Nearly ten years after his death, Marlon Brando
remains a walking alchemist’s vial of contradictions: the heavy build of a
bruiser, a brawler, a thug, that still evinces a leonine haughtiness that let
him play noblemen and generals in his prime; a quicksilver sensitivity that
flits through his most savage actions like the tail of an electric eel whipping
through dark water. And, of course, there is his handsomeness: a masculine
angularity so intense that it can’t help but invite the same worshipful scrutiny
commonly shown to the Marilyns, the Bardots, and the Lorens – which puts him,
like them, in a gilded cage of good looks, where people are reduced to their
Though the name Brando
still evokes the memory of a time when nobody had ever seen anyone like him
before; it has also, ironically, become an adjective of choice when describing
a certain type of actor: a (usually) White, (usually) young, (always)
attractive man of great talent who will let himself be broken down over the
course of a film, who will brood and rage heroically and release a few
strategic tears before his inevitable (even if pyrrhic) triumph. Leonardo
DiCaprio is one of these actors, so is Christian Bale. Nicolas Cage was one of
these actors until he devoted his post-Oscar career to the sort of He-Man action
hero parts that Channing Tatum could sleepwalk through. When Cage does return
to the kind of rigorous roles that defined him as a capital-A actor—like his
turn as an ex-con in Joe—even the
most positive reviews lament his overall artistic decline (the headline for one
recent write-up says it best: “Joe
reminds us why we liked Nicolas Cage”). Johnny Depp literally wore a leather
jacket in one of his first classic roles; that of teen dream/gearhead hellion
Crybaby, which was, in and of itself, an homage to and a loving spoof of
Brando’s Wild One.
Each of these actors has an onscreen element stitched
together with aspects of the Brandoesque. And yet, for all of their formidable
talents, and for all of the power and ingenuity in their performances, this new
generation still doesn’t quite compare with Brando himself. The Brando standard
(which derives its definition, for my purposes, from the “young Brando’s”
persona and body of work) isn’t ultimately about swagger or artful brutishness.
It’s about vulnerability—but not the conventional vulnerability traditionally
allowed to leading men: coming gently undone in front of his love interest;
crashing hard after his mission or merger or perfect family life (or all three
at once) falls apart; surviving (barely) a brutal beating from his nemesis.
Brando’s vulnerability is rooted in what his acting teacher,
Stella Adler, defined as “his great physical beauty—not just good looks, but
that rarer thing that can only be called beauty.” That beauty is an essence
that feels as delicate and attenuated as Terry Malloy’s fingertips while he
plays with Edie’s white glove in On The Waterfront; and as elemental, as
thick with sex and need as Stanley Kowalski’s cry for his wife. “Brando took
over the vanity and posing and sheer willfulness of a good-looking woman … and
he gave it a male twist”: With these words, critic Harold Brodkey most aptly
describes the dichotomy that defines the Brando standard and gives it its
power—a tempestuous blend of what Brodkey calls “the rigorously male” with a
surrealistic kind of beauty that can’t help but call attention to itself, the
kind of beauty most associated with actresses and models, the kind of beauty
seen as a means to an end. Most of Brando’s early roles, the ones he’s most
known for, use this tension between brawn and beauty to accomplish something
extraordinarily subversive for the time of Father
Knows Best: turning the alpha male into a sex object.
Terry Malloy may be the anti-hero of On the Waterfront,
pissing away his talents as a boxer by serving as hired muscle for the mob; but
Edie, the brainy “Plain Jane” sister of the kid whose death Terry inadvertently
causes, sends the plot into motion. The heart of the film may be the arch of
Terry’s redemption, but it finds its pulse in the parallel narrative of Edie’s
sexual awakening. He’s in awe of her education, and all-too-keenly aware of his
own limitations—his bosses call him a dummy, all brawn and no brains. Edie is
the convent girl with the teaching job in her future; her belief in him gives
him a sense of legitimacy he’s incapable of finding on his own. All he can
offer her in return is his magnificent body and the promise of pleasure. Edie’s
face in the infamous glove scene, and in the scene where Terry teaches her to
drink beer, is a symphony of barely-repressed lust.
