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 him self 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.
Acting part 1
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 makes 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.
Robert Duvall also learned from Brando during filming to deemphasise the idea of a beginning. With Brando there was no deliberate start to a performance, no end; he talked as he moved onto the set, as if the scene were part of an ongoing conversation. He eliminated the border between behaving and acting.
Actor’s make up
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 personae. 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.’
Acting part 2
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 once said that acting was ‘like blowing up a balloon and then letting go,’ thus pinpointing the element of unexpectedness that made everything he did so distinctive after he had immersed himself through reading, research and observation in the world and mind of his character, he was free to improvise in ways that even he couldn’t anticipate.
Brando invokes a favourite comparison between actors and boxers who both seek to dominate. Great actors are like boxers with opponents, sparring with audiences, forcing them to adapt to their rhythms, their moves. ‘As soon as they can second guess you, then they’re ahead of you. You got to make them wait and get them on your time.’
Brando was always honing his craft, even more so in life than on stage and screen. He was acting all the time. When he came back from France he spoke French, and after making the Mexican movie, Zapata it was Spanish. Brando said, you can’t act, unless you are what you are and who you are. But he seems to have made a point of keeping others guessing, impersonating, fabricating scenes, as if constantly testing his own powers of make believe. His genius was to be in touch with something more provisional than himself: what he had the potential to be, or felt like being at the moment.
Brando was well renowned for using objects in his performances. He studied objects with a welder’s eye for those strongest centred seams… 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 he lives.’ 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 said ‘People buy a ticket. That ticket is their transport to a fantasy which you create for them. Fantasyland, that’s all, and you make their fantasies live. Fantasies of love or hatred or whatever it is. People want their fantasies over and over. Films are just an extension of childhood, where everybody wants to be freer, everybody wants to be powerful, everybody wants to be so overwhelmingly attractive.’
Acting part 3
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.’
Lying for a living was an acting teaching project he launched in his seventies, in late 2001, and was designed to codify the vast range of acting techniques people drew on in public and in private. In his typically democratic way, Brando collected participants from the most humble and ordinary to the highest paid actors in the world. He wrote the skits, directing and critiquing the performances, which were all recorded.
The ideas was to assemble people, eminent and ordinary, from all walks of life, along with professional actors, to participate in a series of lessons on acting fundamentals. Among the people he invited were Sean Penn,
Nick Nolte, Robin Williams and even Michael Jackson.
The plan was to film and distribute the footage, once edited, worldwide. Brando wasn’t only aiming at international audiences but also drawing on a range of cultures for his techniques.
Throughout the course of the teachings Brando got his students to do various exercises, some quite profound that even Robin Williams got slapped in the face by reality. That was the lesson Brando was teaching. Acting is not intellectual. It’s emotional, the enemy of the actor is the mind.
Children act less, one reason why we love children so much.
He didn’t type up a syllabus or choose scenes for his students. “The whole class was improv, from beginning to end.” He would express criticisms when necessary, would sit on his throne and call students to the stage, have them improvise for a few minutes, then rip their work to shreds (“Lies! Lies!” he would bellow when he didn’t like what he was seeing). “You’re performing in front of one of the greatest actors who ever lived, who distinguished himself by the acuity of his bullshit detector,” says actor Peter Coyote, who attended one of the later sessions. “If he looked at your performance and sensed bullshit, that’s something you’d want to know. It’s something I’d want to know.”
He would keep things lively, sometimes correcting student grammar, rattling off Yiddish curses and praising other notable actors such as Daniel Day Lewis and Meryl Street for taking risks. At one point he instructed the white students to behave black and the black students to behave white. Develop your inner critic by suppressing your ego, he recommended, and fill out your characters with details.
And yet, for all the wackiness, there was a Method to Brando’s madness.
everything Brando did in that warehouse, no matter how seemingly bizarre, served a greater purpose or elucidated a greater truth.
Strip away the mascara and “he was stressing a basic fundamental of acting,” said one of his students. “Which is that you must be willing to show your ass and fail. If you’re not willing to do that, you might as well get the f— out of here.”
Later in his life
He 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.’
Although Brando had a great affinity for people: his responsiveness to everyone, young and old, beggars, commoners, the distinguished and the neglected. This deep feeling for humanity seemed especially suited to his subject.
Brando had his share of disappointment and misery, some if it of his own making but he never lost his unlimited appetite for experience and knowledge.
Later on in life 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 just may be the Brando brand.