Why you should care

Because before there was Brad Pitt, there was Marlon Brando, who would’ve turned 90 this month.

Dead for 10 years now, Marlon Brando only just scratched the surface of the 21st century. It’s all right; in the 20th he dug so deep.

He’d have turned 90 earlier this month (April 3), so the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, in conjunction with the Marlon Brando Estate, carved out a couple of week’s worth of double features to wish the big man a happy birthday. Also to show off some of his bigness to people who might not really know about or remember it.

We took it for granted that the American idea of a great movie actor originated in him.

Hugeness, more like. In accumulating his life, Brando got so physically large that inevitably he exemplified our worst concerns about movie culture creating monsters. (He’d also been a famous Oscar refuser, after all.) But what outlasts the body is the soul, and on that front, there remains much photographic evidence that even today the biggest of screens can barely contain him.

For the last generation to grow up with some real-time awareness of him, Brando was the Godfather, the father of Superman, the Method man par excellence. (Or par indulgence, if the Method didn’t do it for you.) You always just sort of took it for granted that the American idea of a great movie actor originated in him. Eventually you traced it back to his appearance as a brute so beautiful and commanding in A Streetcar Named Desire, in 1951, that he stole that show from its intended protagonist.

As David Thomson observes in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, “It is a tribute to Brando’s unceasing dignity that he has striven to seem a true person on film, not gilded by attractiveness or reputation.” Offscreen, there were terrible personal hardships, and various efforts to register his presence as a troubled citizen of the world. There were traces, always, of the kid from Omaha who’d been wild enough to get sent away to military school and also expelled from it.

Wait, Brando was in a Chaplin movie?

But still, and most importantly, there were movies.

They couldn’t all be winners, of course, but it’s amazing how often the most important thing to know about any given film he’s in is that he’s in it. As just one example, consider the 1967 romantic comedy A Countess from Hong Kong, already notable for being the last film made by Charlie Chaplin (who he disliked), and even more so when you do the double-take: “Wait, Brando was in a Chaplin movie?”

Well, why not? In one interview, when Brando said he didn’t believe in awards of any kind, not even the Nobel Peace Prize, and it was pointed out that he did at least accept his Oscar for On the Waterfront in 1954, he replied, “I’ve done a lot of silly things in my day.”

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