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Marlon Brando, The Big Bang and the Birth of Modern Acting


Marlon Brando was born on this day, April 3 in the year 1924. In turn, modern acting was born with Marlon Brando's revolutionary performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951. It is not an overstatement to say that every single acting performance we see on stage and screen today is an echo of Brando's Big Bang of modern acting in A Streetcar Named Desire. Some echoes of that performance are more faint than others, but they are echoes nonetheless.

The Big Bang and the birth of modern acting in the form of Brando's Streetcar performance was due to a perfect confluence of events. There were other actors before Brando who had turned away from the constricted theatricality of acting that had been the dominant style of the time and embraced Stanislavski's "Method" and the new realism, but none of those actors had Brando's movie star good looks, his innate talent and charisma, his vividly detailed imagination, his psychological and human instincts, his unrelenting commitment, and his unflinching artistic courage. The key to the perfect storm of Brando and his break out performance was that he had a director, Elia Kazan, who not only allowed him to embrace this new realism and discard the old-school theatricality, he openly encouraged him and collaborated with him. With Kazan, Brando was unchained and allowed to flourish, his talents unleashed upon an unsuspecting audience. The audience, and the acting world, would never be the same again.

Russian Konstantin Stanislavski, who developed "The Method", is the Patriarch of modern acting theory, with his three American prophets being acting teachers Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner. With Stanislavski as the Patriarch of modern acting, Brando, via his work with his teacher Stella Adler, became its realized messiah. 

Brando was volatile, fragile, charming, dynamic, magnetic and always unpredictable. In Streetcar his raw power, vulnerability, sexual dynamism and delicate yet volcanic emotionality gave him a presence no one had seen before on film. Before Brando, acting was more theatrical, mannered and emotionally confined. Brando shattered those stilted conventions by mastering the new way and ignited an acting revolution. He was a raw nerve, an open wound exposed to the world. He could whimper one moment and growl the next. Brando was tactile, visceral and sexual in a way no other actor had ever been. Marlon Brando was a wounded bear riding a bull in the china shop of the acting world. He was simultaneously loved and loathed for it. At the Academy Awards in 1951 the Best Actor Oscar went to Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen and not to Marlon Brando for A Streetcar Named DesireBogart is as old school Hollywood, classical acting style as it gets, and the old guard in the Academy weren't willing to reward the revolutionary in their midst just yet. The Academy did reward Brando's cast mates, in fact all three of the other acting awards went to his compatriots, Vivien Leigh won Best Actress, Kim Hunter, Best Supporting actress and Karl Malden, Best Supporting Actor, making Brando's snub all the more apparent. 

Three years later in 1954, Brando did get his Best Actor Oscar for playing washed up palooka Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront, also directed by Elia Kazan. The acting world and Hollywood were trying to grab a hold of the tail of the artistic tiger that was Marlon Brando. Hollywood though, is interested in money, not art, and for an artist like Brando, that is death. Hollywood believed they needed to tame Brando's voracious artistic spirit in hopes of controlling him and breaking the bank. Brando wanted to experiment, to challenge himself, to investigate and explore, while Hollywood wanted him to go along to get along and not rock the money making boat. Brando didn't play the game and the studios grew tired of his increasingly difficult and costly behavior. He soon found himself on the outside of Hollywood looking in.  "Business before art, profit above all else" is the Hollywood mantra, and Brando was too wild to keep in the palace so they cast him out to wander in the desert.

It wasn't until Francis Ford Coppola cast him as Vito Corleone in The Godfather in 1971, over the objections of the studio, that Brando got back into the game. Brando won his much deserved second Best Actor Oscar for his work in The Godfather. There is a scene in the film which perfectly sums up Brando and his genius. With precious light fading and the clock ticking, Brando asked director Coppola if he could improvise Vito Corleone's death scene. Coppola agreed and rolled the cameras as Brando played a game with a child playing his grandson. Brando puts an orange peel in his mouth and makes a monster face to the little boy, who instantly cries in fear. Brando gently reassures the boy that he is harmless and just playing. The boy calms himself, and then Brando directs him to run through a row of tomato plants, with Brando chasing him like a big monster. The chase goes in and out of the garden rows until Corleone begins to cough and loses his breath and then collapses. This improvisation is so mythologically and psychologically perfect for the character of Vito Corleone that it is sublime brilliance. This is Brando at his finest, playful yet committed and ever the insightful truth teller.

