Magnetic Imaging: Marlon Brando

He got his physicality from a hard-drinking, abusive father, and his poet’s soul from an alcoholic, artistic mother. The synthesis endowed Marlon Brando with a unique presence and intensity he channelled through acting — exactly the kind of truth-telling, one of his friends noted, for which he could lay down his life.
Marlon Brando in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

“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.”


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