lost the allegiance of his fellow actors and directors - that's why the burdens of his reputation also became a treasure. The Godfather (1972) saved Brando from Hollywood's commercial blacklist and made him for a time, minute by minute, the most highly paid actor in the world. But, as director Francis Ford Coppola would be the first to say, Brando also made The Godfather what it is.
The constellation of actors playing the sons surrounding Don Corleone were reacting to the mob boss the way they were reacting as performers to the screen god they idealized. James Caan, Al Pacino, John Cazale: What's amazing is not just how extraordinary each of these galvanizing performers is, but how they contrast so superbly - and how with all their differences, each still resembles a side of Brando. With Caan you get the fire, with Pacino the moodiness, with Cazale the vulnerability - and then you see Brando at the center, calmly encompassing all of them with a poise beyond any of them.
I was in the audio mixing room with Coppola and his sound designer Walter Murch when they were redoing the soundtrack for the 25th anniversary re-release of The Godfather. You could see how Brando's performance inspired the filmmaker even in this post-post-production phase of its creation.
At the point when Brando's wounded Don Vito Corleone regains consciousness, Brando expresses with the smallest means - a halfway-upward shift of the eyes, a slight movement of the mouth, a breath that could be a sigh - both grief and bemusement that Cazale's Fredo is with him weeping while still-noble Michael has been exiled to Sicily. The sight spurred Coppola to suggest that the sounds of Sicily, including the sheep-bells, hover for a second in the Don's room.
By coincidence, just a few days ago I asked Richard Linklater, director of the current (and deserved) critical sensation Before Sunset, how he generates feelings that are at once spontaneous and intimate; he said he relied on intense rehearsal. He didn't think he or the actors could handle the pressure of creating in front of the camera as well as hitting the beats required by the comedy and drama.
Brando became notorious for never memorizing his lines and pasting them on top of other actor's heads or furniture or light bulbs - anything. But it enabled him to perform with an emotional completeness he couldn't achieve otherwise: He could think both on his feet and with his heart.
And even when he became an out-and-out farce performer, in movies like the absurdist Western The Missouri Breaks (1976), he strove to attain epiphanies - and often got them. There's a streak of absurdity in all his great performances; perhaps he's such a stiff in Apocalypse Now because he had to be self-serious. And several of his comic turns (especially 1990's The Freshman) are gems.
A visitor to the Montana locations of The Missouri Breaks, moviemaker Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Rising Sun), recalled yesterday that Brando never lost his soul-expanding charisma even as a clown.
Kaufman arrived on a wide-open set and saw scraps of dialogue pasted everywhere - on trees, on horses, on wagon trains, on equipment just beyond the shot. But then, magically, "a wind started to blow, and over the ridge there came Marlon, in his jacket with these Indian-style fringes. You knew why all the Indians around fell in love with him. He was the greatest actor, but he was a force of art and of nature."
Sun staff writer Michael Ollove contributed to this article.
For more coverage about Marlon Brando, see www.baltimore.com/brando.
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun