Known for his visceral, brooding characterisations, Brando was the most celebrated of the method actors. His true and passionate performances proved him as one of the greatest actors of his generation.
But when you think of Brando you don’t think of his smile. Comedy was not his forte and most of the characters he played were unaccustomed to happiness.
But equally important was his understanding of smiles as clues to vulnerability or manipulation. When he does smile in films, it’s usually compromised in some way – it’s half smile, or an ironic smile, or a smile threatening to collapse into something sad or sinister.
What was his secret, and how can we see Brando as a brand?
Brando would often say to his close friends ‘If you want to know me, listen to Miles Davis’s records or read stories or novels by major Anglo-American writers such as Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Joseph Conrad and H. G. Wells.’ He was not only a devoted drummer who could hold his own with professional musicians, he was also knowledgeable about an extraordinary range of music.
When he’d go to jazz clubs to play with his friends such as Quincy Jones, Brando would say ‘It’s time to go jiggle some molecules.’ He had an extensive collection of jazz and classical records as well as many books on music.
Despite his resistance to schooling, he was a voracious reader from a young age, and the library he amassed over time suggests that he had a profoundly inquisitive mind. It reflected his need to know as much as possible about everything that intrigued him.
The range and depth of his library suggests there was very little that did not. During performances at theatrical plays he would set up a bookcase for himself backstage, where he read between scenes. He believed that an actors work is only as good as his mind. So he dedicated himself to intellectual development.
He had an attitude towards acting. In interviews throughout his life, he seems disparaging, insisting it was instinct: Everyone acted, some just did it better than others.
Yet Brando was a walking contradiction since he would prepare deliberately and extensively for film roles early to late in a manner that would have been familiar to Stanislavski and to Stella Adler.
He read books about the world of his characters, wrote pages of notes highlighting questions and problems in the film scripts and revised numerous scenes and dialogues.
One factor that made Brando’s acting enduring is the sheer array of roles he played. In some films he was virtually unrecognisable, playing characters from other cultures or wearing makeup that almost completely altered his features.
He experimented with accents whether it was southern, German, Irish or even the British he always made a point to labour through imitation and research. His repertoire is filled with military figures, though he tended to be more offbeat than usual in his roles.
The roles he chose were frequently outside or above the law, playing outlaws, gamblers, adventurers, mobsters, and thieves, but he also played lawmen, doctors, lawyers, ambassadors and other officials.
In each of these roles, Brando created a distinct character with his own particularities of face, gesture, voice, accent and gait.
Brando was very much engaged with makeup. Since Russian actors were expert in developing external features, which they believed made their characterisations more vivid, Brando did his own makeup for years, viewing it as integral to creating a role.
He knew just how to put on the scar tissue above his eyes, layer by layer in hot wax in On the waterfront. In each role he played he envisioned the physiognomies, facial musculature, gestures and accessories of his film persona. He understood the function of a moustache: pencil thin, it registered tradition and age; more flourishing, it trumpeted sexual energy or sometimes buffoonery.
Brando was an intriguing case of a leading man with a powerful attraction to villains; he played many of them over a nearly sixty year career, and always with great complexity. He recognised the charisma of those who wielded power or desired it, and the helpless attraction of audiences to such figures.
And because he believed that no one was wholly good or bad, he never accepted the dehumanisation of villains. If a character were scripted that way, Brando would complicate him, injecting a transformative humour and nuance.
Brando went on to say that ‘no villain ever thinks of himself as a villain, just as no hero can be all hero… Let a small light show through. Remember, he is a human being, and even a monster has a soul.’
Brando’s acting subscribed to an ideal of brevity; when it came to dialogue, he truly believed that less is more. His script changes involved cuts: a few forceful sentences substitute for pages of conversation; a lifted eyebrow or grimace replaces lines altogether wherever possible.
As a tireless observer of nature, people and animals, he recognised the physical poetry of a dancer or the silent empathy of a dog.
Brando grasped more expertly than any other actor of his time the camera’s potential to exploit that concentration on what he was thinking or doing at each moment.
He said ‘The face becomes the stage’ and the eyes were the storytellers. An actors lines were far less important than what he communicated with his eyes. Even members of the national theatre for the deaf said that Brando was their favourite actor, noting that they always understood exactly what he was expressing, even though they couldn’t hear what he said.
He conveyed so much of the character’s ideas and emotions over and above words aware of how film afforded a vocabulary of image, gesture, and look utterly independent of sound.
Brando was well renowned for using objects in his performances. He studied objects with a welder’s eye touched whatever he touched as if it were part of him. Stella Adler his acting teacher said ‘Every object you bring on stage has to tell you about the circumstances of the character you’re playing and the world in which they live.’ No one took this more to heart than Brando.
The plainest materials became symbols in Brando’s hands. A wooden glove slipped over his hand in On the waterfront signals his aspiration for empathy, the desire to understand the feelings of the girl’s glove he took.
When Stella lectured about hats she said this: ‘The person who wears a high hat has to know how it lives… Do you know you have to use both hands to put it on? It’s made to be worn straight.
The person who wears it has a controlled speech, a controlled walk, a controlled mind.’ Watch how Brando, as the aristocratic ship’s officer puts on his hat in the first scene of Mutiny on the Bounty.
Brando’s range as an actor was the result of his many varied interests. When it came to acting, he found inspiration everywhere but in acting books. People who worked with him often marvelled at his powers of concentration. He could immerse himself in scenes, ignoring cameras and lights like no one else.
While he never ‘became’ a character, extending his role beyond the set, he felt that an actor had to commit to his fiction. ‘If you aren’t convinced of what you’re doing, you won’t convince anyone else.’ He once said on a TV show. Pressed about his own technique, he characterised it as ‘instinctive.’
His view of acting was essentially democratic: it was a basic human impulse motivated by social necessity. Questioned about his professional development, Brando said, ‘We’re all actors… the way that you conduct yourself in this interview is not the way that you conduct yourself at a bar with some of your friends… one is able to adjust oneself to a situation.’
Brando also saw acting as an evolutionary adaptation. ‘We couldn’t survive a second if we weren’t able to act. Acting is a survival mechanism; it’s a social unguent, a lubricant and we act to save our lives, actually every day.
It’s a business, it’s no more than that, and those who pretend that it’s an art I think are misguided. Acting is a craft and it’s a profession not unlike being an electrician or plumber or an economist.’
Later in his life Brando began to shun films and had a disdain for the celebrity. His bohemian tendencies and democratic politics are what motivated him rather than seeking adulation which he considered so misplaced. He was very much living for the aphorism ‘If you want truth, shun fame.’
Brando read a great deal about meditation and began mastering it’s techinques. He also made his own relaxation tapes which he used regularly. It was during the 1980s that he began meditating twice daily, even experiencing on multiple occasions satori, the sudden awakening that is the ultimate goal in Zen Buddhism.
Brando consistently put forward his beliefs no matter how they were received and his ethic was of leaving the world better than you found it. This was a goal that Brando could understand.
In one of his notes from his autobiography he writes, ‘It’s hard to believe that there isn’t any acceptable reason for living other than seeing the kids get through before I go – I want to scratch something on the wall of the cave, to leave a grain of something that said I was alive for some pale sliver of a moment in the evening of this species; there has to be something more than just shuffling softly toward the turnstile with our cross town Transfers to Eternity in our hands.’
And that, ladies and gentlemen, may be the Brando brand.