05/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On His Birthday, Taking The Measure Of Brando

"I admire Marlon's talent, but I don't envy the pain that created it."
-Anthony Quinn

In the wake of this iconic actor's death nearly five years ago, the prevailing sentiment was that Marlon Brando, who would have turned 85 last week, was a remote, tortured man who squandered his prodigious talent for easy money. Some critics at the time sounded downright miffed, as if a good kick in Brando's voluminous rear-end might have shocked him back to a full appreciation of just what he owed his public.

Brando's filmography in fact provides sufficient proof that the actor's own demons helped stall a career that in its hey-day (the mid-late fifties) seemed limitless in potential. Even though the Broadway stage had brought him sudden and early fame, as his career progressed Brando consciously resisted the traditional course of revisiting the stage periodically to hone his craft with more demanding, high-brow works of classic and contemporary theatre. Three personal qualities likely contributed to this decision: an inherent contrariness, the laziness that often accompanies success earned too quickly, and a corrosive contempt for his chosen profession, a path he chose only because it was the one thing he could do well.

Brando grew up the son of alcoholic parents-unappreciated, and often ignored. Desperate to gain attention from his pre-occupied mother, he learned to play-act and entertain from an early age. His early isolation bred in him both a vivid internal life and a seething resentment that would inform his acting persona and approach. In real life, his fundamental wariness and barely concealed self-loathing would make it difficult for him to trust and enjoy other people for sustained periods of time.

From the start, Brando's public image reflected a basic truth about the man: he was complex, brooding, and angry, while at the same time almost child-like in his vulnerability. His ability to draw on the techniques of "The Method", plumbing the depths of his unhappy, lonely childhood to create searing emotions on-screen, made him not just the embodiment of a new generation of actor, but a new kind of actor entirely, one perfectly in keeping with the darker realities of the post-war, atomic age.

Beyond the undeniable impact of "Method" proponent Stella Adler, whom he credited with much of his success, Brando's unique gift came from his uncanny ability to portray conflicting, suppressed emotions like no other actor before or since. Driving this was his core belief that the inner lives of human beings could not be drawn in black and white, only murky shades of gray. This meant that otherwise decent people, filled with hidden, often frightening contradictions, could inexplicably do horrible things.

Technique and motivation aside, the result was clear enough: no actor had ever filled a stage or a screen quite like Brando. Popular and critical adulation came at him like a tidal wave, and the actor privately dealt with the onslaught by dismissing the importance of his craft. He referred to acting as "an empty and useless profession", and Hollywood, "a cultural boneyard". His whole film career came to represent a pay-check he wasn't principled enough to resist.

This sour outlook, coupled with a growing reputation as an erratic and unpredictable on-set personality, would result in a steadily diminishing quality of output in the sixties. Like Elizabeth Taylor, he became known for a time as a bloated has-been, a personification of the greed and self-indulgence of a now vanished Hollywood.

When Francis Ford Coppola approached him to audition for the part of Don Corleone in "The Godfather", the actor had not worked in two years. Though Burt Lancaster was lobbying heavily for the role (ironically the same actor who had launched Brando by turning down "Streetcar" on Broadway), he didn't stand a chance once Marlon put that Kleenex in his cheeks.

In the wake of this iconic role and his second Oscar (which he famously refused), Brando milked his comeback by making one more great film ( "Last Tango"), and then walking away from the industry, only returning when a pay day was too sweet to pass up. A telling quote from this period: "I'm not an actor and haven't been for years. I'm a human being-hopefully a concerned and somewhat intelligent one-who occasionally acts."

Though it's difficult to deny the prevailing sense of waste in Brando's career and life, he must be credited with acting on his idealism, supporting the rights of disenfranchised groups, whether advocating for the plight of Native Americans, or lending his presence and support to the Civil Rights movement. It is also true that he paid dearly for his shortcomings and mistakes, living to see his son Christian's arrest for murder (which nearly bankrupted him), and the eventual suicide of his daughter, Cheyenne. Who would wish this kind of pain on anyone?

Out of the spotlight and safe from prying eyes on his private Polynesian island, the star indulged in the only activity that provided real comfort: eating. Though always a prodigious gourmand, in later years the actor's weight ballooned to 350 pounds (he stood just 5'10"). Even on "Apocalypse Now", shot when Brando was still in his fifties, director Francis Coppola had no alternative but to shoot the star in shadow, and when needed, utilize a stand-in. It was sad to think this obese figure had once played the lean, well-muscled Stanley Kowalski in a form-fitting tee-shirt.

Here then are the Brando titles that remain in fine trim, demonstrating a striking, simple truth: no other actor could touch Marlon Brando at his best.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)- Frayed Southern belle Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) arrives in a seedy quarter of New Orleans, where she's arranged to stay with her pregnant sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and coarse, hulking brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski (Brando). Right from the start, Blanche and Stanley are at odds, as he sees through her high-mannered facade to the neurotic, vulnerable woman beneath. Tensions soon escalate, as Stanley sets out to confront Blanche about money and her unseemly past. Brando's force-of-nature performance in Elia Kazan's "Streetcar" - an electrifying mix of brute physicality and smoldering sexuality - made Stanley Kowalski's infamous bellow a permanent part of pop culture and Brando a household name. But the undeniable strength of this film, adapted from the play by Tennessee Williams, is driven as much by the witty, vivid dialogue and ensemble acting as it is the lead actor's Method work. Leigh, Hunter, Karl Malden, Ruby Bond, and Nick Dennis are all terrific, and Alex North's atmospheric jazz score enhances the tense, combustible interplay. Winner of five Oscars, this "Streetcar" offers an incredible ride.

Julius Caesar (1953)- Troubled by the unchecked ascension of statesman and military hero Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern), Roman senator Cassius (John Gielgud) conspires with fellow politicians Casca (Edmond O'Brien) and Brutus (James Mason) to assassinate the power-hungry despot. After they carry out the deed on the Ides of March, Caesar's bosom friend Marc Antony (Brando) elects, for the good of the republic, to throw in his chips with the schemers. Or does he? Joseph L. Mankiewicz's quintessential, star-studded adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy is a lavish, Oscar-winning production. Gielgud, Mason, O'Brien, Greer Garson, and Deborah Kerr all shine in their respective roles. And Brando puts the mumbling Stanley Kowalski out of mind as he yelps "Let loose the dogs of war!" and intones Antony's unforgettable funeral speech with a gravity befitting the role. Worlds better than other screen versions, and one of the finest meditations on personal versus public ethics, "Julius Caesar" deserves your adulation.

On The Waterfront (1954)- Washed-up prizefighter Terry Molloy (Brando) is increasingly disillusioned, working for his mobster brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), who is the right-hand man to waterfront boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J.Cobb). Events lead Terry to take a stand against the widespread corruption on the waterfront and thus regain his self-respect. Here, Brando teamed with Kazan for the third time on film, and the result is what many consider to be their best work together. Its gritty, almost claustrophobic on-location direction captures the human desperation and sense of danger emanating from the waterfront neighborhood, a world unto itself. The acting is absolutely top notch throughout as Malden, Steiger and Cobb all perform at (or close to) Brando's level. The film's ending will leave you breathless. (Kazan himself later stated he considered Brando's work here the finest male performance he'd ever witnessed on-screen.)

Sayonara (1957)- When truculent GI Joe Kelly (Red Buttons) seeks to marry his Japanese lover during the Korean War--at the risk of a court martial, since Army policy forbids such unions-he appeals to his friend, Major Lloyd Gruver (Brando). Curbing his own deep-seated prejudices, Gruver agrees to be best man. Eventually, Gruver himself meets and falls in love with a Japanese dancer, unleashing the bigotry of the top brass and forcing him to face his own. This potent, then-controversial drama about a romance between an American and an Asian in wartime was adapted from a novel by James Michener. Shot in Technicolor on location in Japan, the film is gorgeous to look at, and Brando's work is skillfully nuanced, as his character's outlook gradually evolves from intolerance to enlightenment through the love of a woman. Red Buttons, playing Brando's best friend, and Miyoshi Umeki as his lover, both won Oscars for their touching, heartfelt performances as the doomed couple.

