Top Ten Marlon Brando Films
Marlon Brando is the actor who changed everything. As director Martin Scorsese once described, "He is the marker. There's 'before Brando' and 'after Brando'." Marlon brought realism to Hollywood with his naturalistic acting style, forever changing the way film actors approached their craft and helping to popularize "the Method". Even the casual t-shirts, jackets, and jeans he wore onscreen ended up changing the way men would dress for years to come. He was the first real representation of a rebel onscreen and Hollywood was never the same again.
The great playwright, Tennessee Williams, once called Brando "the greatest living actor ever... greater than Olivier" and even the classically-trained Sir Laurence had to agree, stating that "Brando acted with an empathy and an instinctual understanding that not even the greatest technical performers could possibly match." Marlon's influence ripples down the decades from James Dean and Paul Newman to Jack Nicholson and Johnny Depp. Whether best beloved for his work in The Godfather, A Streetcar Named Desire, or countless others, many actors still consider Brando to be one of the greatest actors who ever lived and a high pinnacle to strive for. So, if you're still not familiar with the fascinating Marlon Brando, it's probably time to change that.
FYI: I chose the order of my Marlon Brando top ten by considering each film's importance in Brando’s overall career, the size/importance of his role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Marlon Brando film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
And now, on with the Top Ten:
1. “A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE” (1951) –
The movie that instantly turned Marlon Brando into a cultural icon, A Streetcar Named Desire tells the story of Blanche DuBois (played by an Oscar-winning Vivian Leigh), a Mississippi schoolteacher who, after falling on hard times, travels to New Orleans to stay with her last remaining family member: her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter). Stella is more than happy to help her sister, but her husband, Stanley (Brando), quickly grows irritated by Blanche’s presence in their home. Tactless, ill-mannered, and vulgar, the rough blue-collar Stanley immediately throws the emotionally fragile Blanche completely off-balance. Meanwhile, Blanche’s polite Southern Belle manner and her tendency to “better” the truth rub Stanley the wrong way. With these two people living in such close quarters it seems inevitable that this living situation is going to end very badly. Based on the play by Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire not only features the majority of the original Broadway cast (including Marlon), its director Elia Kazan was, also, the director of the original stage production and Tennessee Williams even adapted the script for the screen, himself. The only major cast member not from the original Broadway cast was Vivian Leigh, who had played Blanche in the London West End production. Although all of the performances in this film are amazing, it’s Brando’s definitive portrayal of Stanley Kowalski that has become legendary. A powerful masculine presence at its most primal, it's a role only someone with the charisma of Brando could play. Dangerous, dirty and sexual, Stanley is the ultimate contradiction: he should be repulsive and yet, somehow, he draws you in. Marlon’s naturalism and raw acting style stands out in the film like a sore thumb, making it easy to understand why his performance made such a huge impact on film history.
2. "THE GODFATHER” (1972) –
Universally considered one of the greatest movies ever made, The Godfather is the gangster film all gangster films stand to be compared to. Giving one of the most iconic performances in film history, Marlon plays the role of Don Vito Corleone, the titular “Godfather” and head of the Corleone crime family. Al Pacino plays Michael, the youngest of the Corleone family, who has so far managed to avoid any involvement in the “family business”. This is partly by his own father’s design, for Vito hopes that Michael will become the legitimate one in the family. But despite his father’s best wishes, how long can Michael live life as a Corleone before his family’s business, naturally, becomes his business? Set in the 1940s and based on Mario Puzo’s epic novel, The Godfather was the first major gangster film told from a gangster’s perspective. Puzo was heavily involved with the film, even co-writing the film’s screenplay with director Francis Ford Coppola. Puzo, actually, wrote the character of Don Vito with Brando in mind, so when the part was offered to Marlon, Puzo included a note with the script that simply stated: “You are the only actor who can play the Godfather”. Clearly, Puzo was right and Brando won his 2nd Best Actor Oscar for the role (the movie, itself, won Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay). To play the role of Vito Corleone, Brando had to have extensive old age makeup applied to hide the fact that he was, actually, only 47 at the time. Marlon wanted Vito to have a “bulldog” look to him so, during filming, he wore a special mouthpiece made by a dentist to sag out his cheeks. Surprisingly, rather than memorize his lines, Brando, actually, read from cue cards for the majority of filming (though, I defy you to guess when and where the cue cards were used).
