A Man and an Actor of Truth:
Film Analysis Research Essay
April 4, 2007
A flow of anger, pain, jealousy, and love from deep within are brought to the surface. An amazing emotional connection has charged the people like electricity. The audience completely believes this powerful presence. What or who is this extraordinary power you ask? The only answer can be Marlon Brando. Brando was one of the greatest film actors of all time. In the book Conversations with Brando, Lawrence Grobel writes, “I studied enough about the man to know that he was considered by many to be the world’s greatest living actor, the man who changed the style of the movies, the most influential and widely imitated actor of his generation” (Grobel 6l). There was something real he put into his performances in which he demonstrated the psychological truth and behavioral honesty of his characters.
In an interview with Grobel, when Brando was asked the question “And you didn’t feel that acting was worthwhile or fulfilling enough?” Brando answered, “There’s a big bugaboo about acting, it doesn’t make sense to me. Everybody is an actor, you spend your whole day acting. Everybody has suffered through moments where you’re thinking one thing and feeling one thing and not showing it. That’s acting.” (Grobel 58) This can explain the essence of his performances onscreen. He is not showing people how great of an actor he is. He is rather, himself – a man of truth.
Three roles that display Brando’s genius and range as an actor include his volatile, brutish Stanley Kowlaski in a Streetcar Named Desire (1951), a role in which he created a smoldering emotional tension and sexuality that had not been seen before on stage or screen. His “method” technique taught by Stella Adler has influenced many actors since. In The Wild One (1953), Brando plays tough, motorcycle-riding hero Johnny Strabler in a role that vaulted Brando to pop culture icon status and finally, it was his masterful, believable portrayal of Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972) which epitomized his creativity in using everything he could – his voice and mannerisms to make his role truthful and believable. In each of these roles, Marlon Brando injects a naked truth and believability that rivets the audience’s attention.
First, let us briefly go back to Marlon Brando’s early life. He was born on April 3rd, 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska. He did not have a perfect childhood life. His mother had drinking problems and neglected him while his father abandoned the family. These negative experiences would later enable Brando to unleash a power and pained truth in his acting. After getting kicked out of a military academy, he enrolled in Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop in New York. This workshop was mentored by Stella Adler who helped to introduce the “emotional memory” technique. When Brando attended there, he became completely serious about acting. Stella Adler was his biggest influence in developing his techniques as an actor. On Broadway, he played the role of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. His acting career skyrocketed as he reprised his role in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire. When that picture was released in 1951, audiences were amazed with the newcomer’s talent. He had become a legend in the field of acting and he was only 27 years old.
In A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando maintains consistent control of his acting choices; meaning he can display all of his emotions effectively without exaggeration. His presence is so natural and organic that you feel like he is not acting. For example, there is a scene in which he first meets the leading character Blanche (Vivien Leigh) in his home. There is a shot of him looking at her with interest and annoyance. Brando is exceptionally good at displaying a mixture of emotions at the same time. He presents his subtext (the thoughts in his mind) extremely well to the point we are so involved with his state of mind we see ourselves – we have empathy for his character. As Blanche opens her suitcase and walks around the house, we see Stanley leaning against the wall; puzzled but intently watching her. His very presence leaning there in the cramped room is so magnetic and strong especially when contrasted against Blanche’s frail flowery chatter. We can see his conflicting emotions and know something will happen between the two characters. He is very conversational with Blanche but does not exaggerate his facial expressions to display his emotions and feelings. The San Francisco Chronicle newspaper article by movie critic Mick LaSalle details Brando in Elia Kazan’s film adaptation of Streetcar “In that moment was the essence not only of Stanley but of Brando; roaring and wounded.” It is the concentration and the absolute commitment to Stanley’s rough edged character that rings true; enabling Brando to unleash his own real life roughness into the character. This is a quality he embodied in Stanley; making Brando, at the time, utterly unique. This power came from deep inside. His “method” to acting was not acting. His goal was to be real. A great actor needs to be emotionally connected to his character and Brando does that.
