Marlon Brando Was A Revolutionary Actor. Where Are His Successors?

On Oct. 19, 1944, a play titled “I Remember Mama” opened on Broadway. It was a sentimental drama, centered on a Swedish immigrant family, that had a smallish role played by a 20-year-old newcomer: Marlon Brando. Bobby Lewis, a veteran of Lee Strasberg’s legendary Group Theatre, was in the audience that night, and years later he described to a biographer the scene in which Brando first enters: “Suddenly, in the back, down the stairs comes this kid munching an apple. … [Brando] started to say his lines, and I said to myself, ‘It’s a stagehand. Someone’s just wandered onstage, or maybe it’s an understudy. The fellow that’s supposed to play the part isn’t here, and this guy, he’s not acting.’”

He’s not acting — there it is, right there: the Brando revolution that reinvented stage and screen performance and recalibrated male stardom for all time. Almost.

April 3 marks the 100th anniversary of Marlon Brando’s birth — the centenary of one of the most important figures of 20th-century popular culture. But where are his descendants: the brooding, mercurial, ultra-male actors who pull performances out of their guts and refuse to talk about it afterward? They were everywhere for decades — and now they’re hardly to be seen.

As an actor and a persona, Brando broke Hollywood history and American pop culture in half. With his appearance as Stanley Kowalski in the 1947 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” and the subsequent 1951 film version, he tore up and rewrote the rules of performance, of what constituted “acting.”

The young Brando replaced presentation with essence, craft with intuition, preparation with spontaneity. He brokered an entirely new kind of authenticity, one that was adopted by a generation of postwar baby boomers and the actors and artists they chose to represent them. Elvis and James Dean modeled themselves on Brando. So did Jack Kerouac. So did Bob Dylan.

And so did more than a half-century of young male actors who studiously tried to match their idol mumble for mumble and motivation for motivation. They came in waves: McQueen and Newman, De Niro and Pacino, Penn and DiCaprio, Bale and Gosling.

But acting styles and cultural definitions of masculinity change with the decades, and the archetype of the hostile, mercurial acting artiste that Brando birthed appears to be dying out. The 21st century has witnessed a vastly expanded marketplace of movie and TV stars, one for every niche in the altar. Many have been raised in the laboratories of Nickelodeon and Disney TV, and when they try to imitate Brando — as a young Emory Cohen did in the 2012 film “The Place Beyond the Pines” — the effect can seem grotesque.

It seems almost sacrilegious to raise the question, but is King Marlon’s reign of influence over? If it is, what — and who — has replaced it?

Every generation kills off its parents’ stars and elects their own — that’s how culture evolves. But it mattered very much that the post-WWII guardians of propriety (a.k.a. Mom and Dad) looked on Brando — the barbarian at the gates of Broadway and Hollywood — with undisguised horror. (To an extent, they confused the player with the parts: Brando wasn’t Stanley Kowalski or the bad-boy motorcyclist of “The Wild One.” “I was the antithesis of [Stanley]; I was sensitive by nature, and he was coarse,” the actor would write in his 1994 autobiography.)

What an older generation saw as unrepentant vulgarity — the sweat-stained T-shirts, the marble-mouthed diction, the sexuality, the contempt — were tokens of a breathtaking new honesty to their children, one they hoped might someday replace the Eisenhower era’s stifling conformity and, with it, an entire rotten societal superstructure. To the youth, Brando was the line in the sand, the fork in the road. Through him, the counterculture.

Ground zero was the actor’s arrival in New York in the mid-1940s and his apprenticeship in Stella Adler’s Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research. Brando was fleeing a Midwestern upbringing, a cold and judgmental father and an alcoholic mother he adored. He had been kicked out or had dropped out of schools and military academies, and since the only thing he enjoyed there were the plays, he decided to pursue acting. Or maybe he just wanted to pursue actresses.

When he bothered to step onto the school’s stage, though, Brando revealed an electrifying natural gift. After one workshop presentation, “people suddenly started looking at him,” in the words of classmate Mae Cooper, according to biographer Peter Manso. “It gave you the chills, it was so good, so quiet, like the dawn of something great. … It was like suddenly you woke up and there’s your idiot child playing Mozart. It made your hair stand on end.”

So unselfconscious was Brando’s acting — so naked and accidental — that it could seem embarrassing. The future film critic Pauline Kael saw Brando in 1946’s “Truckline Cafe” and thought the young player was having a seizure onstage. Where other actors articulated their roles or consciously tried to feel their way into them, Brando was naturally intuitive, guided by nothing but the search for what felt right in that precise moment. Said fellow actor Martin Balsam: “What you saw was the elements of truth being done up on that stage. He was being as honest, as close to reality as possible.”

Brando’s first movie role was a paraplegic Korean War veteran in “The Men” (1950), but it wasn’t until the premiere of Elia Kazan’s film of “Streetcar” in September 1951 that the rest of the country learned what Broadway and New York already knew: that Marlon Brando was not only a new kind of actor but a new kind of star.

Suddenly those words meant separate things. Up until then, the proper posture for a successful Hollywood talent, no matter how he or she really felt, was to act grateful for their good fortune. Fame was the acknowledged reward for craft. But Brando obliterated the rules of how to behave in public, rejecting the offering of stardom, and in that rejection seeming to stand for a higher calling, noble and troubled and freshly attractive. Celebrity was worthless, he implied, and Hollywood celebrity was even worse — a sick game. Brando called the two most important show business columnists of the day, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, “the fat one” and “the one with the hat,” respectively. He drove down Sunset Boulevard with a prop arrow through his head. He told a reporter, “I’m not afraid of anything and I don’t love money.” This was heresy.

