Marlon Brando's most notable performances between 1970 and 1990

By Ty Burr
Updated July 03, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
The Godfather: Everett Collection

A look at Brando’s latter-day roles

All of Marlon Brando’s arrogance and eccentricity would mean nothing if he were not so plainly touched with genius. If you doubt that he is, watch A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, or other 1950s films in which he’s committed, exploratory, and incandescently watchable. His post-Tango career, by contrast, seems like one long battle between passion and reluctance. The following films (all available on video) trace the actor’s journey from a mid- career peak to the self-indulgent swamp of the mid-’70s and ’80s:

The Godfather (1972)
After a decade of duds (Bedtime Story) and oddities (The Nightcomers), this was the great comeback. Brando’s misterioso reputation dovetailed beautifully with his role, and the film sees him the way Michael Corleone sees his father: as a whispering, backlit legend who controls events with studied grace. It’s a technical performance and an extremely cold one, yet somehow that adds to its power. Hollywood welcomed Brando back with an Oscar — and took a long time to forgive the snub when he turned it down.

Last Tango in Paris (1972)
This still-misunderstood movie contains Brando’s finest performance. Under director Bernardo Bertolucci’s prodding, he let down his guard and his pants as a widower who embarks on a no-names affair with a young Frenchwoman (Maria Schneider). Improvising most of his dialogue, the actor created a distressing portrait of an aging lion trying to purge meaning from sex, sorrow, and self. Asked if there were anything autobiographical here, he replied, ”A hatred for oneself.”

The Missouri Breaks (1976)
Arthur Penn’s epic shaggy-dog Western has been slagged by many and praised by a few, but there’s no denying that Brando’s performance as a deadly bounty hunter is one of the damnedest things you’ll ever see. Sashaying around in a gingham dress or a sampan hat, he alternates between fey affectation and startling vitality. At bottom, it’s a snotty prank: Acting is supposed to provide insight, and Brando’s mannered, contemptuous flakiness pushes insight away. Jack Nicholson, on the other hand, is both professional and quietly affecting.

Superman (1978)
Brando’s performance as Superman’s pop, Jor-El, isn’t bad — it’s just uninspired, and the actor seems thrown by having to say lines like “Their atmosphere will sustain him!” while wearing a neon-white jumpsuit and a TV evangelist’s hairdo. He’s the hood ornament on an overpriced cinematic Caddy, and he knows it.

Apocalypse Now (1979)
With his huge bulk, Buddha head, and dead eyes, Brando’s a stunning physical presence, a true heart of darkness. But his long, maundering monologues — mostly rewritten by the actor — break the nightmare grip Francis Ford Coppola has spent two hours building up. The result is a film betrayed: You can practically hear the air rushing out.

The Formula (1980)
Brando has a glorified cameo as the blandly evil corporate head who sums up the complex global-political plot to George C. Scott in the last five minutes. If you don’t count the scene where he fishes his pet frog out of a swimming pool, it’s a pretty straight performance, too — nothing Robert Duvall couldn’t have done without blinking.

A Dry White Season (1989)
After nine years’ absence, Brando turned up in the small, showy role of the barrister who defends Donald Sutherland against a treason charge in Euzhan Palcy’s anti-apartheid melodrama. Weary, cynical, effortlessly commanding, Brando steals every scene he’s in, partly because the rest of the film is so stilted.

The Freshman (1990)
The plot of this farce is enough to make you fear the worst: A naive student (Matthew Broderick) gets dragooned into rare-animal theft by Don Carmine Sabatini (Brando), a Mafioso who bears an uncanny resemblance to our old friend Vito Corleone. While it’s true that Brando is parodying past glories here, who could have predicted the pleasure that’s so obvious in his every scene? Don Carmine isn’t a cartoon of Don Corleone — he’s his comic-opera cousin, richer in detail and more alive. It’s proof positive that Marlon Brando can tap his playful intensity whenever he chooses. Whether he can still bring that talent to a worthy role without spitting in its face remains to be seen — but this film is the first ray of hope in years.