“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.
With that in mind, we have waded though the wondrous depths his awesome career. By turns brilliant and bizarre, he never once tried to stay in his lane. Thus, despite his mastery, this led to the occasional flop. However, below we have focussed on the incredible zeniths as we bring you his ten greatest roles.
Marlon Brando’s 10 best performances:
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.
Guys and Dolls (Sky Masterson – 1955)
By the time Guys and Dolls came around, Brando had established himself as Hollywood’s most bankable star, thus, offers were flying in left, right and centre. True to form, Brando didn’t always choose the most straightforward, case in point is this classic musical.
Nevertheless, his casting as the lead in a musical ahead of the silken voiced performative hero of his day, Frank Sinatra, raised a few eyebrows and not merely from the outside either. The fact that none of this pressure or personal problems make a mark on his performance is testimony to his ability to slip into character and leave everything else behind.
Lord knows Brando’s difficulties have often been spoken about, but if there is one performance in his career that exhibits his camera’s rolling sincerity, it is this singing and dancing one.
One-Eyed Jacks (Rio – 1961)
By the time One-Eyed Jacks came around, Brando was already well and truly established as a leading man. However, being a leading man in a western was always different. Bravura must be able to compete with the bruising landscape, but a cool calm must match the meandering pace.
With this in mind, Brando decided to take on the role of the director too. In an odd way, he seems a bit of a misfit in the middle of his own movie in the end, but on second viewing this adds a charming allure. After all, his character is a pariah and Brando never really attempts to nestle into usual tropes that he no doubt would’ve found all too easy.
His unique approach colours the role with a sense of individualism – this isn’t just another plot hinging character in the wild west but a fellow with a sense of a story of his own. That adds a level of allure to the movie that often goes amiss and it is a mark of Brando’s understanding of narrative, not just his acting ability.
The Bedtime Story (Freddy Benson – 1964)
Anything that led to the masterful comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels deserves some praise. Brando’s comedic turn might not reached the lofty heights that the unrivalled Steve Martin set in the subsequent remake, but his performance came with the inherent thrill of seeing a usually serious star take something on that is considerably daft.
The sense that Brando is taking his performance deadly seriously on the inside throughout only adds to the comedy. Whether this is a nuanced acting triumph that he was aware of or not is hard to tell, but it certainly adds a joyously bristling oddity to the film.
Endlessly quipping about his beloved grandma, the crooked Freddy Benson subverts Brando’s usual muscular sexuality. The result is broad comedy on the kooky side of things which exhibits Brando’s depth perfectly.
The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola – 1972)
Peppered with both filmmaking success and failure throughout the 1960s, 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.
Divine Rapture (Priest – 1995)
It might only be half an hour long, but this classic short starring Debra Winger, Johnny Depp and John Hurt alongside Marlon Brando is a star-studded success that proved that class is permanent.
The unfinished film about a woman in a remote village who dies only to rise from her coffin and find herself heralded as a saint only for a rare heart disorder to rubbish the notion of a miracle is a charming story. Brando is equally enchanting as he plays the priest at the centre of things.
Sadly the project fell victim to a misappropriation of funds and it had to be scrapped but what remains something the defies the folly of the production.
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.