Brando originally drifted into acting after being expelled from military school and was perhaps never fully committed to it as an art form. But his name runs through the second half of 20th century American culture like it was a stick of rock.
Marlon Brando made his name, and helped create his first American classic, as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, first on stage, then, in 1951, on the silver screen. His brooding energy, demonic good looks and sheer presence made him destined to become a star.
But it was 1953’s The Wild One moved him into the business of iconography. Brando played Johnny, motorcycle gang leader and archetypal cinematic rebel. The film was banned in Britain until the late Sixties, but his costume of jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket became a fashion staple for decades.
His ambiguous, menacing style was less suited to the Technicolor Sixties, but his last two legendary performances, both for Francis Ford Coppola, helped define Seventies cinema’s new wave. In doing so, he created yet another American icon in The Godfather, a mesmerizing performance in a masterpiece film.
He was hailed as the poster boy for Method acting, but more than detailed research and immersion in a role, his skill was in his sympathetic portrayal of a character’s flaws, alongside flashes of genius inspiration. These qualities are especially evident in Apocalypse Now‘s Colonel Kurtz, the role that marked the final stage between sometimes brilliant actor and full-time maverick. Coppola had expected a lean, handsome, military renegade. He got a shaved and bloated madman who hadn’t read the source novel, didn’t think much of the script, and had decided to make it up as he went along. Brando also refused to be filmed except in near-darkness. He never gave a performance as good as that again.
In between those two films, he helped create the genres of the arthouse sex-and-death sensation (by being the top in mainstream cinema’s first anal sex scene) and the vastly expensive cameo (by being Superman’s dad).
Subsequently, he became more notable for appearing on set semi-naked (to avoid long shots exposing his massive girth) than the quality of his acting. Very recently he was reportedly hiding his Oscar from the debt collectors. His personal life was also so fraught that, sadly, the possibility he was Courtney Love’s biological father would have been the least of his worries…
On screen though, and despite the fact that his reputation is based on relatively few `great’ performances (and even fewer truly great films), Brando’s status as a messy, beautiful symbol of America was never in doubt.