Peter Eramo Ranks: The Top 5 Performances of Marlon Brando

For my money, Marlon Brando was the greatest actor the silver screen has ever seen. A student of the famous Stella Adler Studio, there was simply no one better. Before James Dean and the method actors that would later follow, Brando brought a completely new style of naturalistic and instinctive acting to film. With his debut performance in “The Men” (1950), he was the very first of his kind…a forefather, a godfather of method acting in cinema. As a high school student, I was an obsessive fan of his, taking in as much of his performances as I could. As a theatre major in college, Brando was the epitome of everything I looked up to in an actor. To me, he could do anything he set his mind to; look and sound and play any part whatsoever. I remember feeling devastated when he passed away at the age of 80 in 2004, but I always have his films that I can pop in at anytime and relish in the viewing of watching a true actor at work. His resume is not as vast as most as he never seemed to love what he did, which is a shame. Many consider him to be a tremendous waste of talent because of this and I can understand that. Brando was a complex man with many passions. Sadly, for all his God-given talent, it didn’t seem like acting was ever one of them.

I have of course seen every Marlon Brando film, some of them many times. Even in the “stinker” movies he was involved in (and there were a few), he still managed to shine and give a wonderful performance. This is a list of what I believe to be Brando’s Top 5 screen performances of all-time. It is NOT his Top 5 movies, because then I would surely put “The Godfather” at #1. This is simply judging what I think were his greatest achievements as an actor in his too few 39 film roles.

#5. Col. Walter E. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” (1979)

“We must kill them. We must incinerate them. Pig after pig… cow after cow… village after village… army after army…”

I was tempted to put another here (like “Sayonara” or “Mutiny on the Bounty“) for a number of reasons. One is his short amount of screen time, but more importantly, Brando’s approach throughout seems less than stellar: he came late, he came grossly overweight, he never read the book, he didn’t know his lines, he had Francis Ford Coppola read the book aloud to him and was a bane in his director’s side during the entire process. Having said that, he does give one of the most memorable performances in screen history here. Coppola managed to get around the weight issue in how he shot all of his scenes. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is given the assignment of finding and killing Col. Kurtz on his remote compound and to “terminate with extreme prejudice.” So the entire film is building up to Willard finally meeting this enigmatic, psychotic Colonel. The character resonates within the viewer’s psyche before we even meet him. And when we do finally see him, Brando does not disappoint. He is a madman, a philosopher, a war hero, an intellect, a God among his people. He commands your attention in each scene he is in and creates a haunting, complex figure in Col. Kurtz.

#4. Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)

“You think I’m gonna interfere with you?… You know, maybe you wouldn’t be bad to interfere with.”

He was the talk of Broadway when he created the role in 1947 (under the direction of Elia Kazan) and blew audiences away with his animal-like ferocity and fresh approach to the craft of acting. With Kazan directing the film and a stellar cast around him (all 3 won Oscars), Brando stars in only his 2nd film and now becomes the new Hollywood sensation. His iconic cry of “STELLA!!!” is now embedded in the most memorable moments in film. His brutal taunting towards (and rape) of his unbalanced sister-in-law, Blanche (Vivien Leigh) is a fascinating watch. You’ve never seen a dinner table cleared in this fashion before. Here, his huge presence is tormenting throughout and you never know what Stanley’s next move is going to be. What Brando does is amazing though — he manages to bring some tenderness and helplessness to this seemingly despicable man. His love for his wife is clear to see, even though he sometimes has a funny way of showing it. I never get tired of this film and can watch him play this part anytime. This is one of those rare parts that, when a newer actor tries to re-create it on stage in some revival, he’s already got his first foot in a ditch as it can never measure up and will always be held up to comparisons of what Brando did here.

#3. Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront” (1954)

“You think you’re God Almighty, but you know what you are? You’re a cheap, lousy, dirty, stinkin’ mug! And I’m glad what I done to you, ya hear that? I’m glad what I done!”

Many put this at #1 and I would have no problems with that as he is absolutely phenomenal here in his first Oscar-winning performance. Brando plays an ex-boxer here, a man who coulda been so much more, who coulda had a better life, who “coulda been a contender.” Instead, he is now a longshoreman who is struggling with his conscience to stand up to a corrupt union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) after witnessing a murder by Johnny’s men. He meets the dead man’s sister (Eva Marie Saint) and when he begins to fall for her, he begins to have second thoughts about everything he once thought. The scenes he has with Father Barry (Karl Malden) are terrific, as we get to watch two friends play off one another yet again. The scene in the car opposite Rod Steiger breaks your heart and is now properly viewed as being a scene for the ages. Terry Malloy is a complex character, with so many layers. Brando is so subtle and so brilliant that he manages to show us each and every one of those layers. If you have never seen this “Best Picture” winner and you consider yourself a student of film, then this is a must-see.