3. “ON THE WATERFRONT” (1954) –
Reuniting Brando with his Streetcar Named Desire director, Elia Kazan, this gritty film was the one that, finally, earned Marlon his first Oscar for Best Actor after 3 previous nominations. The film stars Brando as Terry Malloy, a longshoreman and former prizefighter who has been working as a low-level lackey for mob-connected union boss, Johnny Friendly. This is in large part due to his brother Charley’s status as Johnny’s right-hand man. Johnny Friendly rules the docks with an iron fist, ensuring that anyone who goes to the police is quickly, and violently, silenced. Unwilling to make waves, Terry has always followed the Friendly regime without complaint, but everything changes when he meets Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint in her film debut), the sister of a man Johnny just had killed. Edie is determined to have justice for her brother and Terry has the information to help. But, in his world, speaking up, also, means signing your own death warrant. Filmed on location in Hoboken, New Jersey, On The Waterfront was inspired by a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Sun articles by Malcolm Johnson (collectively known as “Crime On The Waterfront”). The articles focused on exposing the corruption, extortion, and racketeering prevalent along the waterfronts of Hoboken at the time. Along with Marlon’s Oscar, On The Waterfront ended up winning 8 Academy Awards in total, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Eva Marie Saint. Of course, the real reason to see On The Waterfront is that it features Marlon in one of his most iconic roles, speaking one of the most famous lines of his career: the famed “I coulda been a contender” speech. However, filming that scene proved to be more taxing on Rod Steiger (who played Charley), then could be anticipated. Brando’s mother had passed away shortly before filming began, prompting Marlon to begin seeing an analyst regularly to deal with his grief. In order to ensure that shooting did not conflict with his regular sessions, Marlon had it in his contract that he could only work until 4:00pm. This meant that all of the close-ups of Rod Steiger in the famous scene, actually, ended up being shot after Marlon had left for the day.
4. “APOCALYPSE NOW” (1979) –
An intense and surreal war film with a psychedelic undercurrent, Apocalypse Now is, actually, a modern adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness. Set during the Vietnam War, the film stars Martin Sheen as Captain Benjamin Willard, an officer of the U.S. Army special ops who is given a covert assignment to assassinate rogue Green Beret Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Brando). As Willard travels down the Nung River to Kurtz’s self-made base in Cambodia, he learns more about the mysterious Kurtz by reading his dossier. The more he reads, the more Willard begins to understand and admire this renegade soldier, and the more he questions the psychological toll this war is taking on those that are fighting it. Reuniting Marlon with Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now features an amazing cast, including Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford, and a 14-year-old Laurence Fishburne (billed as Larry Fishburne here). As director, producer, and co-writer, Coppola had a lot riding on this film’s success and although it all worked out in the end, the problems that arose during the making of Apocalypse Now are now infamous. Post-production alone took nearly 3 years to complete, due to the extensive amount of footage that had been shot (almost 200 hours), the last-minute decision to add Willard’s narration, as well as, the time spent developing the movie’s memorable score/soundtrack. Filmed on location in the Philippines, production was severely delayed when multiple sets were completely destroyed by Typhoon Olga. Martin Sheen, also, suffered a near fatal heart attack while on location (a fact that Coppola had to keep quiet in order not to lose financing). Surprisingly, most of the film was shot before the ending had even been fully written, so when Brando showed up underprepared and overweight, Coppola started to panic. However, Brando’s weight gain turned out to be a bit of blessing in disguise, prompting Coppola to dress him all in black and shoot mostly in close-ups or in shadow. This resulted in giving Kurtz the appearance of a shadowy, almost mythic figure. (Be forewarned, this film’s intense finale includes the actual ritualistic slaughter of a water buffalo, which may be disturbing for some viewers.)
