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Marlon Brando 101: Your Guide to the Great Actor’s Most Pivotal Roles

Forget best or most essential: Here are the movies and appearances that define the two-time Oscar-winner’s brilliant, troubled career, from ‘On the Waterfront’ to his controversial no-show at the Academy Awards

“A sensitive person receives 50 impressions where somebody else may only get seven. Sensitive people are so vulnerable; the more sensitive you are, the more certain you are to be brutalized, develop scabs. Never evolve. Never allow yourself to feel anything, because you always feel too much.”

It was 1957, and that was how Marlon Brando described himself to Truman Capote in a New Yorker profile, which laid bare the confusion and insecurity rolling around in the great actor’s head. Although he’s now known for a series of celebrated, zeitgeist-y performances full of intensity and wounded machismo, what helped make Brando a legend was that sensitivity — the sense that his characters could explode in fury or grief at any moment. They felt too much, and they made sure you understood how deeply they felt.

Brando, who died in 2004 at the age of 80, was such an icon of 1950s masculinity and rebelliousness that he risks being simplified as a mumbling, bellowing avatar — the Greatest Actor of His Generation. Likewise, during his fall from grace, when he put on weight and seemed increasingly less interested in pursuing his craft, Brando devolved into an easy punch line — a pitiful symbol of early potential wasted on laziness and self-regard. If neither distorted image of Brando is entirely accurate, they both suggest the perils of putting all of yourself onto the screen. Such candor and bravery would naturally cause someone to eventually withdraw with a similar degree of passion and commitment.

Perhaps you’ve always wanted to do a deep dive into the man’s body of work — but where would you start? Rather than highlighting Brando’s best or most essential films, I decided to pick 10 that I felt were the most representative of what he achieved and what his artistry stood for. In a way, this Brando 101 tells the story of his fabled, imperfect career from rising star to celebrated icon to cautionary tale to comeback kid. I even made room for a defining moment in which he didn’t appear but that he orchestrated — and on Hollywood’s biggest stage.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) 

Stanley, the loutish husband who beats his wife and probably rapes her sister, was a part Brando had originated on stage. Reuniting with writer Tennessee Williams and director Elia Kazan for the film, the actor gave his first major movie performance, depicting a boor whose boiling rage seems ready to consume all those around him. The culture has gone on to endlessly parody A Streetcar Named Desire — both The Simpsons and Seinfeld had pretty funny riffs on Brando’s desperate cry of “Stella!!!” — but what seems melodramatic now was, in the early 1950s, a bold new form of acting that tried to channel a character’s demons through raw, intense emotions. (Known as method acting, the technique emphasizes a straightforward, unbridled expression of feeling.) Brando made this pathetic wretch somehow sexy — a coiled snake who elicited our sympathy, even if he might be a monster.

On the Waterfront (1954)

Brando earned his first of two Oscars for his role as Terry, a washed-up boxer who works on the docks with his brother Charley (Rod Steiger), eventually running afoul of crooked union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). If there’s one film that encapsulates all of Brando’s talents and the power of his persona, it’s On the Waterfront: The depth of his torment, the fire of his presence and the ruggedness of his sex appeal are all on display. (Terry falls in love with Eva Marie Saint’s Edie, whose brother is killed by Friendly.) 

A movie about standing up for what’s right — or, to be less charitable, a way for director Elia Kazan to justify that he named names during the Hollywood communist witch-hunts of the 1950s — this Best Picture winner is the kind of towering, bare-knuckle drama you just don’t see much of anymore. Brando wasn’t too impressed with the accolades he received for the film, though. “I don’t know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront,” he wrote in his memoir Songs My Mother Taught Me. “Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared.” 

One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

If things had worked out differently, Stanley Kubrick and Brando would have made a movie together. In the late 1950s, the actor tapped the director, who had just enjoyed his biggest critical success with 1957’s Paths of Glory, to make a Western based on the novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones. But Kubrick eventually left the project, later saying, “It had just become obvious to me that Brando wanted to direct the movie. I was just sort of playing wingman for Brando, to see that nobody shot him down.”

