/ 3 April 2024

A century of Marlon Brando

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Salvatore Corsitto as Bonasera leans in to Don Vito Corleone, played by Marlon Brando in The Godfather. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Back in 2001, long before Netflix, long before YouTube, the middle classes had DStv. Fifty channels seemed like wild abundance, although there was mostly nothing to watch. But every now and then the celluloid gods breathed their magic into our box televisions, and we were transfixed and then transformed by cinematic genius. 

As a young university student, Apocalypse Now was an encounter with the cinematic sublime. All I knew about the film was that it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starred Marlon Brando, who had been so compelling, and so beautiful in A Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild One and On the Waterfront. And then, of course, there was The Godfather. I had first seen The Godfather at age 12, and then read the novel. I’ve read it every year since.

At 2pm on an ordinary Durban afternoon with the ordinary suburban hum in the background, I began to watch Apocalypse Now. It was an electric aesthetic and political shock, one of the most profound artistic experiences of my life. Brando only appears for 15 minutes in a film that runs for two and half hours but in the early scenes his voice, as compelling as his physicality in his early films, sets the stage for the drama to come.

The overweight and recalcitrant Brando that turned up on set in Manila in 1976 to play Colonel Walter E. Kurtz was very different to the lithe and intense young man that burst into cinema 25 years earlier to play the simultaneously brutish and fragile Stanley Kowalski pursued, like Orestes, by furies in A Streetcar Named Desire

Brando’s depiction of such a rough and harsh character was the perfect complement to the insecure, fragile, and also flawed, character of Blanche DuBois, played by the brilliant Vivian Leigh. Many critics declared it the most perfect film ever made. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards. Brando was nominated for Best Actor but to the eternal shame of the Academy, he did not win the award.

It was very clear, though, that Brando was bigger than the Oscars. His role as Kowalski would have secured his place in the history of cinema, but when, three years later, he played Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, his two great performances had fundamentally changed the nature of acting and cinema. 

His co-star Al-Pacino recalls: “My first introduction to Marlon Brando came when I was just 16 years old. I was alone in a movie theatre sitting through a double feature and the second showing was On the Waterfront. What Marlon brought to that role; his acting was different than anything I had seen before. I was locked. It was a breakthrough and a revelation, and it impacted me deeply.”

Pacino’s recollection of the intensity of his first experience of watching Brando is shared by millions of people across the world. Brando’s genius, expertly coached by Stella Adler, lay in the fact that rather than acting as a character, Brando became the character. All who met him were surprised by his skill of imitation and mimicry. Brando had developed this skill as a young boy growing up, in all places, in Omaha, Nebraska. 

Born on  3 April 1924 to Brando Sr. a travelling salesperson and aspiring actor Dorothy Pennebaker, with two older sisters, and largely absent parents, the young Brando was left to his own devices and sought solace in animals, as he recalled in his biography Songs My Mother Taught Me. His mother’s disappointment in her lack of success led her to seek solace in alcohol, rendering her an absent mother and at the same time cast her son into the role of her carer. 

Brando later recalled: “My mother was an alcoholic. We lived in a small town and my mother was a town drunk. She began to dissolve and fray at the ends… I used to have to go get her out of jail.” 

As a boy, young Brando would often try to coax her out of her drunken stupor by mimicking various animals and people to entertain her. The development of his remarkable abilities as a mimic became the foundation for his prodigious power as an actor. 

It was not only his acting skills that Brando carried from his childhood into his adult life. The empathy with which he played his characters was not limited to the screen. His childhood neglect and his mother’s death when he was 11, scarred him with deep abandonment issues and this pain gave him a deep sympathy for the underdog and the oppressed.

In his estimation, his political work off-screen, his solidarity with the oppressed, was of more value and gave more meaning to his life than his acting.  In sharp distinction to rock band U2’s leader Bono, whose self-righteous pursuit of celebrity sainthood while glad-handing war criminals like George W Bush and Tony Blair became ever more smarmy, Brando joined fights for justice that were often deeply unpopular with powerful people and forces. 

In 1968 at the memorial for the Black Panther Bobby Hutton, who was assassinated by the Oakland police, a sombre Brando addressed a crowd of more than 2,000 people saying: “It’s up to the individual to do something to force the government to give the black man a decent place to live, a decent place to bring his children up in … and I’m gonna start right now to inform white people about what they don’t know. The Reverend said the white man can’t cool it because he’s never dug it. And I’m here to try to dig it because I myself as a white man, I have got a long way to go and a lot to learn.”

Today the work by the Black Panther Party to liberate African Americans, and to support other struggles in the US and around the world, such as the Palestinian struggle, has been in many ways made safe by being reduced to an aesthetic and incorporated into the silliness of contemporary corporate friendly identity politics. In 1968 the Panthers were being assassinated, many of their leaders were routinely on America’s most wanted list and association with them rendered a person very unpopular. It was not a good career move.

But Brando was never one to court popularity or to play the games required to “make it”.

In 1973, rather than accepting his Oscar for The Godfather, he chose to use his platform to bring attention to the standoff at Wounded Knee and highlight the oppression faced by Native Americans — and to protest Hollywood’s racist portrayal of Native Americans. 

This honourable act by Brando was loudly denounced by right-wing Neanderthals like Clint Eastwood and Charlton Heston. Many were reminded of this when Jonathan Glazer faced a similar backlash after he took a principled stance against the horrific genocide being met out against the people of Gaza at the latest Oscars. 

Real political commitment means not being popular. It means standing in harm’s way. It means angering and taking on powerful people. It is a world away from the silliness of the “social entrepreneur” making it big on Instagram and winning donor support. Brando continued to use his fame and his money to support just causes, including radical projects like the Panthers. He built friendships with activists and intellectuals, including the great writer James Baldwin, to better understand oppression and to be better able to resist it. 

Brando was also a deeply flawed person in many ways.  He had an exceptionally complex private life and was a womaniser, hyper-sexed, a diva and then a recluse. He had been abandoned as a child and went on to abandon others. He was not a great father. Instead of dealing with his abandonment issues, he developed a serious eating disorder. He was addicted to food in the same way that his mother was addicted to alcohol. Although he was not able to resolve these issues, he was wholly open about his flaws and challenges.  

But he was also a cinematic genius who excelled and innovated in his craft like no other before him or since. He was deeply committed to the cause of the oppressed and committed with sincerity and without artifice. He was damaged and he damaged others, but he was also fearless on screen and off. We have not seen his like again.

Dr Vashna Jagarnath is a historian and labour activist