Smart, ambitious and uncompromising, Edie is the archetype
of a heroine in an early Brando film. What makes her, and all her cinematic
sisters, such as Cathy from The Wild One or
Josefina Zapata from Viva Zapata! (In
which Brando plays the late revolutionary Emiliano Zapata) so unique is that
she doesn’t particularly need
Brando’s character, but she wants
him—even though she has more promise in her pinkie finger than he has in the
sculptural bulk of his entire body. Perhaps the clearest crystallization of
this kind of relationship comes from Viva
Zapata! where Josefina teaches her peasant-born husband to read while
they’re in bed. Zapata is shirtless, his dark, muscular chest thrown into
relief by thin white sheets; our attention is called to the earthy grandeur of
his physique, but also to the emotions playing over his face—awe of the words
themselves, fear that he’ll never learn them, and shame that he’s as needy as a
child before the woman who was, moments before, in thrall to him.
Terry Malloy and Emiliano Zapata are certainly two of young
Brando’s more tender characters, but even his unabashed brutes like Stanley
Kowalski or Johnny from The Wild One embody
(quite literally) this dynamic. Stanley and Johnny are capricious beasts,
animated by instinct and chaotic whim; this gives them their erotic potency.
Stella Kowalski waxes raptly to her sister about how Stanley broke all the
lights in the house on their wedding night. She’s of the manor-born and he’s a
grease jockey; she’s vastly smarter than he is, but that doesn’t matter when he
rips his shirt off.
In The Wild One,
Cathy, the shy waitress who finds herself drawn to Johnny after his biker gang
invades her small town, doesn’t gain the same pleasure of a bare-chested
Brando; she does, however, get to hold onto him as they ride on his chopper, to
feel the engine thrum through the small of his back and the backs of his
thighs. The leather-jacketed rebel astride his Harley is an icon of American
masculinity (which Brando was arguably an architect of), but Johnny’s face
remains inscrutable, impassive; the camera holds on Cathy as desire blooms
across her features. Still, in the scene that follows, she dresses him down for
ravaging her town, calls him out on his macho bluster. All Johnny can do is sit
and listen. He knows she’s right. She’s more than right, in fact. She’s superior to him.
Many of Brando’s
supposed heirs apparent don’t allow themselves to be as similarly objectified
as he was. Like Cage or Bale, or latter-day DiCaprio, the roles they choose are
too rooted in a more conventional masculinity: These characters may possess
great depth and sensitivity, but they are, at the end of the day, cops and
superheroes, soldiers and executives who just happen to have matinee idol
looks. One could argue that Nicolas Cage’s performance in Moonstruck comes close to the Brando standard, given that his
character, Ronny, a baker who lost his hand to a bread slicer, strikes a spark
inside lonely widow Loretta. However, the friction that strikes this spark
comes from equality, not imbalance: Ronny and Loretta well-matched in intellect
and temperament; their first date is at the opera, and they first fall into bed
after one of those fights where the lovers are really parsing out who’ll be the
unstoppable force and who’ll play immovable object. Unlike Edie and Terry, or Josefina
and Emiliano, nobody is “the brain” and nobody is “the body.”
DiCaprio, who started his career as a teen heartthrob, has
transitioned away from films like Titanic
or even Total Eclipse, where his
gamine prettiness drives the movement of the film—whether that’s stirring the
heroine to abandon her posh, if constraining, lifestyle for him or driving a
legendary poet to madness and his greatest work. Some of Christian Bale’s
roles, like Bruce Wayne or Patrick Bateman, have required only a sort of
perfunctory handsomeness; a good-looking man will fit the bill, but he doesn’t
have to inspire actual lust. Indeed, the hyper-attentiveness to Bale’s
appearance in American Psycho is a
testament to his character’s soulless superficiality.
Actors like Depp or Jared Leto are almost singularly
distinguished by their prettiness—even (perhaps especially) when they take
roles meant to subvert that prettiness. Much of the press surrounding Leto’s
turn as a doomed transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club focused on how
exquisite his features looked under his drug store make-up. Depp’s portrayal of
Edward Scissorhands has a romantic pathos, and not a horror villain’s
grotesquerie, because we know that his diamond-cutting cheekbones are under
that putty-pale skin with its constellations of scars. These actors lack that
tantalizing sense of menace inherent in the beefcake side of the Brando
standard. Could we ever imagine teen dream-era Johnny Depp breaking down Edie’s
door as Terry Malloy does, his embrace so forceful with need that he pulls them
both to the floor?
