1924 - 2004
Actor Marlon Brando, 80, Dies
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2004; 11:38 AM
Marlon Brando, 80, a film star whose blend of sensitivity and savagery brought him acclaim as the greatest actor of his generation and whose tumultuous personal life made him a fascinating spectacle in popular culture, died July 1 in a Los Angeles hospital, the actor's lawyer said today.
The lawyer, David J. Seeley, told the Associated Press that the cause of death was being withheld.
Moody performers such as Humphrey Bogart made the stiff, oily leading man seem obsolete by the 1940s. But it was Brando -- sweaty, swaggering, mumbling, wounded, brutish and beautiful -- who further heightened expectations in postwar cinema. He won two Academy Awards, for "On the Waterfront" and "The Godfather," created a menagerie of unforgettable performances, from "A Streetcar Named Desire" to "Apocalypse Now," and became an icon of defiance onscreen and off.
His naked emotional display on film was matched by an often-tragic series of events in his private life, from his pain-racked childhood to his failed marriages to his self-castigating courtroom pleas during his son's manslaughter trial. He also made disastrously indulgent career choices as he came to view acting as a lark and spent decades teetering between being a has-been and creating major milestones in performance.
His artistry in his greatest films transcended everything. As Newsweek cultural observer Jack Kroll wrote in 1994, "That will be Brando's legacy whether he likes it or not -- the stunning actor who embodied a poetry of anxiety that touched the deepest dynamics of his time and place."
It was clear from Brando's cinema debut as a scornful, paraplegic war veteran in "The Men" (1950) and his explosive work as Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951) that he was a towering new breed of actor, able to display a naked and raw soul that ached with passion but also was unpredictably bestial.
One critic noted that in "The Men," Brando "comes like a blood transfusion into cinema acting," and later writers confirmed his legacy: With his pinup magnetism and dazzling range, he simply dominated all discussions about film acting.
One of his greatest legacies as an actor was to penetrate the deepest thoughts of his characters and convey their motivations so finely and believably. He drew on a lifetime of emotional distress, his brilliance at mimicry and his own intuition to bring new dimensions of psychological motivation to his parts. Although his leading men were capable of raping and threatening, he was praised for making those actions appear poetic and tragic, bestowing timeless resonance to his art.
Few other actors made so many instant classics. In more than 40 films, his gallery of most-admired performances include: "Viva Zapata!" (1952) as Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata; "Julius Caesar" (1953) as Marc Antony; "On the Waterfront" (1954), as longshoreman Terry Malloy, who takes a lonely stand against organized crime; "The Wild One" (1954), as a motorcycle-gang leader; and "Sayonara" (1957), as an Army officer who romances a Japanese dancer.
After a series of 1960s flops, he experienced an unexpected renaissance with "The Godfather" (1972), as mafia chieftain Don Vito Corleone; "Last Tango in Paris" (1972), in which his wife's suicide prompts a sexual spree that is both liberating and tortuous; and "Apocalypse Now" (1979), as Army Col. Walter E. Kurtz, a shaved-headed symbol of madness during the Vietnam War.
Though his role was brief, he also played Jor-El, the title superhero's father, in the blockbuster "Superman" (1978).
In addition to his two Oscars for best leading man, he was nominated for six others. He won an Emmy Award for a supporting role as George Lincoln Rockwell, the American Nazi, in the television miniseries "Roots: The Next Generations" (1979).
Brando also had a huge impact on public behavior. He was, at first, a strikingly muscular and vital figure who defined 1950s leather-jacketed masculinity. He wore jeans to swank parties, insulted star-making gossip columnists and flaunted his preference for dark-skinned women, then a social taboo -- anything to pique the Hollywood system that tried to control his public image.
He infuriated studio executives by going millions over-budget on his only directorial effort, the revenge western "One-Eyed Jacks" (1961), and was largely blamed for immense cost overruns on the South Sea Island set of "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1962).
"Mutiny" director Lewis Milestone was one of many directors and studio officials he confounded with his distaste for authority. "Before he would take direction, he would ask why," Milestone said. "Then when the scene was being shot, he put ear plugs in so that he couldn't hear my direction."
Brando saw his overall attitude differently. "I am myself," he once said, "and if I have to hit my head against a brick wall to remain myself, I will do it."
Starting in the 1960s, Brando became one of the first actor-activists to march for civil and Native American rights. He memorably refused to appear at the Oscar ceremonies to accept his award for "The Godfather," protesting what he felt was discrimination against Native Americans on film and in government policy.
Instead, he dispatched to the Academy Awards a woman who claimed to be a Native American named "Sacheen Littlefeather." She read an abridged version of Brando's 15-page indictment of policies toward the Indians. Later, she was revealed to be an actress named Maria Cruz, a former winner of the 1970 Miss American Vampire competition.
Brando also participated in "Free Huey" protests after Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton was tried in 1968 for allegedly killing an Oakland, Calif., policeman.
