Marlon Brando’s death at the age of 80 will begin a battle over how the “greatest actor of all time” will be remembered. Some will focus on his latter day isolation, his bizarre behavior, and the many personal tragedies that befell his family.
Others will focus exclusively on his iconic status, and when it comes to Brando performances, icons abound. There was the 1950s motorcycle rebel from “The Wild One” (1954), or the brutal Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) or Terry “I Coulda Been a Contender” Malloy in “On the Waterfront” (1954). or his performance as Vito Corleone in “The Godfather.”
Then there is Brando’s influence on acting itself. In a Hollywood built around “movie stars” Brando was at the vanguard of a new generation of performers in the aftermath of World War II schooled in Stanislavsky’s “Method” acting style. Taught by Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio in New York, The Method was a rejection of the Spencer Tracy approach to drama of “Just memorize your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.” Emotional honesty and “becoming” your character were the hallmarks of this style It was an attempt to use art to break out of what was seen as a stultifying and frustration gray haze of early 1950s America. Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Laurence Fishburne, Sean Penn, and countless others count Brando as their primary influence.
But the Brando I want to remember, especially now, is the actor who pulled back in the 1960s to focus on supporting the Civil Rights Movement and the broader struggles against war and oppression. In 1959, he was a founding member of the Hollywood chapter of SANE, an anti-nuclear arms group formed alongside African-American performers Harry Belafonte and Ossie Davis.
In 1963, Brando marched arm in arm with James Baldwin at the March on Washington. He, along with Paul Newman, went down South with the freedom riders to desegregate inter-State bus lines. In defiance of state law, Native Americans protested the denial of treaty rights by fishing the Puyallup River on March 2, 1964. Inspired by the civil rights movement sit-ins, Brando, Episcopal clergyman John Yaryan from San Francisco, and Puyallup tribal leader Bob Satiacum caught salmon in the Puyallup without state permits. The action was called a fish-in and resulted in Brando’s arrest.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Brando announced that he was bowing out of the lead role of a major film and would now devote himself to the civil rights movement. Brando said “If the vacuum formed by Dr. King’s death isn’t filled with concern and understanding and a measure of love, then I think we all are really going to be lost….”
He gave money and spoke out in defense of the Black Panthers and counted Bobby Seale as a close friend and attended the memorial for slain prison leader George Jackson. Southern theater chains boycotted his films, and Hollywood created what became known as the ‘Brando Black List’ that shut him out of many big time roles.
After making a comeback in Godfather, Brando won his second Oscar. Instead of accepted what he called “a door prize,” he sent up Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse befuddled presenter Roger Moore and issue a scathing speech about the Federal Government’s treatment of Native Americans.
Even in the past several years, he has lent his name and bank account to those fighting the US war and occupation in Iraq.
So how do we remember Brando? He was a celebrity, an artist, an activist, and at the end an isolated and destroyed old man.
It is tragic that we live in a world where most people’s talents never get to see the light of day. It is equally tragic that those like Brando who actually get the opportunity to spread their creative wings, can be consumed and yanked apart in process. Yet whether Brando was on the top of Hollywood or alone and embittered, he never forgot what side he was on.