Sunday, July 4, 2004

Brando's 'method' acting set Hollywood standard

By Jack Garner
Gannett News Service

Marlon Brando played Terry Malloy in 1954's On The Waterfront.
The Associated Press
When Marlon Brando, who died at 80 on Thursday, burst upon America in the early '50s in The Men, A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, he revolutionized the concept of acting, bringing the moody, visceral "method" style to the fore. Although early critics complained that he seemed to be mumbling, audiences found an explosive reality unlike anything they'd seen before.

His performances paved the way for modern screen actors, from such contemporaries as James Dean and Montgomery Clift to such later stars as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Johnny Depp.

Difficult and self-possessed, Brando was never bland on screen. Even his most infamous failures - like the flamboyant title character in The Island of Dr. Moreau, or the gunslinger in drag in The Missouri Breaks - were the results of extremely daring choices.

One of the many ideas that worked was Don Corleone playing with orange slices in the mouth just before his death.

He never settled for the conventional, on the screen or in life. Both were peppered with eccentricities that became Brando lore:

• As a young actor in Hollywood, he often infuriated studio suits by wearing blue jeans to functions and by sitting in his own haze in a corner, banging on bongos.

• After falling hard for Tahitian culture and women during the filming of 1962's Mutiny on the Bounty, he bought a South Pacific island, which later became a financial burden.

• He seemed to have little control over his weight, often eating half-gallons of pistachio ice cream at a sitting. When he showed up for his key role in Apocalypse Now, director Francis Ford Coppola had to hide as much of the actor's ballooning body in dark shadows as he could because Brando's character was supposed to be a robust soldier.

Brando became a passionate advocate of American Indian rights, visited Wounded Knee during an Indian rights demonstration and sent an actress who claimed to be an Indian named Sacheen Littlefeather onto the stage to accept the 1972 Oscar he won for The Godfather.

Spontaneous meant real

He often refused to learn the lines of a script, preferring the placement of cue cards around the set or the use of a hearing aid into which an assistant would say the lines just before he was to act them.

Some viewed his approach as lazy, but Brando argued that he simply was keeping the dialogue as spontaneous as possible, enhancing the reality.

Brando wanted the role of Don Corleone in The Godfather and even was willing to make a screen test with Coppola. He stuffed Kleenex in his cheeks, to achieve the Don's thick-jowled look, and spoke in a deep, harsh whisper that became much imitated.

Isolated in a home atop Los Angeles' Mulholland Drive next door to Jack Nicholson, Brando often connected with the outside world incognito, using fake voices to converse with fellow ham radio operators.

His later years were marred by family tragedy. His son, Christian, shot and killed the lover of half sister, Cheyenne. Christian was jailed after a celebrity trial that included his father's painful testimony. Five years later, Cheyenne committed suicide. Legal fees reportedly drained the actor's fortune.

Carried the mantel

Through it all, Brando remained a two-time Academy Award winner routinely labeled the greatest actor of his generation. His last screen performance was in The Score, with De Niro and Edward Norton, two of the many actors who reflect his influence. In The Score, Brando chose an unorthodox approach for his character, playing him gay when the script indicated no such characteristic.

Other memorable performances included the biker in The Wild One, Paul the enigmatic and lustful loner in Last Tango in Paris, and Carmine Sabatini, a witty take-off on his own Don Corleone character, in The Freshman.

Marlon Brando was the actor as artistic rebel, and he changed the face of American film and theater.

Throughout his career, you could almost hear him aping Johnny, his biker character in 1953's The Wild One.

Johnny is asked, "What are you rebelling against?" He replies, "Whaddya got?"

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