But to anyone younger than 30, it felt like the future.

Brando immediately picked up acolytes and imitators, James Dean first among them, on-screen and off. Brando played the bongos; so did Dean. Brando rode a motorcycle; so did Dean. At one Hollywood party, Brando watched Dean enter and predicted to a friend that he would fling his coat on the floor “because I do it.” And Dean did.

Other actors picked up Brando’s mannerisms: the twitchy immediacy, the cavalier way with dialogue, an obeisance to the Method, disdain for the press. Steve McQueen, Dennis Hopper and Rip Torn all adopted aspects of the persona, and Paul Newman chafed under accusations that he was doing Brando Lite in his 1956 breakthrough “Somebody Up There Likes Me.”

With the late 1960s and the dawn of the New Hollywood — and, ironically, as Brando himself was stumbling on the screen and in public — the movies were filled with an acting generation that could comfortably be called Brando v2.0. Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate” (1967) one-upped the older star’s “realness” by forgoing the sex appeal and looking like your cousin Melvin; Hoffman’s monk-like devotion to stage technique and disinterest in the publicity game still marked him as one of Marlon’s heirs. (There’s a legendary story of Hoffman preparing for a scene in 1976’s “Marathon Man” by staying up for three nights so that he would be properly exhausted and co-star Laurence Olivier turning to him on the set and saying, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”)

With the ascension of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and others in the 1970s, the revolution was complete. The commoners held the castle. When “The Godfather” was released in 1972 with Brando in his comeback role as Vito Corleone, the actor was surrounded by a cast that had grown up seeing him as their creative lodestar. “Godfather” producer Albert Ruddy acknowledged as much when he looked at the supporting cast of Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan and John Cazale, and said that “Marlon created these guys.”

De Niro and the young Pacino especially added to Brando’s unpredictability and sense of threat a scary new aggression, and an even deeper aversion to fame and publicity. To discuss one’s craft was to cheapen it. Once Brando said, in effect, You can’t talk about this, treating acting as a sacred macho mystery became the only respectable position to hold if you wanted to be taken seriously as an artist.

And art, or the veneer of it, mattered. It still does today. Think of the difference between, say, Adam Driver and Chris Pratt. Who do you consider the “greater actor”? Why? At the bottom of your reasoning is Brando, the actor who rejected grace for torment, ease for grim seriousness, and the implied assumption that artistry is more valuable and lasting than a hit. (Although if you can pull off both, even better.)

So it went for the rest of the century. Brando v3.0 included actors such as Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio, Edward Norton and the young Johnny Depp, with Daniel Day-Lewis providing a fusion of Brando’s mercurial sexuality and Olivier’s stature as a British acting god. Brando v4.0? Ryan Gosling qualifies. So do Christian Bale, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal — all changeling actors who pride themselves on transforming themselves from role to role with an essential seriousness of purpose, even when they’re playing, oh, a living Ken doll.

The past few decades have seen the rise in popularity of a different and less difficult kind of actor — the matinee-idol thespian. Harrison Ford in the 1970s was their forefather. A handsome rebuke to Hoffman’s short, dark and homely, Ford had old-school star quality and just enough gruffness to make it stick. When Matt Damon and Ben Affleck broke through in 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” they split the Brando difference, Affleck cutting his hunky brooding with wit and neediness, and Damon taking on a varied range of roles with the one quality Marlon never mastered — a sense of play.

(This raises some interesting questions. Like: Is there a Black Brando? One who combines a commitment to craft, a disinterest in fame, a banked sense of danger and a natural charisma? Well, yeah: Denzel Washington, although all votes for Michael B. Jordan and Don Cheadle will be counted. Or: Is a female Brando possible in a culture that measures women by their nearness to or distance from a sex object? Meryl Streep may be the closest we’ll get, and it’s telling that her acting and public personas lack the truculent hostility that male Brandos tend to project as a point of pride.)

And then there’s Tom Cruise: the anti-Brando. Oh, he tried to make it as a Serious Actor, to the point of playing a paraplegic veteran in “Born on the Fourth of July.” But that didn’t take, because what we wanted from Cruise was everything Brando denied us: ease, confidence, superficial charm, unproblematic charisma. We paid to see Brando sweat; we pay to see Cruise not sweat. A great Brando performance such as Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront” sends us home troubled, challenged, profoundly moved; a good Cruise movie leaves us jazzed, wowed, entertained. Only one of them is a reliable commodity, and let us not forget that Hollywood has been selling us movies and movie stars as commodities since before Marlon Brando was born.

That may have been his great mistake, if you want to step back and look at the career not as a revolutionary act but a missed opportunity — a titanic Big Bang followed by several smaller detonations and then a slow slide into bloat, self-parody and personal tragedy. What the second-generation Brandos learned, and all the Brandos after them, is that Truth matters — but discipline may matter more.

Today the few who carry his flame do so on their own terms: Driver, Paul Mescal, Ethan Hawke, Tom Hardy — even Timothée Chalamet, who lacks Brando’s sexual swagger but has the talent, a steadiness of gaze and a work ethic that may serve him well over the long haul. But the sense of authenticity they evoke — the realness that in 1947 seemed so devastatingly new — is now just one more strategy in the corporate portfolio of our streaming choices, an alternative to less prickly, more conventional young talents such as Austin Butler (“Elvis”) and Jacob Elordi (“Saltburn”). Can anyone ever shake us to the core the way Brando did simply by walking downstage eating an apple? Don’t bet on it — you lose your innocence only once.

Ty Burr is the author of the movie recommendation newsletter Ty Burr’s Watch List at

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top