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The 10 Most Essential Marlon Brando Performances

The 10 Most Essential Marlon Brando Performances

There are never fewer than about eight reasons to think about Marlon Brando at any given moment, but right now there are a couple more: it’s 61 years to the day since the release of Elia Kazan‘s peerless “On the Waterfront,” which netted Brando the first of his two Best Actor Oscars, and this week also sees the release of one of the best documentaries of the year, “Listen to Me Marlon.” We’ve had six decades to talk about the brilliance of the first, so a few words about the second, to which we gave a strongly positive review out of the New Directors/New Films Festival, and which, if anything, those of us who’ve seen it since are even more high on. 

READ MORE: Watch: Trailer And Clip For Marlon Brando Documentary ‘Listen To Me Marlon’

British director Stevan Riley has previously mounted documentaries on the James Bond franchise, international cricket and the annual Oxford/Cambridge boxing match, but little can really prepare you for the sheer intelligence and craft that has gone into his formally rigorous, astonishingly intimate portrait of this screen legend. Using his unprecedented access to many hours of taped interviews, confessionals and archive footage, much of which has never been seen before (he had the unfettered co-operation of the Brando estate), Riley has built an utterly compelling, resonant, sustaining film using almost nothing but Brando’s own words. It’s a peculiarly philosophical, melancholic and beautiful piece of work, all the more remarkable for diving so deep beneath the skin of one of the most intimidatingly mythologized actors ever to have strolled onto a film set. As such, it’s the rare cinematic biodoc that has a kind of universality that makes it powerful to outsiders, to non-fans, even to those who may be actively wary of the posthumous lionization, almost the deification of Brando as the Actor’s Godhead. 

But of course, that formidable reputation didn’t come out of nowhere, and just so you can reorient yourself prior to seeking out “Listen to Me Marlon” (in theaters from tomorrow), here we’ve collected the ten greatest Marlon Brando performances. These are the films that created the myth, now go see the film that recreates the man. 


“A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) 
Every star owes their career to a single project, but few have reached the kind of overnight fame that Brando achieved with his instantly iconic Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Brando became a draw thanks to Elia Kazan’s debut production of what would become perhaps Tennessee Williams’ best-known play, opposite Jessica Tandy, aged just 24. When the director came to bring the play to the screen four years later, Tandy was replaced by the more famous Vivien Leigh, but Kazan stuck with Brando, who became an instant megastar (and picked up the first of four consecutive Oscar nods) once the film opened. And little wonder. As Stanley, the brutish brother-in-law of fading belle Blanche DuBois (Leigh), Brando is magnetic, even, and almost especially, when he’s barely doing anything at all. Indelibly sexy (yes, even sexier than when Ned Flanders played the role), swaggering, animalistic and balancing a sense of real danger with occasional fleck of childlike joy and even a kind of romance, his performance threatens to topple the film over into the Stanley Kowalski show, and yet here Brando’s still generous enough to be in service of Leigh and his other co-stars. Even today, actors reprising their famous on-stage roles can end up feeling over-the-top and overly theatrical, but that’s never remotely a threat with Brando here: there’s never a moment where he feels anything but real (the performance was based on real-life boxer Rocky Graziano). It’s easy to be hyperbolic about a performance like this, but screen acting was honestly never quite the same after “Streetcar.” 


“Julius Caesar” (1953)
Amid simply one of the greatest casts ever assembled for a Hollywood Shakespeare adaptation (Louis Calhern as Caesar, James Mason as Brutus, John Gielgud as Cassius, Greer Garson as Calpurnia, Deborah Kerr as Portia), to say that Brando is the standout in Joseph L Mankiewicz‘s “Julius Caesar” is both kind of misleading and totally true. Misleading, because the rest of the cast, particularly Mason’s noble Brutus and Gielgud’s devious Cassius, are equally strong, but true because Brando embodies Marc Anthony’s conflicted charisma better than probably any other screen incarnation. It was a risk: the role would net him the third of four consecutive Best Actor nominations, but when casting was first announced, it was met with derision — the great mumbler not just taking on Shakespearean dialogue, but in the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” address, one of the most famous of the Bard’s political speeches? Brando himself was apprehensive, but taking advice from Shakespearean thesp Gielgud, his diction is crisp and assured, and the words really sing. He commands here, giving Marc Anthony brooding depths as well as glorious handsomeness, which may seem frivolous, but sexing up Shakespeare, especially the political plays, is no mean feat. In fact, there were reports that he and Mason clashed, but looking at it now, their differing approaches work: Mason’s more classical style suits the noble, old-school Republican Rome of Brutus, while Marc Anthony, being played with Brando’s Method edge, is the very embodiment of the new, the young, the impetuous, the dangerous, the end of the status quo.


