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Marlon Brando - 8/11
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Marlon Brando Profile

Although he made only a handful of truly great films and his time as a major box office attraction was relatively short, Marlon Brando is probably the most influential actor of American cinema and one of the greatest cultural icons of the 20th century. Beyond simply turning in some outstanding performances (as well as some memorably awful ones), Brando changed the way we thought about acting and about movie stardom. Before James Dean, before the rock stars and "bad boys" of the 1960s, Brando defined rebellion against society and all its sacred cows, not only in his leftist politics and freewheeling lifestyle but in his rejection of the very art and profession that made him famous and respected. In fact, it's hard to imagine those other rebels and iconoclasts without Brando. Hard to imagine the performances of the Deans, De Niros and Depps without the influence - conscious or not - of Brando's work. He was often trashed by critics, snubbed by audiences and eventually became cartoonish tabloid fodder, yet even now after his death, he remains an indelible screen persona and often still the actor against whom others are judged.

Altogether a remarkable achievement for the lonely, neglected son of alcoholic parents in Omaha, Nebraska, a high school dropout booted from a military academy for bad behavior (including, as one story has it, riding a motorcycle through the halls). Yet many performing careers have been based on such backgrounds, and for Brando, youngest son of an amateur actress who had once instructed another famous son of Omaha, Henry Fonda, it was perhaps natural that he would follow his older sister Jocelyn to New York and into acting. He enrolled in the New School's Dramatic Workshop and soon found himself under the mentorship of Stella Adler, who introduced him to the "emotional memory" technique of Russian actor-director-teacher Constantin Stanislavski. Others had studied this technique, and many more were to follow, but Brando took it to its most illustrious and often controversial heights, becoming the embodiment of a raw new approach to acting that would come to be known as "The Method."

Audiences first saw the 20-year-old actor on stage in 1944 in the cast of I Remember Mama. Other roles followed, including Maxwell Anderson's Truckline Cafe, directed by the artist who would later be most closely identified with the meteoric rise of Brando's screen career, Elia Kazan. Already, it was apparent that Brando had a presence that couldn't be ignored, so much so that Kazan had to place him in proximity to other actors so audiences would keep their eyes on the rest of the cast. When John Garfield (Kazan and Adler's fellow Group Theater member) was taken out of consideration for the male lead in a new Tennessee Williams play due to financial disputes and Burt Lancaster was unavailable because of film commitments, the role was offered to Brando, even though it had to be revised slightly for his younger age. As Stanley Kowalski in the 1947 debut production of A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando became the sensation not only of the New York theater world but of the entire country, a name people recognized without ever once having seen him perform. During out-of-town tryouts, Brando's undeniable charisma, along with his distinctive "mumbling" diction, apparent naked emotionalism and animal sexuality, threatened to change the entire meaning and focus of the play by drawing attention and sympathy away from the tragic character of Blanche and toward the brutal Stanley. A worried Kazan asked Williams if some rewrites couldn't be made to redress the balance, but the playwright, apparently as smitten with the young actor as everyone else, let the play stand as it was.

The 1951 screen version of the play catapulted Brando to instant stardom, even though he had actually made his film debut as a paralyzed ex-soldier in Fred Zinnemann's The Men (1950), a part he researched by spending considerable time in a war veteran hospital. While working on stage, Brando had received offers from movie studios but turned them down because he did not want to be put under a long-term contract. Once he started in films, however, he never returned to the stage, a decision for which he was strongly criticized over the years, especially when later he appeared to be squandering his talents in increasingly poorer pictures.

The role in A Streetcar Named Desire won him his first Academy Award nomination. Ironically, he was the only one of the four leads not to receive an Oscar® for the film. Unavoidably attracted as they were to Brando, many people were still divided over the merits of what was being referred to as "the torn T-shirt school of acting." Yet, the actor would be Oscar®-nominated each of the next four years for a remarkable range of performances: as the real-life Mexican revolutionary in 1952's Viva Zapata!, also directed by Elia Kazan; as an impassioned Marc Antony in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (1953), in which he proved his skill at classical works; and again with Kazan as the beleaguered dock worker in On the Waterfront (1954), which finally netted him the award. During this time he also appeared as the leather-clad biker gang leader in The Wild One (1953), a time capsule of fifties pop culture whose choicest lines of dialogue and most memorable images are still in the public consciousness.

After this amazing string, Brando's roles became less talked about and more mixed in their critical and commercial reception, Still, even in lesser work, he never failed to find some unique approach or technical turn that made each picture something memorable and totally his own. He received another Oscar® nod as the U.S. Air Force major in love with a Japanese woman in Sayonara (1957). He played a Japanese retainer in a comic look at the American occupation of Japan in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), and he even sang and danced in the film adaptation of the Broadway hit Guys and Dolls (1955).

By the 1960s, the quality of his films had declined, along with Brando's interest in acting and stardom. More and more, he was turning his attention to civil rights causes and to his life far outside of Hollywood. While filming Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), he became enamored of the South Pacific and in 1966 bought his own rather remote island there, which he owned until his death in 2004. His public appearances grew even more rare, his behavior more eccentric, and his contempt for the profession more pronounced. But he still rose to the occasion when the role called for it, turning in finely wrought performances as the besieged sheriff in Arthur Penn's The Chase (1966) and the tragically closeted homosexual officer opposite Elizabeth Taylor in John Huston's film of Carson McCullers's Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967). By the end of the decade, however, he was considered box office poison and far too difficult to work with, and his association with the Black Panthers and other groups made him persona non grata in more conservative circles. It seemed Brando's career was completely washed up, until he got an offer to play a part that his rival as "the greatest living actor," Laurence Olivier, was too ill to take.

With his Don Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972), Brando was back at the top of his form and respected by a whole new generation of filmgoers. And with times changed as they were, even his refusal of the Academy Award (on the grounds that Native Americans were ill treated by the film industry and the U.S. government) did not make him a pariah all over again. In fact, he followed up that American classic with another remarkable performance in a European film that played heavily on his image and personal history, Last Tango in Paris (1972). With another Academy Award nomination for that role, Brando was now back on top, and by the end of the decade (following his multi-million-dollar deal for a small supporting part in Superman, 1978) he was the highest-paid star in the history of motion pictures.

Despite all that, he was essentially through with movies. Between his memorable appearance in Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) - a film built more around his final hour cameo appearance than his actual performance - until his last screen appearance with his artistic descendants Robert De Niro and Edward Norton in The Score (2001), he made only eight pictures. Of these only The Freshman (1990), in which he good-naturedly lampooned his Godfather image, revealed a Brando sinking his teeth into a role with a true sense of fun and commitment. When he was seen, it was more often in the tabloids as a bloated old man whose private family life rivaled the most over-the-top Greek tragedies. Yet none of that ever erased the memory of the young Turk conquering stage and screen with his one-of-a-kind talent and charisma. He remains in a class of his own, inspiring future generations of actors.

* Titles in bold will air on TCM in August

by Rob Nixon

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