5. “VIVA ZAPATA” (1952) –
Inspired by the biography, Zapata The Unconquerable by Edgcomb Pinchon, Viva Zapata tells the life story of famed Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata (played by Marlon). Directed by Elia Kazan, the film’s screenplay was, actually, written by the great novelist, John Steinbeck (author of The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice And Men, etc). In order to give the film an authentic feel, Kazan and producer Darryl F. Zanuck studied various pictures taken during the time of the Mexican Revolution (1909-1919). The pictures taken by photographer Agustin Casasola, in particular, became a major influence on the visual style of the film. Although set in Mexico, Viva Zapata ended up being shot entirely within the United States, with Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico standing in for the Mexican countryside. Anthony Quinn ended up winning an Oscar for his role as Zapata’s brother, Eufemio Zapata, but behind the scenes there existed some friction between Quinn and Marlon. Years later, the two discovered that this animosity had, actually, been subtly encouraged by Elia Kazan in order to enhance their performances. Indeed, Kazan was known for fostering competition between his actors. Granted, he had a slight head start with Marlon and Quinn, anyway. The two already shared a bit of a professional rivalry to begin with: Quinn was, actually, the one who had taken over Marlon’s famous role as Stanley Kowalski on Broadway (and had enjoyed rave reviews for his performance), while the Mexican-born Quinn had secretly hoped to play the role of Zapata, himself, before Marlon was cast instead.
6. “JULIUS CAESAR” (1953) –
Based on the classic play by William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar is the film that, finally, proved Marlon’s acting range to the naysayers, earning him his third consecutive Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. The film centers around the assassination of legendary Roman emperor Julius Caesar and the ensuing retaliation of his protégé, Mark Antony (Marlon), towards the murderers. Brando’s performance as Mark Antony is nothing short of revelatory as he blends Method acting with classical style to brilliant effect. At the time, it seemed ironic to cast an actor known for playing mumbling rebels as the proud and noble Marc Antony, one of Shakespeare’s greatest orators. But Brando quickly proved that not only was he capable of performing Shakespeare, he could even do it well, giving, arguably, one of the greatest performances of Mark Antony ever shown on screen. Although Marlon was new to Shakespeare, many of the other actors in the film had already had experience playing their roles on stage: James Mason as Brutus had previously played the part on the Dublin stage, John Hoyt as Decius Brutus had appeared in the role at the Mercury Theatre in NYC, and John Gielgud as Cassius had played the role at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon. Gielgud, in particular, proved to be an invaluable source of advice for Brando on how to approach Shakespeare. Gielgud, actually, found Marlon to be so dedicated during filming that he even offered to direct him in a stage production of Hamlet (an offer that Brando ultimately ended up turning down). Although Brando got along famously with Gielgud, there was some feuding between him and James Mason. Mason was concerned that Marlon was stealing the picture from him, so he asked director Joseph L. Mankiewicz to shift the film’s focus away from Antony and towards Brutus. Not surprisingly, Brando immediately noticed the change and resented it immensely. According to John Gielgud, it was only “Mankiewicz’s consummate tact” that allowed the filming to continue on relatively smoothly.
7. “GUYS AND DOLLS” (1955) –
Guys and Dolls is unique in Marlon’s career, not only does it represent his one and only appearance in a film musical, it’s, also one of only a handful of times he would appear in a comedy. It’s a refreshing change of pace from Brando’s usual dramatic fare and Marlon has never been more charming than he is in this light-hearted film. Set in 1940s New York City, the film stars Brando as Sky Masterson, a lifelong gambler who always bets big and always wins. So, when Sky's old friend, Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra), challenges him to what sounds like an easy $1000 bet, Sky agrees without hesitation. To win the bet, Sky simply has to convince a girl (of Nathan’s choosing) to come with him on his already pre-planned trip to Havana, Cuba. Sky is confident about his odds of winning until Nathan chooses the head of the Save A Soul Mission, Sergeant Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons), as his potential date. Guys and Dolls is based on the Broadway musical of the same name which, in turn, was based on two short stories by Damon Runyon, The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown and Blood Pressure. The film is written almost entirely in Damon Runyon’s distinctive style of speaking, which features no contractions with a stilted, pseudo formality paired with a clever use of slang. Although not known for musical roles, both Brando and Jean Simmons performed all of their own songs in the film (and even dance a bit too). As Sky, Marlon sings his songs with a gentleness that’s very pleasant to the ear and is all around a charming and steady straight man for the occasionally quirky behavior of the other characters. Behind the scenes, Sinatra harbored some bitterness that Brando had been given the part of Sky instead of him. But, while, certainly, Sinatra would have sung beautiful versions of Sky’s songs (and eventually did on his albums later on), in terms of actual casting, Marlon was much closer to the right “type” to play Sky than Sinatra. Lovable scoundrel Nathan Detroit was much more in Sinatra’s wheelhouse than the more straightforward gangster Sky Masterson. For his part, Marlon enjoyed working on the film immensely, finding the lighter tone a welcome relief from his more intense roles.
