In the fall of 1943, Marlon Brando was drawn to New York: there he enrolled at the Theatre Wing Professional School to learn the art of acting. His teacher was Stella Adler (1901-1992): Adler was a representative of the Stanislavski Method, an important acting theory of the 20th century. Her students included Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Robert de Niro and Kate Mulgrew. The Stanislawski method is about creating the impression of special naturalness and authenticity by intensely living through the role.
It is often claimed that the Stanislawski method is in contrast to Lee Strasberg’s method acting. Method acting – unlike the Stanislawski method – works with experiences from the actor’s own life. Brando is considered a representative of both styles of acting.
Authentic character portrayals
Once Stella Adler challenged her students to pretend they were all chickens trying to run away from an atomic bomb. The students ran around flapping their arms – except for one: Marlon Brando kept quiet and pretended he was about to lay an egg. Stella Adler asked him why he was reacting that way and learned from him, “I’m a chicken – what do I know about bombs!”
Brando showed that he was thinking more openly than most of his colleagues – although it was merely an acting exercise, it is an early example of the authenticity of Marlon Brando’s character portrayals.
Beginnings on Broadway
The beginnings of Marlon Brando’s acting career lie on Broadway: in the Broadway play I Remember Mama, Marlon Brando delivered one of his first acting performances. The play premiered in the fall of 1944. In the following months, Brando appeared in numerous Broadway productions: in 1946, he celebrated his breakthrough on Broadway with the play A Flag is Born. In the 1940s, Marlon Brando built up a generous repertoire of Broadway roles – his repertoire also included plays by Shakespeare and Jean Anouilh. At the age of 22, Marlon Brando was already one of the most sought-after actors on Broadway.
A Streetcar Named Desire
In 1947, Marlon Brando appeared in a stage play by Tennessee Williams: In A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon Brando took on the role of Stanley Kowalski. This Broadway play created an iconic look that is still associated with Marlon Brando today: Costume designer Lucinda Ballard dressed Brando in tight-fitting T-shirts and blue jeans. At the time, it was not common for men to wear these garments tightly. That changed with A Streetcar Named Desire.
A Streetcar Named Desire was so successful on Broadway that it was decided to make a Hollywood adaptation. The idea of a Hollywood adaptation was in the cards from the beginning, as Irene Mayer Selznick, wife of the well-known producer David O. Selznick, had prepared the stage production.
A Streetcar Named Desire hit the big screens in 1951, with Marlon Brando reprising the role of Stanley Kowalski. With the film version of the Broadway success, Marlon Brando became known to a wide audience for the first time: It was his breakthrough as a movie actor.
In 1953, Marlon Brando proved that he could also be convincing in classical material: In Julius Caesar, based on William Shakespeare’s play of the same name, Brando played the role of Marcus Antonius.
Marlon Brando’s penchant for historical material did not wane: in 1954, Brando slipped into the role of Napoleon Bonaparte for the film Désirée. He took his role very seriously: like hardly any other actor before him, Brando mastered the portrayal of Napoleon Bonaparte, with all his determination, arrogance and magnetism.
Westerns and Mutiny on the Bounty
After Marlon Brando had made a name for himself as an actor, he was attracted to working behind the scenes: In the western One-Eyed Jacks (1961), Marlon Brando not only took the lead role, he also directed. Brando’s only directorial work earned him positive reviews – nevertheless, Brando blew the film’s budget, which is why the film did not become a profitable business for Paramount.
In 1962, Marlon Brando starred in one of his most famous films: Mutiny on the Bounty was at the time one of the most elaborate and expensive productions in the history of Hollywood.
Behind the scenes of Mutiny on the Bounty, nothing went as it should: in the end, even the director had to be changed so that Brando would agree to continue playing the part. Brando contributed numerous special requests to the filming, which were not received well by the originally intended director.
During the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty in Tahiti, Marlon Brando discovered the atoll of Tetiaroa, north of Tahiti. Marlon Brando liked Tetiaroa so much that he leased the atoll’s twelve islands from the owner and spent a lot of time on Tetiaroa in the decades to come.
In the western The Appaloosa (1966), Marlon Brando acted in a western for the second time: The movie was well received by audiences and critics.
In 1969, Paramount Studios bought the rights to the Mafia novel The Godfather by Mario Puzo. Shortly thereafter, it became known that there would be a film adaptation.
For Marlon Brando it was important to work under a director who listened to the wishes of his actors. Francis Ford Coppola, who directed The Godfather, was exactly that kind of director: Coppola was known for taking his actors’ suggestions into account.
When Coppola wanted to impose Marlon Brando as the lead actor, he faced headwinds from Paramount: Because of the numerous excessive film budgets for which Brando was held responsible, among other things, Paramount initially refused to accept Brando as the lead actor in The Godfather. Coppola was able to prevail, however, and Brando took on the role of Don Vito Corleone. With The Godfather, Marlon Brando hoped to take his career in a new direction after several setbacks.
Last roles and legacy
Francis Ford Coppola and Marlon Brando worked together a second time: Brando took the lead role in the anti-war film Apocalypse Now. Apocalypse Now is one of the highlights of the New Hollywood era: the film takes up the events of the Vietnam War and helps the viewer to take a critical view of wars in general.
In 1978, Marlon Brando starred in the comic book adaptation Superman.
Until 2001, Marlon Brando starred in numerous other films.
On July 1, 2004, Marlon Brando passed away in Los Angeles.
In the course of his acting career, Marlon Brando portrayed a wide variety of characters that have made him famous and popular to this day.
Main sources: Hourly History: “Marlon Brando – A Life from Beginning to End”, 2020 and numerous movies starring Marlon Brando