To embody the Brando standard is
become a razor’s edge, to possess a beauty that seems too fine to be dangerous,
even as it draws that first delectable lick of blood. Michael Fassbender is
making a career of dancing on that edge. In one of his first breakthrough
roles, as the cad who seduces the adolescent heroine of the film Fish Tank,
Fassbender seemingly exists to be objectified. The movie is skewed through
fifteen-year-old Mia’s perspective, and the viewer partakes of Fassbender’s
body with the same fusion of intrigue, awe, and lust that Mia feels. In an
early scene, Connor teaches her to catch fish with her hands; as he wades out
into the river, the camera holds tight on his back and we see the sculptural
planes of muscle shift under his snug t-shirt just as she does.
watches the fish twitch and writhe inside his grasp, sunlight dapples the
water—illuminating how agile, how strong his hands are. That sun-color is
referenced again when Mia has sex with Connor: A crisp, painterly crescent of
yellow (presumably from a streetlamp outside her window) connects the side of
Mia’s cheek with Connor’s fingers, which stroke Mia’s hair. Connor is the male
equivalent of the party girl who coasts on a hard body and an easy charm; he
can’t give Mia any of the perks we’d commonly expect the December to offer the
May in that sort of affair: no hard-won wisdom, no finer things in life—just
pure bone-quaking pleasure. But there is a dark current churning under the
stream of Connor’s roguish good looks: When Mia discovers that he has a wife
and a daughter not-too-far from her age, Connor lashes out at her with the
force of a cornered snake. And yet, Mia seems as if she’s always known that
Connor had the capacity for great cruelty. Her facial expressions, post-coitus,
register equal measures relief and regret; she knows better than to do what
she’s just done. Then again, so does Stella Kowalski.
None of the sex in Shame, which is arguably the film
that Fassbender is most known for (mostly because it showcases the organ he is
most celebrated for), approaches the roughest approximation of pleasure. His
character, Brandon Sullivan, compulsively seeks out encounters that are the
equivalent of pressing his thumb into bruises hidden under his clothes. He
cycles through a coterie of call girls, Web-cam hook-ups and skin mag models;
so there is no lover whose view we can enter. The only prominent female
character, Brandon’s sister Sissy, is a sloppy jangle of raw nerve; she serves
as a mirror image of Brandon’s arctic reserve. Director Steve McQueen’s camera frames
Fassbender’s body like a museum centerpiece: We first behold him in the nude,
walking drowsily from bedroom and bathroom; everything behind him is lit in
muted hues, giving Technicolor clarity to a musculature that would make
Fassbender certainly possesses a Brandoesque beauty, but
he’s also got Brando’s chaotic potency. Brandon’s most pronounced moments of
self-loathing come as assaults on Sissy: The scene when he, half-naked, pins
her to the couch and screams in her face is a sort of nihilistic inverse to
Terry Malloy’s romantic door-smashing. Like Terry, Brandon is savage with need,
but his need isn’t for love or affirmation; it’s for obliteration, release.
Still, the film seems to wink at us by casting a GQ Man of the Year as a sex
addict; even as we watch Brandon debase himself with increasing abandon, we’re
tacitly asked, “Yeah, but you’d still hit that, right?”
Like Fassbender, Ryan Gosling has been branded as the
thinking woman’s sex symbol. And like Fassbender—and like Brando before
them—his handsomeness (to put it mildly) is inextricable from his onscreen
persona. The Place Beyond the Pines opens
with a close-up of Gosling’s immaculate abs as his character, a stunt rider
turned bank robber, flicks his switchblade around with an absent-minded
elegance. His lover, Romina, knows that he’s impulsive at best, violent at
worst; no good will come of him, and she’s got a better man at home. And yet,
like Edie and Stella and Cathy before her—and like every male protagonist who
has ever found himself helpless before a femme fatale—she is powerless before
the promises inherent in his sly half-smile.