In later years, Brando came to be seen more as a tabloid curiosity as his personal setbacks seemed boundless. With time, he represented the disintegration of the sex symbol as his physique crumbled and he ballooned to more than 300 pounds. He was a hulking and teary presence at his son's 1990 trial for the shooting death of his half-sister's lover.
He called his son's mother "as cruel and unhappy a person as I've ever met" and added about his own abilities as a parent, "I know I could have done better."
The public read about the bitterness of his three marriages; the many paternity suits; his daughter Cheyenne's 1995 suicide; and his odd public behavior, such as kissing television host Larry King on the mouth during an interview before Brando signed off with, "Darling, goodbye."
That 1994 King interview featured Brando doing free-association wordplay, singing off key, expressing dislike for psychoanalysis and expounding on commercialism, exploitation and his life, about which he said he had no regrets. He teased and prodded King about sweating under the lights.
It all seemed to be a show. As his greatest acting coach, Stella Adler, encouraged him: Be anything but dull.
Marlon Brando Jr., the youngest of three children, was born in Omaha, Neb., to Dorothy Pennebaker, a vivacious beauty and local actress, and Marlon Brando Sr., an insecticide salesman. His father, of French-Alsatian lineage, had changed his surname from Brandeaux.
When the family moved to Illinois -- to Evanston and then Libertyville -- Dorothy Brando accused her often-absent husband of sabotaging her theatrical career. She turned increasingly to drink, including one night when her son found her naked in a bar. Brando later used that memory to great effect in "Last Tango," an example of his penchant for blurring the personal with his art.
The move to Illinois also propelled young Brando's unruliness in the face of authority, such as pouring hydrosulfate into his high school's blower to create a rotten-egg smell. Other friends noted his insatiable curiosity about nature, his self-taught skill on drums and his love of body-building -- all of which helped define his restless physical charisma.
The elder Brando sent his son to Shattuck Military Academy in Minnesota, where he first began acting at the behest of a drama coach taken with Brando's flair for melodramatics. Brando was expelled shortly before graduation for pranks and a poor academic record.
In 1943, he moved to New York to join his sisters, Frances and Jocelyn, who were involved in the arts scene. He dug ditches, was a department store elevator boy and a factory night watchman. He also became a roommate and friend of actor Wally Cox, the bashful star of "Mr. Peepers" and the voice of cartoon superhero Underdog.
Brando enrolled at the New School for Social Research's dramatic workshop, where his classmates included Harry Belafonte, Shelley Winters and Rod Steiger.
One of his instructors was Adler, who came from a distinguished family of Yiddish actors. One day in class, she asked her students to imitate chickens in a henhouse who just learned they were about to be hit with an atomic bomb. While others flailed about, Brando sat still and pretended to lay an egg.
She was delighted to see one student true to being a chicken -- her motto was, "Don't act. Behave." She became Brando's mentor and he learned from her what many call "method acting."
"What Stella taught her students was how to discover the nature of their own emotional mechanics and therefore those of others," Brando once wrote. "She taught me to be real and not to try to act out an emotion I didn't personally experience during a performance."
In 1944, Brando was hired to play the teenage son Nels in John van Druten's "I Remember Mama." The hit play brought Brando a swath of admirers, including director Elia Kazan.
Kazan persuaded producer Irene Selznick to hire Brando for the Broadway role of Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire." Kazan was said to have helped Brando overcome his fear of not memorizing lines and also taught the young actor to use props to his advantage, a skill he put to use when gently stroking objects (a countertop, a glove, a cat) in later film roles.
"Streetcar" and Brando's performance in it were hailed as landmark theatrical events. Kowalski was a revelation -- one of the angriest, sexiest men ever imagined, who uses his animal appeal to manipulate his wife, Stella's, affections and terrorize his romantically delusional sister-in-law, Blanche DuBois.
Brando once wrote that he was not so much drawing on his own urges to shape Kowalski as drawing from brutish people he knew. "I was the antithesis of Stanley Kowalski," he wrote. "I was sensitive by nature and he was coarse, a man with unerring animal instincts and intuitions."
During the two-year Broadway run, Brando and Jessica Tandy, who played his sister-in-law, did not get along. Tandy was classically trained and reprimanded Brando publicly for mumbling onstage, which left her without the verbal cues she needed. He retaliated with a series of pranks, once sending word to drunken sailors on leave that Tandy was available backstage for sexual favors.
Despite personal differences, the play was a breakthrough in establishing the Brando persona -- a raw and mysterious magnetism that was at once frightful and compelling. Though physically intimidating, he only stood about 5-foot-9 and had soft, soulful facial features such as full lips and long eyelashes.
Hollywood sought him, and he turned down all offers except Stanley Kramer's independent production of "The Men." The film, released at the start of the Korean War, was not a popular success, largely owing to its downbeat topic of crippled war veterans.
The filmed version of "Streetcar" launched him onscreen, but Brando was upset when he lost the Oscar for best actor to Bogart in "The African Queen." Film historians considered Bogart's win "sentimental," and for Brando the loss burnished his dismissive views of the film community.