He followed his Oscar win in The Godfather with his seventh Best Actor nomination for Last Tango in Paris in 1972, one of his best and most personal performances. Last Tango in Paris is one of his most brilliant performances because it is so brazenly honest in its display of dishonesty. Brando bares not only his wounded soul, but his broken spirit, his self-loathing appetites, his vicious weakness, his barbaric ugliness and his smirking shadow. It is a mesmerizing performance that reveals more about the actual man and artist than any other of his great works.


With his career re-born in middle age with The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, Brando changed his approach to the studios. If they wanted to make it about money, he would make it about money. He used his newfound leverage to demand exorbitant pay for minimal work. While bringing his formidable gravitas and unforgiving intensity to Apocalypse Now (1979), he also brought his expanding girth and a time limit, he would only work for three weeks and with a price tag of $1 million. He did the same with Superman (1978), demanding and getting $3.7 million for two weeks work.

Shortly after he retired from acting, only to return a decade later with an intricately detailed and subtly charismatic performance in the 1989 apartheid film A Dry White Season for which he was nominated for yet another Best Supporting Actor Oscar. His career staggered along after that with a series of rather forgettable films and one personal family tragedy after another. Losing his son to prison for manslaughter and his daughter to suicide. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "Show me a hero, and I'll write you a tragedy", and so it was with the Godfather and hero of modern acting. 


In 1996 I had a conversation with a friend of mine (who happens to be a movie star and great actor) who had just worked with Brando on The Island of Dr. Moreau. The film was unrelentingly abysmal, and this star readily acknowledged that fact. The quality of the movie didn't matter though as the only thing the two of us really wanted to talk about was Brando. After a few minutes of us doing 'dueling Brandos', a natural occurrence whenever the topic of Marlon Brando comes up, I asked my friend, "what was Marlon Brando really like?" My friend said Brando was a good guy and a pleasure to be around for other actors, even if he was some sort of mad genius and drove the producers and director insane. I then asked my friend about an odd thing that happens in the film and is never addressed, namely, at one point, Brando's character, Dr. Moreau, shows up and is wearing white pancake makeup all over and a white wedding dress type of muumuu for no apparent reason at all, accompanied by a mini-me version of himself wearing the same get up. Nothing else about the character was different, he acted the same, he spoke the same, he was the same guy…except he was entirely covered in white makeup and a wedding dress (veil included). To add to the oddity, none of the other characters mention the get up or comment on it. My friend explained to me that Brando just showed up in that outfit one day, and walked on set and no one said anything to him about it. The director didn't know what to do and knew he couldn't dare question Brando about it. None of the other actors even cared at this point of the cursed production, so they just went with it, figuring, 'Hey, its Marlon Brando!' My friend explained that he knew it was a very strange thing to do, but that he understood what Brando was up to only after the filming was completed. Brando didn't care about what was expected of him or of what anyone thought, or about conventions, he just did what he felt like and no one was going to stop him or even say anything to him about it….just like the power-mad Dr. Moreau. Brando's ego, madness and irrationality matched Moreau's, and in hindsight it proved that Brando was not afraid to look the fool in order to prove a deeper, more human and artistic point. When, like Brando, you become a sort of living artist god, you must go to deeper and stranger lengths to prove to people that you are still human. Brando embraced the fool in order to try and elicit some sort of response from people, even if it was negative one, as long as it was honest. No one responded to the madness of Brando and Dr. Moreau, and the film is an indictment of the fear and lifelessness of those surrounding him, not to the mad-genius at the center of it.

The Island of Dr. Moreau is a long way from A Streetcar Named Desire, but that doesn't diminish the colossal impact of Brando's universe changing performance back in 1951. The Big Bang of his Streetcar performance unleashed a chain reaction in the acting world that reverberates to this day. Marlon Brando was quickly followed by James Dean, a younger, more feminine version of Brando, in Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden (directed by Elia Kazan). James Dean was followed by Paul Newman and the lineage goes from there up to Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep in the 70's and 80's, and onto Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore of today.

There were fine actors before Marlon Brando, there have been fine actors after him, and there will be more fine actors in the years to come, but there will never be another actor who will radically change the art and craft of acting like Marlon Brando did. As Babe Ruth is to baseball, as Sir Isaac Newton is to science, and as Shakespeare is to playwriting, so Marlon Brando is to the art and craft of acting.  As director Martin Scorsese said, "He is the marker. There is 'before Brando' and 'after Brando'." Sadly, we are in the 'After Brando' period, and all of us, actors and audience alike, owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the man who showed us the way. A toast to a revolutionary genius...Happy Birthday to Marlon Brando, the greatest actor to have ever walked the earth. Slàinte.

© 2015