Quite instructively, something that should have happened didn't happen in the nation's capital over the past few days. None of our nation's leaders -- of any political tendency, so far as I could see -- paid any notice to Marlon Brando's death, or life.

And, at first glance, of course they didn't. Wasn't there something too weird and threatening about the guy, things too bohemian, unresolved and even absurd about his life? What kind of national icon was Marlon Brando anyway?

And yet, he was surely the great American actor of the 20th century, in a nation where movies have played a central role in defining us to ourselves and others. The British knighted John Gielgud and put Laurence Olivier into the House of Lords for taking their theater to new heights, but neither Sir John nor Lord Larry transformed acting -- indeed, our whole dramatic representation of reality -- as Brando did, nor did they achieve anywhere near his iconic status. They did not change their country as Brando changed ours.

That he changed our acting is clear enough. Feodor Dostoevsky once wrote that all subsequent Russian literature came out of Nikolai Gogol's "Overcoat," and in the same spirit, the careers of Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, George C. Scott, Warren Beatty, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Sean Penn and countless lesser lights came out of Brando's Stanley Kowalski and Terry Malloy.

But Brando's effect was never confined to the realm of dramatic representation. By virtue of the roles he played and the figure he cut in the first half of the '50s, he became an icon of the social rebellion of that decade -- hipster, beat, at times delinquent, at all times sexual -- that evolved into something much bigger and more political in the '60s and has been part of our national DNA ever since (however much other strains in our national DNA fiercely oppose it). The onscreen biker who, when asked what he was rebelling against, answered "Whattaya got?" was also the off-screen star who rebelled against stardom and the studio system, who shunned premieres, didn't dress up, and dared to do what half of Hollywood had always wanted to do but lacked the guts: blow off Hedda and Louella. A system that had at its apex Louis B. Mayer, Brando was saying, was somebody's idea of a joke, and damned if he'd take it seriously.

The hipsters got it, and so did younger intellectuals. "For the first time in American history we have a widespread nihilistic movement, so nihilistic it doesn't even have a program," wrote Pauline Kael in 1955, "and, ironically, its only leader is a movie star: Marlon Brando." Social critics battling not for nihilism but against an age of conformity, from C. Wright Mills to those who later turned neo-con (Norman Podhoretz, come on down!), joined in spirit with Brando's biker band. Like Elvis, Brando touched a vast young audience; unlike Elvis, he understood how deeply iconoclastic these new, rebellious icons -- surely, his own -- really were.

Brando's icon had legs. You can see it in the young Bob Dylan, in Bruce Springsteen, even in Eminem -- young men whose quest for authenticity is defined against old social mores. Brando added sexual menace and working-class violence, a touch of the outlaw, to the instinctual social criticism of Huck Finn, and young American males -- and females -- have never gotten over it (even the most establishment among them, or haven't you seen John Kerry on his Harley?). When the generation of Vietnam War protesters broadened their critique to the whole damn society, they were building, though not consciously and by no means exclusively, on Brando.

James Dean joined Brando in shaping this icon; but Dean died just as he was starting out, ever a rebel without a cause. Brando went on, eventually to depict in Don Corleone the most seductive, cunning and deadly patriarch in our national canon. In a sense, "The Godfather" is '50s Brando stood on its head -- a film about the catastrophic failure to escape the confines of family, neighborhood, business and the whole traditional authority against which the '50s hipsters had raged. Either challenging authority or depicting its rot, Brando remains beyond the pale of official canonization.

America has a long line of artists with whom officialdom has never felt comfortable, of course -- from Theodore Dreiser to Allen Ginsberg, from vaudevillians to rappers -- but it was Brando who brought rage and rebellion, however unfocused, to the center of the culture. States don't honor rage and rebellion, and states that engender rage, as America has under George W. Bush, apparently don't honor the representation of rage, either. That Brando's death went unmarked by power is a testament not to his failings but to his success; not to his failings but to ours.

meyersonh@washpost.com