The Greatest? Brando in his own words
It's now 11 years since Marlon Brando died, and the lustre of his legend is slowly beginning to fade. For the generation of film-goers now coming of age, he must seem a distant and historical figure, and he is no longer the shining example that younger screen actors look up to.
In many of the obituaries that appeared in 2004, Brando was depicted as a mercurial, difficult, frustrating actor who had squandered his huge talent and destroyed his extraordinary good looks. He was, the general consensus seemed to be, undeserving of his colossal reputation.
But while his filmography is peppered with ordinary films and mediocre performances, at his best Brando was beyond compare, an extraordinarily intense and authentic actor whose methods and achievements are best appreciated by being placed in the context of their time.
He was to film acting what Elvis Presley was to popular music: there was before him, and after him, and within a couple of years of bursting on to the scene Marlon Brando had changed everything and inspired a host of young method-acting acolytes, like Dennis Hopper and James Dean.
Brando was not just a film actor, he was an out-and-out rebel, who despised Hollywood's vapidity and cynicism, broke every rule he encountered and could never take seriously the absurdity of movie stardom.
He didn't like himself much either, and tended to sabotage his own success whenever he got the chance.
To the end he remained convinced he didn't deserve his Best Actor Oscar for On the Waterfront, and when he won again for The Godfather in 1972, Marlon boycotted the awards and sent a woman called Sacheen Littlefeather to collect his trophy as a protest against the depiction of Native Americans in Hollywood films.
He was a fascinating, contradictory character, and a new documentary which has just been released in America gives a fresh and compelling insight into the man. Throughout his life, Brando confessed his worries, fears and innermost thoughts to a tape recorder, and in making Listen to Me Marlon, director Steven Riley was given access by the actor's estate to hundreds of hours of these sometimes rambling but often revealing tapes.
He probably never intended them to be broadcast, but they paint a picture of a dark and emotionally remote man unimpressed by his own success.
Marlon Brando didn't have the best of starts. Both his parents were drunks, and Brando despised his controlling and sarcastic father. He grew up hating male authority figures, and deeply distrusted women: after being expelled from several midwestern high schools and a military academy, he ran away to New York to study acting. He was just 18, and in Listen to Me Marlon he recalls "getting drunk, lying on the sidewalk, and going to sleep".
But when he attended a class held by acting guru Stella Adler, she noticed his talent immediately. She taught him the Stanislavski method, and within a couple of years Marlon made his professional debut on the Broadway stage in a play called I Remember Mama. Contemporaries would remember his electric presence, raw acting style and astonishing good looks.
His big break came in 1947, when he was considered for a key role in A Streetcar Named Desire, a new play by Tennessee Williams. The production's director, Elia Kazan, wanted Brando to play the overbearing working class brute Stanley Kowalski because he thought the actor's sizzling charisma would prevent the character from becoming a one-dimensional villain.
The play's author, though, remained to be convinced, so Brando drove to Cape Cod to visit Williams. When he got there, the electricity and plumbing were out, so he fixed them both before giving what Tennessee Williams would later describe as "by far the best reading I have ever heard". The young, brooding Brando "seemed to have already created a dimensional character of the sort that the war has produced among young veterans", Williams added.
A Streetcar Named Desire's legendary Broadway production ran for two years and made him an instant star. He made his movie début playing a traumatised World War Two veteran in Fred Zinnemann's underrated 1951 drama The Men, and brought Stanley Kowalski to the big screen a year later to universal acclaim in Elia Kazan's film version of Streetcar.
Though by no means a classic, Laszlo Benedek's 1953 film The Wild One helped turn Brando into a pop culture superstar. In it he played the mumbling and moody leader of a motorcycle gang who dresses in leather, despises authority and when asked what he's rebelling against, replies "what have you got?"
Then came On the Waterfront, an Oscar, and super-stardom. Given his pick of roles, Brando often chose badly, dallying in musicals and comedies and seeming to care more about the money than the work. In the 1960s he tried directing with mixed results, and starred in so many bad films that his career began to slide. He was difficult, directors said, impossible to work with.
