Cinema and Media Studies Marlon Brando
by
Krin Gabbard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0113

Introduction

Many critics have called Marlon Brando (b. 1924–d. 2004) the greatest American actor of the 20th century. Frank Sinatra, who tangled with Brando when they costarred in Guys and Dolls (1955), was among those who were less impressed, referring to Brando as the world’s most overrated actor. Born in Nebraska and raised in Illinois, Brando arrived in New York when teachers such as Stella Adler were introducing new inner-directed acting techniques based on the writings of the Russian director Constantin Stanislavsky and commonly known as “The Method.” With roots in this new approach, Brando stunned critics and audiences when he played Stanley Kowalski on stage in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947. After his New York triumph, Brando began appearing in films, first in The Men (1950). He reprised his role as Stanley in the film version of Streetcar in 1951, inaugurating a new style of screen acting that has since become an essential feature of the American cinema. With his mumbling, his mood swings, his obscure gestures, and his impressions of a confused child in the body of a blustering adult, Brando radically changed the resources of the male actor. In the middle of his life, however, Brando lost interest in the craft of acting, regularly disparaging his own work and denying that a film could be a work of art. When he won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in The Godfather (1972), he refused to accept the award. In 1966 Brando took a 99-year lease on an island near Tahiti, where he lived for the last half of his life. His half-hearted, even parodic performances during this period were accompanied by several family tragedies, including the murder of one of his daughter’s lovers by his son Christian. Nevertheless, Brando left behind an extraordinary body of work that continues to inspire young (and old) actors.

General Overviews

Several writers have integrated details from Brando’s biography with surveys of his films. Two New Yorker pieces—Brodkey 1994 and Pierpont 2008—are succinct and thoughtful. McCann 1993 summarizes most of what has been said about the actor, while Shickel 1998 may be Brando’s most adoring fan. Walker 1988 is concerned with what led Brando to give up on developing his craft. Several French critics examine the films and the legacy in Positif’s 2005 Special Issue: Marlon Brando. A solid source for basic information (as well as a good selection of trivia) is the Marlon Brando page on the website NNDB.

Reference Books

Short essays on Brando and his films appear in many readily available reference works. Thomson 2008 and Kael 1982 are the most interesting because of their highly personal accounts of what Brando achieved.

Photobooks and Fandom

Many of these books are better seen than read. Others, such as Carey 1985, Ryan 1992, and Downing 1984, can be leafed through for photos, lists, and summaries of films. Shaw 1980 and Nickens 1988 are good compendia of photos. Schirmer 1995 and Thomson 2003 are the most lavishly produced. Morella and Epstein 1973 also has material on each of the films, along with a salacious retelling of Brando’s story. Anyone who knows Brando’s biography will enjoy the imagined dialogue in Rhoden 2008, a short novel inspired by the death of the actor’s close friend Wally Cox.

Biographies

The most dependable biography of Brando by far is Manso 1994. Bosworth 2001 is more compact but also useful. Higham 1987 and Kanfer 2008 are researched indifferently but consistently interesting. Porter 2006 is less reliable. Shipman 1974 and Thomas 1973 are both based on preexisting research. The most glowing account of Brando’s life and work is Schickel 1991. Though not at all a complete account of Brando’s story, Sager 2005 is a fascinating account of the world he occupied for the last half of his life.

Obituaries

Of the many obituaries that appeared after Brando’s death in 2004, a few are of interest. Bart, et al. 2004 is especially concise and to the point. Merkin 2005 is celebratory, Schwarzbaum 2004 is elegiac, and Kauffmann 2004 expresses disappointment.

Brando’s Writings

Brando was not much of a writer, but he did leave behind a few statements that are worth a look. He ruefully revisits his early life in the mostly ghost-written autobiography, Brando with Lindsey 1994. Remarks about Native Americans are in his Oscar speech (Anonymous 1973) and his speech at the First American Gala (Brando 1975). One of Brando’s first extended conversations with a journalist yielded Janos 1976. A substantial and revealing interview is in Grobel 1981, and an expanded version of same is Grobel 1991. Although he did little of the actual writing, Brando is listed as first author for the novel Fan-Tan (Brando and Cammell) 2005. Brando 2000 is the actor’s brief tribute to a beloved teacher.

