Friday, July 25, 2014

Twice a Best Actor Bloggers Roundtable: Marlon Brando


We’ve reached the week that I’ve personally been waiting for.  MARLON BRANDO!  Marlon Brando has a reputation that is one of the best in the business, and while his final film output can be seen as hokey and ridiculous, it’s a shame for any young film lover to watch something like The Island of Dr. Moreau and then decide that Brando was a hack.  Marlon Brando was one of the finest actors of any generation, and his ability to evoke such human emotion helped change the face of acting.

Now, I’ll be honest.  I was hoping that Brando would win this series.  I had my fingers crossed that the seemingly undefeatable Daniel Day-Lewis was come in second place, because at the end of the day Marlon Brando is just one of my all-time favorites.

I’m not so sure that happened…

If only he had won for A Streetcar Named Desire, like he so richly deserved…

Once again, our esteemed panel!

Alex from And So It Begins
Andrew from The Films the Thing
Drew from A Fistful of Films
Mario from Two Dollar Cinema
Shane from Film Actually



ALEX
The Performance
Brando’s incarnation of Terry Malloy is cinema at its most iconic. A man for the people. A contender with heart. A dying breed, struggling to stay on his feet. There isn’t a false move to be found here.

The Field
Brando should’ve won in 1951 for his revelatory work in A Streetcar Named Desire, giving him a total of three Best Actor trophies. But, granted, ‘51 was a tough year. The 1954 race, however, was a no brainer. Brando all the way.
My Grade: A+

ANDREW
It seems rather daunting to try to put into words why exactly Brando's performance in On the Waterfront is what it is when all the best superlatives have already been bestowed on it for almost 60 years now. It's considered one of the best performances ever captured on film and critics such as Roger Ebert have even stated that it single handedly changed acting in film. (I personally think Brando did that already a few years before with A Streetcar Named Desire.) So the greatest thing I can come up with is that with so much baggage and high expectation attached to it, that Brando and his performance as Terry Malloy are every bit as astonishing as you've heard and he more than lives up to the hype. As the former boxer (who coulda been a contender...) that is repeatedly kicked-down by life, Terry seeks redemption in doing something that isn't the easiest choice but definitely the correct one. And Brando, the actor, is himself continually making right choices, layering on details that catch you by surprise with how disarmingly unique, unexpected, and perfect they are. When Terry and Edie are talking and she drops her glove, instead of picking it up and handing it back to her, he continues the scene while trying the glove on his own hand. It's an intimate moment that shows the softer side of the gruff exterior and allows Eva Marie Saint, playing Edie, to let her guard down and let the moment unfold naturally and sweetly. Later when his brother (Rod Steiger) pulls a gun on Terry in the back of cab to coerce him into following the mob's orders, instead of reacting how most people would if a weapon was pointed at them, Brando's Terry gently pushes the gun away and with such disappointment and hurt simply says, "Oh, Charley..." There's an unusual tenderness to this confrontation which makes it that much more compelling. But what I love about both moments is that instead of drawing attention to himself, Brando engages his scene partners and elevates them to reach his level. Brando was in a weird headspace with the recent death of his mother during the filming of On the Waterfront. He was completely disappointed in his performance and felt that he lacked energy. But that subdued energy on film shows a bottled up tempest of emotions brewing below the surface. My apologies to the other 4 actors nominated that year, but there could simply have been no other winner. 
My Grade: A

DREW
In racking my brain trying to find a way to express exactly what Brando’s performance in On the Waterfront conveys or ‘feels like’, I found myself resorting back to one simple word.  Human.  It sounds super vague and not really all that convincingly descriptive, and yet it is the only word I’m left with at the end of it all.  Marlon Brando single handedly conveys what it feels like to be human.

While the description itself may seem to be almost a cop out of sorts, a lazy choice, it really stands as a testament to how incredible Brando is in the role of Terry Malloy, ex-prizefighter turned longshoreman whose very existence (and future) finds itself tied up in some shady lines.  Brando’s performance is one that rests so heavily on the audience because it feels so authentic, so natural and so grounded.

So human…

His plight, his conundrum, his eventualities; it’s all wrapped up in our perception of this man, and the fact that Brando corrals us to his side every step of the way is remarkable.  We feel for him.  We are truly invested in this man.  As Terry convinces himself of the right course to take we are torn, because we like him and we want to see him make it out of this intact. We know that his decision could mean his death and this scares us, almost enough to wish he'd reconsider, but we know him and we know that his life is better saved in the spiritual sense than saved in the physical sense.  We are that wrapped up in this performance.