That's certainly what Francis Coppola was told when he suggested him to Paramount for the part of mob boss Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Coppola visited Brando at his Hollywood home, and filmed the actor doing an audition with shoe polish in his blonde hair and cotton wool in his cheeks. When Paramount saw it they agreed to Brando's casting straight away.
During filming he was surrounded between takes by younger actors like Al Pacino, James Caan and John Cazale, to whom he was a kind of god. In the finished movie he was stillness itself, a calm and quiet criminal who's so powerful he has no need to show it. It was a performance of real genius, and won him an Oscar.
He was somewhere near his mesmerising best in Bernardo Bertulocci's controversial 1972 film Last Tango in Paris, but after that Brando seemed
to lose interest in it all. He said yes to projects, then said no, and often sabotaged those few films he did appear in. In Arthur Penn's 1976 western The Missouri Breaks, Brando changed his accent and mannerisms so often that his co-star Jack Nicholson just couldn't keep up with him.
As always, Marlon was a law unto himself. An iconoclast and an individual, he had a lofty contempt for all conventions, whether cinematic, political, sexual or moral. He freely admitted having had homosexual as well as heterosexual encounters, and David Niven once remembered bursting in unintentionally on one of them.
During the filming of Streetcar in 1951, Niven was walking in the garden of Vivien Leigh's mansion when he discovered Brando and Leigh's husband Lawrence Olivier in the swimming pool. They were kissing. "I turned my back to them and went back inside to join Vivien," commented the reliably urbane Niven. "I'm sure she knew what was going on, but she made no mention of it. Nor did I. One must be sophisticated about such matters in life." Indeed one must.
Married three times, the father of at least 11 children, and associated over the years with a veritable legion of women, Brando the man remained something of an enigma. Passionately committed to political causes like civil rights and the plight of the Native Americans, he was considered a royal pain in the ass by many in the movie business, and his on-set caprices are the stuff of legend.
Yet most of the actors who worked with him found him helpful, inspiring, and funny.
In a slick hatchet job in The New Yorker, Truman Capote portrayed him as a stupid ape; but Truman, an ugly little man, was prone to jealousy, and Brando, an avid reader, was anything but dim. In fact he enjoyed baiting pinheaded studio executives with supposedly helpful ideas: on Superman, for instance, he suggested that his character should appear on screen as a giant green bagel.
Perhaps his contempt for Hollywood was a bit too corrosive, and maybe he did squander years when he could have been putting his remarkable screen presence to use. But just look at what he left behind.
Look at him as the wounded, inarticulate, punch-drunk dockside dupe in On The Waterfront; or as the primal beast Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire; as the bereaved and lost lover in Last Tango in Paris; or the chillingly authoritative Mafioso patriarch in The Godfather; and see if you can think of any actor anywhere, with whom he could be compared.
Madness in the jungle
When Marlon Brando signed up to play Colonel Curtz in Francis Coppola's 1979 anti-war epic, Apocalypse Now, he agreed to certain pre-conditions. Coppola was a big Brando fan, but even he knew the kind of chaos he could cause on a set when the mood took him.
Marlon would "get trim, and stay in shape", arrive on set on time, cooperate with his director and read Heart of Darkness, the slim novella by Joseph Conrad on which Coppola's story was based. On foot of these not unreasonable conditions, he would be paid a million dollars for one week's work.
When Brando showed up in Thailand he weighed 220 pounds and hadn't so much as glanced at the first page of Conrad's story, never mind the script. Because of his weight, he had to be photographed in half-light. He'd shaved his head, didn't know his lines, and instead improvised a stream of consciousness babble about "the horror".
A disaster - except that, somehow or other, Brando's performance worked. Apocalypse Now had been a long and tense build-up to army assassin Martin Sheen's meeting with this reclusive madman, and if anyone else but Brando had played Kurtz, the audience would have felt let down.