“A movie star is a man sitting on the sugar throne in the pouring rain” – Marlon Brando
Observed by Time magazine as the “Actor of the Century”, it was in Marlon Brando’s eccentricities and particular conflict between distaining and delighting in his acting profession that has made him such a monolithic thespian. A career marked with increasingly bizarre behaviour, from tying The Nightcomers co-star Stephanie Beacham to a bed whilst he went for lunch, to suggesting that his character in Superman should look like a giant green doughnut, these stories simply add to his ever-endearing legacy.
Taking his method-acting to over 40 different films, Marlon Brando is responsible for some of cinema’s most iconic roles, from Guys and Dolls’ Sky Masterson to The Godfather’s Don Vito Corleone, bringing a consistent commitment to each character he embodied. His mesmeric approach to the acting craft is so profound that he has become a posthumous sage for any budding thespian wishing to tread a similar path. So absorbing were his performances, and so revolutionary were his methods that we may never see someone quite as fascinating as the late Marlon Brando.
Let’s take a look at six of his most definitive films…
Marlon Brando’s six most definitive films:
A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan – 1951)
Despite being only his second acting role following the 1950s film The Men, Brando’s performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, is an acting powerhouse drenched with theatrical passion.
Excelling in the theatre from an early age, Brando brings a similar emotional energy here, particularly in one famous scene where he screams drenched in sweat to his wife upstairs “Hey Stella!”. He had in fact performed in a stage version of the same Tennessee Williams play prior to his role in the film, also directed by Elia Kazan, so he was certainly well prepared to play Kowalski, the brutish brother-in-law of protagonist Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh).
Catapulting himself to international critical acclaim, Marlon Brando was nominated for his first Academy Award nomination in the Best Actor category, but certainly not his last…
The Wild One (László Benedek – 1953)
Brando’s subsequent two features following the release of A Streetcar Named Desire would establish his name quickly under the Hollywood elite of the mid-twentieth century. Viva Zapata! and Julius Caesar, featured Brando in powerful, dominating lead roles, the former of which earned him a best actor nomination at the Academy Awards.
Though it was in László Benedek’s The Wild One in which Brando would revisit his tough-guy persona of A Streetcar Named Desire, and embody the role of Johnny Strabler, a biker with a soft touch. Inspiring multiple imitators, Brando’s performance as a leather-clad biker gang leader who falls in love with the police chief’s daughter is one overflowing with ’50s style and effortlessly chic flair. Such a performance would consolidate his acting credibility, showing he was far more than just a Hollywood thespian.
On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan – 1954)
The early 1950s was a cinematic landscape in which Marlon Brando proclaimed himself an icon. From his screen inception in the 1950s’ The Men, to On the Waterfront four years later, he would portray a plethora of characters, roles, and historical figures, each one eliciting a particular style and nuanced demeanour.
This is certainly no different in On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando’s early masterpiece in which he plays an ex-prize fighter turned longshoreman whose life falls into turmoil when he begins working for his corrupt union boss. Winning eight Oscar’s overall, including a best actor award for Brando for his method-acting approach to the leading role, On the Waterfront
Is an American classic in which crime, romance, and morality perfectly entwine for an emotionally fraught character-led drama.
The trilogy of these aforementioned films would certainly establish Brando as a Hollywood mainstay, heartthrob, and chameleon, morphing from character to character through the 1950s, though his career would be marked by significant decline and box-office failure in the following decade.
The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola – 1972)
Peppered with both filmmaking success and failure throughout the 1960s, including the iconic musical Guys and Dolls as well as his own disappointing directorial debut in 1961 with One-Eyed Jacks, Brando failed to find the consistent form that he had achieved through the 1950s.
This was until one of cinema’s most successful and groundbreaking feats of filmmaking from Francis Ford Coppola, the gangster crime-drama The Godfather. Telling the story of an ageing mafia crime dynasty and its leader Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), who begins transferring power to his reluctant son, Michael (Al Pacino). With the help of some subtly impressive prosthetic makeup, Brando is transformed into Don Vito, one of cinema’s most domineering and effortlessly powerful characters.
Helping to paint a picture of a mafia family where blood is thicker than just about any material gain, it was here that Marlon Brando truly brandished his name into filmmaking history, if he hadn’t already done so of course…
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola – 1979)
Helping to propel Marlon Brando to career success once more, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather was followed by further success in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, as well as the mainstream acclaim of 1978’s Superman, in which Brando plays the father of the titular hero, sparkling in dazzling white.
Coppola would ignite Brando’s career once more with Apocalypse Now, arguably the actor’s final masterpiece, going out with guts, glory, and plenty of napalm. Playing the role of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, a renegade Special Forces Colonel who is thought to have become insane and is pursued to be assassinated, Brando’s performance here is shockingly convincing.
His own bizarre eccentricities come perfectly into play in his mesmerising portrayal of the army colonel lost in the twisting jungles of Vietnam. Based in part on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, Brando manages to access the material right at the centre of the story itself, allocating his own insanity to perfectly portray a man once powerful, now worshipped in a totally different way.
Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley – 2015)
Following Brando’s success in Apocalypse Now, the actor forged his own strange path, appearing in few films of note, aside from the infamously bad The Island of Dr. Moreau in 1996, before his early death at the age of 80 in July 2004.
Despite this, his legacy as one of the greatest ever screen actors lives on in both his incredible filmography and the endless memorable accounts of those who encountered him. Listen to Me Marlon, Stevan Riley fascinating documentary into the screen actor is so rich in life and real-life monologue that it feels like a performance in and of itself. An insight into the real-life enigma of Marlon Brando.
Utilising hundreds of hours of audio that the actor recorded over the course of his life, Stevan Riley’s film honourably marks the significant milestones of the actor’s life whilst providing an invaluable appreciation for one of the most influential minds in acting. It’s an extremely poignant film that does well to preserve Marlon’s memory, whilst rightfully criticising his downfalls. Though it is one scene in particular in which Marlon Brando’s head is recreated using technological 3D modelling that is truly spectacular. Playing the historical audio files Brando utters ‘listen to me Marlon’ as his 3D recreation speaks directly to the audience, ourselves feeling awkward and unwanted. He is of course speaking privately to himself transcending decades of technological history, what an incredible lasting legacy.