The last of the great triad of male Method actors who had vaulted from the Actors Studio into postwar Hollywood, Marlon Brando personified the kind of slum-handsome rebel whom American audiences were ready to embrace in an age of prosperous conformity. Dead last week at age 80, Brando outlived Montgomery Clift and James Dean, by four and five decades respectively; and while his acting achievements were acknowledged during last week’s tributes, the eulogies unfailingly faulted him for turning his back on his own career. Brando’s life — his unfulfilled artistic promise as an actor and director, his prodigious appetites, family tragedies and reports of financial ruin — reminded us how often American fame ends in ignominy. Many commentators had come to bury Brando, not to praise him.
The obituaries’ he-shoulda-stayed-a-contender tone also comfortably assured us that, high or low, everyone shares a common destiny governed by the laws of decay and diminishing returns: We grow old, we get fat, and we lose our money. But Brando was different in that he lost something the rest of us don’t have — an enormous talent that was, in its uncompromising purity, admired by millions. His ability — as Stanley Kowalski, or Terry Malloy, or The Wild One’s Johnny Strabler — to articulate the hope and anger of an inarticulate generation made him bigger than any Hollywood star, bigger even than life. What mere actor would attempt as his directorial debut the eccentric oedipal Western One-Eyed Jacks, or gamble with a politically charged grenade of a film like Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn!, or — in the case of The Godfather — refuse an Academy Award?
Before Brando, there had been charming leading men, “rugged” heroes and even brooding ones, but from the first moment America looked into his fathomless eyes, we recognized someone who wouldn’t — couldn’t — lie to us. It’s not too much to say that Brando’s performances stood as one of the few meaningful forms of defiance against an era of gray-flannel mendacity. Karl Malden often recalled how, during Brando’s first, supporting role on Broadway, the young actor stole a scene, to wild applause, by silently sitting at a table. Such old-school stars as Tallulah Bankhead would soon learn to their intense displeasure how devastatingly Brando’s mute presence could upstage them. It wasn’t so much that he enjoyed pulling attention away from divas but, rather, that he was a prodigy when it came to mastering the difficult art of listening onstage. “He had that instinct,” actress Anne Jackson has recalled of his stage presence, “for finding what was real in a situation and allowing himself to be vulnerable.”
More viscerally, Martin Landau would remember smelling Brando’s sweat during a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire — a perfume that violently clashed with the gentlemanly cologne that had always hung over Broadway. Brando’s sensual alchemy of anger, candor and vulnerability, first glimpsed on the screen in his portrayal of a crippled war vet in The Men, was more than acting verisimilitude; it was artistic truth. And yet Brando was never himself convinced of his actor’s identity, an identity that implied self-exploration and continual questioning. That perhaps explains his relatively brief stage career (roughly half a dozen plays during the 1940s) and his migration to film, where the rehearsal demands for internal examination were minimal.
Over time, Brando’s view of both theater and Hollywood grew increasingly contemptuous, and in one Larry King interview, he called acting “older than whoring” — admitting, perhaps, the need to maintain a certain lifestyle and provide for a large family that lay behind many of his later career’s highly lucrative cameos. In Brando’s artistic sloth, we see both a glimmer of an American tendency to shirk responsibility and an impulse to rebel against a corporation named Hollywood. Even the medical cause of Brando’s passing, lung failure, had a symbolic ring. He simply could no longer breathe the atmosphere of the new century — or of his own legend.