Marlon Brando, 1924 - 2004

Marlon Brando made his name with A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway; he had a similar impact on the 1951 film version, a panther stalking a stage--he was such a vivid presence he had the effect of making Kazan's elaborate film sets look stagy and insubstantial (Vivien Leigh's Blanche was doomed from the start). Kazan put Brando on more naturalistic settings in On the Waterfront and the effect was not as startling--there he was more of a hunted animal than a predator, belonging to the gritty urban background rather than dominating it.

The two films were his essential work, more or less; he was a boxoffice star and heartthrob with The Wild One, but it was his pair of films with Kazan that cemented his reputation. He made some stretches--a clever Antony opposite the clueless James Mason as Brutus in the rather humdrum Julius Ceasar, a brooding Mr. Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty. He gave wonderful support as Vito Corleone in The Godfather to Al Pacino's Michael, but I thought his last great performance was in Last Tango in Paris--his name there was Paul, but that's almost irrelevant; that was Brando onscreen, getting Maria Schneider's fingers stuffed up his ass...

As for the latter years--it's not all decline and fall, and even the precipitousness of it was an indication of his scale. He did an amusing parody of himself in The Freshman, he was memorably grotesque as the fat Dr. Moreau with an ice cooler hat (though Kilmer's parody of him was even more memorable). Just to measure the size of him, disappointment and all, you just have to think--who could compare to him now. Maybe Robert Downey Jr., in terms of disappointment, Johnny Depp in terms of odd career choices, Nicholas Cage in terms of intense acting method. Pacino dominated both Godfather films and De Niro was, fittingly, the younger Vito in the sequel (Brando and De Niro's performances together complected the character), but none of them are remembered or idolized the same way, none of them approached his magnitude. Maybe Brando himself never quite exceeded the impact he made in Streetcar, that of the panther stalking the stage.

No comments: