From “A Streetcar Named Desire” to “The Godfather,” Marlon Brando’s big screen performances has been epic. Brando is considered one of the top five greatest screen legends by the American Film Institute, and one of the 100 Persons of the Century by Time magazine, making him a true cultural icon.
As a two-time Academy Award winner, Brando spent much of his career shunning the Hollywood establishment – thus making him a famous Hollywood rebel – yet, he earned its enduring admiration through his naturalistic performances that transformed the craft of acting.
Here’s how the great Marlon Brando influenced pop culture:
He redefined the art of acting
It’s easy to imitate Marlon Brando, but few could copy the skills that made him an icon. He is credited for being one of the first actors to bring method acting to mainstream audiences. He popularized the acting style, which stripped away grandiose theatricality in favor of a deeper psychological approach to performing a character.
Before method acting has become popular, stage actors read their lines clearly in service of the written word, and rarely in a natural way. For the most part, film actors adopted the same acting technique. But then came Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski.
What set him apart was the way his acting technique unleashed an inner conflict. His method seemed to harness his warmth, charm, insecurity, anger, cruelty, and weakness, and managed to separate those traits from his eccentric streak that would later define him. His work gave other actors permission to explore a role from the inside out and tap into observation and personal experience, rather than merely reciting lines.
Generators of actors were electrified by Brando’s work as conflicted characters in “On the Waterfront,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and “The Wild One,” representing men who were emotionally vulnerable but dangerous at the same time. Brando became the bridge between the heroic screen purity of stars like Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and Henry Fonda, and a generation of conflicted anti-heroes played by the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Robert de Niro, and Jack Nicholson.
Brando defined truth and honesty as an actor and even as a public persona. He has shown the power of great screen acting paired with a no-nonsense ruggedness. He was an example to many young actors worldwide, and even the directors who never worked with him benefited from him. Because of Brando, there has become more actors willing to push themselves and delve deeper to their own psyches. Because of Brando, actors have been willing to submit to endless retakes of scenes both to get it right and try different ways.
He was one of the most respected and celebrated actors of the post-war era
According to the American Film Institute, Marlon Brando is the fourth greatest male star whose screen debut occurred before or during 1950. Critics and fellow actors like respect him for his memorable performances and charismatic presence on screen.
Encyclopedia Britannica describes him as “the most celebrated of the method actors,” and his unique mumbling and slurred delivery shows his non-conformation to the classic dramatic training. He was considered as one of the most influential actor of his generation, but he expressed open disdain for the acting profession. Nevertheless, he remains a riveting presence on screen who can present a vast emotional range and an endless array of compulsively watchable quirks.
He advocated for many causes, notably equality in the set and civil rights
More than a celebrity, Brando is a thinker and a political figure – a public intellectual and a famous person with a tumultuous personal life. Brando had a strategic approach to his career that offers a number of ways actors who want to change their industry and the world might leverage their fame for good. Brandon showed people in Hollywood that contracts can be about more than money.
When Brando negotiated over his role in “Sayonara,” a film where he played an American air force officer who falls in love with a Japanese woman, he insisted that the original “Madame Butterfly ending” be replaced with one that portrayed racial intermarriage as a natural outcome of love. He only agreed to take part in the movie after the producers agreed to those changes, and only after fact-checking cultural inaccuracies in the script even after he signed on.
For “Mutiny on the Bounty,” Brando negotiated over the story again, pushing for Polynesian people to be cast as extras. And in “The Ugly American,” he insisted that the failures of American strategies in Southeast Asia be exposed. He also urged for an even treatment of Communists and Americans. He also used his fame to call attention to his colleagues’ working conditions in “Burn,” a film about slave revolt, when he charged the director with paying black cast members lower wages than whites.
Even when he wasn’t given direct influence over scripts or working conditions on the set, he led by example. On the set of “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” Brando noticed the maltreatment of an actor from the Dominican Republic, Nelson de la Rosa, and did something about it. De la Rosa had a genetic mutation, was only two and a half feet tall and weighed 22 pounds. He was clothed in loincloth with a tail, which Brando found derisive. So, Brando made de la Rosa his sidekick who dressed identically, and he was beside him in nearly every scene.
Besides equality in the film set, he was also an activist for the civil rights movement. In the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Brando became committed to furthering King’s work. But even before King died, Brando was already participating in the civil rights movement. He contributed to both the scholarship fund for the children of slain Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers, and to Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
He represented the concept of a free American on screen
Marlon Brando is a cultural icon with enduring popularity, which had a profound effect on American culture. Brando represented a reaction against the post-war mania for security. He was a development from the gangster leader and the outlaw, and he was antisocial. To the youth, he was a hero. He represented a contemporary version of the free American on screen, making him one of the most exciting American actor to grace the big screen.
He voiced some of the most famous lines ever spoken in films
From the start of his career, Brando voiced some of the most famous lines ever spoken on the big screen, many of which are still part of the American lexicon. Some of his famous lines, which you might have heard in shows today:
“Whaddya got?” – The Wild One (1953)
“I coulda been a contender.” – On the Waterfront (1954)
“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” – The Godfather (1972)
“It’s not personal. It’s business.” – The Godfather (1972)
“This is no fantasy, no careless product of wild imagination.” – Superman (1978)
“Do it to him before he does it to you.” – On the Waterfront (1954)
The famous “I coulda been a contender” line was perhaps the most repeated line on any American movie, and it was only Brando’s improvisation white shooting. He took much of the credit for the movie’s most memorable scene. Initially, he argued with director Elia Kazan, saying that the initial direction didn’t seem true to the relationships between the characters. “As it was written, you had this guy pulling a gun on his brother,” Brando told in an interview. “I said, that’s not believable. I don’t believe one brother is going to shoot the other.”
He took the liberty to follow his own intuition and persuaded Kazan to allow him and Rod Steiger, who played his brother to improvise the scene. He did it by gently pushing away the gun his brother held to his head. Later on, Kazan admitted, “If there is a better performance by a man in the history of film in America, I don’t know what it is.”
He rationed his media appearance to call attention to the causes he cared about
Brandon was not the kind of guy who would like as much exposure as possible. He rationed his media exposure so he can use his rare appearances to call attention to the causes he cared about. This was apparent in his decision to give Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather the opportunity to take the stage on his behalf and decline his Academy Award for Best Actor in 1973 for “The Godfather.” Brando declined his award because he was disgusted about how the film treated and stereotyped American Indians.
In 1963, Brando went on the Today Show to read excerpts from Time magazine’s coverage of Tennessee Williams, and called attention to the “anal rhetoric and physical slurs so obviously misplaced in a reputable journal.” He criticized the magazine for letting homophobia color their coverage.
He was a male sex symbol
Brando was a quintessential American male sex symbol during the late 50s and early 60s. His status as a sex symbol peaked when he was 28 years old. He was also an early lesbian icon who, along with James Dean, influenced the self-image and butch look in the 1950s and after.
He was a style icon for American men
Marlon Brando’s style was authentic. His most characteristic style moment was a time when no one in the world knew what he was wearing. Brando’s fashion, both on and off screen, was never easy to pigeonhole. From his earliest roles, he was a theatrical force to be reckoned with.
He defined the look of the 1950s, a good-looking, young kid with nowhere to go and nothing to do, but sit around his fender in a leather jacket. The sales of leather jackets and blue jeans increased exponentially after the movie “The Wild One” hit the big screen. His portrayal of rebellious Johnny is said to have influenced teen rebellion.
Brando made the classic, everyday garment, the T-shirt, sexy. His fit shirts accentuated his upper body, expressing the character’s toughness and rugged sexuality. Worn with jeans, his look defined a generation of American men. Allegedly, his T-shirts were heat-shrunk unto him because fitted shirts weren’t readily available during the 1950s.
When Brando played the role of godfather Don Corleone, he was seen in various fine dinner jackets and thick, knee-length coats. This Italian style is steeped in timelessness and tailoring, which remains a classic attire.