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Brando Unmatched
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Brando Unmatched

The legendary actor left a mark in both film history and an industry fraught with self-regard.

Marlon Brando on the set of 'One-Eyed Jacks,' 1961. (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)

There is more than a hint of irony to history’s greatest film actor—hailed as the American Hamlet—believing that his true legacy was distant from the glitz and glamor of Hollywood. 

“I led a wasted life,” Marlon Brando lamented before a crowded Los Angeles courtroom during his son Christian’s 1991 sentencing for manslaughter. The confession wasn’t merely performative modesty intended to tug on the court’s heartstrings on behalf of one of his 11 children. Rather, it was a moment of unexpected candor from the man who, despite immortalizing the likes of Stanley Kowalski, Terry Malloy, and Mark Antony on the big screen, felt a disconnect with the profession he elevated to new heights.

This month marked the renowned actor’s centenary, prompting well-deserved reflections on his profound contributions to film history. Film critic Sonny Bunch shared with me that Brando’s groundbreaking performance in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire represented a pivotal “before and after” moment in American cinema. Karen Ludwig, a seasoned actor and instructor at Brando’s alma mater, The New School, praised his work as “exemplary.” To fully appreciate the full breadth of his artistic impact, however, it is essential to grapple with the deeply held beliefs that shaped his life away from the spotlight.

Born on April 3, 1924, and raised in the Midwest by alcoholic parents, Marlon Brando—affectionately known as Bud to his friends—seemed like an unlikely candidate for fame. Despite their struggles, his parents instilled in their three children a deep sense of tolerance. There was no place in the Brando household for the kind of bigotry that was prevalent in the early 20th century. An education in empathy would underpin much of the star’s later life and work.

Lacking his father’s hard-nosed stoic discipline, combined with a mediocre academic record and a knee injury that derailed any potential athletic or military career, Bud’s prospects appeared dim. His early talents seemed to lie in the realm of practical jokes. “Brando’s friends boast that he can imitate anybody after fifteen minutes’ observation,” writer Truman Capote would later observe in a 1957 New Yorker profile of the then-heartthrob.

Amid these early challenges, a singular exception stood out. Bud’s innate talent revealed itself during a school play, prompting his drama teacher to invite his mother Dodie, an actress in her own right, to witness her son’s nascent abilities. This glimmer of potential took on greater significance when, following his expulsion from a military boarding school, his sister Tidd persuaded their father to allow him to pursue acting seriously.

Her advocacy resulted in Brando’s enrollment at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in New York. It was within these walls where he would encounter Stella Adler, the renowned doyenne of modern acting. Beyond shaping Brando’s approach to acting, Adler was the first to believe in him.

“I had never done anything in my life that anybody told me I was any good at,” Brando once reflected on his humble beginnings. It was Adler who saw the potential simmering beneath. “She put her hand on my shoulders and said, ‘Don’t worry, my boy. I have seen you and the world is going to hear from you.’” Indeed, it did.

His formidable presence, combined with Adler’s transformative teaching methodology, continues to imbue the institute that bears her name, where actors of the caliber of Robert De Niro, Warren Beatty, Mark Ruffalo, Christoph Waltz, and Salma Hayek have honed their craft. A portrait of Brando on the set of Julius Caesar adorns the lobby of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in lower Manhattan, inspiring new generations of performers. 

It was in this environment rich with legacy and talent that I met Adler’s grandson, Tom Oppenheim, who now runs the studio. Perched in his office, Oppenheim shared with me that both Brando and his late grandmother were “informed by the insight that growth as an actor and growth as a human being are synonymous.”

Oppenheim, who cherishes his friendship with Brando, elaborated: “The mission of the studio is to foster an environment that nurtures theater artists and audiences alike, cultivating a deep appreciation for humanity.” His grandmother not only taught the rising star to be a better actor, she equipped him with the intellectual foundation that linked his core beliefs with his professional endeavors—the two went hand-in-hand throughout his life.

In one of his earliest public appearances in 1946, Brando took to the stage in A Flag is Born, a Broadway play advocating for a Jewish homeland in the wake of the Holocaust. The theatrical experience, and his relationship with Adler, made such an impression on the young actor that decades later, he cited them while defending himself from accusations of antisemitism following an appearance on Larry King Live in which Brando argued that Hollywood’s predominantly Jewish executives could exercise greater sensitivity in depicting minorities, drawing on their community’s own experiences. Confronted with widespread criticism, the then-72-year-old star regretted his remarks.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, who advised Brando in the aftermath, told me he found Brando “very sincere” in his apology. “I have no doubt that he was a Zionist at the time,” Hier noted, while adding that Brando described Adler as his “surrogate mother.” Of course, by the time of his 1996 Larry King appearance, Brando was no stranger to controversy. 

In July 1963, the actor became the target of neo-Nazis brandishing racist epithets as he marched for equal housing rights at a whites-only housing development in Torrance, California. Later that summer, Brando would lock arms with fellow actors Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, and his dear friend, author James Baldwin, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic March on Washington.

Though it’s fashionable now for celebrities to embrace political causes, Brando’s activism in the early 1960s was considered bold at a time when such activities were frowned upon by Hollywood power brokers. When pressed by a reporter at the march if he worried that his support for civil rights would cost him at the box office, Brando confidently replied that “whether it backfires or not is incidental to the cause,” before emphasizing that he was ready to pull his films from theaters that practiced discrimination.