  • Anonymous. “Brando’s Oscar Speech.” Cineaste 5.4 (1973): 62.

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    Brando refused to accept the Oscar for his performance in The Godfather. This is the complete version of remarks by Brando that Marie Cruz, identifying herself as “Sacheen Littlefeather,” gave to the press after she briefly appeared in Native American garb on the Academy Awards broadcast in 1973.

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  • Brando, Marlon. “The Complete Transcript of Brando’s Speech at the First American Gala.” Interview 5.1 (1975): 12–13.

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    Rambling remarks at a gathering to raise money for Native Americans, mostly about the mistreatment of American Indians in the United States.

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  • Brando, Marlon with Robert Lindsey. Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me. New York: Random House, 1994.

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    There are plenty of photographs in a volume that deals mostly with Brando’s sufferings. Although Brando denigrates film and theater, readers will learn how he understood his work as an actor.

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  • Brando, Marlon. “Preface.” In Stella Adler: The Art of Acting. Compiled and edited by Howard Kissel, 7. New York: Applause, 2000.

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    Brando clearly learned a great deal from Adler and held her in high regard. Even though he disparaged the work of the actor, he took the time write this heartfelt, if brief, tribute to his acting teacher.

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  • Brando, Marlon, and Donald Cammell. Fan-Tan. Edited by David Thomson. New York: Knopf, 2005.

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    A novel about pirates in the China Seas in the late 1920s. The idea apparently came from Brando, but virtually all of the writing was by film director Cammell. A revealing introductory essay is supplied by Thomson.

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  • Grobel, Lawrence. “Conversations with Brando.” In The Playboy Interview. Edited by G. Barry Golson, 608–643. New York: Playboy Press, 1981.

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    When Brando submitted to several days of interviews in 1978, he was especially cantankerous, refusing to acknowledge that his work as an actor—or for that matter, all movies—had any merit. This interview spun off an entire book, Grobel 1991.

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  • Grobel, Lawrence. Conversations with Marlon Brando. London: Bloomsbury, 1991.

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    This is the complete interview, portions of which were published in Playboy magazine in 1978 (and in Grobel 1981). Grobel interviewed Brando for several days on his island near Tahiti. The author contributes a memoir of his own about landing the interview and getting to know Brando.

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  • Janos, Leo. “The Private World of Marlon Brando.” Time, 24 May 1976, 55–59.

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    Reporter spent time with Brando on his island of Tetiaroa, mostly talking about his life and philosophy.

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Memoirs by People Who Knew Brando

Not everyone who knew Brando well chose to write about him, but those who did occasionally contributed useful material. Fiore 1974 and Englund 2004 claim special knowledge as Brando’s friends, and Brando and Stein 1979 speaks for an abandoned wife. Ross and Ross 1962 and Porter 2004 have great anecdotes. In Nicholson 2004, the actor who lived next door to Brando expresses great affection for the man. Brando was not pleased with what Capote 1995 had to say about him, but it remains an intriguing look at a star early in his career.

Kazan on Brando

Because he traduced several of his friends in testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952, the filmmaker Elia Kazan (b. 1909–d. 2003) remains an extremely controversial figure. As a director, however, he participated in the creation of many of Brando’s greatest moments on film. Kazan 1988 and Kazan 2009 have valuable material on the director’s work with Brando on A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and Viva Zapata. Ciment 1974 is taken from several days of interviews with Kazan.

Brando in Biographies of Others

For whatever reason, Brando did not play a large role in the lives of many people that biographers found to be worthy subjects. Perhaps this section will be longer someday. Montgomery Clift was regularly regarded as a rival, but according to Bosworth 1978, Brando was a mostly benign presence in the other actor’s life. Knight 1987 recounts a much more dramatic clash with Trevor Howard. Spoto 1985 has a few words about Brando and Tennessee Williams, and Kelly 2004 compares Brando with Sean Penn.