For me, this is acting at its finest.  Brando is considered one of the finest who ever lived, and it’s for performances like this that he has earned that title.  I’ll be honest and admit that I have not seen any of the other Oscar nominated performances; but I’d be thoroughly shocked if upon watching them I consider Brando’s win here undeserved.
My Grade: A+

JOSH
Brando won his first Best Actor Oscar for playing Terry Malloy, a former boxer working as a longshoreman for crooked union leaders. In one of the year's most lauded films, Brando gives the performance of his career as a conflicted tough guy with a soft side. He layers Terry with a hard-as-nails bravado and a sensitive soul lurking underneath. It's aided by Brando's natural screen presence, which outdoes most actors anyway. Of course, Brando was an Academy favorite by this time, so his nomination was to be expected.

Did Brando deserve to win?

Yes. He was due, and he gave the best performance of the year. This was an easy call.
My Grade: A+

MARIO
Who I was rooting for:  At face value, I’d probably lean toward Humphrey Bogart, you know, because of his face.
The role:  Brando plays Terry Malloy, an ex-prizefighter down on his luck who finds himself embroiled in a major conflict with the local union boss. Terry witnessed some shady activity and has to decide to either keep his mouth shut and lose the girl, or open it and (possibly) lose his life.
Watch for:  Terry’s final stroll past Johnny Friendly is pretty epic and essentially a standing ten-count.
Yay:  I don’t care how many times I’ve heard the line butchered, but I coulda been a contender! Is still one of the greatest movie lines ever.
Boo: Man, I was really hoping Terry would shoot that gigantic prick of a bartender.
Summary: Seeing a young Brando in On the Waterfront was quite the experience. While Don Corleone is a character larger than life, Terry Malloy is anything but. He’s a small-time loser, barely holding on the bit of glory he sniffed years ago. I really enjoyed how Brando played it, making us not quite sure about our feelings toward Terry. But under that dopey exterior, Terry is a good guy with a good heart, and even though it almost kills him, he does the right thing. But for Eva Marie Saint, who could blame him?
My Grade: B+


SHANE
What else is there to say about Marlon Brando’s performance in ‘On the Waterfront’ that hasn't already been said? I’m sure you can find dozens of odes to him that are much better than anything I could write. I’ll give it a shot anyway.

We all know about the “contender scene” and there’s no denying its heartbreaking honesty and perfect delivery by Brando. Its impact is rightfully ensconced in film history, but it doesn't stand alone. There are so many other beautifully rendered moments that inform us of the character and give the speech its power.

Terry Malloy is a young man who had admirable aspirations that got derailed by the circumstances of his environment. He’s filled with regret but there’s still a light in him, however dim it may be. To show this, Brando gives Malloy a surprising tenderness under the brawny exterior and it’s this quality that makes the character so special. From his disarming chemistry with Eva Marie Saint to his delicate moments of sadness (when he sees the fate of his brother and his pigeons), he gives us so much to love and appreciate. When he finally gets pushed over the tipping point then, it comes across as a natural progression. By the looks of it, Terry Mallow was destined to be the hero.

In terms of Oscar, this is a win that is fully deserved. It really is an exceptional performance. However, he came up against another of my all-time favourite performances in James Mason (for ‘A Star is Born’). I would have probably voted for him. 
My Grade: A


ALEX
The Performance
Not to sound repetitive, but there’s acting, and then there’s Brando at his best. Very few performers – now or then or ever – come remotely close to matching his towering work. Vito Corleone is cinema.

The Field
Brando. No question.
My Grade: A+

ANDREW
By the time Brando starred as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather, he had already changed the rules of acting and been a film god amongst men, having made an indelible mark on cinema over the past 20 years. But with a couple of flops preceding this film, he was almost considered a has-been or at least a shadow of his former self. But you can never count Brando out. Just like that, with this role and this film, he proved that no one was capable of doing what he could and created what is arguable his best remembered role. By all accounts the performance shouldn't work as well as it does. Brando was only 47 at the time (only 15 years older than his screen sons Pacino and Caan), had acquired a reputation for disrupting filming, even disappearing sometimes entirely (his contract stipulated that any delays caused by him would come out of his own money), and insisted on wearing a mouth piece to give him jowls (he wanted Corleone to look like a bull dog. At least it was a step up from the cotton balls he used for his audition) making his speech almost incomprehensible. But amazingly it all works. Brando is commanding as the Mafia head but seems to embrace the role of patriarch to his own family with greater importance. It's that compassion, that family always comes first, that saves this from becoming a stereotypical mobster. And it's all in his voice, certain but soft and never seeming to rise above a whisper, yet demanding that you pay attention to every word - asserting his power with subtle authority. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, which, judging by the way Brando's performance has been emulated and parodied in pop culture for decades, only proves how iconic the role has become. Of the other 4 men in his category, the award clearly goes to him. But if Pacino had been placed in lead alongside his onscreen father, Brando would've had to have made an offer I couldn't refuse because Pacino is the film's actual lead with a more complex character arc. He also would've accepted and picked up the award himself, no Native Americans necessary... 
My Grade: B+

