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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Fifteen Essential Marlon Brando Films

best marlon brando movies
“Marlon had an expression, he’d say: Let’s go out and jiggle the molecules.”
- Quincy Jones
Throughout the history of art, there have arguably been only a handful of artists in any medium that reconfigured the way we perceive life and our place within it. Painters Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso famously challenged our sense of sight with Cubism. Jazz musicians and composers Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis did nothing less than create such individualistic time signatures, sounds and tones with their music as to scrambled then rearrange the listener’s preconceived notions of time and space.
Marlon Brando, a farm boy from Omaha, Nebraska, came to New York City in 1943 to study acting with legendary teacher Stella Adler, and within three years would change not only the way the art of acting would be approached by generations thereafter, but would challenge the world’s own perception of what “good” acting could possibly be, on stage and in film, thus challenging our own perceptions of how we perceive the human experience.
Once thought of as an entertaining if exaggeratedly representational art form that sought to indicate the human experience through voice and body and the words of the dramatist, Marlon Brando would almost single-handedly transform Acting into an art form capable of being a transcendent experience, where the theater and filmgoer would witness, alas experience, actual human behavior functioning inside the safe confines of an imaginary given circumstance. In simpler terms, to merely “represent” the human experience on stage would soon be perceived as false. Only the actor that strove to “be” his character on stage, to go through an actual emotional experience would satisfy. Brando was the epitome of this actor.
Brando ushered in a new era of psychological realism with his acting where from here on out the Actor was either expected to bring his or her own life’s past experience and present behavior to inhabit a character. Even those actors that chose not to engage in the Stanislavsky-based “method” of psychological-physical realism taught by New York’s Group Theater in the 1930’s had to eventually adjust their representational style to fit this new perception of dramatic reality.
But Brando’s acting was so new, his approach so revolutionary, it was not immediately welcomed and was in fact first met with derision and confusion. Some critics and colleagues alike dismissed him as a sloppy, mumbling young man, lost on stage. When Pauline Kael, the late great film critic, first saw Brando’s searing performance as a murderous war veteran in Maxwell Anderson’s play “Truckline Café” she thought the poor young man was having a seizure on stage.
“Embarrassed for him, I lowered my eyes, and it wasn’t until the young man who’d brought me grabbed my arm and said ‘Watch this guy!’ that I realized he was acting.” The late character actor Charles Durning said at the time that he thought they had pulled someone off the street as an emergency replacement. He was certain he wasn’t an actor. He returned to the theater to see this same young man acting. “He couldn’t have been an actor, he was too good!”
Brando created such a seismic shift in perception that audiences and critics alike went from denouncing him as the worst actor in comparison to his counterparts, to doing a complete one hundred and eighty degrees: He wasn’t the problem, it was the entire rest of the cast that needed to catch up.
Legend has it that when Elia Kazan sent Brando to Tennessee Williams’ rented summer home to read for the part of Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Williams thought he was the electrician he had called and directed him towards the faulty wiring (which Brando promptly fixed, along with the plumbing.) Falling in love with the “local electrician” Williams called Kazan wondering when his actor would show up, elated to find out he already had.
By 1947, the year “A Streetcar Named Desire” premiered on Broadway, there would be no more confusion; Marlon Brando was an actor extraordinaire, one that would completely reinvent the art form from the inside out. While he was following in the paths of such established Stanislavsky-based talents as Montgomery Clift (his friend and whose acting he greatly admired) and John Garfield, Brando’s animalistic, sexualized, fearless approach would burn its way into the audience’s psyche like no other actor had before or since.
Beginning with the Stanley Kramer produced wartime drama “The Men,” a middling movie save for Brando’s excellent portrayal of a paraplegic veteran’s return from the war, Brando began a film career whose first five film performances would rocket him into the stratosphere of the art-form, transforming forever how we not only perceive acting, but in turn how we perceive ourselves. As his friend Quincy Jones said about him, the man had the innate ability to “jiggle the molecules” as he played his own body rhythms and behavior like the drums an instrument Brando was particularly gifted at.
While Brando’s film career was perhaps as wild and careening as the man himself (“The Godfather” is often voted the best film of all-time by most critic lists, “Candy” often ranked as one of the worst) here is a list of fifteen films, listed chronologically, that are essential viewing for any fan or for anyone not yet initiated to the late actor’s work. And if you fall into the latter category, welcome to the birthplace of everything you have come to know as modern acting.