8. “MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY” (1962) –
This lush Technicolor remake of the classic 1935 film tells the story of the real-life 1789 mutiny aboard the HMS Bounty, which was led by the ship’s second-in-command, 1st Lieutenant Fletcher Christian (played by Marlon in the film). Just like the original 1935 film, the story was taken, primarily, from the novel, Mutiny On The Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Brando’s performance in this movie is so vastly different from his more iconic portrayals of rebels and thugs that it can be almost jarring when he first appears. An English aristocrat and even a bit of a dandy, Fletcher is the complete antithesis of characters like Stanley Kowalski or Terry Malloy. Mutiny On The Bounty is, particularly, notable for featuring Marlon’s third (and last) wife, Tarita Teri’ipaia in the role of Fletcher’s Tahitian sweetheart, Maimiti. The two met while filming and were married within the year. But, make no mistake, this film had more than its fair share of onset clashes and delays. With most of the blame directed towards Marlon, the highly publicized behind the scenes problems ended up having an extremely negative effect on Marlon’s reputation in Hollywood and he wouldn’t fully regain his star status until a decade later with The Godfather. Although some even blamed the film's inflated budget on Marlon, Mutiny On The Bounty was, actually, an expensive production to begin with. The film's full-size historically accurate replica of the H.M.S. Bounty was the very first sailing ship to ever be built from the ground up for a film. The majority of the filming, actually, took place on the ship while it was at sea. The cast and crew sailed the ship all the way from Nova Scotia to Tahiti by way of the Panama Canal (a much easier route than the one the real Bounty took). After filming, the Bounty replica remained a working ship for years, even appearing in films such as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. It was regularly available for tours in St. Petersburg, Florida up until the devastating Hurricane Sandy sank the ship in 2012. Originally, the plan had been to burn the ship once filming had ended, but that all changed when Brando threatened to leave the film if the ship was destroyed.
9. “THE MEN” (1950) –
The film that marked Marlon Brando’s film debut, The Men offers an in-depth look at the daily struggle faced by veterans recuperating from spinal injuries. Marlon stars as Ken, a former athlete and soldier who has been paralyzed from the waist down after being shot in the back during the war. Unable to cope with his new life as a paraplegic, he pushes away his fiancée, Ellen, and proceeds to wallow in self-pity even while other paraplegic veterans at the hospital appear to be thriving. His doctor, Dr. Brock, hopes that by moving Ken closer to the other paraplegics and by encouraging Ellen to visit more frequently, he can help Ken find a new lease on life. But, can Ken ever truly make peace with his new life? The Men is a movie that doesn’t pull any punches. It is very frank about the reality of being a paraplegic and the effect it has on daily life. In order to make the film as accurate as possible, screenwriter Carl Foreman spent a great deal of time at the Birmingham Army Hospital in Van Nuys, California. Most of the film ended up being shot at the hospital and 45 of the hospital’s patients even agreed to appear in the film as extras and bit players. To prepare for the role of Ken, Marlon, actually, lived at the army hospital for a month, using a wheelchair, undergoing therapy, and spending time with the patients. Even while shooting, Brando remained in his wheelchair on and off the set. This allowed him a comfort-level with his wheelchair onscreen that many able-bodied actors would have trouble replicating. To put it simply, this is a sensitive and moving film that should be required viewing for anyone who’s ever known a wounded veteran or paraplegic.