In addition, Brando used his body to define and create a more believable character. This also allowed him to communicate emotion and energy. He made choices organically with his movements that he felt were necessary for the character. Furthermore, Brando built each scene layer upon layer with his emotions; which enabled him to make Stanley a more complex character. For example, in A Streetcar Named Desire, there is a scene in which Brando after being involved in a heated fight with his wife, Stella (Kim Hunter), is thrown into the shower where he is crying softly for her. Stella, upset and emotional, has left the apartment with a neighbor. He runs after her and looking up at the neighbor’s apartment he cries for her again, “Stella” and then he gradually begins to get really upset, and bellows the famous line “STELLA!” Stella eventually rushes back to Stanley and the two embrace; crying, kissing and hugging. Stanley and Stella complete one another. The emotional character arc is very important and Brando’s presentation in that particular scene is widely viewed as perfection.
If Brando’s Stanley Kowolski was widely acclaimed and memorable, he became even more of a star with his performance in The Wild One . Brando as the motorcycle riding, leather jacket wearing Johnny Strabler made him a pop culture icon for the times. Once again he became that character. The Beatles in their early days in Liverpool England and Hamburg Germany noted that they got their style and band name from that film. Also, current rock group named Black Rebel Motorcycle Club created their band name directly from Brando’s motorcycle gang name in the movie. Marlon Brando as Johnny Strabler was seen as a symbol of youth rebellion in the 1950’s. The sales of black leather jackets and motorcycles were higher than ever before. Teenage boys were drawn into the whole rebel-look just because of Marlon Brando and his performance. Members from the Hells Angels motorcycle club were influenced from the film as well; especially the character of Johnny Strabler. They identified deeply with this character and with Brando since he was so closely associated with rebelliousness, toughness, street-smart and it did not hurt that he was so good looking. Brando’s gift of connecting with an audience is thoroughly presented from the website entitled, The Wild One – St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, a member from the Hells Angels motorcycle club said, "There were about fifty of us, with jugs of wine and our black leather jackets…we sat up there in the balcony and smoked cigars and drank wine and cheered like bastards. We could all see ourselves right there on the screen. We were all Marlon Brando."
Other films that have been influenced by Marlon Brando’s The Wild One are A Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean (1955), Jailhouse Rock with Elvis Presley (1957), and Easy Rider with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda (1969). Brando’s performances are so memorable that they are widely copied or imitated.
“It wasn't him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, "Kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson." You remember that? "This ain't your night"! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money…You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it. It was you, Charley.”
In Martin Scorsese’s film Raging Bull (1980), Robert DeNiro portrays boxer Jake LaMotta and utters the famous monologue from On The Waterfront as he stares at himself in the mirror. This passage of Brando’s performance as ex-prize fighter Terry Malloy is perhaps one of the most famous and repeatedly imitated and studied monologues audiences continue to recognize today. The fact that we still connect to his performance and actors study his acting style proves how strong an influence he has had over a generation of actors including Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, just to name a few.
In The Wild One, a policeman insists Johnny Strabler, and his motorcycle buddies leave a motorcycle race; he gives a very subtle but powerful look at him and walks away as he leads the group. He did not show anger nor whining; he played it off cool and controlled. Even though the policeman forced him and the motorcycle bunch to leave, Strabler still maintained his powerful presence and walking away did not diminish who he was. Strabler was bold and confident; he was not an annoying rebel. Again, Brando was very subtle when it came to his acting technique. He captured the tough and gentle dimensions of his character. The situations he went through in the film is easy for teenagers to relate to because we want to rebel and stand up for our beliefs. The impact Brando had as Johnny Strabler touched many audiences. Both audiences and actors were inspired by his performance.
