Marlon Brando

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Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1948

Marlon Brando, Jr. (April 3, 1924July 1, 2004) was an American actor who is widely regarded as the greatest film actor of the twentieth century. He brought the techniques of the Stanislavski System to prominence in the films A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, both directed by Elia Kazan in the early 1950s. His acting style, combined with his public persona as an outsider uninterested in the Hollywood of the early 1950s, had a profound effect on a generation of actors, including James Dean and Paul Newman, and later stars, including Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.



Youth and early acting career

Brando was born in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1935 his parents separated, and his mother moved with her three children to Santa Ana, California. In 1937 his parents reconciled, and the family moved to Libertyville, Illinois, north of Chicago. He was of Dutch, French and Irish stock; the original family name was Brandeau. His mother, a kind and talented woman with a drinking problem, was involved in local theater, and this first interested him in stage acting. Brando was a gifted mimic from early childhood and developed a rare ability to absorb the tics and mannerisms of people he played and to display those traits dramatically while staying in character.

Brando had a tumultuous childhood, in which he was expelled from several schools. His father was largely critical of his son, but encouraged him to seek his own direction. Brando left Illinois for New York City, where he studied at the American Theatre Wing Professional School, New School Dramatic Workshop, and the Actors' Studio. It was at the New School's Dramatic Workshop that he studied with Stella Adler and learned the revolutionary techniques of the Stanislavski System.

Brando used his Stanislavski System skills in summer-stock roles in Sayville, New York. He was expelled from his acting school in Sayville but was discovered in another play there and then made it to Broadway in the bittersweet drama, I Remember Mama, in 1944. Critics voted him "Broadway's Most Promising Actor" for his role as an anguished, paraplegic veteran in Truckline Caf, although the play was a commercial failure. He achieved real stardom, however, as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947, directed by Elia Kazan. Brando sought out that role, driving out to Provincetown, Massachusetts where Williams was spending the summer to audition for the part. Williams recalled that he opened the screen door and knew, instantly, that he had his Stanley Kowalski.

On the screen

Brando's first screen role was the bitter crippled veteran in The Men in 1950. True to his method, Brando spent a month in bed at a veterans' hospital to prepare for the role.

He made a much larger impression the following year when he brought his performance as Stanley Kowalski to the screen in Kazan's adaptation of "Streetcar" in 1951. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for that role, and again in each of the next three years for his roles in Viva Zapata! in 1952, Julius Caesar in 1953 and On the Waterfront in 1954.

Brando finally won the Oscar for his role of Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront. Under Kazan's direction, and with a talented ensemble around him, Brando used his Stanislavski System training and improvisational skills to produce a performance that continues to display new facets on each viewing. Brando claimed that he improvised much of his dialogue with Rod Steiger in the famous, much-quoted scene with him in the back of a taxicab (Kazan disputed this).

Brando followed that triumph by a variety of roles in the 1950s that defied expectations: as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, where he managed to carry off a singing role; as Sakini, a Japanese interpreter for the U.S. Army in postwar Japan in The Teahouse of the August Moon; as an Air Force officer in Sayonara, and a Nazi officer in The Young Lions. While he won an Oscar nomination for his acting in Sayonara, his acting had lost much of its energy and direction by the end of the 1950s.

Brando's star sank even further in the 1960s as he turned in increasingly uninspired performances in Mutiny on the Bounty and several other forgettable films. Though even at this professional low point, Brando still managed to produce a few exceptional films; such as One-Eyed Jacks, a western that would be the only film Brando would ever direct as well as Burn! which Brando would later claim as his personal favourite of his movies. Nonetheless, his career had gone into almost complete eclipse by the end of the decade thanks to his reputation as a difficult star and his record in overbudget or marginal movies.

The Godfather

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Marlon Brando as Don Corleone in The Godfather, from Paramount Pictures via the Canadian Press

His performance as Vito Corleone in The Godfather in 1972 changed this. Brando once again had to beg for a part, forcing a screen test in which he did his own makeup. Francis Ford Coppola was electrified by Brando's characterization as the head of a crime family, but had to fight the studio in order to cast him. Brando was voted the Academy Award for Best Actor for his intelligent performance; once again, he improvised important details that lent more humanity to what could otherwise have been a clichd role.

Brando turned down the Academy Award, the second actor to refuse an Oscar (the first being George C. Scott for Patton.) Brando boycotted the award ceremony, sending Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather (nee Maria Cruz) to state his objections. She was booed as she denounced Hollywood's portrayal of her people. The actor followed with one of his greatest performances in Last Tango in Paris, but it was overshadowed by an uproar over the erotic nature of the Bernardo Bertolucci film. Despite the controversies which attended both the film and the man, the Academy once again nominated Brando for the Best Actor.