1. A Streetcar Named Desire (Dir. Elia Kazan, 1951)
A Streetcar Named Desire
While 1950’s “The Men” (Directed by Fred Zinnemann) was Brando’s first foray into film, it was Elia Kazan’s 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “Streetcar” (which Kazan directed on Broadway) that truly lit the world on fire and served as an introduction to the force of nature that was Marlon Brando and to a new approach to screen acting. Williams has said his original intention of the play was for the audience’s sympathies to lay squarely with the fallen, fractured heroine of Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh on screen, Jessica Tandy on Broadway).
But in Brando’s incendiary, humane, psychologically rich performance, completely free of the usual actor’s judgment when called upon to play a “bad guy,” the play became something altogether different, richer, more complex, and more heart wrenching to experience because of it. If it were possible to read the play without having Brando’s performance in mind, one couldn’t possibly perceive this drunk, card playing, rageful child-man, one who eventually rapes Blanche, to be anything except a disgusting, awful human being. In the approach of Brando, he indeed is that brute, but so much more, bringing to mind Jean Renoir’s famous line from his film “The Rules of the Game” that in the end… “The truly terrible thing is that everybody has their reasons.

2. Julius Caesar – (Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1953)
julius caesar
Brando was quoted as saying he was embarrassed to be acting alongside actual English Shakespearean actors as Sir John Gielgud, James Mason and producer John Houseman. Even the spear-carriers had more experience with iambic pentameter than Brando! But Brando’s performance as Mark Anthony, lieutenant and cousin of the assassinated Roman leader Caesar, is so flawless and filled with genuine outrage, one would think he was born at the original Globe Theater. Brando was so believable as the warrior and Roman orator capable of subtly raising the ire of the crowd against the “honorable men,” that Gielgud himself would later say in interviews he thought Brando’s Anthony was the best he’d ever seen, and for years he and Houseman pursued Brando to tackle a stage production of Hamlet with Brando in titular role.
Brando’s turn as Mark Anthony would also put to rest any notions that his acting was a one-trick “mumbling” pony, and would spread his and the Stanislavsky-based approach beyond America and directly challenge the English based representational style, which focused more on the technical aspects of voice, movement. Actors as notable as Christopher Plummer and Anthony Hopkins have since cited Brando’s Mark Anthony as a turning point whereby they and other English actors sought to combine the technically proficient English representational style with the more emotionally rich, inside-out approach of the Stanislavsky System.

3. The Wild One – (Dir. Lazlo Benedek, 1953)
The Wild One
One of Brando’s most iconic roles was ironically in one of his more forgettable movies. As the emotionally wounded bad-ass motorcycle gang leader Johnny Boy, the film is as quotable (“What are you rebelling against?” “What d’ya got?”), as it is easy to mock (the opening caption warns: “This is a shocking story…it is a public challenge not to let it happen again.”) Yet there is no denying the cultural importance of this movie as it cemented Brando as a pop culture icon for the ages.
With his leather-bound look and mercurial menace, every woman wanted him, every man wanted to be him (and certainly, many men wanted him as well.) The leather jacket and t-shirt look would define a generation of disaffected youth for years. And though the film’s script is over-wrought with moralizing and hep-cat phrases past their prime even at the time (“cool it Daddio”) you’ll still find the great maelstrom of conflicting emotions raging within the young actor’s performance. But it wouldn’t be until his next film that the perfect marriage of script, actor and director would bring his talent to its fullest fruition.

