MARLON BRANDO. 100 years since the birth of the cinema icon

Exactly one hundred years ago, Marlon Brando was born—an actor-icon; a sensitive brute, without whom cinema and theater wouldn’t be the same.

Lukasz Homziuk

3 April 2024

marlon brando

Let’s transport ourselves back to October 1947. In the Henry Miller’s Theatre, a rehearsal is about to begin shortly. Expectations are high because after the success of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” he’s on the lips of critics. Among those interested in his new play is Truman Capote, a writer still very young but already adored. He is the first to arrive in the audience. He quickly notices a sleeping man on stage: his muscular body dressed in extremely worn jeans and a plain white t-shirt suggests that he’s probably a lazy stagehand taking a nap instead of perfecting the set to the last button. Nothing interesting. Except for one detail: on the young man’s chest lies a selection of Sigmund Freud’s texts. Capote rubs his eyes in amazement, looks more closely, and discovers that he prematurely judged the mysterious sleeper. The book gives him an additional dimension, taming the laborer’s physicality. Just one more glance at the rather delicate face and the writer is certain: the man is as wild as he is angelic.

This man is, of course, Marlon Brando, and the play in question is “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The eruption of psycho-physical emotionality, dripping with realism, brutality, and sex, shocked theater audiences in 1947 and four years later, moviegoers. The masterful performance and film adaptation directed by Elia Kazan also changed the mainstream perception of acting, with Brando being the main contributor. His Stanley Kowalski, a raging bull parading in sweaty undershirts before the camera, exploded the screen with his intensity, achievable only through a deep immersion into the role, allowing his own aggression to surface, rejecting technical restraint in favor of emotional truth. Similar naturalistic acting styles were also advocated by Montgomery Clift and James Dean, but Brando was undoubtedly the best and most influential among them. He became an inspiration for a new generation of actors—not charming gentlemen like Cary Grant, but, as accurately noted by Lyall Bush, “uneducated loners of the Eisenhower era” like Jack Nicholson or Warren Beatty.

Marlon Brando w filmie "Tramwaj zwany pożądaniem"

Like everything new, Brando’s acting initially attracted some and outraged others. Among the latter group was Jessica Tandy, who portrayed Blanche DuBois in the stage version of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” During the production, Tandy wrote a three-page note to Brando, in which she scolded her younger colleague for not properly memorizing his lines and advised him to do something about his lisp—evidently hindering his clear speech. For Tandy, hailing from traditional British theater, Brando’s naturalness must have seemed like incompetence or, at best, sloppiness. However, the Briton was mistaken; the actor’s style wasn’t an attempt to cover up deficiencies in technique but a conscious choice. Brando, at his best, looked like the most talented and sensitive of natural talents thrust onto the screen—untouched by drama schools, refined methods, or arrogance. Yet, to prove his craft, the actor spectacularly demonstrated to skeptics that he could effortlessly handle classical text with his portrayal of the lead role in Joseph Mankiewicz’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”

Under Stella Adler’s tutelage, Brando embraced the belief that everyone is acting. He built his life philosophy on this conviction. He was a modest actor, approaching his profession conservatively because he always dreamed more of being a social activist, someone with real influence on reality. Acting, to him, was primarily therapy, a way to channel the energy within him (and, of course, a means of livelihood). He drew inspiration from everyday observations of reality, staying very grounded (though he enjoyed reading philosophers). Hence, his roles were not contrived but concrete, grounded in physicality; in that mass of muscles so oddly contrasting with inner fragility. Much credit goes to his imagination, helping Brando understand the situations of individual characters—imagination, memory, and intuition, the triad of qualities cited by Elia Kazan as what determined Brando’s greatness as an actor.

I encountered Brando for the first time—and probably not just me—in “The Godfather.” Both the film and the role, of course, fascinated me, but it’s his other portrayals that still captivate me to this day. His performances in “On the Waterfront” and “Last Tango in Paris” will forever stay with me. Both films were in some way tainted by the circumstances of their making, yet despite this, they are masterpieces built on the genius roles of Brando.

