03 July 2004


Marlon Brando

Greatest actor in American film

For a man who hated the job, Brando was a hell of an actor. He had all of the ingredients of talent as a film actor in vast measure. The most important, and inexplicable, was his screen presence.

I will grant that actorly craft can help to create screen presence. Consider all of those well-trained British actors who turn up in American films — Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, and so on — who are able to command the screen with their mastery of the craft. It's something you can learn.

But it's also a talent, a weird and inexplicable talent. It's a thing that can make actors with mediocre skills into great movie stars. Think of Katherine Hepburn or Keanu Reeves. They can't act all that well, but they have that thing. Brando was a great actor and he had that thing. He had as much of it as anyone else who ever worked in the medium. Probably more than anyone else who ever worked in the medium.

There's a scene in Last Tango in Paris where Brando is idly drumming his hands against the wall. That's all that's happening, and it lasts a couple of minutes. It's a scene of a man standing drumming his hands. It should be duller than a Jarmuch film and put you to sleep. But the scene is utterly hypnotic — more movie than you get from most entire feature films.

Talent. Magic.

When I first told my folks about discovering Brando, about seeing this scene, they both became angry. He cheated us, they said. He should have made more films. Maybe so.

But could he ever have made enough films?

Salon has a dazzling feature with pages and pages of quotes about him by everyone cool who ever met him. Check it out.

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