  • Bosworth, Patricia. Montgomery Clift: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

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    Clift’s career was only beginning when Brando replaced him as the “next big thing.” They appeared together in The Young Lions (1958), and Brando is said to have made an effort to prevent Clift’s self-destructive behavior.

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  • Kelly, Richard. “Make-Believe and the Method.” Sight and Sound 14.12 (2004): 30–33.

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    In a profile of the actor Sean Penn, Kelly regularly compares him to Brando, especially in terms of how both made use of Stanislavskian acting techniques.

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  • Knight, Vivienne. Trevor Howard: A Gentleman and a Player: The Authorized Biography. New York: Beaufort, 1987.

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    Trevor Howard starred with Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty. The corresponding chapter (pp 127–187) details the film’s troubled production history and how Howard regarded working with Brando as “absolute hell.”

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  • Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: A Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.

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    Although Brando appeared on stage and film in several productions of Tennessee Williams’s plays, there is surprisingly little about him in this bio of Williams. The playwright was mightily impressed by Brando, but, at least according to Spoto, the two had few interactions.

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Gender, Sexuality, and Race

Brando changed gender performativity in the American cinema, and he himself was obsessed with race and ethnicity. Taubin 2004 and Gabbard 2004 compare him to Miles Davis. Gary 1970 and Goldstein 1996 are highly critical of Brando’s racial convictions. Cohan 1997 has an especially useful account of how Brando created new models of gender presentation, while Mellen 1977 and Hatch 2005 interpret what the actor’s performances said about masculinity and male sexuality. Sellers 2010 repeats stories about Brando’s sexual exploits.

  • Cohan, Steven. Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

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    Cohan delves deep into the literature of fandom to explore the new meanings of youth in the 1950s. Brando was one of several stars who personified a change in what it means to be something other than a “man.” See pp. 201–263.

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  • Gabbard, Krin. “Marlon Brando’s Jazz Acting and the Obsolescence of Blackface.” In Black Magic: White Hollywood and African American Culture. By Krin Gabbard, 19–49. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

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    In some of his early performances, Brando incorporated what he saw as the masculine self-presentation of African Americans, and he did so just as blackface performance was disappearing from American film.

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  • Gary, Romain. White Dog. New York: World Publishing, 1970.

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    In this mostly autobiographical novel, Gary contemptuously describes Brando’s insistence, at an event for African American causes, that everyone either participate directly or get out.

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  • Goldstein, Richard. “A Streetcar Named Meshuge.” Village Voice, 23 April 1996, 23–24.

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    Brief account of Brando’s appearance on The Larry King Show in which he is accused of being an anti-Semite.

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  • Hatch, Kristen. “1951: Movies and the New Faces of Masculinity.” In American Cinema of the 1950s: Themes and Variation. Edited by Murray Pomerance, 43–64. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.

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    In a survey of films released in 1951, Hatch sees Brando and Montgomery Clift as movie stars who refused to behave as movie stars. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando poses a sexual threat that transforms the film.

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  • Mellen, Joan. Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in the American Film. New York: Pantheon, 1977.

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    Mellen includes Brando among the male actors who showed tenderness and vulnerability in the 1950s. She consistently finds a frightened little boy beneath the macho bluster of Brando’s characters.

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  • Sellers, Robert. Hollywood Hellraisers: The Wild Lives of Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, and Jack Nicholson. New York: Skyhorse, 2010.

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    Relying on previously available material, Sellers pores over the salacious aspects of Brando’s sex life.

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  • Taubin, Amy. “Orpheus Ascending.” Film Comment 40.5 (September/October 2004): 59–62.

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    Using Miles Davis as a point of comparison, Taubin declares that Brando, like a jazz musician, could improvise in character and dip into his unconscious for inspiration.

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Brando as an Actor

There have been many attempts to place Brando’s acting within theater and film history. Critics have debated the extent to which his work in particular—and Method acting in general—does indeed rise from the unconscious.

On Stage

Hirsch 1984 is an especially useful history of the organization that nurtured the young Brando, while Staggs 2005 and Lobenthal 2004 are vivid histories of the young Brando’s work on the stage.