DREW
When you think about what it means to be an iconic movie character, this performance is what should come to mind.  It’s unforgettable, quotable, likable and carries with it this overwhelming nostalgic feeling, like it’s part of an era, like it defines a part of life, and because of that it is, without question, iconic.

But being iconic doesn’t always mean being good.

That is where Brando gets everything right here.  Yes, he created an iconic character, and yes, he used a certain level of gimmick to get there, but underneath that gimmick is a thriving soul and a real human being, a real man, and Brando allows that man to bleed through with such honesty that the icon doesn’t even matter anymore.  When watching The Godfather, we don’t see the icon.  That comes later.  That comes when you’re hanging out with your friends and quoting (and miss-quoting) the movie.  That comes when you’re reflecting on the film characters you know and love or when you’re visiting one of those awful wax-museums.  No, when you are watching the movie, you see Don Vito Corleone, and that is all.

When Vito speaks, he bares his soul.

The most recent comparison I can think of to the power of Brando’s actual speech here would be Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.  When Ennis Del Mar spoke, you could sense all that backstory.  You could sense all that pain, passion, undeniable confliction.  Every word was a struggle.  Heath used his voice to color in everything he wasn’t actually saying.  Brando did the very same thing (it’s no wonder that Ledger’s legendary Brokeback Mountain performance garnered him not only raves, but comparisons to Brando himself).  While that garbled (or should I say marbled) voice may seem like a mere gimmick, it translates marvelously because it helps establish Vito’s emotional backstory.  Just watch the way that he uses it in key scenes.  The way he uses it during his disagreement with Michael about the drugs, the way he uses it in the hospital scene, the way he uses it while in the garden; that voice is a weapon.

For me, despite the fact that Brando has limited screen time and Al Pacino has the largest role in the film (his Supporting nomination was a joke), Brando was the clear Best Actor in 1972.  It just couldn’t have gone any other way, and history has cemented that decision.
My Grade: A+

JOSH
Brando won his second Best Actor Oscar for playing Don Vito Corleone, the iconic patriarch of an Italian American mafia family. His performance in this landmark film is simply remarkable. In playing this iconic character, his interpretation easily could've become cartoonish or too intimidating, but Brando sidesteps that, giving Vito both a cunning nature and a warm, loving personality. It's a tricky role, and I'm not sure if anyone else could pull it off. (Robert De Niro successfully played a younger Vito, but the older Vito is even more complex.)

Did Brando deserve to win?

A case could be made for Al Pacino's performance (placed in the supporting category) in the same film, but Brando definitely deserved it out of the nominees.
My Grade: A+

MARIO
Who I was rooting for:  I’ve never seen any of the other nominated performance (surprise!), and I love me some Michael Caine, but I’d blindly root for Brando even if I hadn’t seen The Godfather before.
The role: I won’t insult either of us by filling this section out.
Watch for:  The way Brando handles Don Corleone dealing with the news of Sonny’s death. He holds it together, even consoles a distraught Tommy, but you can feel it’s taking everything he has to do so.
Yay:  The meeting of the five families. When did I refuse?
Boo:  So, I’m pretty sure that scene in the garden scarred that little kid for life.
Summary: What can you say about Brando as Don Corleone? He simply is The Godfather. It’s cliché to say, sure, but I can’t imagine anyone walking the planet today (or at anytime really) playing this role. Brando gives such a commanding character the absolute perfect amount of compassion and humanity. My only knock is that even though Don Corleone is clearly the center of the family’s universe, this feels more and more like Michael’s movie. Don Corleone’s presence is damn near tangible in every scene, but I feel like Pacino may have been a better choice for Best Actor. I’m probably going to wake up and find a horse’s head in by bed just for suggesting this, huh? In fact, I might not even be Italian anymore after this.
My Grade:  A

SHANE
Now, as much as I love Marlon Brando, I don’t rate his performance in ‘The Godfather’ as highly as many others would. I find the performance often feels too “superficial” and calculated, without the depth that I've come to expect from him. I blame it on the accent and the heavy makeup, which seems to constrict his usual vitality.