“On the Waterfront” (1954)
There are many, many surprising omissions from the recent BBC poll of the 100 Greatest American Films, but perhaps none is quite as flabbergasting as the absence of Elia Kazan‘s towering classic about union unrest and corrupted idealism on the Hoboken docklands. Not only did the film win 8 of its 12 Oscar nominations (including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Brando), it deals so precisely with the flipside of the coin toss that is the American Dream, that it feels like an inarguable inclusion in any such list. But then again, there is a broad streak of “un-Americanness” here — ironic, considering both Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg “named names” — as the film glorifies the common working man and the power of brotherhood, rather than the exceptionalist individualism that is the capitalist way. And Brando’s performance is the perfect encapsulation of that approach: his Terry Malloy is both unique and ordinary. The grace and sensitivity of this performance (including improvised embellishments like the moment he absently tries on Eva Marie Saint’s glove which is simply one of the most beautiful acting moments ever committed to celluloid) makes us feel for Malloy as a real person, yet Brando also hints at the oceanic depths that roil beneath. In fact, if Kazan’s film overall is a singular achievement in uniting elements of film noir filmmaking with an uncompromising social realism, it derives a huge amount of that energy from Brando’s sublime mix of stagecraft and spontaneity. This is not his showiest or most iconic role; it is simply his best. 


“The Wild One” (1957) 
A young Brando had screen-tested for the long-gestating film that eventually became “Rebel Without A Cause” back in 1947, but while he might have lost out on that one, he got his own 1950s rebellious young lead in “The Wild One,” the controversial biker-gang drama from director László Benedek and producer Stanley Kramer. Swaggering to a degree that he makes Stanley Kowalski look like a shrinking violet, Brando plays Johnny Strabler, the leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, who invade the quiet town of Wrightsville, causing havoc with the locals, and instigating a romance between Johnny and Kathie (Mary Murphy), the daughter of the local police chief. The film was undeniably something of an exploitation picture, preying on real-life worries about the fears of motorcycle gangs, but the film’s pop culture impact went further than that: like ‘Rebel’ and “The Blackboard Jungle,” it helped to create the teenager as an identity (“What are you rebelling against?” Johnny is asked, to which he famously responds, “Whaddya got?”), it was banned in the UK for fourteen years over fears of copycats, and created an instant icon in Brando’s much-imitated sideburns and tilted cap. Much of this obscures that “The Wild One” isn’t, well, a particularly great film: heavy-handed, reactionary, tin-eared, lacking in flair, and with a rather anonymous supporting cast (though an early appearance from Lee Marvin is good value). And yet Brando’s so smoulderingly charismatic, so soulful, so quietly sad, that he carries the picture with him. 

READ MORE: Watch: Marlon Brando’s Screen Test For ‘Rebel Without A Cause’


“Sayonara” (1957)
This list contains inarguably classic films with inarguably astounding Brando performances. It also contains less-than-classics with great Brando performances. But “Sayonara” might be the most problematic inclusion. It’s not a truly great film — however well-meaning its anti-racism sentiment for the time, it’s bought at the expense of a deeply reactionary and Orientalist view of the exotic subservience of Japanese womanhood, and it features Ricardo Montalban playing Japanese. And nor is the Oscar-nominated Brando flawless in the role of the Korean War-era Air Force Major who falls for a Japanese actress — his Southern accent is a slightly awkward affectation. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, its many issues, “Sayonara,” from director Joshua Logan (“South Pacific“) earns its slot here. It illuminates the reaches of his talents better, perhaps, than many of his more famous roles. His Major Gruver has no deep, menacing darkness — he does not have Terry Malloy’s brokenness, Stanley Kowalski’s rage or Colonel Kurtz’s madness. Gruver is among the simplest characters Brando ever played: a decent, patriotic flying ace whose ingrained and entirely representative prejudices are overcome by love — it’s Brando as an everyman, and it’s a truly beautiful, sensitive performance. Supported by great turns from Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki (who won the two Supporting Actor Oscars that year) — without the volcanic bluster or eat-the-room presence of some of his more famous turns, here we watch his Method applied on a much smaller scale and he delivers: a precise and thrillingly empathetic embodiment of a good man incrementally changing his mind.