In Films

Esch 2006 is concerned with how actors such as Brando changed their bodies to make their performances more authentic. Bush 1996 argues convincingly that Brando transformed the work of American directors as well as actors. Although she concentrates almost entirely on Brando’s work in the 1950s, White 2010 gives an especially nuanced account of what Brando achieved as he “performed gender.”

  • Bush, Lyall. “Doing Brando.” Film Comment 32.1 (1996): 83–88.

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    As the “éminence grise of male expressivity,” Brando created a style that is essential not just to actors but to the entire vision of many recent directors. For Bush, the films of Scorsese, Tarantino, and Oliver Stone are unthinkable without Brando’s films.

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  • Esch, Kevin. “‘I Don’t See Any Method at All’: The Problem of Actorly Transformation.” Journal of Film and Video 58.1–2 (2006): 95–107.

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    Although primarily concerned with the “bodily transformation” that Robert De Niro underwent for Raging Bull, the essay addresses the physical hardships and change in body shape that are as essential to the Brando mystique as to the myth of “Method acting.”

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  • White, Susan. “‘Marlon Brando: Actor, Star, Liar.” Larger Than Life: Movie Stars of the 1950s Edited by R. Barton Palmer, 165–183. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010.

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    Ostensibly a survey of Brando’s films from the 1950s, White brilliantly recruits theories of performance, histories of acting, gender theory, and close readings of specific scenes to explore the actor’s real achievements as well as the reasons for his decline. She is especially sensitive to Brando’s handling of prescribed and proscribed images of masculinity.

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Films, Overviews

These are some of the most useful summaries of Brando’s films, with and without photos and filmographical data. Sarris 1974, Thomas 1992, and Tanitch 1994 present lists of Brando’s films, with commentaries. In Peary 1986, Viviani 2004, and Prendowska 1979, the authors tell us what they most like about his performances. Millar 1983 professes admiration for the chances Brando took with so many different roles.

Individual Films

Aside from the many reviews that appeared in the popular press, several scholars and writers have engaged in depth with specific performances that hinge on Brando’s persona. Perhaps because scholars have their own individual obsessions, and because a few filmmakers have chosen to tell their own stories, the best-known films have not generated as much criticism as some of Brando’s more obscure films.

Julius Caesar (1953)

For several reasons, many writers have found this to be an especially important film in Brando’s career. Gielgud 1979 and Houseman 1979 recall working with the young Brando, while Miller 2000 and Wyke 2004 place Brando’s performance as Marc Antony within the political history of the film.

  • Gielgud, John. An Actor and His Time. In collaboration with John Miller and John Powell. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1979.

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    The distinguished English actor gives his impressions of Brando after they appeared together in Julius Caesar.

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  • Houseman, John. Front and Center. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.

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    Detailed account of the making of the film Julius Caesar (pp. 382–409). Houseman gives Brando great credit for his dedication and conscientious preparation, but he also details the stalwart support he received from John Gielgud.

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  • Miller, Anthony. “Julius Caesar in the Cold War: The Houseman-Mankiewicz Film.” Literature/Film Quarterly 28.2 (2000): 95–100.

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    Miller reads the film as an allegory of American politics during the McCarthy era. As Antony, Brando’s performance suggests the demagogue Joseph McCarthy, even as he maintains his beatnik cool. He is still the beat era hipster who, like McCarthy, “disdains the powerful without embracing the people.”

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  • Wyke, Maria. “Film Style and Fascism: Julius Caesar.” Film Studies 4 (2004): 58–74.

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    Wyke agrees with Miller 2000 that the film was designed to address the McCarthyism of the time, and that Brando’s Antony is meant to be Joe McCarthy. But Wyke believes that Brando’s performance is so powerful that the film becomes anticommunist rather than anti-McCarthy.

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Last Tango in Paris (1972)

The Time article “Self-Portrait of an Angel and Monster” is an extended review with background information about the film. Mellen 1973 is concerned with the film’s politics, while Kolker 1985 is a hymn to Bertolucci’s ability to work with Brando.

