I have been watching Marlon Brando movies as far back as I can remember. Long before I knew an inkling about the craft of acting I was deeply affected by his remarkable performances. My father, a huge Brando fan, had seen him in “Streetcar” on Broadway and spoke of the stellar performance he had witnessed. Actor William Redfield saw him play Stanley on stage 17 times. The nuances he brought to the role have been the subject of conversations to this day.
“On The Waterfront” was another of my father’s favorites and hearing him talk about it made me eager to see it on the big screen. When I found out that a neighborhood theatre was playing a double bill and “Waterfront” was featured, I rushed over to see it. For a little over an hour I sat in the darkened theatre spellbound, my eyes glued to the screen. There was something all too human about the way he portrayed “Terry Malloy”. It didn’t seem like he was acting at all. In fact he reminded me of some of the “characters I came across in my neighborhood. He wasn’t acting at all. He was a flesh and blood human being interacting with the other actors in the film.
What was it about this actor that made him so compelling to watch? What made him different than other actors I had seen? To be sure he had worked alongside other fine actors throughout his career: Karl Malden, Anthony Quinn, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Sir John Gielgud, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Maximilian Schell, to name a few. But there was something about Brando that made him stand out, commanded you to watch his every move.
Over the years I have watched his movies many, many times and each and every time I marvel at his sense of truth, intensity, vulnerability, and the bold and powerful choices he made so effortlessly.
To date I have read several biographies on Brando. All of them recall the difficulties that he faced as a young Nebraskan boy growing up in a home with two alcoholic parents. By all accounts as a young boy he possessed the uncanny ability to mimic to a tee anyone he observed. His ear for dialects was akin to that of a musician with perfect pitch. He used his gifts to entertain, frighten, induce laughter. On one occasion he scared his mother and sisters half to death feigning an epileptic seizure.
Many of these biographies left me puzzling over the actor and his craft. I knew that he studied with Stella Adler, took classes at the New School, and became an “overnight” sensation in “A Streetcar Named Desire” playing “Stanley Kowalski”, thereby revolutionizing acting and influencing generations of aspiring young actors (James Dean among them). But what about his technique? His preparation? What tools did he have at his disposal that enabled him to deliver, on a consistent basis, such remarkable performances? Brando himself rarely if ever spoke about his process. Much of what I have read suggests that he did not have an affinity for acting. For him it was a means to an end. Something he did because it offered him the opportunity to experience the world in a way that he otherwise couldn’t. According to one account he would become angry and refuse to speak to you if you dared to bring up the subject of acting.
Many have suggested that his immense talent may have been to blame for his lack of interest.
Elia Kazan, his favorite director, wanted him to play the lead in his 1969 film “The Arrangement, which he wrote and directed. But Brando’s “loss of enthusiasm” for acting concerned Kazan to such an extent that he turned to Kirk Douglas to replace him.
The accounts of Brando’s “lack of enthusiasm” have been documented in every book I have read. But now there is a new book written by Susan Mizruchi, entitled “Brando’s Smile”, that sheds new light on his process and almost obsessive attention to detail. There is no question that Brando’s talent was immense. There is also no doubt that Stella Adler and Elia Kazan helped him to make the most of that talent. Brando combined talent, technical skill, and a vivid imagination to create some of the most memorable performances in the history of American cinema. Unfortunately, for legal reasons, I am not at liberty to disclose any of the details of Ms. Mizruchi’s fascinating account of the Marlon Brando that has been a mystery to those interested in his process. And although I am an acting teacher, not a reviewer of books, I highly recommend, to those of you that are eager to get a new perspective on this complicated man that you buy a copy poste haste. It is not only totally absorbing but it will provide the reader with an opportunity to learn a great deal about the time, effort and level of commitment that is the foundation of so many of his greatest performances.