The Godfather” (1972) 
The 1960s were not a good time for Brando (as one can tell from the absence of any movies from the decade on this list), with critically-derided flop after critically-derided flop. His star had faded to such an extent that when Francis Ford Coppola wanted to cast him in his adaptation of a Mafia-themed pulp novel called “The Godfather,” Paramount resisted, only letting it happen if the actor swapped his fee for a percentage, and agreed to pay for any overages resulting from his own behavior. It was a risk that decidedly paid off, with a performance that’s briefer than you remember, but that haunts not just the rest of Coppola’s hugely successful trilogy, but the crime movie in general. Playing a good fifteen years older than he really was, and famously embellished himself with cotton buds in his cheeks, Brando is Vito Corleone, the Don of a New York mob family, facing new competition and an uncertain passing-of-the-torch to his children. It’s a much-imitated, much-parodied performance (with the actor among those who riffed on it, as we’ll see), and for good reason: he’s a representative of an older, more simple world, one that Brando himself had helped to put away, and there’s a deep melancholy, particularly in the latter stages, at the way he visibly slips away, both content to be dying naturally with his family, and yet somehow disappointed to be out of the loop. It won the actor his second Oscar (and deservedly so). 


“Last Tango In Paris” (1972)
A few months after “The Godfather” smashed box office records, Brando cemented his comeback with another critically adored hit: Bernardo Bertolucci’s incredibly controversial “Last Tango In Paris.” After he felt increasingly disengaged during the 1960s, this and Don Corleone saw him reappear with a new fire in his (slightly more substantial) belly, here as Paul, a grieving American in Paris who begins a provocative affair with a much-younger French woman, Jeanne (Maria Schneider). Originally intended for Jean-Louis Trintignant, the character is an open wound of a man, giving in to his deepest and darkest sexual desires, and it feels somehow that this is a Brando stripped by Bertolucci of his fallbacks. With few tics or cotton-bud makeup tricks up his sleeve, it’s an almost unbearably raw performance, at once sympathetic, pathetic, pitiable and loathsome. Not every actor could pull off the philosophical gymnastics of Bertolucci’s dialogue (“Right up into the ass of death, right up in his ass, until you find the womb of fear”), but Brando pulls it off effortlessly, and his odd chemistry with Schneider is palpable, even if their real-life relationship was decidedly rockier. And though it didn’t prove to be, as Pauline Kael had predicted, “the most liberating movie ever made,” it undoubtedly retains its power to shock and provoke for a modern-day audience (and proved a big hit at the time). It’s a shame that our modern films about sex and sexuality are closer to “Fifty Shades Of Grey” than to this, but then if Brando had played Christian Grey, we might think very differently about that film…


Apocalypse Now” (1979) 
 We hear a lot about Brando’s Colonel Walter Kurtz before we actually see him in Francis Ford Coppola’s landmark “Apocalypse Now”. He is discussed in hushed, fearful tones throughout the film as a kind of mythic figure — someone to be feared as much, if not more so, as the Vietcong. So it’s kind of amazing that when we finally see Kurtz sometime near the film’s hellish denouement — hiding in what appears to be monastic seclusion, sheathed in dark shadows and speaking with a tremble in his voice that suggests pain beyond anything you or I could comprehend — that he’s somehow even more terrifying than we expected. As a decorated U.S. Special Forces officer who finds himself lost to insanity brought on by the horrors of war — not to mention the whims of the local populace, who fancy him some sort of God — Brando exudes an intoxicating mixture of epic grandeur and real, human pain (who can forget his snarling to Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard that the young man is little more than an “errand boy sent by grocery clerks”?) Film lore goes that, in addition to his already-infamous bouts of erratic behavior, Brando also showed up to the shoot of “Apocalypse” drastically overweight, thus forcing Coppola to shoot his scenes with his star just so in hopes of concealing the actor’s ungainly physique. But whatever unspeakable madness Brando did during the making of this film — arguably Coppola’s best — is right up there on the screen for us to marvel at. In a career of big turns, this is one of the biggest, and definitely one of the scariest. 


