For about ten years, Brando was the response I gave whenever someone would ask me who my favorite actor was. Now I say "Cary Grant" to that question, but in my youth, Brando possessed this iconic masculinity that was incredibly appealing. But more than that, I think, in his best performances, Brando appeared like a wounded lion, scuffling yet dangerously proud and feral. He's a vulnerable anti-hero who's still a man's man. In his revolutionary performance as Stanley Kowalski in the original A Streetcar Named Desire run, he reportedly exuded an animalistic sexual energy that electrified the stage. Women soaked their panties. Men shuddered in awe. Brando didn't front that energy, but generated it from within as demanded by Stanislavsky's Method. The Method revolutionized acting by imploring actors to search for the character from within themselves, and nobody came to represent the Method like Brando.
That authenticity can be hard to watch. When Pauline Kael first saw Brando on stage (I think it was I Remember Mama), she turned away, embarrassed for the actor who was apparently having an epileptic attack on screen. She later realized that she witnessed a new kind of authenticity in acting, and Kael never stopped being a fan. Even at the nadir of Brando's powers, critics as divergent as Stanley Kauffmann and Manny Farber got his back.
Brando was a strange man. Stubborn, idealistic to a fault, contradictory. I've read two of his bios and came away not understanding the guy any better. Unlike Welles, with whom he's often compared, he trashed his own career not because he wouldn't compromise, but because he believed his whole art was a compromise. He wasted his prodigious and singular talent out of spite, intent on coasting on dubious projects. His first six screen appearances were each stunning in their own way: from The Men, where he played a paraplegic veteran to On the Waterfront, Brando captured this propulsive blend of leading man and vulnerable anti-hero that was unseen and unmatched. Newman came close, but he's too closed-off an actor to project that Brando intimacy. His only other peer is Montgomery Clift, an exceptionally sensitive actor, who's really more of a character actor in a leading man's body.
After that brilliant beginning, his career slowly faded. His attempts at doing conventional leading roles were downright boring (Guys and Dolls, otherwise a treat; Sayonara - zzzzz), and over time, his acting became ever more eccentric and mannered. He'd resort to his arsenal of method tricks: he'd brush his face and mumble, and rely on inelegant movement and prissy gestures to throw off audiences, as he did in Mutiny on the Bounty. His performances began to work against the film, as Dan Sallitt smartly observed elsewhere. But he was still capable of great things in his lost decade of the Sixties: his masochistic fugitive in One Eyed Jacks (one of the most underrated movies ever made) contained that self-loathing vulnerability of his Fifties performances, and his repressed homosexual military man in Reflections in a Golden Eye was a revelation.
Some say he gave interesting performances in Pontecorvo's Burn!, and The Night Following Day, and hopefully I'll see these pictures one day. But his late achievements are, of course, Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather and the haunted Paul in Bertolucci's magnificent Last Tango in Paris. Detractors say Brando gave a gimmicky performance in The Godfather, but I never failed to be moved by him in the garden, taking that orange peel in his mouth to scare his grandson before dropping dead. In Last Tango, it was hard to tell where acting ended and confession began, as in the justly lauded coffin scene. I know no other big stars who have revealed so much of themselves in one performance.
The autumn of his years brought us daffy self-parodies, but I always enjoyed seeing him in throwaway performances. His last memorable work is Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, where Brando basically became the auteur of the film's last 1/3 by imposing his willfully obtuse antics on to the film. As weird as Brando was (and I think he's a flaw in the film), it's hard to imagine another Kurtz in that film. It's the impenetrable mystery of the last act that turns Apocalypse from just an audaciously staged, bombastic treatment of the Vietnam War into a brilliant kabuki of warfare's inner demons.
Every so often, "a new Marlon Brando" bursts on to the scene. It's Mark Ruffalo now, maybe Russell Crowe or Ed Norton a few years back. All good actors, but there's nobody like Brando. For good and ill.