One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

This is the one and only film that Brando directed. Karl Malden, who had appeared with Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and who also acted in One-Eyed Jacks, has nothing but praise for Brando as an actor and as a director (see Malden 1959). Petch and Jolly 2004 declares Brando to be a true auteur.

On the Waterfront (1954)

Brando’s performance in this film has probably been more celebrated than any other. Naremore 1988 gives an especially thoughtful account of how Brando put the performance together. Lippe 2009 sees Kazan’s own history in the performance. Neve 2009 heaps praise on Brando’s portrayal of Terry Molloy, while Lopate 2002 finds little to like.

  • Lippe, Richard. “Elia Kazan 1909–2009: A Man in Conflict.” CineAction 79 (June–July 2009): 76–77.

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    Director Kazan wanted to be Terry Molloy, the character played by Brando, who informed on his associates and was received as a hero. Of course, it did not work out that way for Kazan.

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  • Lopate, Phillip. “On the Waterfront.” Cineaste 27.2 (Spring 2002): 43–44.

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    Reviewing a DVD release of the film, Lopate finds the film “rhetorical,” ultimately inspiring “numbed disbelief.” He finds Brando unbelievable as a brain-scrambled ex-boxer “whose pigeon-loving heart stays tenderly intact.”

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  • Naremore, James. “Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954).” In Acting in the Cinema. By James Naremore, 193–212. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

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    Although Naremore identifies the moment when Brando picks up Eva Marie Saint’s glove as the locus classicus of Method acting, he is more interested in the “tricks” that made this performance so memorable.

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  • Neve, Brian. Elia Kazan: The Cinema of an American Outsider. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2009.

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    Although Neve finds flaws in all the films that Kazan directed, he dwells on several of Brando’s scenes in On the Waterfront, placing them among the “very best in modern cinema.”

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The Wild One (1953)

Both Simmons 2008 and Nelson 2008 place Brando’s performance within the larger issues the film evoked.

  • Nelson, Lisa K. “The Wild One, Black Leather, and White Fantasy: Or, the Semiotics of Racial Danger in 1950s America.” In Modern and Postmodern Cutting Edge Films. Edited by Anthony D. Hughes and Miranda J. Hughes, 5–28. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2008.

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    Examines how the discourses of The Wild One arouse white American fear of black people, even though there are no black characters in the film. Essentially, Brando and his gang function as minstrels in black leather, appropriating the menace and sexuality that white Americans associate with black men.

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  • Simmons, Jerold. “Violent Youth: The Censoring and Public Reception of The Wild One and The Blackboard Jungle.” Film History 20.3 (2008): 381–391.

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    Basically an historical account of debates about juvenile delinquency prompted by these two films. An important question was how sincere Brando actually was when his character in The Wild One appears to turn away from his life as a black-leather-jacketed hoodlum.

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Other Films

Each film in this section is represented by one item that may be helpful to students and scholars. Ondaatje and Murch 2001 mostly addresses the re-edited version of Apocalypse Now (1979), but they add a few anecdotes to Brando history. Drake 2006 and Leff 2002 rely on post-structuralist analysis to rethink Brando’s acting in, respectively, The Godfather (1972) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). In Nadotti 2008, Arthur Penn recalls working with Brando on The Chase (1966), while Dmytryk 1978 has some good stories to tell about the actor on the set of The Young Lions (1958). McKibbin 2009 jumps to the defense of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), and Raw 2003 would redeem The Nightcomers (1972) by praising Brando’s performance. Writing about his work directing Sayonara (1957), Wellman 1991 has an intriguing analysis of Brando’s career path. In telling his own story, Santopietro 2012 incorporates several choice anecdotes about Brando’s participation in The Godfather.

  • Dmytryk, Edward. It’s a Hell of a Life but Not a Bad Living: A Hollywood Memoir. New York: Times Books, 1978.

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    Dmytryk, who directed The Young Lions, testifies once again to Brando’s talent, as well as to his irascibility (pp. 219–230). The director believes that Brando was testing him with his shenanigans and that he eventually received a passing grade.

