There is only one Marlon Brando. He was the actor who broke the mold and changed the game. And he did it twice. First with "Streetcar Named Desire" and then again with "Last Tango In Paris." There has been no actor, despite the countless who have been compared to him, who had the masculinity and femininity, the gentleness, the sudden violence, the surprise, the gracefulness, the sexuality and the innate poetry that made up this complicated soul. Everyone who came after was influenced by him: Dean, Newman, Nicholson, DeNiro, Pacino, Hoffman, Duvall, Penn, Day Lewis. No one took up space like him.
You can watch him over and over in his greatest roles, and his many overlooked ones, and never get tired of the man's internal mystery. There is always something new to behold. Watch him say his name for the first time in "Viva Zapata!" and you see a wary but shrewd peasant who knows he is being put on the list to be watched, and accepts it with a fatalistic shrug and a touch of disdain combined with pride. The spontaneity of his reading and gesture makes you sit up every time. He doesn't know what he's going to do and neither do you. But everything is there and flows through him effortlessly. Watch him as the stiff-backed Major Penderton in John Houston's "Reflections in a Golden Eye" waiting in his bedroom for the object of his eye, a young withdrawn soldier, as he coquettishly fixes two strands of hair before the young soldier passes him by on his way to his wife Elizabeth Taylor's bedroom. Or watch him exercise in front of the mirror as he struggles to keep his middle-aged body taut or as he lectures his military students on leadership and cracks, realizing his own inadequacy. John Houston, who worked with many wonderful actors throughout his career, called Brando the only "genius" he had ever worked with. Houston said of Brando, "It was a furnace door opening -- the heat that came off the screen." At his best it was like watching an animal slither and prowl around smelling everything in sight.
The timing of his arrival, the people he worked and studied with, all contributed, but most of all it's the man that makes you unable to take your eyes off of him. Other great actors have perhaps worked harder, but what he naturally possessed, his demons, his rebelliousness toward authority, his reticence, his loneliness, his beauty, his playfulness, his awareness and his sensitivity were unsurpassed. He was the greatest, when he was great. That's not to say he couldn't be bad. But watch what he does in "Last Tango" and it's still jaw-dropping. Bertolucci got him to give away part of his life in a fictional film. No one of his stature has ever done that. He takes you to a place that few have gone. He's beyond naked. Watch him talk to his dead wife, revealing their whole lives in one scene. You feel as if you're eavesdropping and perhaps you shouldn't be looking. But you do.
I remember seeing "On the Waterfront" on TV for the first time and being startled by the texture of the film and how different it seemed. But most of all by his Terry Malloy. The way he looked at Edie Doyle, played by Eva Marie Saint, in the bar with a multitude of conflicting expressions crossing his guilty face, and then his sudden withdrawal back into his shell, remains breathtaking. My uncles and father and older cousins referred to him as "Marlon" as though they were on a first-name basis with the man. And now, when I think about it, they were. Such was his power, the likes of which we will never see again.
"Listen to Me Marlon" opens in select theaters on July 29.