4. On The Waterfront – (Dir. Elia Kazan, 1954)
On The Waterfront
Arguably the greatest screen performance of all-time, “On The Waterfront” is still the benchmark for what film acting could possibly be, by Brando as well as by other “method” trained actors such as Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Martin Balsam and in her screen debut, Eva Marie Saint. While filming on location is not seen as anything special by today’s standards, this film paved the way with director Elia Kazan insisting to the incredulous Columbia Pictures executives that he film not at the lot, but at the shipping docks of Hoboken, New Jersey during the icy months of February and March.
Winner of eight Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Brando and best Director for Elia Kazan, this tale of Mob corruption at the shipping docks, and the one man who had the guts and tortured conscious to do the right thing is as powerful a film as has ever been produced by a major Hollywood studio. While controversy ensues to this day as to whether this film was meant by Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg as an allegory in defending their own positions for testifying to House of Un-American Activities Commission and “naming names” during the dark days of McCarthyism, it should be seen upon its own merits as quite simply, one of the best films ever made.
There are too many extraordinary, gut-wrenching, emotionally resonant moments in this film to single any out. So instead, here is a modest yet equally brilliant one: Watch for the moment Eva Marie Saint’s Edie walks with Brando’s longshoreman Terry Malloy through the park. As they walk and talk, getting to know one another, Eva Marie Saint accidentally drops a glove, and in a brilliant improvised moment, Brando picks up her glove. But instead of returning it to her, sensuously, playfully, tries to fit it on one his hands as they effortlessly continue their talk, one of awkward, blossoming flirtation. Not an ounce of extra attention is made of it, it just happens – unplanned, in the moment, real behavior within an imaginary circumstance. If there is only one film from this list you are able to watch of this extraordinary artist’s work – this is the one.

5. Guy and Dolls – (Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955)
Guy and Dolls
That’s right, for those keeping score, Brando does an American Classic, Brando does Shakespeare, Brando does Biker-flick, Brando does gritty realism, and here… Brando sings! And you know, he’s not half bad, but he’s no Sinatra, who just so happens to be in the film as well! With incredible songs by Frank Loesser, even if you don’t like musicals, “Guys and Dolls” is a complete piece of pure Technicolor entertainment, and Brando is once again the epitome of cool as the Damon Runyon-esque master gambler Sky Masterson.

6. The Young Lions – (Dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1958)
The Young Lions
Brando is a sympathetic German soldier in World War II who truly believes in the cause but whose belief is chipped away piece by piece as the truth of Germany’s malevolent ways reveals itself. Also of note is the performance of Montgomery Clift, who along with John Garfield was one of the original ‘Method’ screen stars before Brando. After Clift had a motorcycle accident in which his face was badly disfigured then fixed with plastic surgery, he became a virtual Hollywood pariah.
Brando insisted Clift should star as the Jewish private who fights against the anti-Semitism from his own brothers in arms on the American side of this World War II tale. A highly under-rated film, and a beginning taste of what would later become Brando’s interest to not only choose films aligned with his own social-political leanings, but then taking the role that most challenged those beliefs.

7. One Eyed Jacks – (Dir. Marlon Brando, 1961)
One Eyed Jacks
Brando re-teamed with his friend and co-star of “Streetcar” and “Waterfront” Karl Malden and took his first and only turn at the helm in this absorbing Western that became as much about Brando’s own real-life tortured relationship with his father than was originally meant to be in Sam Peckinpah’s original screenplay (later given a page one rewrite by Guy Trosper and Calder Willingham.)
Stanley Kubrick was initially slated to direct, but reportedly dropped out after asking Brando during script discussions what he felt the film was really about. Brando replied: “It’s about three million dollars in back taxes.” A shame to go without a Kubrick/Brando collaboration, but thankfully the actor stayed with it, because “One Eyed Jacks” winds up being a beautiful, elegiac Western which director Terry Gilliam claims is one of his favorite films of all-time.

