About ten years ago, I decided to watch all the Academy Award winners for Best Picture in order, starting with Wings (1927), a silent film with a plot reminiscent of Pearl Harbor (2001). Wings stars Clara Bow (the original “it girl”), Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and Richard Arlen. It features an early screen appearance by a young Gary Cooper.
What was most fascinating about watching the films in order was seeing the gradual evolution of elements like plot, special effects, cinematography, technology, even opening and ending credits. I watched movies go from silent to talkies, from black-and-white to technicolor, from war to peacetime. I enjoyed seeing the early careers of then-unknown actors who are Hollywood icons today.
But 27 film-years into the history of cinema, I sat down to watch On the Waterfront (1954), and my mind was blown by the sudden leap in the quality of acting. I’m talking, of course, about Marlon Brando. Brando was a noticeably better actor than those who had come before him, and he stood out among a cast of great actors in On the Waterfront.
I’m not the only one who thought so. Al Pacino had this to say:
“You know, today when you tell young people about [On the Waterfront], the response isn’t quite the same about it. But you have to understand, this was in that period, a revelation. It was a breakthrough. His acting on screen was different than we’d all seen. So playing with him in [The Godfather] was… it was a little unnerving.”
Why was Brando so good? I’m guessing part of it must be a natural talent for acting. But he also studied his craft intensely and was committed to being the best actor he could be. He made it his job, even before it was his job. He didn’t skate on his innate talent–he worked at building on it.
Don’t get me wrong. Other actors in On the Waterfront studied their craft, too. Karl Malden studied acting at The Goodman School, part of DePaul University in Chicago. He’d won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role three years earlier, for his work in A Streetcar Named Desire (also starring Brando), and he was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his work in On the Waterfront. Lee J. Cobb ran away from home to Hollywood at the age of sixteen and studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. He was also nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his work in On the Waterfront. Rod Steiger studied at the Actor’s Studio in New York. Perhaps my favorite thing about Steiger is that he was critical of Charlton Heston’s views on gun control long before the issue was in the mainstream.
As far as I know, Brando’s co-star, Eva Marie Saint, never studied acting formally–she learned on her feet, which is just as valid a way to learn as any. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for On the Waterfront and won numerous acting awards throughout her career, including the King Vidor Memorial Award in 2004 at our local San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. Saint turned 98 years old on the 4th of July and is the oldest living actor to have won an Academy Award. She remains active in the film industry–in 2018, she presented the award for costume design at the 90th Academy Awards.
Marlon Brando had been nominated for Best Actor three years earlier, for A Streetcar Named Desire. For the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando brought his stage performance to the silver screen–he’d originated the role on Broadway. Brando didn’t hold anything back in his portrayal of Stanley Kowalski. This was the first time movie-goers saw this kind of acting in a motion picture; before that, such raw and unrestrained performances were confined to the theater. The Academy Award went to Humphrey Bogart that year, for his portrayal of Charlie Allnut in The African Queen, but it made Brando a major Hollywood movie star.
Brando won the Oscar for Best Actor for On the Waterfront at the 27th annual Academy Awards. He was surrounded by talent when he made On the Waterfront. Besides Best Actor, the film took home the awards for Best Motion Picture, Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Eva Marie Saint), Best Directing (Elia Kazan), Best Writing (story and screenplay), Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography (black-and-white), and Best Art Direction (black-and-white). Still, among all the talented people who made On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando stood out to me.
A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront were just the beginning for Brando. I’m a huge fan of 1970s cinema, and The Godfather tops them all. I’m not an actor, but I did play Alice, the female lead, in my high school’s junior class play, I Never Sang for My Father (makeup by David W. Smith). I channeled Estelle Parsons’ 1970 film portrayal, which wasn’t very original or industrious of me. But here are my three degrees of separation from Marlon Brando: I studied acting at North Salinas High School with Lewis W. “Ig” Heniford, a wonderfully kind man, who also taught acting to Sacheen Cruz Littlefeather, a Native American civil rights activist, who in 1973 declined the Academy Award for Best Actor for The Godfather on Marlon Brando’s behalf.
I’m one of many who think Marlon Brando changed acting forever. Edward Norton once said this about Brando:
“There’s this history of famous actors, and it sort of begins with Brando, because Brando had such an enormous effect on the psychology of men in America. If you look at what I’d call ‘the great generation’ of American actors (Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, Morgan Freeman, Meryl Streep), that’s all the post-Brando generation. All of those people, literally all of them, wanted to become actors because of Marlon Brando. He rewrote the idea of what it was and what it could be.”
I’m not qualified to tell you why Marlon Brando was so good, but based on what I’ve read about him, I have a few ideas. He studied and he worked at it. He was brave and took risks. He flaunted convention and scorned public opinion. He was passionate about acting, and he seems to have studied all the things. He didn’t rely solely on his own experiences and emotions. He studied under Lee Strasburg and Stella Adler. He studied the Stavinslavski method for acting, immersed himself in the texts and characters, believed in bringing truth and reality to acting, and was among the first to bring what he learned to film for mainstream audiences.
Marlon Brando was inordinately kind (I love this story about him on Roger Ebert’s website, Brando letter makes the grade), but he could also be self-centered. In an archived interview for the defunct Sabotage Times, “Never Meet Your Hero. Unless it’s Rod Steiger,” Steiger recalls being present for Brando’s close-ups during the On the Waterfront shoot, so Brando had an actor to play off of, but Brando didn’t stick around for his. While I was disappointed to read this about him, it also reinforced to me the depth of his commitment to his own acting.
Brando immersed himself in life, too. “An actor must interpret life,” he once said, “and in order to do so he must be willing to accept all experiences that life can offer.” He devoted himself to acting, he loved it, and reading about him, I get the idea he felt it was his obligation as an actor to be dedicated to his craft. He was ahead of his time because he wasn’t afraid to try new things.
Marlon Brando accepts the Academy Award for Best Actor for On the Waterfront
Let me bring this back around to writing. I believe hard work is going to win out every time. I don’t believe an actor or a writer or anyone has to have a formal education to be successful. There are too many examples of successful people who don’t. There are plenty of ways to go about becoming a better writer on your own: reading well-written books, studying how other writers do what they do, and of course, practice, practice, practice. But neither do I think writers should be shamed for pursuing education, training, or coaching in their craft. Marlon Brando did it. Most actors do it. Athletes do it. Singers do it. Why not writers?
However you learn to write well, I think the lessons I’ve learned from Marlon Brando are these:
- Throw yourself into your work with passion. Devote yourself to your craft. Make it your job to be the best you can be.
- Write with abandon. Be fearless. Take risks in your writing. Learn the rules, then don’t be afraid to break them.
- Don’t worry about what other people think. Be kind. As Tod Goldberg says, “Don’t be an asshole.” But don’t listen to the haters, and don’t be afraid to put yourself and your writing first when you need to.
- Live life to the fullest. Your thirst for life will feed your writing.
- Be the best. Be the Brando.