The Young Lions (1958)- During WWII, singer Michael Whiteacre (Dean Martin) and Jewish American Noah Ackerman (Montgomery Clift) enlist and strike up a close friendship. Meanwhile, in Germany idealistic Nazi supporter Christian Diestl (Brando) joins Hitler's army and becomes an officer in the Wehrmacht. Over the course of the war, each man falls in love and confronts unpleasant realities- most notably, Ackerman battles anti-Semitism among his own countrymen, while Diestl becomes increasingly disillusioned with Nazi brutality. Based on Irving Shaw's novel, Edward Dmytryk's perceptive rumination on love, war, loyalty, and fate is notable for offering one of the first three-dimensional portrayals of a Nazi character, courtesy of Brando, in a surprisingly understated mode. Clift's own turn as the proud, patriotic Jew is one of his shining moments on-screen, while Dino eased into his first serious screen role with assurance. Great support from Lee Van Cleef (as Clift's racist superior), the superb Maximillian Schell (as a cynical Nazi), and Hope Lange, Barbara Rush, and May Britt (as love interests) keep these "Lions" roaring.

The Godfather (1972)- This brilliant, bloody saga traces the turbulent reign of aging Mafia patriarch Don Vito Corleone (Brando) and his son, Michael (Al Pacino), a decorated war veteran in 1940s New York who has no intention of joining the family business. But after Don Vito is victimized by a rival who wants to move heroin through his turf, Michael elects to seek vengeance, and is then forced to hide out in Sicily. It's only a matter of time before Michael returns to inherit the mantle from his recuperating father. Long before "The Sopranos," a young Coppola transformed our understanding of the relationship between organized crime and corporate American profiteering with this operatic ode based on Mario Puzo's acclaimed novel. Moody and violent, "Godfather" combines a bullets-blazing mobster film with a gripping family saga. And what a cast: Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, and Diane Keaton are all superlative. Brando, of course, achieved yet another level of cinematic fame with his stunning portrayal of the title character. Coppola fought with Paramount to achieve his personal vision, but ultimately triumphed, winning the 1972 Oscar for Best Picture.

Last Tango In Paris (1972)- While apartment-hunting in Paris, sultry 20-year-old Jeanne (Maria Schneider) meets Paul (Brando), a brooding middle-aged American whose wife has recently committed suicide for reasons he cannot fathom. Within minutes, they make love in the empty flat, a desolate place that becomes their temple of carnality, but with strict rules established by Paul. Scandalous in 1972 and still unsettling today, Bernardo Bertolucci's bizarre, fascinating psychodrama depicts sex not as a union of two human beings, but as a reflection of their alienation from each other. While the butter scene is justly famous, this isn't the only reason "Tango" stays with you. Just watch Brando closely here: at certain moments you catch a glimpse of that fiery young man in the ripped tee-shirt, railing against the world's injustices, down but never out, and utterly, brilliantly alive. (Trivia note: reportedly, to build a feeling of spontaneity, Brando would improvise his own lines the day before shooting a scene. In many instances, Paul's memories of childhood are Brando's).

Apocalypse Now Redux (1979)- During the Vietnam War, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is given the unusual assignment of tracking and eliminating rogue Colonel Kurtz (Brando), a decorated career officer who has broken the chain of command and is presumed insane. Willard and his team venture into remote territory to find the enigmatic Kurtz. Symbolically, they're all traveling to the very core of man's bestial instincts. Director Coppola's re-edited "Redux" version includes new scenes which clarify some loose ends in the original cut of this slightly flawed masterpiece. "Apocalypse" stands as an epic, mesmerizing acid-trip of a war movie that melds together the savage themes of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" with the inherent waste of Vietnam. This is grand spectacle, augmented by a brilliant use of music. The acting is superb, from Sheen, Duvall and Hopper in particular. Even bald, bloated, incoherent Brando fascinates. Once seen, never forgotten. For the ideal double feature, follow this with Eleanor Coppola's revealing documentary on the mostly jinxed production of this film, "Hearts Of Darkness" (1991).

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