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The Other Brando 

Analyzing the madness to his Method

Marlon Brando passed away earlier this month, and since then we've witnessed no small measure of articles that have labeled him either "the greatest actor who ever lived" or, from those not as easily enamored of hyperbole, simply "one of the greatest actors who ever lived."

Allow me to offer the dissenting vote.

Now please don't get me wrong; don't dare think that I'm downsizing Brando to the level of, say, Robby Benson or Troy Donahue. I would be among the first to consider bestowing upon Brando the title of "the greatest actor of the 1950s," a decade he largely owned -- and shaped -- right from the beginning. The range this defining Method actor displayed in films like 1953's Julius Caesar (as Marc Antony), 1954's On the Waterfront (as a conflicted union grunt) and 1958's often overlooked The Young Lions (as a troubled Nazi officer) is astounding. And his turn as Stanley Kowalski in 1951's A Streetcar Named Desire never ceases to amaze me, no matter how many times I watch it; it is undisputedly one of the best performances ever captured on film. Even past the fifties, after the Myth was set but the Man was flailing, Brando still had his moments: He was iconic in 1972's The Godfather and 1979's Apocalypse Now, raw and riveting in 1973's Last Tango In Paris, and blithely playful in 1990's The Freshman.

But should a reputation as "the greatest actor of all time" be based on one good run and a few straggling performances? That's up for debate. Certainly, Brando's name should live on for the simple fact that he helped change the very nature of screen acting -- opening up a new branch that still includes members today (Sean Penn, for one). But as an enduring film performer, Brando was quickly dragged down by his own eccentricities, his own demons, and his own apathy.

Brando had always been blunt about the fact that he held his own profession in low esteem. In his tepid and inconsequential 1994 autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me, he even stated, "To me, acting has always been only a means to an end, a source of money for which I didn't have to work very hard." Now of course there's no law that states a filmmaker must be in love with his own profession -- why should they be any different than bankers or truck drivers or (God forbid) journalists who hate their jobs? -- but it's undeniably depressing to realize that someone blessed with such an enormous gift could be so blase about it. For a film fan, what's more invigorating, hearing Martin Scorsese get so excited talking about how the classics influenced him that he practically stumbles over his own words, or reading one more time about how Brando found acting "boring"? For a movie buff, what's more thrilling, digesting director Sidney Lumet's excellent Making Movies, in which he describes in laymen's terms what goes into the production of a film, or trudging through Brando's book, which spends a good chunk of its pages describing how the star bedded anonymous woman after woman after woman?

Likewise, how fair is it to label Brando the greatest of all actors when there are many other talented performers who didn't throw in the towel after a decade but instead spent their entire careers giving their all? One such person who comes to mind is Burt Lancaster -- granted, he may not have had the range or influence of Brando, but here was an actor who, long after stardom was secured, continued to choose interesting projects that challenged him as a performer and spoke to his need to constantly broaden not only his own horizons but those of audiences as well. Paul Newman, Humphrey Bogart, Clint Eastwood, Ingrid Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock -- the list of filmmakers who continued (or are still continuing) to put their best foot forward, right up to the final tick of the clock, is an endless one.

But you won't find Brando on it. Brando's disdain for the movies he made -- indeed, for cinema in general -- became apparent before too long, as his boredom shone through in project after project. Still, I have to concede that even if the actor was bored, the performances he gave usually weren't boring to watch. They were simply too wacky to be dismissed out of hand (see sidebar), but that doesn't necessarily qualify them as great performances -- maybe just choice ham.

In the end, Brando's handful of classics seems to have long outweighed his laundry list of flops, which explains the credit line of reverential treatment that has long been extended to him. That's fine: To jumble a line spoken by Brando in Julius Caesar, I come neither to praise the man nor bury him, but rather to offer a sober second opinion.

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