There is another moment in the film where we see a last close up shot of Johnny Strabler. He smiles at Kathie Bleeker (Mary Murphy) sitting at the bar together as he slides his trophy to her. This act of kindness further shows Brando’s acting as a tough guy but a gentleman at the same time. The Johnny Strabler character is not just some mindless rebel. He is just like us and we connect with him. The actions, the situations, and emotions he faces simmers through his character like fire; Brando enables viewers to reflect on their selves about how each of us has a little “rebel” quality within us. He made people care, sympathize, and rebel. If it were not for Brando’s gift of communication and a wide range of dimensions to his character, audiences would most likely have not cared at all. As stated, Brando influenced and continues to inspire many aspiring actors. In Peter Bogdanovich’s book, Who the Hell’s In It, he writes how Brando is “…the most influential, most imitated, most controversial, most respected by other actors.” And as an aspiring actor himself, he “…was a popular mimic at school, doing impressions of a number of stars, Brando prominent among them, and to such a degree that within a year or so some students started calling me Marlon.” (Bogdanovich, 67).
In the epic Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Brando demonstrated a large amount of creativity with his portrayal of Don Vito Corleone. To begin with, Brando is challenged to portray someone older than he actually was. As Don Vito Corleone, he creatively made the decision to stuff cotton balls in his cheeks. He immersed himself into the life of the Italian “Don”. For example, Brando as Corleone speaks in a very impressive natural speech pattern with a completely conversational manner. He has a real presence and when he talks, he demonstrates everyday hand gestures like scratching himself, touching his face, and so on. In the beginning of the film, we see Corleone speaking with a friend of the family during his daughter’s wedding celebration. We see them in Corleone’s study. They converse about a delicate situation involving the beating of his friend’s daughter. While the friend talks about his daughter, we see Corleone listening as he pets his cat playfully and stroking his face while he thinks. As the audience, we see Don Corleone. It is not the acting we are seeing. We believe that this man is Don Vito Corleone. In a People Magazine article entitled, Wild One, co-star Robert Duvall said “Marlon opened the door…He showed that you could be realistic as an actor, you could be natural, you could be alive…Marlon had a great, healthy sense of irreverence to knock away preconceptions.”
In another scene in The Godfather we see Brando playing with his grandson in the backyard of the house. He is chasing the little boy in the garden as we hear and see Brando adlibbing as he pretends to be a monster chasing the boy. He makes silly faces; bringing out the ordinary, gentle, grandpapa side of the Don Corleone character. Brando completely disappears into his role; you literally see an elderly man playing with his grandson. Throughout the film we see the Don Corleone character as the businessman leading meetings and commanding his family members. He takes care of business. However, as Corleone becomes weak and frail, Brando’s creativity continues to shines through in the scenes with his grandson. His silly faces, the way he runs like an elderly man all hunched over, and his realistic coughing before he drops dead in the garden. Also, before he chases his grandson, there are shots of him as he relaxes in his chair and gets up all tired physically and mentally. Brando in this scene clearly masters the physical aspects of an old man. An actor needs soaring imagination and creativity while being so real and true at the same time. That takes tremendous amount of talent and Marlon Brando has it in spades.
Brando has played diverse characters that have won him wide acclaim from actors, audiences, and film critics. It is no wonder he is considered a legend and influence to so many people. From the strong and temperamental Stanley, to the tough yet gentle Johnny, and then the brilliant transformation of the intelligent Don Vito Corleone to a tired, aging grandpapa; one can come to grips with the fact that this man can create much realism and truth into these different characters. The truth that is Brando the actor has become synonymous with Brando the man. Whether it is the littlest of things that connect with the audience from his creative, yet believable acting choices; Brando’s presence sticks in your mind like glue. He captures your attention and the portrayal of these three different men he breathes life into onscreen is incredible. This magnificent accomplishment would never have happened if it were not for his own raw acting style, the fact that his roles catapulted him to the pop culture mainstream, and because of his ability to use his instincts effectively. Each of these points make him one of our most admired and accomplished actors today. Marlon Brando was certainly a unique individual and actor who will always be remembered as one of the greatest actors ever.