This isn't to say it’s a bad performance (of course not, it’s Brando). Indeed, he often delivers fine work within the confines of the role. I particularly love his devastated uttering of “Look how they massacred my boy.” In addition, it’s really awesome how he ages the character. As time passes, his movements become increasingly more strained and his voice is even gruffer by the end. This is best seen in his final scene where makes you doubt that you’re watching a man in his 40s.

In terms of his Oscar-worthiness, I must admit that I have similar issues like I had with Fredric March in ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’. His screen time is a bit brief for my liking, as he’s absent for some long stretches in the movie. No doubt, he’s still the central figure of the plot but he doesn't really loom over the film like a Hannibal Lecter for example. Honestly, I didn't even miss his presence because the supporting cast as just as compelling on their own.

Nitpicking aside, I would still give him the Oscar due to the role’s iconic nature. None of the other nominees are nearly as memorable and important to film history.
My Grade: B+


FINAL SCORE
There is a number assigned to each letter grade that helps us give a score to each performance. The highest number (and A+) would be 20 points. An F would warrant 0 points (a D gives you 5). So these are the scores for each performance as well as a collective score (which will be used at the end to rank each individual actor).

Marlon Brando received a total of 111 points for his performance in On the Waterfront.
Marlon Brando received a total of 108 points for his performance in The Godfather.

This is a collective total of 219 points.

As a point of reference, the highest collective score you can attain is 240.

This place him a whole SEVEN POINTS behind Daniel Day-Lewis!  SO CLOSE!!!!

So this closes our discussion of Marlon Brando. Next week we’re going to talk about Tom Hanks, which should prove to be very interesting...

Again, as always, a special thanks to the five incredible bloggers who agreed to attack this project with me! It wouldn't be the same without any of you!

8 comments:

  1. Man, this is tough as Brando was at his best with those 2 roles. Both of those roles are quotable and both of them exemplify how great he is.

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    1. Brando is probably the only actor who I think should have 5 Oscars to his name. These, accompanied by Streetcar, Tango and Apocalypse. He was honestly in a league all his own.

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  2. I'm not a big Brando fan often finding him over studied and insular so I've never made it a point to seek out his films. I just saw On the Waterfront this year from beginning to end for the first time. Part of it was indifference and part weariness of the clips that are always shown but I'm glad I did finally watch the whole film. He did deserve to win that year although like Shane I love James Mason's performance in A Star is Born and would have been fine with him taking the prize.

    Now with The Godfather I never fallen under its spell. It's a fine film, and I realize I'm in the minority of not absolutely loving it, but I've never been particularly enraptured by it or Brando's performance. Again it's good work and it may be my indifference to the actor but I was never swept away by it.

    What gets me with '72 is how narrow all the actor fields were with Sleuth taking two actor spots and Godfather three supporting probably costing all three a chance at the gold. So all the fine work in Deliverance, Junior Bonner and Kenneth Mars hilarious turn in What's Up Doc? went unrecognized.

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    1. I can understand the complaint against Brando's breed of acting to a degree. I don't see it as over studied, especially when compared to some other performers of his day. He always possessed an ease to his convinctions. Sure, he wasn't as relaxed or 'in the pocket' as someone like Spencer Tracy, and then again, Tracy never attempted the heavy hauling that Brando did. Brando redefined acting...he was a fearless performer and delivered a 'show' without delving into theatrics. He was a very grounded actor, portraying brute honesty at a time when that brand of acting wasn't very popular.

      And 72 is one of those weird years where I feel like Oscar, acting wise, got their winners right. I haven't seen the Supporting Actress winner, but I personally award Brando, Minnelli and Grey :-D

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  3. Wow! DDL won after all. I figured it would be close, but I thought Brando could pull it off.

    I only give Brando wins for these 2 performances, though I can't argue with giving him those 5 wins you mentioned in the comment above.

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    1. Well, he hasn't won yet! Tom Hanks is Friday...LOL...nevermind!

      But Spencer Tracy? UGH, it's a shame...but whatever. I mean, DDL gave some seriously powerful performances, so he's a deserving winner, but so obvious.

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  4. Marlon was great in On The Waterfront and gave a compelling performance but I would have given it to either Bing Crosby or James Mason. Sorry but their performances have kept in my mind better than Brando's but as for the Godfather-hands down, best performance. No matter what happened at the actual Oscars (you go Littlefeather). You know I remember watching that Oscar telecast

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    1. WOW! I feel like such an Oscar baby. The first telecast I ever watched was 2001.

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