Better than AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars: 10

To see my running list of the hundred greatest movie stars in American film history, click here

We’ve reached the top 10! At this point, every star gets their own post.

10) Marlon Brando

He made his mark in a role playing Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, a man who is more missing link than civilized being, roving around scandalously in his undershirt. As he barks about the Napoleonic Code and his sister-in-law’s “fine feathers,” he evinces the limits of his knowledge, a man just sophisticated enough to know what’s coming to him under Louisiana law but insufficiently knowledgeable to know the difference between a rhinestone and a diamond. This is not a naturalistic performance. There’s nothing natural or likely or recognizable in Stanley, not unless you know a bunch of people who have I ONLY HAVE THE ID tattooed on their bodies in multiple places. It’s what makes his performance opposite Vivien Leigh such a great one; both of them are giving huge, considered performances, and the bigness of both actors makes that movie go. One playing smaller would be dominated by the other, and while the film needs Stanley to win in the same way that ferrets have to break bunnies’ necks so they can eat, his gestures and roars must be as gigantic as Vivien Leigh’s whispers and chortles are slight. Both are playing at extremes, which is where Brando belongs.

Marlon Brando was an extreme actor, playing to the gods in the theatrical sense. It’s what made him hit or miss for his audiences throughout the years, especially once he got chonky; people have less patience for outsize anything when it comes from the heavyset set, and Brando’s bravura acting style was no different. Of course, Brando’s physical presence was part of what made much of the early stuff great. In Streetcar, you see him up against things over and over again. Leaning with his body on the table, his elbows against walls and doorframes, he is as much liquid as he is solid, but all that makes the physical force that he threatens to exert even more shocking. At the end of the film, Stan fields a punch from Mitch as he witnesses Blanche’s madness; it affects Stanley as much as smacking a lake affects the whole body of water. The slouching, the catlike flexibility, but also a hard, firm body, complete with that nose which makes the rest of his face look flat.

Those movies he did in his late twenties—Streetcar, The Wild One, even Julius Caesar—place Brando as a potential sex symbol, and he was. But as handsome as he was, his looks were a little bit fragile. Even in a film like One-Eyed Jacks, a movie he made before he was forty, you can see the traces of the younger, more powerfully beautiful man, but also the crags and creases which lined his face prematurely. There is no long George Clooney runway for Brando, thanks to a combination of makeup and natural aging. In his forty-eighth year, Paul Newman made The Sting. In his forty-eighth year, Brando made The Godfather. Again, makeup, cottonballs, and above all, the physical acting at which he excelled, but one wonders about a Brando who might have let himself age more gracefully. Or maybe one wonders about a Brando who was simply less rebellious, a man who might have been content (like Newman) to continue seeking studio roles which might have done more than paid his bills.

Maybe if One-Eyed Jacks, Marlon Brando’s only directorial effort, had been more successful, we would have a different Brando to study. From an actor’s perspective, it is a generous movie. The film is overlong—one can imagine this story working better at 100 or even 120 minutes, but not at 140—but part of that flabbiness is in the way it gives its wide cast multiple scenes to be the star in. Brando doesn’t disappear from the film, exactly, but he’ll yield the floor to other players. Pina Pellicer, playing his young and pregnant amour, gets Oscar scenes more than once, even if the film would benefit from only tracking over that ground a single time. Katy Jurado is featured more meaningfully in One-Eyed Jacks than she was in High Noon, and with a character who contains complexity beyond simply being an oracle of doom. Slim Pickens and Ben Johnson both get opportunities to lean into their parts as heavies; Johnson especially has meatier, talkier scenes than he got when he just lost a fistfight in Shane. And of course Karl Malden, playing Brando’s ex-partner in crime who has acceded to a place as sheriff, gets a truly ugly character who is motivated, basically, by an American dream: you can be anything you choose to be. Brando, for his part, is stoic in One-Eyed Jacks, only really coming alive for scenes where his eyes glow in beachy moonlight or when he throws punches. There’s no Vivien Leigh to equal him bombshell for bombshell, and so you can see him ratcheting down a little bit, slurring his speech or speaking through clenched teeth so as not to make Rio so much bigger than everyone else.

In his two ’70s collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, he lets other people go huge and loud while he goes huge and quiet instead. He really is absent from both of these movies. He’s in The Godfather about as much as Robert Duvall is, and in Apocalypse Now he is far more specter than man, haunting the boat as it cruises into Cambodia and then looming over its surviving crew, shot almost exclusively in shadows. The shanda of Brando’s weight problems, which makes the plot of this movie make less literal sense, is only a footnote in the Hearts of Darkness of it all. Whether or not you wish they’d been able to land Jack Nicholson for Kurtz rather than Brando is something of a movie personality test. I happen to love the weirdness of Brando as an eggy ghost, with bulging eyes and no body to speak of. He seems to do very little, on the whole. He leers and whispers and stuff, but the compound, with its grisly corpses and dead-eyed inhabitants, its horrifying murders and macheted cattle, are the work of other hands. Brando’s Kurtz is not a madman in and of himself, but the little voice in the back of a madman’s mind, the one who spurs the madman to make his hands the devil’s workshop.

While the iconography of The Godfather, which has become the signifier for prestige filmmaking generally, emphasizes the Vito Corleone of the wedding in his sharp tux and red carnation, I prefer the disheveled old man who lends such greatness to the end of the picture. A lion in winter, with perpetually unkempt hair and a difficult time getting out of a bathrobe, Vito foresees the betrayal of the Corleones by one of his chief lieutenants, has the wisdom to make a prediction which saves his son’s life. Yet he does not have the power, after wielding so much might for so many years, to give his son the life he wanted to give him. One of the most heartbreaking line readings in American cinema belongs to Brando, in a longer monologue delivered to Al Pacino. “I never,” he starts, “I never wanted this for you.” There’s an entire lifetime in those words, hoarsely spoken by an actor who came to prominence two decades earlier behind nasal purrs. Later, when we watch Vito die, we see the man in the mode where I think it’s easiest to imagine him happiest. Vito is not a dour man, but he is a sober one, and there is no measured joy in the way he goofs around with Michael’s son among the tomato plants before perishing among them.

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