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  • Drake, Philip. “Reconceptualizing Screen Performance.” Journal of Film and Video 58.1–2 (2006): 84–94.

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    A demystified reading of Brando’s performance, based on post-structuralist models of analysis.

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  • Leff, Leonard J. “And Transfer to Cemetery: The Streetcars Named Desire.” Film Quarterly 55.3 (Spring 2002): 29–37.

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    A post-structuralist take on the difference between the original 1951 film and the 1993 rerelease that restored some suggestive material that had been censored. Leff pays special attention to how Brando developed the character of Stanley, beginning with the first performances of the stage play.

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  • McKibbin, Tony. “Brando and the Bounty.” Senses of Cinema 52 (2009).

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    A defense of Brando and Mutiny on the Bounty as an intensely character-based drama. The complex personal psychology of Brando’s Fletcher Christian drives the narrative, often to where more conventional films fear to go.

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  • Nadotti, Maria. “Conversazione con Arthur Penn.” Cineforum 472 (March 2008): 60–73.

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    In a long interview, Arthur Penn talks about working with Brando in The Chase, a film directed by Penn. In Italian.

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  • Ondaatje, Michael, and Walter Murch. “Apocalypse Then and Now.” Film Comment 37.3 (May/June 2001): 43–47.

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    An interview with Walter Murch, who edited the expanded version of the film released in 2001. Murch has several stories about Brando’s bizarre behavior on the set.

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  • Raw, Lawrence. “Horrific Henry James: Michael Winner’s The Nightcomers.” Literature/Film Quarterly 31.3 (2003): 193–198.

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    Attempting to upgrade the reputation of a film most critics dismissed, Raw argues that Brando plays Quint as a continuation of the characters he had played as a young man, but that he also transforms the film with the patriarchal authority he brings to Quint.

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  • Santopietro, Tom. The Godfather Effect: Changing Hollywood, America, and Me. New York: St. Martin’s, 2012.

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    The author came to terms with his own Italian-American background after giving some serious thought to The Godfather in general and to Brando’s performance in particular. Throughout his memoir, Santopietro tells some memorable stories about Brando’s participation in the film.

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  • Wellman, William A., Jr. “Runnin’ into Marlon.” Film Comment 27.4 (July 1991): 34–36.

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    The son of director William Wellman tells familiar stories about the difficulty of working with Brando. In mapping Brando’s career, however, Wellman sees Sayonara (released in 1957 and directed by Joshua Logan) as a turning point. With that Hollywood film, “he traded independence for stardom and then didn’t like it.”

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Documentary Films with Brando

Brando was frequently interviewed on television, and he was in a number of documentaries. Researchers should be aware of three in particular. Meet Marlon Brando (Maysles and Maysles 1966) is an exceptionally thoughtful portrait of an actor in crisis. Marlon Brando: The Wild One (Joyce 1996) is a good survey of the actor’s career, and Hearts of Darkness (Bahr and Hickenlooper 1991) chronicles Brando’s role as one of several players in the long and disastrous story of how Apocalypse Now came to be.

  • Bahr, Fax, and George Hickenlooper, dirs. DVD. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. San Francisco: American Zoetrope, 1991.

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    Francis Ford Coppola spent three years making Apocalypse Now. The production was plagued by a typhoon, local politics, and actors who overindulged in drugs and alcohol. The mercurial Brando was no help. Except for Brando, all the major players appear in interviews.

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  • Joyce, Paul, dir. Marlon Brando: The Wild One. New York: American Movie Classics, 1996.

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    A mostly sympathetic history of the actor, beginning with his 1947 stage performance in A Streetcar Named Desire. The film also looks at Brando’s personal life, including the murder trial of his son. Produced in collaboration with Channel 4 Television (United Kingdom).

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  • Maysles, Albert, and David Maysles, dir. Meet Marlon Brando. DVD. New York: Maysles Films, 1966.

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    The distinguished documentarians who made Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter caught Brando in a hotel room where he was giving interviews to promote his film Morituri (1965). Although the actor had little to say about the actual film, he radiates charm throughout much of this 28-minute documentary.

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