Great actors are larger than you and me, and Marlon Brando was larger than other great actors. He was the largest of them all, and I'm not talking about the massive weight gain in the last third of his life or even his restless (to put it euphemistically) intellect and multiple pathologies—oral, sexual, and maybe a few we don't know about. I mean that he registered more vividly than anyone else: His acting was both broad—outsized—and finely detailed. No other actor was so hugely "in the moment," and none had a presence so searching. No one could think in character like Brando. Norman Mailer once wrote that every line of Brando's sounded like an imperfect compromise among five different, equally inadequate things he might have said. The critic Steve Vineberg, in his book Method Actors, pinned that insight down in actor language: "He created characters who were forced to settle for the text because they were inadequately equipped to get out the subtext." Think of those feverish struggles to get the words out in On the Waterfront (1954) and Last Tango in Paris (1972): A staple of comedy-club impersonators, these performances still, in their original context, have the power to stun us with their realism.
The announcement of Brando's death at the age of 80 was a shock but not a surprise. The reclusive actor was massively obese and, reportedly, depressed. Over the last decade, he had seen his children come to unhappy ends. His last performance, in The Score (2001), was painful for reasons other than the film's mediocrity. The meeting of two former Method Acting gods—Brando and Robert De Niro—was a nonevent. Brando sounded short of breath, and it was the first time he seemed to exploit his own torpor for pathos.
But we were still alert to him on screen, because we never knew what was coming next. He might toy with the bizarre possibilities in a line even as he threw it away. He might play with a prop (often an edible prop) like a bored child making a halfhearted effort to amuse himself. He might even break through to a real emotion.
That capriciousness was a hallmark of his acting even in his prime. Brando didn't like to rehearse, and not just because he was lazy; he preferred to let things happen. Pauline Kael wrote that in the mid-'40s she came in late to a stage performance of Brando's and thought the young actor was having a seizure on stage; that's how alive he was. Brando didn't study the Method with Lee Strasberg, who resembled a fascist psychoanalyst with his demand that actors recklessly plumb their own emotions. With Stella Adler, Brando learned how to exploit his memories yet keep something in reserve. In his acting, there is something of the higher consciousness that Harold Bloom speaks of in the character of Hamlet—watching himself as he watches others. (It's too bad Brando never played the Great Dane. Even with his contemporary '50s manner, he made a superb Marc Antony.)
In some ways, Brando was miscast in his breakthrough role of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. In the play by Tennessee Williams, he is a brute, an animal, the perfect executioner of the frail and poetic (if delusional) Blanche DuBois. But Brando found the childlike poetry in Stanley, too, so that he won Stella (and Blanche) with his vulnerability as much as his bullying force. He exploded the play's conception—and made it even greater.
The career that followed had its peaks (The Men, On the Waterfront, Viva Zapata!, The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris) and plateaus, but surprisingly few valleys, at least where his acting was concerned. His epicene Englishmen in Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and Burn! (1969) are archly self-amused. At the other extreme, his repressed homosexual officer in Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) is a miraculous mixture of irony and plaintive desire. His Vito Corleone is riveting for the old man's courtly self-containment, which gives him astonishing power. And as the self-annihilating Paul in Last Tango in Paris, Brando dug into himself at the behest of Bernardo Bertolucci and found the rage—against himself and against the women he famously seduced and abandoned—that lies just beneath the surface in so many of his performances.
Brando's Paul was the apex of his acting and arguably the apex of film acting. But it was also the beginning of the end. In his autobiography, written with Robert Lindsay, Brando wrote, "Last Tango in Paris required a lot of emotional arm wrestling with myself, and when it was finished, I decided that I wasn't ever again going to destroy myself emotionally to make a movie. I felt I had violated my innermost self and didn't want to suffer like that anymore."
Francis Ford Coppola had observed Brando on Bertolucci's set and hoped for something that momentous from the actor as Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979). He even hoped that Brando could pull the character out of himself. But as I wrote after the 2001 release of Apocalypse Now Redux:
Focused improvisations on sex and food—both of which Brando knew intimately—are one thing; lofty ruminations on the meaning of Good and Evil are something else. In the outtakes included in [the documentary] Hearts of Darkness, you can see Brando scraping the bottom of his own banality. When Coppola prompts him to improvise on the theme of why humans are the only living things that kill for pleasure, Brando chews on a nut and says: "The human animal is the only one that has bloodlust. … Killing without purpose, killing for pleasure. … [Pause] I swallowed a bug." The improv ends there, which is a pity: "I swallowed a bug" might have led somewhere interesting.
There is probably an essay to be written on Brando's oral fixation: Food is ubiquitous in the last part of his career, onscreen as well as off. His self-indulgence extended to his refusal to memorize lines, demanding they be read by an assistant into a tiny earpiece. He argued, self-servingly, that this made his acting more spontaneous, and once in a while it did: In his comic reprise of Vito Corleone in The Freshman (1990), he made the very elusiveness of his lines part of the melancholy subtext. The Wild One was slowing down.
It was fun to pore over a Playboy interview from the early '70s in which Brando talked with equal enthusiasm about Native American rights, camel saliva, and the habits of dung beetles. What a character. But he was also, by his own admission, a cruel and paranoid man: It was distressing to read about him humiliating his directors and to watch him toy sadistically with Larry King.
Yet that perversity was doubtless a part of his genius. If you can, try to track down a copy of the Maysles brothers' short documentary Meet Marlon Brando. It's a record of a TV junket Brando did for the dull thriller Morituri (1965), in which he gave a rare auto-pilot performance. The directors present Brando being interviewed by one TV reporter after another: As they ask their boilerplate questions, he mischievously undermines them, flirts with them, and psychs them out. They end up looking two-dimensional and befuddled—and small. We surely would have, too, in their place. Brando was larger than everyone. That was his gift and, maybe, his curse.