What would become One-Eyed Jacks — a revenge tale in which Brando’s Rio falls in love with the stepdaughter of the man who betrayed him — was the only film the actor ever directed. Not surprisingly, it’s a moody, intense, slow-burn drama — in some ways, One-Eyed Jacks serves as a precursor to the revisionist Westerns that would soon be in vogue. The movie didn’t get great reviews at the time, but it was one of Brando’s favorite projects. Not that he was fully confident behind the camera. “Some scenes I shot over and over again from different angles with different dialogue and action because I didn’t know what I was doing,” he admitted in his memoir. “I was making things up by the moment, not sure where the story was going.” 

Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) 

Before President Trump evoked Mutiny on the Bounty in a dumb recent tweet — in which the president favorably compared himself to Captain Bligh, the story’s bad guy — it’s probable that few had thought of the legendary adaptation that had starred Brando and was a commercial bomb. His Mutiny on the Bounty — not even the first big-screen version of the novel — set the stage for Brando’s woeful 1960s, which was filled with cinematic misfires.

Brando played Christian, the noble first officer who must help bring down the tyrannical Bligh (Trevor Howard). Mutiny was in the works for about three years — a massive amount of time for that period — and all the signs of a disaster were looming. “The budget had soared to nearly $20 million, a huge sum in those days,” The New York Times later noted. “And its star, Mr. Brando, had also ballooned, from 170 to 210 pounds, the first occurrence of a problem that would plague him for the rest of his life. Nearly everyone blamed Mr. Brando for the film’s trouble. … It would be a long time before a Hollywood studio would again star him in an expensive production.” 

Some of this could have been forgiven if Brando had been exceptional in the role, but that’s not the case. The formerly brilliant actor looked lost and disinterested — and would for years afterward.

The Godfather (1972)

Not yet 48 when The Godfather hit theaters, Brando was trending downward when he signed on to play the don of a crime family in newcomer Francis Ford Coppola’s drama. (Brando had become such a Hollywood pariah because of his notorious bad behavior on sets that Coppola once recalled, “I was told by the president [of the studio], ‘Brando will not appear in this picture, and I prohibit you from bringing up his name again.’”) So this American classic represented a comeback, providing him with the opportunity to play an aging figure whose time on the throne will soon be ending.

Vito Corleone was a perfect fit for Brando’s mumbling animal magnetism, and he kept the character distant and mysterious, in the process forging the culture’s image of a mob boss for generations to come. Once at the forefront of his craft, Brando was now ceding the spotlight to a new generation of actors who’d grown up idolizing him, like Al Pacino and James Caan. The Godfather proved to be a memorable passing of the torch.

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Nearly 50 years since its premiere, Bernardo Bertolucci’s sexually explicit drama is still a turbulent viewing experience — a depiction of a love affair that’s troubled and desperate, played by two actors who seem spiritually naked on screen. Maria Schneider was Jeanne, a young French woman who begins a compulsive sexual relationship with an older American man, Paul (Brando), whose wife has committed suicide. Last Tango in Paris remains controversial — specifically, for Bertolucci’s treatment of the film’s rape scene — but Brando is incredible as a widower drowning his sorrow in sex.

“[Bertolucci] wanted me to play myself,” Brando later wrote in Songs My Mother Taught Me, “to improvise completely and portray Paul as if he were an autobiographical mirror of me.” Drawing on his own memories of his difficult childhood — and a father he loathed — Brando seems to exorcise those demons in Last Tango in Paris. But the experience changed him. In his memoir, he confesses, “Last Tango in Paris left me feeling depleted and exhausted, perhaps in part because I’d done what Bernardo asked and some of the pain I was experiencing was my very own. Thereafter I decided to make my living in a way that was less devastating emotionally.”

