“In 1947, when Marlon Brando appeared on stage in a torn, sweaty t-shirt, there was an earthquake,” wrote Gore Vidal of the actor’s Broadway debut as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. “Kowalski changed the shape of sex in America,” Vidal continued. “Before him, no man was considered erotic. A man was essentially a suit, not a body.” In fact, Brando’s performance as the boorish Polack who rapes and destroys the fragile Blanche DuBois — “mercurial, rebellious, rampant”, according to Williams’s biographer John Lahr — was seismic enough to change his profession forever. “He is the marker,” Martin Scorsese said. “There’s ‘before Brando’ and ‘after Brando’.” Nearly 60 years later, when Brando’s obituary in The New York Times used the word ‘epochal’ to define his impact, it felt like an understatement.
Any rundown of all-time great screen performances has to include one of Brando’s, whether that’s Kowalski in the movie version of Streetcar (“Stellaaaa!”); Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (“I coulda bin a contendah”); Johnny Strabler in The Wild One (“What’re you rebelling against, Johnny? Whaddaya got?”); Don Corleone in The Godfather (“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse”); or even Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (“The horror! The horror!”). Brando had an intuitive grasp of the actor’s art, rooted in the method teachings of Stanislavski, but transmuted through his own charisma and menacing magnetism. “Watching him was like witnessing the performing equivalent of jazz,” wrote Lahr. “The notes were there, but played in a way uniquely personal to him.”
“In 1947, when Marlon Brando appeared on stage in a torn, sweaty t-shirt, there was an earthquake,”
Brando combined an intense physicality — “weightlifter’s arms, Charles Atlas chest, taut skin, broad, high forehead,” enumerated Truman Capote in his famous Brando profile, The Duke in his Domain — with a bruised poet’s soul, made manifest by (Capote again) “his tiny, fluttering hands, full lips, relaxed, sensual expression, and a voice with a probing, surprisingly adolescent quality.” This ambivalence — Bogart swagger meets Kerouac sensitivity — was nurtured by his upbringing in Illinois, the third child and only son of a hard-drinking, abusive father and an alcoholic, artistic mother, whom he’d often have to drag out of downtown bars. He was a military-school dropout who contemplated studying for the ministry before following his actress sister Jocelyn to New York. “He needs to find something in life, something in himself, that is permanently true, and he needs to lay down his life for it,” a friend of Brando’s told Capote. “For such an intense personality, nothing else will do.”
Acting — at first, at least — was it. The critic Pauline Kael, seeing the young Brando in an off-Broadway production called Truckline Café, where he played a soldier who returns home to kill his unfaithful wife, thought he was actually suffering an on-stage convulsion. “I’d never seen anything as visceral,” she said. Audiences shaken and stirred emerged from Streetcar with much the same reaction, and Brando was soon hailed, in the words of one critic, as “the Valentino of the bop generation”, a persona he avidly embraced. “He was a brooder, but when he wanted to, he could rocket right out of himself,” another friend of Brando’s confided to Capote. “He had a sign on the wall of his room: ‘You Ain’t Livin’ It If You Don’t Know It’. He’d play bongos and pick up down- and-outers, strays, characters who were dependent on him. It was the same with girls — he liked plain, somebody’s secretary types.” (The latter predilection was confirmed by Brando’s grandmother: “Marlon always picked on the cross-eyed girls.”) Naturally, it wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling, but there were early signs of how Brando’s all-or-nothing idealism could tip over into jaded cynicism: on his first trip to the west coast, when asked what he’d like in the way of personal attention and private creature comforts, he pointed to the nerve-jangled pet he’d brought with him, and announced: “I’d like to get my monkey fucked.”