Marlon Brando in One-eyed Jacks
Marlon Brando in One-eyed Jacks
Image: Supplied

This week marks the centenary of the actor who arguably changed movie performance forever. Marlon Brando was born on April 3 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska — the only son of a travelling salesman and a stage actress. By 27, he had burst onto the screen and into popular consciousness with his performance as Stanley Kowalski in Elia Kazan’s 1951 adaptation of the Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire. Brando proved to be one of cinema’s most magnetic presences, even if his off-screen behaviour gave him a reputation for difficulty that would follow him for the rest of his life.

In 1955 he won his first Oscar, for On The Waterfront. In 1973 he won his second for the iconic portrayal of Don Corleone in The Godfather, famously refusing to accept it in protest against Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans. Though his output became increasingly erratic in the decades before his death in 2004, Brando remains the epitome of the method acting style he pioneered — the yin to the yang of more classical theatrical acting epitomised by Laurence Olivier — the other man who is often cited as the movies’ greatest, more traditional performer.

In celebration of the centenary of the mumbling genius of the movies, here are three films that offer more than ample evidence of Brando’s lasting influence on movie acting.


Apocalypse Now (Final Cut) — Rent or buy from Apple TV +

By the time Brando arrived on the already chaotic Philippines set of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam nightmare vision, the actor had already made life difficult for everyone involved — demanding an exorbitant salary, refusing to learn his lines and holding up production for days while he demanded the director’s indulgence and attention.

Even though he’s only in the final film for a few brief but key scenes towards its conclusion, Brando’s shaven-headed, overweight and quietly dangerous portrayal of rogue officer Colonel Kurtz, remains one of cinema’s most iconic portraits of madness and proves a worthy climax to the nightmare up river journey of the film’s anti-hero Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen).

As Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw has noted, this is the “great Brando icon-cameo,” and by the time Sheen’s Willard arrives at Kurtz’s compound, the appearance of Brando, his head looming out of the darkness “like an angry planet or a giant carved fetish,” scare the hell out of the rest of the cast and the audience and reinforce “the horror, the horror,” of the insane, strange, terrible trip that is Coppola’s dark vision of the madness of Vietnam.



On the Waterfront — Rent or buy from Apple TV +

The performance that cemented Brando’s reputation as the “messiah of the method” is Elia Kazan’s 1954 melodrama of the broken dreams of working-class America. Brando stars as dockworker Terry Malone, a once promising boxer whose career ended after a local mobster forced him to throw a fight. When a local longshoreman is murdered before he can testify to the mobster’s involvement in waterfront corruption, Terry, working with the dead man’s sister, seizes the opportunity to do the right thing and expose the mob, no matter the cost and potentially fatal consequences.

Written by Budd Schulberg and inspired by the pioneering expose of corruption on the New Jersey docks by journalist Malcolm Johnson, Kazan’s film remains a powerful tribute to ordinary men fighting for justice in the face of capitalism. Due to Brando’s electrifying performance, it also offers a timely examination of the fragilities of wounded masculinity.

Re-released in the UK in April for its 70th anniversary, the film remains a classic of 1950s US social-realist cinema. Brando’s sensitive, layered performance continues to be as magnetic now as it was all those years ago when he first uttered the immortal lines, “I could’ve been a contender.”



One Eyed Jacks — Prime Video

A bleak revenge western, co-written by legendary director Sam Peckinpah, this 1961 cult classic was originally set to be directed by the young Stanley Kubrick. When that plan fell apart, co-producer and star Brando stepped behind the camera for his sole directing credit.

Brando plays Rio, a bank robber who works with his older partner, “Dad” Longworth (Karl Malden). When the outlaw pair pull off a profitable job in Mexico, Longworth betrays his protegee and leaves him to take the fall, serving a five-year jail term.

Upon his release, Rio sets off on a determined quest for revenge, tracking down “Dad,” to his new life as a reinvented respectable citizen and lawman, only to find that exacting the revenge he’s so long dreamed of may be much harder and complicated than he’d imagined.

Elevated by its Freudian themes, Greek tragedy plotting and a brooding, emotionally engulfing performance of doubt and guilt from Brando, the film offers a stark, and quietly engrossing reconfiguration of the genre. While it didn’t set its star off on a new course as a director, it still demonstrated his ability to delve beneath the surface of a story and grab on to its deeper, universally conflicted, emotional concerns.


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