Every once in a great while, someone comes along and changes everything.
In 1933, Fred Astaire made his leading role debut in The Gay Divorce and dance on film changed. In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock made Psycho on a shoestring budget and killed the only real star in the movie in the first half- hour and movies changed.
In the early 20th century, Picasso and others started to paint not what they saw but what they felt and art changed.
And in the early 1950s, Marlon Brando started to act on film and film acting was never the same. Brando was able to bring an immediacy, an intimacy to his acting that no one before was able to do. In a series of movies, he re-defined what movie acting was all about.
This Saturday, TCM is going to show Brando movies all day long. If you have not seen one or more of these movies, or even if you have seen them, take another look. Watch how Brando approaches each character and transforms himself into him. Some of these movies are far from great or even good, but all of them have at their heart an actor who is committed to the truth, to breathing life into a series of words, an idea, a role - into being human.
In order of appearance, here they are:
JULIUS CAESAR - Shakespeare. Yeah, I know, but take a look. Brando plays Marc Antony. All of us remember his famous speech at Caesar's funeral - Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears! You have never seen it done like this before. No less a Shakespearean actor than John Guilgud (he plays Cassius who has "a lean and hungry look") said that Brando could easily become a great Shakespearean actor - if he wanted. Of course, he didn't want that.
REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE - Playing opposite Elizabeth Taylor, directed by John Huston and based on the novel by Carson McCullers, this movie never quite gets going. Brando plays an in-the-closet army officer married to Taylor. The movie is about human sexuality and rather daring for the time in which it was made.
THE FUGITIVE KIND - Brando in another Tennesse Williams' play - but it has been much altered for the screen and given a different title. The cast is superb but the movie never catches up to what Williams had in mind - bringing Orpheus, the Greek god of music, art and sensuality, into modern America.
MORITURI - The title is Latin, referencing the phrase, "We who are about to die salute you!", said by gladiators to the Emperor before beginning combat. And that dull explanation is the perfect way to introduce this less than thrilling thriller. Brando speaks with the German accent he used in The Young Lions - you know that Brando must have understood that Germans did not speak German with an accent; yet, here he is speaking with a German accent.
MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY - The story of an 18th century British ship sailing for Tahiti with the hope of finding a new food source, breadfruit. The ship's first mate, played by Brando, mutinies. This is a long but not unexciting movie that lost a lot of money because it cost a small fortune to make. Brando's performance is very good, but the movie is really three movies since the leading actors - Brando, Trevor Howard (playing Captain Bly) and shipmate Richard Harris all seem to be acting in different movies.
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE - From the classic Tenessee Williams' play. Brando doesn't play Stanley Kowalski, he is Stanley Kowolski. With Vivian Leigh in her best performance and Karl Malden and Kim Hunter, Brando sets the screen on fire.
ON THE WATERFRONT - If you only watch one movie from this list, this is the one to watch. Brando plays the brother of a corrupt official of a longshoreman's union. Every performance in this movie is a best of career performance, and every behind the camera work is also a best, from Elia Kazan's directing, Budd Schulberg's script, Boris Kaufman's photography to Leonard Bernstein's score. Watch this movie - you will never see a better one.
THE WILD ONE - Brando heads up a motorcycle gang that takes over a small West coast town. It's not really that good, but it is iconic. Brando was at the height of his fame and yet he chose to make this odd movie about 'delinquents.'
GUYS AND DOLLS - A musical! One of the best musicals ever - the score is by Frank Loesser based on the stories of Damyon Runyon. Brando plays the lead, Sky Masterson, while Frank Sinatra must make do with the supporting role of Nathan Detroit. Brando cannot actually sing, but he is able to get the songs across because of his ability to act. Take a look at him and co-star Jean Simmons in their many scenes together and you will see how chemistry between two lovers is projected in movies.
A DRY WHITE SEASON - Two of my favorite actors, Donald Sutherland and Janet Suzman, head an excellent cast in this movie about apartheid in South Africa. Brando has a small role but he makes a big impression.
THE FRESHMAN - Brando parodies his role of the Godfather. Andrew Bergman writes and directs this very pleasing movie about not much.