“The Freshman” (1990) 
With “The Godfather” back in the zeitgeist thanks to the original trilogy being closed off in the same year, Brando parodied/paid tribute to probably his best known performance with this terminally undervalued comedy from “The In-Laws” and “Fletch” writer/director Andrew Bergman. “The Freshman” top-lines Matthew Broderick as a young NYU student who ends up taking work for a local mobster, Carmine Sabatini (Brando), who has a lucrative side business in serving up endangered species at a supper club, and who is being pursued by the Department of Justice. It’s an enjoyably odd film, and made odder by the presence of Brando, essentially reprising Don Corleone, and not looking much older here than he did there (in a fun meta touch, characters keep commenting on how much he looks like Corleone in the movie, a character supposedly based on Brando’s character here). It shouldn’t work, not even remotely, and yet it does. In part it’s because of Bergman, who’s never really got the credit he deserves for the kind of whip-smart mainstream comedies he makes, but in large part, it’s because of Brando. It would have been so easy for him to phone this in, but perhaps spurred on by the rest of the cast (Broderick’s perfectly cast, Bruno Kirby, Penelope Anne Miller and Maximillian Schell are all fun), he deftly replicates the earlier performance, but builds on it, too. He’s never playing for laughs, but there’s a spry wit to his timing here (impressive given that Brando usually came unstuck with comedy), and he’s remarkably funny, and even endearing as a result.


“The Score” (2001) 
“The Score” could have been terrible and it still would have been notable for being the only time Brando and his disciple Robert DeNiro ever appeared in a film together. DeNiro, bringing shades of his hard, calculating Neil McCauley from Michael Mann’s “Heat”, plays another career thief and Brando plays his tough-shit old boss. That alone should be reason enough to see it; the sight of these two cinematic greats simply sharing the screen together makes the film worthy of at least one viewing. “The Score” definitely isn’t terrible, but it also isn’t great: it’s a solid, often groaningly predictable crime thriller directed with restraint and patience by Frank Oz (the voice of  Yoda who would go on to direct “What About Bob?”, the underrated “Bowfinger” and also, um “The Stepford Wives”). Brando isn’t in the movie much, but he doesn’t need to be: his legend casts a shadow that more than makes up for his loss of screen time. His Max is a large, effusive, often profane man who speaks in that characteristic Brando whisper and whose craggy, weathered face and bulky frame seem to suggest a great personal history. Brando allegedly had difficulties with director Oz during the shoot — although the helmer has said, in later years, that he felt that he was perhaps being tougher on the iconic older actor than he needed to be — but it doesn’t show in the performance. As always, Mr. Mumbles was all-in here, and the results are riveting to watch. 

Honorable Mentions: Has any great actor — arguably the greatest — made as few great movies as Brando did? Often when we write a piece like this, we find ourselves heartbroken at leaving certain films out, but that wasn’t necessarily the case here: outside of top-tier Brando, the pickings get slimmer, in part because of the relative infrequency of his performances, and his periods of questionable choices. 

That said, there are still a few Brando turns that are worth checking out, even if they don’t quite sit among the Corleones and Kurtzs of the world. Among them was his reteam with Kazan on the John Steinbeck-penned biopic “Viva Zapata!,” which doesn’t quite live up to the talent assembled, but was still enough to win Brando Best Actor at Cannes. There’s also his beguiling, mildly miscast turn in “Guys And Dolls” and the now somewhat offensive, nevertheless watchable “Teahouse Of The August Moon.” 

Plus, there’s powerful war drama “The Young Lions” (perhaps the film that came closest to making this list), Sidney Lumet’s mildly dull “The Fugitive Kind,” Brando’s lone directorial effort “One-Eyed Jacks,” the bloated “Mutiny On The Bounty,” diplomacy drama “The Ugly American,” John Huston’s “Reflections In A Golden Eye” (a rare highlight of the 1960s period), 1969’s “Burn!” (one of Brando’s personal favorites), Michael Winner’s “The Nightcomers,” Arthur Penn’s Western “The Missouri Breaks,” South African apartheid drama “A Dry White Season” (his first acting appearance in nine years), and his semi-decent team-up with Johnny Depp on “Don Juan DeMarco.” Anything else you think we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments. 

– Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton, Nicholas Laskin

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