In the traditional theatre it was still the age of Olivier, Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Emlyn Williams — all of whom had become popular enough in films too. Olivier had a rough ride in Hollywood, first on contract there to RKO from 1930. Appearing as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939) and by his own admission thinking he was pretty hot stuff in the role, he was unceremoniously humbled by director William Wyler, who wasn’t having any of it and told Larry to “cut the bullshit” in his flowery acting if he wanted to be taken seriously in American films. Later generations of English Shakespearians acknowledged for their brilliance on the stage — Richard Burton, Paul Scofield, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Hopkins, Nicol Williamson, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson — with two exceptions had to be satisfied with passing notoriety on the screen. And their American counterparts too, the Lunts, Helen Hayes, the Cronyns, Lee J Cobb, Maurice Evans, did measurably less well in screen popularity than the earlier generation of Barrymores. The Fifties was a transitional period in dominating acting styles, during which theatrical flair, modified, finally found an outlet on the screen.
Brando had been a sensational star from age 23 when in 1947 he hit the Broadway stage playing Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, which would emerge as his second movie four years later. But he was a different kind of star from all others, with the possible exception of Marilyn Monroe, in that he wanted each role to be radically different from the last. Boredom with his craft was always threatening to whisk him off elsewhere, maybe to the South Seas, where he found his two wives. The two stars resembled each other in their restless selectivity, and in that their chosen acting teacher in New York City, Lee Strasberg of The Actors Studio, and film director Elia Kazan of Streetcar, nominated them as the two most talented actors they had ever come across. (Brando’s first acting teacher had been Mrs Fonda, Henry’s mother, back in Omaha.) Incidentally, Marlon can be paired with Elvis too, as having possibly the geekiest names in show business, no little barrier to live down for male sex symbols.The details of Brando’s consistently courageous choice of roles over his 13-year storming of the big screen follow. So far as I can recall: Averaging one entry a year, in his first 14 movies Brando played: an alienated paraplegic soldier, eventually rehabilitated to reunite with his wife (Teresa Wright) in The Men; a working-class brute who brutalises cultivated fantasist Vivien Leigh (Streetcar), with Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, directed by Kazan; the Mexican revolutionary in Viva Zapata; Caesar’s protege Marc Antony; a gang leader (The Wild One); Napoleon Bonaparte (Desiree, co-starring Jean Simmons in the title role); a pug longshoreman and failed boxer Terry Molloy with Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger and Lee J Cobb (On The Waterfront); a song-and-dance entrepreneur with Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons and Vivian Blaine (Guys and Dolls); a Japanese servant (Teahouse of the August Moon), with Glenn Ford and Paul Ford; a racist Southern officer in occupied Japan (Sayonara) who romances Miiko Taka, and mourns over doomed couple Myoshi Umeki and Red Buttons; a German army officer (The Young Lions) with Monty Clift arguably outdoing him in invention, and Dean Martin; a drifting beat musician arousing the much older but still sexy Anna Magnani in The Fugitive Kind; a cowboy brutalised by mentor figure Karl Malden (One-Eyed Jacks); and Fletcher Christian winning the mutiny over Trevor Howard’s Bligh and introducing Richard Harris (Mutiny on the Bounty). All his portrayals were convincing and some revelatory, demonstrating unparalleled versatility. That was the end of his big hits for ten years and the phenomena of The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris. By the early Sixties, far from being hailed by the public for his innovative genius — dividing actors forever into pre-Brando and post-Brando eras, as he did — he was nailed down as a mumbling Stanley/Terry stereotype by those who thought playing working class characters was demeaning to “The Thespian Art”. After that, having directed Jacks and Mutiny released 1961 and ’62, he is said to have lost interest. And why not? He’d covered it all. Like others — Robert Mitchum, to name one — who disdained the term “star”, he kept his chosen craft of acting in miniaturising perspective. Though still held aloft unconditionally as the hero by young actors and in mid-decade producing A-list notables The Chase with Jane Fonda, A Countess From Hong Kong with Sophia Loren and Reflections in a Golden Eye with Elizabeth Taylor, Brando’s prime image of rebel was carried by toned-down Paul Newman and Steve McQueen at the box-office. Beginning 1962 there was also “The British Invasion” on screen to contend with, headed by Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia), Albert Finney (Tom Jones), Sean Connery as James Bond, Julie Christie (Darling) and Julie Andrews as sugar-and-spice-all-things-nice personified. With the solid core of Hollywood liberals — Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee, Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, the young Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier — Brando led protest marches through the Civil Rights era of the Sixties. And further, he stuck his neck out in the cause of Native Americans.