It is an irony of Brando-esque proportions that Marlon Brando was known best of all as the Godfather: Never was a man less comfortable with the power his talent brought him, and never was a talent more potent. Brando, who died in Los Angeles on July 1 at the age of 80, changed the shape of movie acting over a half century ago and changed it forever, but he hated his profession. He created the modern Hollywood ideal (or is it an anti-ideal?) of sexually dangerous, antiauthoritarian, anti-glamorous masculinity — rebels Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, and even Russell Crowe wouldn’t exist without him — but he let his once beautiful face and body balloon in later life as if he despised his very flesh. In ”A Streetcar Named Desire,” ”On the Waterfront,” and ”The Godfather,” he created three of the greatest characterizations in 20th-century film history, but Brando squandered his intensity in many more duds as if he couldn’t bear the responsibility of making decisions or carry the weight of expectations.
The Brando man simmered and mumbled, he was a slob in an undershirt or he wore a muumuu. But even when he was at his most incomprehensible and painfully eccentric, his risk taking was never less than mesmerizing. The offscreen Brando, born in Omaha, Nebraska, on April 3, 1924, was mesmerizing too, but out of a deeper torment than even the hard-luck tales from his early days could explain: His parents were alcoholics (his father abusive, his mother a frustrated actress); he was kicked out of military school for insubordination, and sidelined from the draft by a bad knee; and he came to acting by a kind of surly accident, following his sisters, Jocelyn and Frances, to New York City, where he ended up studying the famous Method approach with Stella Adler.
The Method calls upon its acolytes to build performances from the inside out, working from personal emotions and memories to inhabit the lives of invented men and women. The approach is familiar now — the reason serious fellows like Daniel Day-Lewis immerse themselves in tortured research, the reason Dustin Hoffman gets a laugh in ”Tootsie” when he seeks motivation for playing a tomato. But back in the 1950s, the resulting rawness and improvisational heat the Method generated — a very American turning-up of the temperature — was new, even shocking, to audiences used to the smooth British technical control of Laurence Olivier, say, or the stoicism and restraint of Gary Cooper. And Brando took to the work with a ferocity that dazzled classmates, including Elaine Stritch, Shelley Winters, and Harry Belafonte, even then. (”Marlon’s going to school to learn the Method was like sending a tiger to jungle school,” Stritch has said.)
Brando’s stumble into acting may have been an accident, his embrace of the Method a coincidence of New York-in-the-’50s culture. But the self-expression the work unlocked in the man (and with it, his influence on the brooding young actors who followed his example, from James Dean to Johnny Depp) was no fluke; it is his legacy. Even in ”The Men” (1950), his first picture, the dark-eyed 26-year-old star compacts a believable world of bitterness into the role of a hospitalized paraplegic soldier trying to deflect love. By ”A Streetcar Named Desire” the next year, Brando’s ravishing, masculine eroticism had come bursting through, a naked display of appetite that would peak in ”Last Tango in Paris.” Two years later in ”The Wild One,” poured into fantasy-inspiring leatherwear as a sensitive-tough motorcycle gang leader, Brando could seduce a girl with the simple, seemingly unconscious diddling of a coin on a coffee-shop counter; a year after that, in his Oscar-winning tour de force performance in ”On the Waterfront,” the actor, in his prime, proved he didn’t need a longshoreman’s grappling hook to take our breath away: His retrieval of Eva Marie Saint’s dropped glove — an unscripted accident and improvisatory response — has taken its place as one of the great lessons in Method naturalism young actors still study like a rune stone.