Gosling’s character in Blue Valentine, Dean, has
a similar blue-collar appeal; he’s a high school dropout who, much to the
consternation of his wife, Cindy, a successful nurse, doesn’t aspire to be anything
other than a house painter. When they first meet, Cindy is an Edie, a quiet,
studious girl who comes alive under his touch. The most significant (or at
least, the most discussed) sex scene in Blue Valentine is the moment
when Dean goes down on Cindy; the focus gliding from his back and shoulders to
her rapt face. Gosling exists only as an agent and avenue of female desire; the
camera doesn’t return to him afterward, it holds on Cindy as she sighs “Oh God,
Oh God,” again and again.
Brando’s talent is a large diamond held to the sun, casting
light in an infinite array of colors. There are many other elements of his work
worth excavating and many worthy successors to that work. Idris Elba’s turn as
Stringer Bell, the wannabe kingpin who could’ve been a contender, comes
immediately to mind, as does Joaquin Phoenix’s war-wrecked vagrant in The
Master. So parsing out such a narrow standard for the Brandoesque may seem
unnecessary in a supposed golden age of acting (for men, at least), where
performers on the small and silver screen alike are challenged to renegotiate
the tropes of conventional masculinity.
But even in a time when Batman can have his back broken in a
summer blockbuster and the man in the gray flannel suit can break down in a
pivotal pitch session, male protagonists are allowed to be much more than their
appearances; and this is seen as something that gives them their heft, their
depth. Most of the actors who’ve been deemed modern-day Brandos possess degrees
of his talents and intensity, but precious few of them come close to evoking
his vulnerability. Brando’s willingness to open himself as more than just a
lover or a fighter, a rebel or a brute, but an object of lust still feels
transgressive. He is naked, even in a torn t-shirt.
Laura Bogart’s work has appeared on The Rumpus, Salon, Manifest-Station,
The Nervous Breakdown, RogerEbert.com and JMWW Journal, among other
publications. She is currently at work on a novel.
10 thoughts on “The Brando Standard: How Modern Actors Struggle Productively With Marlon Brando’s Legacy”
I concur with the absence of Tom Hardy. His acting in Bronson or even in The Drop (against a smarter, Noomi Rapace) could work perfectly into the list.
Great article, nonetheless
Joaquin Phoenix od the only one of those mentioned that even comes close to Brando's range. When I think of him in Gladiator, Her, The Master, Walk the Line, To Die For, etc. Joaquin has been grinding out the work for a very long time. Ryan Gosling has a very limited range and mostly stands around staring trying to look impressive. Some actors have the affectations, you know, the "method" approach, but it's style over substance. They're posing. There is no one who's equal to Marlon Brando. He was the Master.
Where is Garrett Hedlund from ON THE ROAD? He is channeling Brando perfectly in it.
Matthias Schoenaerts without a doubt. All through Rust and Bone all I could think of was I think I might be watching Brando.
Nicholas Cage can't come close to Marlon Brando. Not now, not then, not ever. In my opinion, his voice is hard on the ears and he himself, so hard on the eyes. Pierce Brosnan in his day could hold a candle to the icons of the 60s silver screen. Ryan Gossling has got what it takes. Leo…meh.
But Marlon was Marlon like Rock was Rock, like Bogey was Bogey, like Cary was Cary, like Gable was Gable. There will never be anyone to replace them. Maybe we'll find some who are greats, but they can't be the icons we knew and loved.
Hopefully the part in parentheses is a joke: None of the sex in Shame, which is arguably the film that Fassbender is most known for (mostly because it showcases the organ he is most celebrated for)
I think you're stretching your point a bit with Blue Valentine. Cindy didn't get swept away by a man who was dangerously flawed but too beautiful to ignore. She consciously decided to settle for a man who she didn't find compelling, but who would be a reliable father for her unborn child. It was a decision made in desperation, not lust. Dean wasn't a pretty boy, he was a nice guy, and that's what Cindy wanted.
But otherwise, I love your analysis of Brando as the progenitor of the objectified American male in cinema. Thanks for your great insights!
Good article and analysis, with two of my favorites, Fassbender especially. He plays vulnerability well–most recently, and most surprisingly, in his character in Twelve Years a Slave.
Ummmm……Did I just miss it in the article?? Where was Tom Hardy mentioned? The dude could literally be a Brando clone sent from the past! Yes, they're different in many ways but, you know what I'm talking about!