by Cormac O
“There is before Brando, and there is after Brando. And they are like different worlds”
-Rick Lyman (New York Times)
He has been lauded as the most influential screen actor of the twentieth century. He was a pioneer of method acting in Hollywood, whose style spawned the De Niros , the Pacinos and the cynicism of New Hollywood. After World War II, Marlon Brando became Hollywood’s hero, or to be more precise, the American anti-hero. The straight laced moral codes of Hollywood protagonists such as Stewart and Bogart were thrown out the window. Animal instinct and unpredictability is what Brando brought to the screen throughout the 1950s. Screen actors never moved so loosely, mumbled so incoherently or sweated so profusely. He was dangerous. And he represented a backlash to America’s overbearing security of the Eisenhower era. Like The Fonz in Happy Days, but instead of thumping the jukebox for some tunes, he’d smash his fist through it and pump blood.
His debut performance as Stanley Kowalski in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire broke down some mental barrier and showed actors how deep they could delve to express such raw emotions. Brando escaped into his characters and no matter how deplorable they were, he never judged them. He played them with honesty. He received his first Academy Award for playing Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. A dimwitted ex-boxer, working on the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey, persuaded to speak out against the mob and unions. Collaborating again with former communist Elia Kazan, who complimented Brando’s performance as:
“… what was extraordinary about his performance, I feel, is the contrast of the tough-guy front and the extreme delicacy and gentle cast of his behavior. What other actor, when his brother draws a pistol to force him to do something shameful, would put his hand on the gun and push it away with the gentleness of a caress? Who else could read `Oh, Charley!’ in a tone of reproach that is so loving and so melancholy and suggests the terrific depth of pain?”
The method actors that emerged in the late 1960s revered Brando. They saw him as their liberator, studying him and adapting his Stanislavski style of acting. The closest in comparison would be De Niro, not only because of his rough exterior and mumbling vernacular, but because he is the only actor who has actually had to mimic Brando. His performance as a young Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II relies on the subtle mannerisms that Brando utilised in the prequel rather than attempting to out-act him. It’s actually a better performance than his predecessor and many have contended that De Niro is the greater actor. And although the two actor’s careers deteriorated in substance in their twilight years, their reasons for doing so differ.
Brando had a sense of contempt for acting, if not the theatre, then definitely for film acting, and especially for Hollywood. De Niro on the other hand would die for the art form – weight loss, weight gain, live rounds for Russian Roulette! – where Brando could sometimes barely remember lines and joke around on set. In his later years, Brando starred in disastrous movies, but he openly admitted he was doing it for the money. A jobs a job. However, in some of De Niro’s recent roles, audiences are trying to figure out why on earth he’s resorting to this. He used to do a film a year back in the 70s, throw himself into a role, now he’s doing three or four. He’s doing more interviews, he appears to be happy. What the hell is his problem?
Those that aren’t gobbled up by Hollywood or abide to it’s rules, reside at Xanadu and fall into reclusion. This was the destiny for Brando. A man, who wanted everything to be on his own terms, not a team player, not a yes-man. A rebel, but did he have a cause?