Late career

His career afterwards was uneven: in addition to his iconic performance as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now and his intensely personal performance in Last Tango in Paris, Brando has also played Jor-El, Superman's father, in the first Superman movie—a role he agreed to only on condition that he did not have to read the script beforehand and his lines would be displayed somewhere offscreen. Other later performances, such as "The Island of Dr. Moreau", earned him some of his most uncomplimentary reviews of his career. Despite announcing plans to retire—which he made good on for most of the 1980s—he subsequently gave interesting supporting performances in movies such as A Dry White Season (for which he was again nominated for an Oscar in 1989), The Freshman in 1990 and Don Juan DeMarco in 1995.

Off screen

Brando's crusades for civil rights, the American Indian and other causes kept him in the public eye throughout his career. So did his romances and marriages. He married actress Anna Kashfi in 1957, believing her to be East Indian. She was revealed to be Welsh, and they separated a year later.

In 1960 he married a Mexican actress, Maria "Movita" Castaneda, at least 16 years his senior, who had appeared in the first Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935, some 27 years before Brando's own version was released.

A remake of Mutiny on the Bounty in 1962, with Brando as Fletcher Christian, seemed to bolster his reputation as a difficult star. He was blamed for a change in directors and a runaway budget though he disclaimed responsibility for either.

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Brando as Jor-El in the first Superman movie.

The "Bounty" experience affected Brando's life in a profound way: he fell in love with Tahiti and its people. He took a 99-year lease on part of an atoll island, Tetiaroa, which he intended to make part-environmental laboratory and part-resort. Tahitian beauty Tarita Teriipia, who had appeared in the film as Fletcher Christian's love interest, became his third wife after he and Castaneda were divorced. Teriipia became the mother of three of his children (of which one died, see below). The hotel on Tetiaroa was eventually built; it went through many redesigns due to changes demanded by Brando over the years, but is now closed. A new hotel consisting of 30 deluxe villas is due to open in 2008.

All three wives were pregnant when he married them. The number of children he had is still in dispute, although he recognized 11 children in his will; they were:

  • by his marriage to actress Anna Kashfi:
    • Christian (46)
  • by his marriage to actress Movita Castaneda:
    • Miko (43)
  • by his marriage to Tarita Teriipia:
    • Simon Teihotu (41) - the only inhabitant of Tetiaroa
    • Rebecca Brando Kotlinzky (38)
    • Cheyenne (died 1995 at the age of 25)
  • by adoption:
    • Petra Brando-Corval (32), daughter of Brando's assistant Caroline Barrett
  • mother not publicly known:
    • Maimiti (28)
    • Raiatua (23)
  • by his maid Christina Maria Ruiz:
    • Nina Priscilla (15)
    • Myles (12)
    • Timothy (10)

In May 1990, Brando's first son, Christian, shot and killed Dag Drollet, 26, the Tahitian lover of Christian's half-sister Cheyenne, at the family's hilltop home above Beverly Hills. Christian, 31, claimed the shooting was accidental.

After a heavily publicized trial, Christian was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and use of a gun. He was sentenced to 10 years. Before the sentencing, Marlon Brando delivered an hour of rambling testimony in which he said he and his ex-wife had failed Christian. He commented softly to members of the Drollet family: "I'm sorry. ... If I could trade places with Dag, I would. I'm prepared for the consequences."

Afterward, Drollet's father said he thought Marlon Brando was acting and his son was "getting away with murder."

The tragedy was compounded in 1995, when Cheyenne, said to still be depressed over Drollet's death, committed suicide by hanging herself in Tahiti. She was only 25 years old.

Brando's notoriety, his family's troubled lives, his self-exile from Hollywood, and his obesity, unfortunately attracted more attention than his late acting career. He also earned a reputation for being difficult on the set, often unwilling or unable to memorize his lines and less interested in taking direction than in confronting the film director with odd and childish demands. On the other hand, most other actors found him generous, funny and supportive.

On July 1, 2004 Brando died, at age 80. The cause of his death was intentionally withheld, with his lawyer citing privacy concerns. It was later revealed that he died at UCLA Medical Center of lung failure brought on by pulmonary fibrosis. He had also been suffering from congestive heart failure and diabetes, which was causing his eyesight to fail.


External links


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