Reflecting on how Brando paved the way for the activism of other artists in Hollywood, filmmaker Allan Arkush, who teaches at the American Film Institute, told me studio executives had little choice but to put up with it. “They didn’t tolerate it from many people … but Brando had power and he had magnetism, so they tolerated it from him.”

For much of his career, Brando’s relationship with the industry’s studio system could be described as tumultuous, to put it mildly. His infamous demands on the sets of Mutiny on the Bounty and Apocalypse Now, which involved script overhauls that brought production to a standstill, are mythical in the annals of Tinseltown lore, having shaped many of the Brando myths that loom large in popular memory. Yet, few films showcase both his masterful artistry and his imperfections than his sole directorial credit, One-Eyed Jacks, a revenge western originally set to be helmed by Stanley Kubrick.

Released in March 1961, a decade after his first Oscar-nominated performance and nearly 10 years to the day before production began on The Godfather—for which he earned his second and final golden statue—One-Eyed Jacks sees Brando navigating two eras as both star and director. Just as the country was on the brink of political change at the dawn of the Kennedy administration, the film stood at the confluence of classic Hollywood production and the emerging storytelling boldness of New Hollywood. “It was kind of a cross between the old style of production and the new styles that were going to come in in the sixties,” remarked Martin Scorsese during the introduction of his restoration of the film at the 2016 New York Film Festival.

The film marked the end of the VistaVision era, Paramount’s proprietary technology that magnified the film’s visuals onto a grander canvas, ensuring a sharper projection. Alongside famed cinematographer Charles Lang, Brando masterfully harnessed the power of the studio’s photographic capabilities. As waves crash behind the star in Monterey Bay, each frame is transformed into a standalone masterpiece. Celebrating Brando’s eye for aesthetics, Scorsese noted, “This is visually stunning, what he did.”

Much like John Ford’s The Searchers, Brando also leaned into avant-garde narrative choices that would soon gain prominence with the spaghetti westerns that redefined the genre. By sculpting a protagonist with moral complexity and challenging the Western genre’s portrayals of Mexicans and Native Americans, Brando effectively translated the principles of his acting philosophy—shaped by his own upbringing and Adler’s instruction—into his directorial vision.

New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther commended Brando’s naturalistic performance in One-Eyed Jacks for its “vicious style,” highlighting another dimension of Adler’s influence on Brando in his nuanced portrayal of Rio, a bank robber bent on revenge against a betraying friend. Brando’s method was especially apparent in his penchant for improvisation throughout the film, which resulted in an expensive and expansive initial cut rumored to span five hours. When I asked Brando biographer William J. Mann what the actor would make of Scorsese’s praising the film as “unlike anything else around,” he told me he imagines the actor-director might have wistfully remarked, “If you think this is good, you should have seen what I was trying to achieve with it.” 

As Mann explained, Brando was heartbroken by Paramount’s constraints and changes to the original ending of the film he dubbed as “his baby.” One-Eyed Jacks didn’t exactly bomb at the box office, but it was hardly the success Brando hoped it would be. From that point on, he played by his own rules in the industry, never hesitating to show his contempt for Hollywood.

His most notable rebuke of the studio system occurred during the 45th Academy Awards in March of 1973. Believing that his attendance would convey a false sense of normalcy at a time of domestic upheaval and with the Vietnam War raging abroad, Brando sent actress and Native American civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather to decline the Best Actor award for his portrayal of the iconic mobster Vito Corleone on his behalf. Whatever one thinks of Brando’s politics, it’s difficult to imagine many personalities in Hollywood—or any other industry—who would forgo publicity to adhere to their principles.

Facing both public and industry scrutiny, Brando doubled-down on his decision. “I felt it was a marvelous opportunity for an Indian to voice his opinion to 85 million people … I felt he had a right to, in view of what Hollywood had done to him,” he explained to TV host Dick Cavett later that year. Nearly 50 years later, the Academy indirectly acknowledged the impact of Brando’s protest when it issued an apology to Littlefeather for the treatment she received at the ceremony.

Brando’s distinctly introspective criticisms set him apart from many of his peers, such as George Clooney, whose widely panned 2006 Oscar speech lauded Hollywood as the answer to society’s follies. On the other hand, while Brando was hardly shy about denouncing the flaws he saw in American culture, he insisted that the industry he frequently blasted as banal must cast out the beam in its own eye.

“If there’s anything unsettling to the stomach, it’s watching actors on television talk about their personal lives,” he told a bewildered Connie Chung in a 1989 interview. One could only imagine, given his impatience with self-aggrandizement, what he would say of today’s terminally online microcelebrities, the self-described “influencers” who revel in click-induced navel-gazing.

Marlon Brando’s bluntness may have been polarizing in his time, yet few could deny that he presciently foreshadowed many of the current cultural challenges that still plague us in the selfie era, particularly the glorification of fame. His journey through Hollywood, marked by brilliance and controversy, rebellion and empathy, reveals a figure who was not only ahead of his time but also deeply human. One hundred years after his birth, his life and work invite us to consider the enduring impact of an artist who challenged the status quo, advocated for meaningful change, and, in doing so, left an indelible mark on both cinema and the industry that creates it.

A veteran of presidential campaigns, Giancarlo Sopo now channels his passions to film. His cinematic interests range from French crime thrillers and 1980s horror, to spaghetti westerns and New Hollywood classics. Follow him on X (@giancarlosopo) and Letterboxd.