Two more Oscar-nominated parts, in "Viva Zapata" and "Julius Caesar," earned him further praise for his versatility. A British film reviewer noted: To grasp Brando's range, just imagine John Gielgud, Brando's classically trained "Julius Caesar" co-star, trying to play Stanley Kowalski.
Gielgud invited Brando to join him in stage work, but he said he had no desire to return to the theater. "It's been said I sold out," biographer Patricia Bosworth quoted Brando. "Maybe that's true -- but I knew what I was doing. I've never had any respect for Hollywood. It stands for greed, avarice, phoniness, crassness -- but when you act in a movie, you act for three months and then you can do what you want for the rest of the year."
He won the Oscar for best actor in Kazan's "On the Waterfront," marking an early pinnacle of his career as a conscience-ridden former boxer. Brando delivers to his screen brother (Rod Steiger) the "I coulda been a contender" speech, considered one of the great film moments of all time.
He relied on star power to carry many of his next, critically mixed films. He played Napoleon Bonaparte in "Desiree" (1954), gambler Sky Masterson in the musical "Guys and Dolls" (1955), the Asian interpreter in "The Teahouse of the August Moon" (1956) and a sympathetic Nazi in "The Young Lions" (1958).
Tiring of such commercial fare, he began looking for off-beat projects. He was the wandering musician in "The Fugitive Kind" (1959), an adaptation of Tennessee Williams' play "Orpheus Descending," and the anti-hero in "One-Eyed Jacks."
Stanley Kubrick was originally slated to direct the "One-Eyed Jacks" but he grew increasingly frustrated with Brando's concept for the film and instead went off to direct "Spartacus." The film's budget, originally $2 million, zoomed to $6 million as Brando took over directorial duties and emphasized improvisational acting techniques, even with the extras in the cast. The studio cut the five-hour-long film, angering Brando and triggering one of his eating binges.
After another fiasco with "Mutiny on the Bounty", he spent more time on his social activism and entered his longest commercial slump as an actor with a series of films casting a critical gaze on American society.
He was a diplomat in "The Ugly American" (1963); a sheriff in a town of Southern vipers in "The Chase" (1966); a square politician in "A Countess of Hong Kong" (1967), directed by Charlie Chaplin; and a repressed gay Army officer in "Reflections in a Golden Eye" (1967).
Brando considered his most successful role, by the measure of both acting and social protest, his turn as a British emissary sent to investigate a slave revolt in Gillo Pontecorvo's "Burn!" (1969). Again, it failed with the public.
Dealing with film and marital woes, he was depressed and began another of his increasingly habitual eating binges. He retreated to Tahiti, which he had discovered as a peaceful redoubt while filming "Mutiny." He bought an entire atoll in 1967 for $270,000.
Out of nowhere, author Mario Puzo sent Brando the "Godfather" script, hoping he would play Don Vito Corleone. Brando agreed, seeing the part as a statement about corporate greed. On screen, he emulated the pinched voice of organized-crime figure Frank Costello during a 1950s Senate hearing led by Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) and ate a large dinner with underworld potentates to copy their mannerisms.
He also was inventive on camera, supplying many memorable ad-libs, such as the orange slice he places in his mouth to amuse his screen grandson.
"Godfather" and his next role in "Last Tango in Paris," in which he has a fatal fling with a young Frenchwoman, prompted a massive rethinking of Brando's career. "Last Tango in Paris," which earned an X rating, featured a highly improvisational Brando using many autobiographical details to flesh out his character.
In her New Yorker review, critic Pauline Kael wrote that director Bernardo Bertolucci and Brando "have altered the face of an art form" and called the film revolutionary.
Brando said he made many of his later films for the money -- he reportedly made $3.7 million for 12 days of work on "Superman." But he never seemed anything short of mesmerizing, whether as a cross-dressing hired gun in the western "The Missouri Breaks" (1976) or a mischievous Mafia don in "The Freshman" (1990).
Critic Hal Hinson, writing about "The Freshman" in The Washington Post, said, "Brando is never less than a miraculously magnetic camera subject; just to have him in front of the lens is, in most cases, enough."
He earned his final Oscar nomination, for best supporting actor, as a lawyer in Apartheid South Africa in "A Dry White Season" (1989).
Morbidly obese and depressed after the deaths of family and friends, he spent the last decade more as a symbol of media curiosity than as an actor looking for the next challenge. He largely resigned himself to insubstantial parts in panned films such as "The Island of Dr. Moreau" (1996).
Ever the mischievous performer, he was said to spend his spare time as a ham-radio operator. He used vocal mimicry to talk to the outside word, but always in disguise.
His marriages to actresses Anna Kashfi, Movita Castenada and Tarita Teriipaia ended in divorce.
Survivors include a son from the first marriage, Christian Devi Brando; two children from the second marriage, Miko and Rebecca; and a son from the third marriage, Teihotu.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company