Now this is not a knock on Marlon Brando. The man was a great actor who influenced generations. Brando had a style that could be brooding with a rage and intensity level that was explosive.
It didn’t necessarily always come to the surface which of course made him even more fascinating to watch. This combined with the many personal touches he gave his characters makes him definitely an actor for the ages.
One favorite moment for me is from the movie The Fugitive Kind (1960) directed by Sidney Lumet. In a scene with the volcanic Anna Magnani, she and Brando are having a conversation when he turns and walks away. Magnani ask him why he walks a certain way. Brando turns around and moves back towards her. “What? What?!” The way he says it with such understated force coupled with his body language confirms for me why he was one of the best.
But the greatest of all time? There’s an unfortunate tendency to rank something like acting which by and large is very subjective. One person watching one of Brando’s films like On the Waterfront or Viva Zapata may feel like he is the greatest thing since slice bread. In the meantime somebody else views the same movies and Brando’s acting may do nothing for them. In fact they may not like it all.
The same goes for those schools of thought which declare Spencer Tracy, James Cagney or Lawrence Olivier as the best ever. Again that is subjective but what also complicates matters is their styles of acting are totally different from one another. Tracy’s was a more stripped down style while Cagney’s had that extra sense of bravado. As for Oliver he was working on a more classical bent. These are of course obvious generalities but the point is it’s hard to compare who is better when each actor is coming at it from their own point of view.
And that is one of the foundations of great acting. A performer looks to put his or her individual stamp on whichever part they play. Digging inside themselves to find the exact motivations to bring the character as well as the story to life. Technique is just a means to get there. Whether someone uses the Stanislavsky method, classical or just goes outside and stares at a tree is secondary. In the final analysis the question remains is it believable? And truth to tell it is hard to look at the body of work of two great actors and declare one’s performances more believable than the other.
Brando was a great actor. And he takes his rightful place alongside the other great actors of the movies. Above everyone else? Not even a little bit.