Culture Re-View: Marlon Brando's top five film performances

Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'
Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in 'A Streetcar Named Desire' Copyright Warners Bros. Pictures
By Jonny Walfisz
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Happy 99th birthday Marlon Brando. We take a look at his best ever screen performances.

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3 April 1924: The original contender, Marlon Brando was born

Happy 99th birthday to Marlon Brando, who was born on this day Nebraska in 1924. The American actor sadly isn’t around to celebrate the occasion, he died in 2004 in Los Angeles. But across his eight decades on the planet, Brando’s influence on cinema and acting has been indelible.

For many, Brando is the quintessential actor. He trained in New York under Stella Adler, an actress and teacher who had been inspired by the Moscow Art Theatre and its director Konstantin Stanislavski, the creator of “Method Acting”.

During the 30s and 40s, most Hollywood acting was beset by stiff stagey characterisation. Adler’s direction pushed Brando to embrace the internal and external dimensions of a character, requiring far more dedication and creating a feeling of authenticity far beyond his peers.

Brando’s method acting is credited as the reason behind some of his most astounding performances. Although many argue that Brando’s later career is defined by phoned-in lazy performances, at his peak, he introduced Hollywood film audiences to a new kind of acting - one that would inspire many of today’s finest actors like Daniel Day-Lewis.

To celebrate Brando’s birthday, here are some of his finest screen roles.

A Streetcar Named Desire

The role that made Brando. In 1947, he originated the role of Stanley Kowalski for the Broadway debut of Tennessee Williams’ most famous play. The brutal character was perfect for the young Brando, who could carry the violent magnetism needed for the role. Streetcar made Williams a household name as one of the finest playwrights of the 20th century. When it came to adapting the play for film in 1951, director Elia Kazan brought back Brando and he earned the first of eight Oscar nominations.

On the Waterfront

After Streetcar, Brando starred in Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar, and The Wild One. All were greatly celebrated for his acting finesse and he collected two more Oscar nominations. But it was 1954’s On the Waterfront, once again directed by Kazan, that delivered Brando his first win.

Playing the ex-fighter Terry Malloy, Brando brought unparalleled humanity to the true-story-inspired tale of union corruption and violence. Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” monologue to his character’s brother is famous to the point of cliché, but watching it back, it’s power is undeniable.

Guys and Dolls

Many of the roles in this list earned Brando nominations from the major film academies. At the time, the 1955 musical Guys and Dolls didn’t bring in that same reception, despite favourable reviews. Brando had secured his placement as one of Hollywood’s most bankable actors, yet his casting as the lead in a musical was still a surprise to many. Playing opposite Frank Sinatra, Guys and Dolls gave audiences a whole new ring in which Brando could hold his own.

The Godfather

So you’ve recited the “contender” monologue and you’ve shouted “Stella” dramatically in the street, but no Brando impersonation is complete without the puffed up cheeked disinterest of Don Vito Corleone. Rightfully considered one of the greatest films of all time, Brando’s performance as the mob boss is unconventional and drips with affectation, yet somehow the tightrope performance is perfect for a study of masculinity and ego in the Italian-American mafia. It defined infinite gangster performances in its wake.

Paramount Pictures
Brando in 'The Godfather'Paramount Pictures

Brando won his second Oscar for his performance but famously turned it down, sending Native American rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather in his place. 

Apocalypse Now

Brando’s second outing with Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola was in his 1979 Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now. One of Brando’s final truly great performances, he plays a rogue colonel lost in the jungle. After multiple hours spent following the soldiers in search of him, only an actor of Brando’s stature could land the entrance of such a built-up narrative figure.

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