The most impactful actor in the history of American cinema? An overrated mumbler? A genius? A lazy, belligerent egotist? From the moment Marlon Brando first appeared on the big screen, in Fred Zinneman’s The Men (1950) – released this month on BFI Blu-ray – he demanded attention and divided opinion.
Brando was more than capable of phoning it in, particularly in the closing stretch of his half century in front of the camera, but few could match him at his peak. As the best-known practitioner of the ‘Method’ technique, there was no star more responsible for pulling the trajectory of Hollywood acting away from the genteel elocution of the 1930s and 40s towards something that felt more authentically, imperfectly human. Though there was certainly a Brando delivery (often and humorously imitated), there was never really a stock Brando character – he could and would play anything, from lofty historical figures to leather-clad young punks, good-hearted heroes to psychopathic villains.
Legend may have calcified him into something of a caricature, but even a cursory skim through the highlights of his filmography reveals an actor thrillingly unpredictable and determinedly alive. Here are 10 of the finest performances from a movie career like no other.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Director: Elia Kazan
Reprising his role from the hit Broadway production (along with the majority of the cast, and director Elia Kazan), Brando’s unforgettable turn as the brutish Stanley Kowalski – his unvarnished line deliveries; his sweaty, almost feral sexuality; the promise of violence in his ravenous gaze – truly established the actor as a new cinematic phenomenon.
The polarity of difference in the styles of Brando and classically-trained lead Vivien Leigh adds electricity to the already charged confrontations between Stanley and his faded southern belle sister-in-law. Both would garner widespread and extravagant praise for their performances, as well as Academy Award nominations (Leigh won best actress).
Julius Caesar (1953)
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Although Julius Caesar is generally more concerned with the ruler’s conflicted killer, Brutus (James Mason), than Brando’s stalwart Mark Antony, this classic Shakespeare adaptation gave the nascent icon the valuable chance to prove he could go toe to toe with acting greats like Mason and John Gielgud on material that seemed far more suited to their theatrical skillsets.
Despite a comparative lack of screen time, his big moment – Mark Antony’s funeral oration for Caesar – is still dazzling for its power, magnetism and nuance; a surprisingly perfect marriage of actor and material. Brando had never performed Shakespeare before, and would never again, but Julius Caesar was enough to show he was more than capable.
On the Waterfront (1954)
Director: Elia Kazan
In his third and final collaboration with Elia Kazan, Brando was Terry Malloy, a longshoreman trapped between his perilous embroilment in a corrupt union and his growing affection for Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint) – the sister of a man he unwittingly helped that union to kill.
Perhaps the most textured performance of his whole filmography, Brando’s Terry is wrecked with self-loathing but brimming with charm; seething with violence, yet tender and achingly fragile. His iconic “I coulda been a contender…” speech (which he helped to write), was not only a highlight of his career but of the history of screen acting.
The Fugitive Kind (1960)
Director: Sidney Lumet
While it never garnered the laudatory reception of his other Tennessee Williams movie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando is just as compelling – if in a markedly different way – in The Fugitive Kind.
As soft-spoken drifter Valentine ‘Snakeskin’ Xavier – who becomes involved with both the unhappy wife (Anna Magnani) of an ailing abuser, and the town’s resident alcoholic (Joanne Woodward) – he’s enigmatic and seductive; the gentle counterpoint to the macho roughness that dominates the lives of the townswomen. Though their working partnership was fractious, Brando and Magnani are mesmerising together, bringing desperate passion to the unconventional relationship at the film’s centre.
One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
Director: Marlon Brando
In his only directorial outing, Brando cast himself as Kid Rio, a bank robber betrayed by his partner (Karl Malden) and left to spend five years in prison, who’s determined to enact his revenge.
One-Eyed Jacks marked the third time Brando worked with good friend Malden, and their bristling chemistry helps power the movie through its lengthy runtime. As close partners turned deadly enemies, the two men proffer shark smiles while wielding knives behind their wary backs, creating a riveting mounting tension. The romantic aspects of the film are less successful, but Brando’s confrontations with Malden are consistently thrilling.
Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)
Director: Lewis Milestone
Despite being widely considered the first film where his offscreen behaviour went too far off the rails, and despite an accent that could kindly be described as ‘dubious’, Brando’s performance in Mutiny on the Bounty is buoyant and hugely entertaining.
Playing Fletcher Christian, the foppish naval officer who would spearhead the mutiny against the sadistic Captain Bligh (Trevor Howard), Brando is both deliciously insouciant and convincingly conflicted, making the slow moral growth of his character as compelling a journey as the titular ship’s. Contemporary audiences disagreed, however, and the film marked the start of a decade-long run of critical and commercial failures for Brando.
The Chase (1966)
Director: Arthur Penn
Robert Redford’s unfairly convicted prison escapee finds himself the centre of a terrifying manhunt, and Brando’s sympathetic sheriff is the sole person standing between him and the baying mob in Arthur Penn’s hugely underrated The Chase.
While Sheriff Calder is one of the most uncomplicatedly decent characters of Brando’s filmography, his bone-deep exhaustion with the terrible people he’s taken an oath to serve and protect lends his central turn a vivid, vulnerable complexity. An unusual shooting technique suggested by Brando – which saw real but slowly-landed punches sped up to look as if they’re causing genuine damage – makes the mob’s eventual beating of Calder still difficult to watch today.
Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
Director: John Huston
In this Carson McCullers adaptation, Brando plays an army major contending with his repressed homosexuality, his philandering wife (Elizabeth Taylor) and an attraction to a young private (Robert Forster, in his movie debut), on a southern military base during peace time.
Reflections in a Golden Eye is a film filled with grandiose performances and outrageous actions (at one point, Taylor whips Brando repeatedly across the face with a riding crop). In contrast, Brando makes the major’s repression internal to the point of physical pain, palpably folding in on himself until all his bottled-up emotions are unleashed, to tragic consequences.
The Godfather (1972)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
After a lengthy stretch of lead turns in films that underperformed at the box office, The Godfather reignited Brando’s flailing stardom (although persuading both the actor to take the role and the studio to approve him proved a daunting challenge). It earned him his second – notorious – Academy Award win.
He was just 47 at the time of shooting, but makeup artist Dick Smith helped turn Brando into a convincing septuagenarian. Playing the mob patriarch Don Corleone with such magnetic gravitas would truly usher in the second stage of Brando’s career, when he’d be viewed more as a bonafide living legend than a working actor.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
By the time of Apocalypse Now, Brando the actor had long been cannibalised by Brando the legend, with lurid tales of his belligerent behind-the-scenes hijinks often overwhelming the work he was doing on screen.
All this acted in Brando’s favour when it came to embodying Colonel Kurtz, however; his notorious off-screen shenanigans lending tremendous heft to his already formidable portrayal of the larger-than-life character. Though he would continue to make sporadic film appearances of variable quality all the way up until 2001, the operatic grandeur of Apocalypse Now feels like the most fitting swansong for a career of peerless magnitude.