When embarking on the production of “On the Waterfront,” Elia Kazan was on everyone’s lips, not necessarily as the Broadway and Hollywood genius behind “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but rather as the infamous figure from the McCarthy hearings. The plot of “On the Waterfront” turned out to be a rather obvious, morally dubious attempt to justify one’s own actions (without delving into details: it’s hard for me to consider it appropriate to draw parallels between informing on colleagues and opposing exploiters and blackmailers). Brando easily read the script’s implications but ultimately accepted the role out of respect for Kazan, whom he still regarded as one of his closest confidants, alongside Stella Adler, a guide not only in acting but in life. As a result, the greatest masterpiece in the history of the actor-director collaboration was born, and Brando’s Terry Malloy was inscribed in history as one of the most important characters in American cinema.

Marlon Brando and Karl Malden, Brando’s frequent stage and screen partner, particularly recalled the famous scene of brotherly confrontation in the backseat of a taxi. The monologue that emerged from it, in which Terry Malloy finally reveals the depths of his sorrow, became legendary. Yet, Malden was struck by a different, literally a moment earlier, fragment. Just after Charley (Rod Steiger) starts aiming his gun at his younger brother, Terry utters one short word, which Budd Schulberg didn’t write in the script: “wow.” Malden couldn’t believe his eyes and ears. Brando’s behavior was extraordinary, a testament to genius. In this quiet sigh, the actor managed to encapsulate the inexpressible. The whirlwind of thoughts that don’t form a coherent whole because how could they. Can one react rationally when a brother is ready to look you in the eye, pointing a gun at your heart? You can’t. The voice gets stuck in your throat, and all you can manage is a barely audible “wow.” Full of pain and sadness, as well as anger because blood is already rushing to the head. Above all, disbelief. How could you end up like two worst trash ready to shoot each other in a taxi?

Marlon Brando w filmie "Na nabrzeżach"

The utterance of “wow” takes about half a second, yet it explains so much while explaining nothing. It doesn’t convey any specific content, but it communicates the stirring of the heart more vividly than a long story. In the deluge of strong monologues and juicy dialogues, a brief “wow” may seem like an unworthy detail. But the truth is, in these small details, we most fully touch the essence of acting. It’s enough to lie once to lose people’s trust. Every false note—even off by half a tone—kills credibility. In “On the Waterfront,” Brando

showed absolute pitch. He proved that he understood his character perfectly; he completely immersed himself in someone else’s situation.

Brando was a great actor and a sensitive human being, but he also had his (very) dark sides. For details about the actor’s life, I refer to William J. Mann’s wonderful biography titled “The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando.” Fortunately, from its reading emerges not one of the many tabloid versions of Brando (a scandalist, a style icon, or an object of female or male hearts’ sighs) but a portrait of a full-blooded, conflicted man. One who rejected conventions and insincerity; uneducated but constantly learning on his own; transforming traumas into bursts of anger; lonely among people and shining on the screen; simultaneously full of aggression and sensitivity; contemptuous of almost everything but fully engaged in what mattered to him.

From among the many faces of Brando, I want to remember the most beautiful one, which emerged through one of the anecdotes recounted by Mann from Brando’s time studying under Stella Adler. One evening, during a cigarette break, students (mostly female students) noticed a little boy with Down syndrome not far from the acting school building. Barefoot and trembling, he had great difficulty speaking. All the young actors wanted to help him, but they didn’t understand a word. Marlon was the only one who realized that the boy was lost. He got his address and took him home. The way he found common ground with the boy remains a mystery. This extraordinary sensitivity, a predisposition to deep empathy, is, in my opinion, simultaneously the secret of Brando’s exceptionalism as an actor. To appear authentically on screen requires courage, dedication, and hard work. However, the foundation of every outstanding psychologically profound role must be empathy. Truly conveying someone’s concerns and desires can only be achieved by attempting to understand them. If there’s such a thing as “acting talent,” this is it: the ability to transcend one’s own point of view and see oneself in someone else. I believe we all have it—cultivated to varying degrees.

Lukasz Homziuk

Lukasz Homziuk

A student of cultural studies in Wroclaw, Poland. He can watch everything, although he usually prefers arthouse over Marvel.

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