(photo credit: PR)
Would the phrase “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” have become so legendary without Marlon Brando’s unforgettable delivery in The Godfather? Can you imagine the history of movies without Brando shouting “Stella!” in A Streetcar Named Desire or without his delivering the mournful “I coulda been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront? Brando wasn’t just a great film actor. He made the movies he was in great, and directors did their best work with him.
Brando’s legacy will be celebrated in a retrospective at the Jerusalem Cinematheque starting on August 15, which is also running at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque throughout the month.
The series will open with the recent documentary Listen to Me Marlon by Stevan Riley. It features some of the many audiotapes Brando made throughout his life, in which he mused about nearly every subject imaginable, among them acting. Brando changed American acting into a more natural style, based on his training with Stella Adler, in so-called Method Acting, in which the actor draws on his own memories and emotions to create a character.
The two great movies Brando made for director Elia Kazan early in his career, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954), will be shown. Brando’s electrifying portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar is one of the most intense performances in film history, full of sexuality, charm, brutality and class resentment.
In On the Waterfront, for which Brando won his first Oscar, the character is another frustrated working-class anti-hero, a failed boxer but with dialogue by Budd Schulberg.
The Wild One (1953), in which Brando plays a member of a motorcycle gang, is mainly famous for his performance, how he looked in the black leather jacket and how he responded when asked what he was rebelling against: “Whaddaya got?” In The Godfather (1972), Brando had the most famous role of his later period. The stunningly handsome actor, who was not Italian, was an unlikely choice to play the grizzled, Old World Mafia don. Director Francis Ford Coppola had to fight studio executives to get him the part.
The only other actor Coppola considered was Laurence Olivier, who was too ill to consider playing the part. Now, of course, it is impossible to imagine anyone else in the role, but executives thought several actors were more suitable, such as Ernest Borgnine and Anthony Quinn.
Brando highlights the character’s pragmatism and, for the first time on film, it was crystal clear that this dangerous, murderous criminal saw himself simply as a businessman providing for his family, and a new kind of character was born. You can see the line that goes directly from Brando’s quiet family-man don to James Gandolfini’s Tony on The Sopranos.
When Brando tells his war-hero son Michael (Al Pacino), who has just joined the family business, “But I always thought that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone, something,” we see this American tragedy through his eyes.
Brando won his second Oscar for The Godfather. He stopped the Academy Awards show by sending a beautiful young woman who claimed to be of Native American ancestry to turn down the award for him, citing as his reason the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.
He followed up The Godfather with a very different role, the angry American expatriate who has a wild, anonymous affair with a young Frenchwoman in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Tango in Paris (1972). This erotic story is said to be Brando’s most self-revealing role, not only because of the nudity but also because he improvised much of his dialogue, notably a scene in which he reminisces about his difficult childhood.
His last great film was Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), in which he plays the rogue Col. Kurtz, who has gone off into the Cambodian jungle during the Vietnam War, living like a king, in a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness.
To learn about the on-set drama, in which Brando would not learn his lines and questioned Coppola’s conception of the role, see the documentary film (which is not in this retrospective) Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.