8. Reflections in a Golden Eye – (Dir. John Huston, 1967)
Reflections in a Golden Eye
The 1960’s were a truly strange era in Marlon Brando’s film oeuvre. After the box office bomb of “Mutiny on the Bounty” as well as six other unsuccessful films that alternated between light entertainment fluff (“Bedtime Stories”, “The Countess of Hong Kong”) and films aligned with Brando’s increasing passion for social political causes, (“The Ugly American,” “Burn” which will be discussed next) Brando’s Hollywood stock began dropping considerably. In “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” John Huston’s sad, creeping murmur of a tale based on the Carson McCullers’ novel, Brando plays U.S. Major Weldon Penderton at a Southern Army Base during the 1940’s. Married to the ravishingly gorgeous Lenora, played by Elizabeth Taylor, Penderton becomes obsessed with a new young private in his charge.
An odd, heartbreaking, daring performance dealing in repressed homosexuality, murder and voyeurism. Needless to say, it was not a box office success, yet worth seeing for Brando’s incredibly brave and idiosyncratic performance. Martin Scorsese champions this films, and has said that a scene where Brando’s Penderton talks to himself in the mirror was his inspiration to suggest that Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle try the same thing in the now famous “you talkin’ to me” scene from “Taxi Driver.”

9. Burn! – (Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, 1969)
Brando stated in his memoir “Songs My Mother Taught Me” as well as in various interviews that he thought this was his best film performance of all time. This dubbed, Italian financed affair about infamous mercenary Sir William Walker playing both sides during the Caribbean slave-revolt against the British is sloppy, overacted and ham-fisted in its anti-Imperialist polemics. That said, when Brando is onscreen, he is truly on fire and frighteningly good.

10. The Godfather – (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
The Godfather (1972)
What can be said that hasn’t already been said about the film that is almost universally regarded as the greatest motion picture of all-time? For our purposes it’s worth noting that Marlon Brando, after a decade of bombs, was now officially considered box office poison. Only due to the persistence of the young Francis Ford Coppola, and Brando’s willingness to do a make-up screen test at his own home for Coppola to show the studios, did his casting happen.
Paramount executives swore that if Coppola even mentioned Brando’s name again for the role of Don Vito Corleone, they would fire him from the project (Paramount wanted Ernest Borgnine or Danny Thomas.) Then Coppola showed them the screen test of “an actor” he was interested in for the role. They flipped for it, and when they were told it was Marlon Brando, they couldn’t believe it. The rest is history.
His performance is still shocking to behold in that he appears in less than half of the film, yet towers over both this film and its incredible, equally brilliant sequel like all father’s do over their sons. How perfect that the man that single-handedly launched a new approach to screen acting would win his second Oscar as the father figure to the next generation of “method” actors in Al Pacino, James Caan, John Cazale and Robert Duvall, with the heir apparent Robert DeNiro portraying the young Vito Corleone in the sequel.
Brando’s performance here out does anything he had ever done before as it is the most perfectly realized marriage of the Stanislavsky-based method’s inside-out approach with the more outside-in, externally based English approach to the art of acting, made most famous by Laurence Olivier (who was also considered as a front runner for the role by Coppola if he couldn’t get Brando.)