10. “ONE-EYED JACKS” (1961) –
The first and only film that Brando ever directed, One-Eyed Jacks is loosely based on the novel, The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider. The film features Marlon opposite his On The Waterfront and Streetcar Named Desire co-star, Karl Malden. Together, they star in the film as Rio (Brando) and Dad (Malden), two long-time partners in crime, with Dad serving as mentor to the younger Rio. But when a bank robbery in Mexico goes sour, Rio ends up abandoned and betrayed by his trusted mentor. As a result, Rio is forced to spend five long years in a Mexican prison before he, finally, manages to escape. As soon as Rio is safely back in the U.S., he, immediately, begins tracking down his former partner. He, finally, catches up with him in Monterey, California, where Dad has built a new life for himself as not only a loving family man (with a pretty wife and stepdaughter), but, also, the town’s beloved sheriff. Despite this ironic development, Rio has had plenty of time to brood on Dad’s betrayal and is determined to enact his revenge. However, Rio’s grand revenge scheme is not going to go nearly as smoothly as he plans. At certain points in this film you may even find yourself torn over who to root for (there really aren’t any “white hats” in this Western). And thanks to One-Eyed Jacks’ unusual setting on the California coast, this film features some gorgeous seaside vistas not often seen within the Western genre. Although Sam Peckinpah, Guy Trosper, and Calder Willingham all had a hand in developing the film’s script, Karl Malden claims that Brando was really the one responsible for creating the film’s storyline. An inexperienced director, Marlon ended up shooting way more footage than necessary and went way over schedule with the film taking about two years to complete. It got to the point that Paramount Studios had to take the movie away from Brando in order to finish it up. With nearly five hours of extra footage that wasn’t used, Marlon was never fully happy with the film’s theatrical cut, believing that the characters didn't seem as complex as he would’ve liked them.
HONORABLE MENTION: “LAST TANGO IN PARIS” (1972)
I was a bit torn about what movie to include as my honorable mention this time around. There were plenty of worthy contenders. Do I choose The Wild One? The Freshman? Don Juan Demarco? Sayonara? But, I finally settled on the movie that earned Brando his 7th and last Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Last Tango In Paris is an extremely polarizing film to say the least. It’s a masterpiece to some and glorified pornography to others. However, one thing that is never questioned is the brilliance and bravery of Brando’s performance. He stars as Paul, an American man in Paris who has just recently lost his wife to suicide. Devastated by the sudden loss, Paul seeks to ease his suffering by beginning a purely sexual relationship with a young French woman (Maria Schneider). However, as the affair progresses, their mutual agreement to keep the relationship “anonymous” with personal information never to be exchanged may prove to be too difficult an arrangement for Paul to maintain. Directed and co-written by Bernardo Bertolucci, this existential art film was a French/Italian co-production, meaning that the majority of the movie’s dialogue is spoken in French with the exception of Marlon’s lines. Brando, actually, ended up improvising a large majority of his lines in the film, making him an unofficial co-writer of the film’s English dialogue. Brando stripped himself emotionally bare for the film and later felt embarrassed for participating in the film’s extreme sexual and emotional content. In fact, many of the personal stories Brando’s character, Paul, tells in the film are, actually, real stories from Brando’s childhood. By the time filming ended, both Marlon and Schneider felt manipulated (and even a little violated) by Bertolucci and it would be 15 years before Marlon spoke to the director again. But, despite the actors’ reservations, the film ended up receiving unanimously positive reviews in its home country of France with two-hour wait times outside theaters. (The film opened to greater controversy in the States a few months later). Be forewarned, this is an NC-17 rated film (due to its extreme sexual content). A toned-down R-rated version was, also, released in the 1980s, but it appears to no longer be widely available.
And if you would like to learn more about the legendary Marlon Brando, check out Brando's Smile by Susan L. Mizruchi or Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me co-written by Brando with Robert Lindsey.
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