The 45th Academy Awards (1973)

Speaking of The Godfather, the film won several Oscars at the following year’s Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor. But Brando didn’t attend the ceremony, asking Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to appear in his place. Two years after George C. Scott famously refused to appear at the Oscars when he was nominated for (and won) Best Actor for Patton, Littlefeather politely but firmly declined the award on Brando’s behalf.

“He has asked me to tell you in a very long speech, which I cannot share with you presently because of time but I will be glad to share with the press afterwards, that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award,” she told the shocked crowd, some of whom soon started booing. “And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry … and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”

Littlefeather’s appearance remains one of the most memorable, and divisive, Oscar moments of all time — and one that the politically outspoken Brando never regretted. “Since the American Indian hasn’t been able to have his voice heard anywhere in the history of the United States, I thought it was a marvelous opportunity to voice his opinion to 85 million people,” he said later. “I felt that he had a right to, in view of what Hollywood has done to him.”

Apocalypse Now (1979)

If you’ve seen Hearts of Darkness, the documentary on the making of this sprawling Vietnam War film, you already know what a nightmare Brando was during his time on set, including the fact that he hadn’t bothered learning his lines. Apocalypse Now represents a period in which Brando was after big paychecks — he played the Man of Steel’s wise father in 1978’s Superman — and let his indulgences run free. (“If a studio offered to pay me as much to sweep the floor as it did to act, I’d sweep the floor,” he once claimed. “There isn’t anything that pays you as well as acting while you decide what the hell you’re going to do with yourself.”)

And yet, his performance as Kurtz — a U.S. officer who’s gone rogue and is being hunted down by Martin Sheen’s Willard — wouldn’t be as powerful if it wasn’t so flamboyant. Much of Apocalypse Now involves us traveling down the river with Willard, wondering what’s in store when we get to our final destination. Kurtz has been built up to be a larger-than-life character — a brilliant tactician who’s gone mad — and Brando delivers and then some. It’s not his best acting, but it’s some of his most acting.

The Freshman (1990)

Because Brando is so associated with searing portrayals, I wanted to include at least one comedy to demonstrate his range. This very likeable Andrew Bergman movie, about a film student (Matthew Broderick) who gets in over his head when he befriends a crime boss (Brando), wasn’t written specifically with the actor in mind. But because he took on the role, a wonderful serendipity occurred: Almost 20 years later, Brando got to be Vito Corleone one more time. 

As costar Frank Whaley once put it, “I think it took a lot of balls for Brando to do that, to take that iconic character and spin it around like that. … Those types of parodies are sort of commonplace now, but in that time frame, it was really kind of unique that he would do that. That he would take something as sacred as Don Corleone and do a parody of it. … It was very funny, but the thing about Brando is, the reason it is so effective in the film, is because he doesn’t make a parody of it, he kind of just does Don Corleone.”

Before The Freshman’s release, Brando badmouthed the movie. “It’s horrible,” he said. “It’s going to be a flop, but after this, I’m retiring. I’m so fed up. … I wish I hadn’t finished with a stinker.” How incorrect he was is only matched by how charming he is in the film. His character wasn’t the actual Vito Corleone, but the story’s conceit that the Godfather character was based on him allowed Brando to show an understated comic grace he rarely permitted on screen. After this would come some true stinkers — avoid the atrocious The Island of Dr. Moreau at all costs — but The Freshman was a gem during a fallow period.

Listen to Me Marlon (2015)

This innovative documentary pairs rare archival footage with audio clips that encompass everything from press interviews to private therapy sessions. In the process, Listen to Me Marlon seeks to re-create Brando’s inner life — giving us insights, for instance, into the disaster that was Mutiny on the Bounty. Although not quite a memoir, filmmaker Stevan Riley’s intimate collage is both a reminder of Brando’s volcanic early greatness and a cautionary tale about how he lost his way.

Listen to Me Marlon probably isn’t the best way for a Brando neophyte to understand what made him such an important figure in 20th century acting. (You won’t learn a lot of biographical information.) But as a way to appreciate the anguish and soul-searching that fueled his craft, this film reveals as much about him as any of his performances.