11. Last Tango In Paris – (Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972)
Last Tango in Paris
“Tango has altered the face of an art form. This is a movie people will be arguing about for as long as there are movies… the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made.”
- Pauline Kael
Pauline Kael, the same critic who nearly thirty years earlier mistook the young Brando as an embarrassment on stage, made it her solemn duty that no one else make that same mistake with her famous review of “Last Tango in Paris.” She went on to say that some may prefer to make the mistake she had lo those many years ago:
“… so they won’t have to recognize how deep down he goes and what he dredges up.”
Launching his career like a comet as a stage actor in the 40’s, revolutionizing film acting in the 50’s, and then adrift with a self-loathing hatred for the art of acting for much of the 60’s, Brando would make two of his most lasting contributions to the art of Cinema in 1972 with “The Godfather” and “Last Tango in Paris.” It is the artist at his most naked – literally, emotionally and spiritually. In “Tango,” Brando plays Paul, a former actor and sometime Journalist living off the finances of his French wife who has recently committed suicide in the apartment building they owned. Paul was based in part on Brando’s own life, with much of the improvised dialogue biographical in nature.
The film was rated NC-17 in America for Paul’s engaging in a “no names” sexual contract of sorts with the young Maria Schneider. The film sparked worldwide controversy and has as many detractors as it does champions. As for all the snark-laden talk of butter, sodemy and a ballooning Brando this film can often inspire, the scene where he berates his dead wife on her funeral bed, then crumbles before her is almost too intimate to bear. In interviews with Maria Schneider as well as with Brando, both revealed that they had felt manipulated, tricked and in a sense raped by Bertolucci for how deeply he had exposed the actors. Brando swore he would never allow himself to be this naked, this emotionally exposed ever again.

12. Missouri Breaks – (Dir. Arthur Penn, 1976)
Missouri Breaks
Add this to Brando’s most eccentric performance list, alongside “Reflections of a Golden Eye” and “Apocalypse Now” (to be discussed). This western, featuring fantastic performances by Jack Nicholson and Harry Dean Stanton as cattle rustlers in Northern Montana, just barely hobbles along until Brando graces the screen and blows the entire enterprise sky high. Brando plays the mysterious Regulator, a killer for hire whose main targets are rustlers, and then if he feels like it, the people who hired him in the first place.
He starts out with a very authentic Irish Brogue and goes by the name of Robert E. Lee Clayton. But his costume is Native American inspired. Then in a different sequence he tricks the rustler Randy Quaid by donning the clothes of a Reverend and speaks as if he’s from Kentucky, with a gob of chewing tobacco jammed into his cheek for good measure.
Every moment he’s on screen is genuinely thrilling, frightening and at turns, sickeningly hilarious. By the film’s end, when he whips a homemade throwing star of sharpened sticks at the head of Harry Dean Stanton, Brando does so while wearing an old woman’s dress and prairie bonnet. Brando’s bravaura performance here is not without its reason, as he becomes an almost physical embodiment of chaos, the chaos the wealthy cattle owner had invited upon himself by taking the law into his own hands by hiring The Regulator to kill Nicholson and his fellow rustlers.
His eccentric, risk taking choices as an actor here can be seen as a cinematic precursor to Heath Ledger’s Joker in the “The Dark Knight” as well as Johnny Depp’s ensemble of chaotic characters in practically every movie since “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” Admittedly, the film is quite a slog through its first hour, but if you can make it through, the last hour is incredibly tense as it segues into almost a Western-Horror tale as Brando’s terrifying Regulator begins hunting the rustlers down, one by one.

13. Apocalypse Now – (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
Apocalypse Now
Overweight, under-prepared and insanely brilliant is Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz, the man with an impeccable military record who has left his ranks to form his own jungle army near the Cambodian border in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Vietnam tale, “Apocalypse Now.” Based on the Joseph Conrad novel, “Heart of Darkness,” about a man hired to find the wayward explorer Kurtz and “terminate his command,” Brando was supposed to show up for one week of work, physically fit and having read the Conrad novel. Instead, he showed up heavier than he’d ever been, and had not turned a page of the famous book.
Coppola’s answer was to dress Brando in black, film him in almost perpetual darkness, and hire a double for times he needed to see a fuller, more imposing body shot. He and Brando then proceeded to explore what would then happen when Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard finally did meet Kurtz. One week, turned to two, turned to six, with the meter running. And the result was impossibly brilliant. While only appearing in less than twelve minutes of screen time, Brando’s Colonel Kurtz hangs over the entire three-hour epic like a giant humid specter of doom.

