Songs My Mother Taught Me
Was the autobiography of actor Marlon Brando. Considered one of the greatest actors of the 20th century he is credited with being one of the first actors to bring the Stanislavski system of acting and method acting, to mainstream audiences.
Born on April 3rd, 1924 and by the time he was a late teenager he followed his sisters to New York, to study at the American Theatre Wing Professional School, part of the Dramatic Workshop of the New School.
He fell under the influence of Stella Adler and Stanislavski’s system in the 1940s and he began his career on stage, adeptly reading his characters and consistently anticipating where scenes flowed.
In 1947 he obtained the role of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire which proved to be a sensation with Brando playing the role as a man without sensitivity or grace of any kind.
He transitioned to film with his first role as a bitter paraplegic veteran in the 1950 film The Men which proved to be both controversial and critical acclaimed and in 1951 he followed it up with playing Stanley Kowalski in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan.
Brando is simply mesmerising in a role that over 70 years later still remains immensely powerful and raw. It’s arguably his finest film performance.
Brando’s next 4 roles were as Emiliano Zapata in Viva Zapata !, as Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar, as Johnny Strabler in The Wild One and as Terry Malloy in his Oscar winning role in On The Waterfront. I doubt in the history of cinema there has ever been a film actor or actress who has delivered 6 consecutive performances of such outstanding quality with each role being unique and memorable.
Early in his career, Brando began using cue cards instead of memorising his lines. Despite the objections of several of the film directors he worked with, Brando felt that this helped bring realism and spontaneity to his performances. He felt otherwise he would appear to be reciting a writer’s speech. Reading his autobiography I sense it was more out of laziness or an inability to memorise his lines. Once on The Godfather set, Brando was asked why he wanted his lines printed out. He responded, “Because I can read them that way.”
And after bursting out with his first 6 movies his following performances appeared to be half-hearted, lacking the intensity and commitment found in his earlier work, although he remained a top box office draw for the rest of the 1950s.
By 1961 he resolved to become a director with One-Eyed Jacks, a pretentious overlong western that became an expensive flop. Following that came his role as Fletcher Christian in 1962’s Mutiny On The Bounty where he was accused of deliberately sabotaging nearly every aspect of the production which nearly bankrupted the studio MGM. It’s best summed up by director Lewis Milestone who said “executives deserve what they get when they give a ham actor, a petulant child, complete control over an expensive picture.”
The rest of the decade saw flop after flop where Brando’s own distain for the movie industry was becoming notorious whilst at the same time his performances were often erratic and disappointing. One exception was his role as the sheriff in Arthur Penn’s Southern drama The Chase, but despite good reviews the film was not a success.
By the early 1970s it looked liked he was finished in the movie business as no-one was prepared to take the risk with him anymore, but Francis Ford Coppola was determined to cast him as Don Vito Corleone in his upcoming adaption of Mario Puzo’s best-selling gangster crime novel The Godfather.
Paramount set three conditions for the casting of Brando: That he would have to take a fee far below what he typically received; he would have to agree to accept financial responsibility for any production delays his behaviour cost; and he had to submit to a screen test. Coppola convinced Brando to do a videotaped “make-up” test, in which Brando did his own makeup (he used cotton balls to simulate the character’s puffed cheeks).
Of course the rest is history as the The Godfather became the biggest box-office success up to that time whilst also being critically acclaimed. Brando’s performance (despite the cue cards) is simply superlative which won him his second Best Actor Oscar which he controversially declined. I won’t detail much more on this film as I intend, at a later date, to give its’ own post. It’s in my top 10 favourite films of all-time.
Following The Godfather came the controversial Last Tango In Paris which as a film I found pointless and pretentious although Brando was excellent; but he soon reverted to his old habits of being extremely difficult on set, with fellow cast members and directors whilst being generally content with being a highly paid character actor in supporting roles of varying quality.
He had one final memorable role as Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now, although he turned up for filming grossly over-weight which Coppola had to obscure with dimly lit lighting to try and conceal Brando’s obesity.
On July 1, 2004, aged 80, Brando died of respiratory failure from pulmonary fibrosis at the UCLA Medical Centre. He also suffered from diabetes and liver cancer.
Looking back on his acting career (I have not included any details of his personal life which was an absolute mess of failed relationships) I believe he had a unique talent that he appeared to be embarrassed about; as if making a living as an actor wasn’t worthy of his talents. So to compensate, he became a terror on set, clashed with directors and caused financial difficulties for numerous studios.
In other words he acted as a spoilt brat for the majority of his adult life.
and the tease for next weeks post . . . well there won’t be one as I’ll be taking a hiatus for a few weeks.
I need to take a break as currently I have a lot on at present and I’ve been struggling for a couple of weeks now in finding the necessary time to give justice to the posts.
But to quote from a movie . . . “I’ll be back”.