14. The Freshman – (Dir. Andrew Bergman, 1990)
The Freshman
Sending up his own “Godfather” persona sounded like the worst idea at the time, and after an early cut, Brando was quoted as saying as much. But in the end he rescinded and was very happy with this delightful screwball comedy co-starring Matthew Broderick as an NYU film student who gets mixed up with a slightly daft, walnut cracking version of Don Corleone in the form of the man they “based the character on,” Don Carmine Sabatini.
A fun, silly piece of entertainment that is surprisingly moving at times. A touching, funny scene is when Don Sabatini visits Broderick’s Clark in his dorm room to let him know he doesn’t have to work for him if he doesn’t want to. As he leaves, a bit heart-broken at being rejected by this surrogate son he never had, he takes a look around at Clark’s sparse dorm: “So this is college…eh…I didn’t miss much.”

15. The Score – (Dir. Frank Oz, 2001)
The Score
With the exception of “A Dry White Season” made in 1989, and 1990’s “The Freshman,” Brando did not work for most of the 80’s and most of his work in this period was in mostly unwatchable dreck, films made hurriedly for the paycheck to aid in covering his son’s legal fees his shooting and killing and his sister’s boyfriend (Brando’s daughter, Cheyenne, would later kill herself on his Tahitian island just as “The Freshman” was finishing production).
It was truly a gift then, to film lovers and Marlon Brando fans everywhere, when he made “The Score” co-starring his heir-apparent to the Greatest Living Actor throne, Robert DeNiro (as well as, some might say DeNiro’s heir-apparent, Edward Norton.) While certainly not a great movie, it’s not trying to be. Instead, director Frank Oz gave us a serviceable throwback to the heist films one might have seen as the B picture on a double-bill back in the days when Brando was just beginning his acting career. At accomplishing this, director Frank Oz was entirely successful.
Brando plays Max, the one time thief, now set-up man and financial backer to Robert DeNiro’s expert thief who, as is always the case in these tales, wants to do one more job and then go legit as the owner of his Montreal Jazz Club, where love interest Angela Basset sings the night away. It’s a thoroughly entertaining heist picture that plays by all the numbers of the genre, and hits them efficiently, no muss, no fuss. Plus, you get to two excellent scenes between the titans of cinema, Brando and DeNiro, the latter of which is clearly having genuine fun playing off Brando’s ever-eccentric improvisations.
A Last Note:
True Brando fans may argue as to why this list has not included Brando’s follow up to “Streetcar” – “Viva Zapata!” – as essential viewing. Directed by Elia Kazan and written by John Steinbeck, this rousing, moving epic about Mexican revolutionary Emilliano Zapata is certainly an excellent film, for Brando’s Zapata as much as for Anthony Quinn’s Oscar Award winning performance as Zapata’s brother.
However it falls in the awkward category of dated, racially inappropriate casting, which has become problematic for this particular writer upon subsequent viewings (one can say the same for Brando’s performance as, ahem, a Japanese Man named Sakini in the 1956 production of “The Teahouse of the August Moon”). Not to stand on politically correct ceremony, true Brando aficionados and those curious filmgoers should consider “Viva Zapata!” worth viewing.
Also worth a look: The Fugitive Kind, A Dry White Season, Roots: The Next Generation, Meet Marlon Brando, a short documentary by the Maysles Brothers, Brando: A TCM Original Documentary.
Author Bio: Jeremy Sklar is a writer-director-producer for Satori!films where he splits his time between New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Sklar co-directed, produced and wrote the action-comedy feature “Freerunner” starring Sean Faris and Seymour Cassel as well as created the web horror series “Hollywoodn’t.” Recently Sklar served as writer and segment producer of Executive Producer Chris Rock’s FX show “Totally Biased.”

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