#2. Don Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” (1972)

“But I’m a superstitious man. And if some unlucky accident should befall him, if he should be shot in the head by a police officer, or if should hang himself in his jail cell, or if he’s struck by a bolt of lightning…then I’m going to blame some of the people in this room. And that, I do not forgive.”

I don’t even think I need to write anything here. Brando. Godfather. Done!  The man was only 47 when he filmed this. No one at Paramount wanted him involved with this project. Thank God Coppola got his way. It is not only one of the top 3 best pictures ever made, but Brando is nothing short of sensational here as the patriarch of the Corleone crime family. He rightfully wins his 2nd ‘Best Actor’ Oscar here and creates a character that will be well-remembered for as long as there is such a thing called movies. The way he looks down Santino’s body and tells the undertaker, “Look how they massacred my boy” gives me chills. The way he feebly waves his hand at Tom when he learns that it was Michael who did the killings; the way he tells Tom that “this war ends now”; the beautiful scene he has outdoors with Michael; his improvised scene with the orange peel in his mouth; how he scolds Sonny for airing his thoughts out loud…you want me to keep going??? There’s about 50 more! It’s all ingenious, all exceptional and done by a virtuoso of the craft of acting.

#1. Paul in “Last Tango in Paris” (1973)

“Even if a husband lives 200 hundred fucking years, he’ll never discover his wife’s true nature. I may be able to understand the secrets of the universe, but… I’ll never understand the truth about you. Never.”

I look at this film as the greatest film actor giving his greatest screen performance — it is raw, uninhibited, courageous, multifaceted, daring, and vulnerable. Director Bernardo Bertolucci helps in letting Brando strip himself of everything but his emotions in this superb film. There is no hiding here, and it is in this performance that we see Brando the person most clearly. He brings everything of himself into the difficult role of Paul, the American expatriate who meets the beautiful young Parisian, Jeanne. His wife has just committed suicide and his insides are now swarming with rage and grief. He begins a sordid, dark and mysterious love affair with Jeanne where names are forbidden and sexual pleasures are the only fare on the menu. Brando’s monologue towards his dead wife is genuine and masterful. When he does open up to Jeanne for a brief moment with an anecdote about his childhood, it is riveting to watch. I can watch this film anytime because (1) I just love the movie and (2) I get such a thrill out of just watching Brando do his thing. It’s a spellbinding watch and one of the greatest performances ever put to film. Just watch this entrancing monologue and look at the myriad of emotions this guy goes through so seemlessly, so effortlessly. It’s a wonder to watch…


18 Responses to Peter Eramo Ranks: The Top 5 Performances of Marlon Brando

  1. Rick says:

    Yea, its a tough list. Waterfront, Tango, Apocalypse, Godfather, Street Car; All outstanding. Don’t forget the “Wild One” was super controversial when it came out. People were shocked at that movie. With the exception of Tango, I have probably seen each movie 20 or so times. “Shot with a diamond bullet straight through my forehead” is haunting. Even to me a 4 time seasoned war veteran.

  2. ajkima says:

    Marlon Brando is according to me the epitome of acting!!! period. Cannot decide which is his best performance between on the waterfront and last tango though. In On the waterfront his control is legendary. In last tango, the scene where he talks to his dead wife, is the best piece of acting i have seen in my life.

    • Yeah, that scene in “Tango” is alarming and riveting. It is also kind of haunting. He is just superb in it. He is the epitome of acting — and I only wish he did more with his gift and didn’t throw it away so carelessly. It is kind of a shame, really that he took what he had for granted. Not many can do it. On the Waterfront is surely up there, as well as his Vito Corleone and his memorable work in ‘Streetcar.’

      • ajkima says:

        Yeah, his performance in Streetcar named desire must be the most influential performance in american modern acting. Because I have never seen an actor so emotionally naked pre-1951. I am still not sure how the audience in 1951 felt, after watching the movie and his performance especially.

  3. Olive says:

    Great list! The Godfather would have been number one for me. Thank God Coppola was happy to stick by Brando. Between that and the producers wanting Pacino out of the way to make way for Robert Redford as Michael Corleone, what were they thinking?!

  4. Excellent list, Terry and Stanley are easily my two favourites though. Just all around excellence, some of the best performances from anyone for me.

    I suppose I need to see Last Tango in Paris then?

    • Thanks. Well, Tango is not a movie for everyone, but if you are a Brando fan then yes, it is a must-see. It is one of my Top 20 films ever and I always looked at it as his seminal performance…

  5. Heather says:

    So excited to see you added Kurtz to your list!

    Streetcar would be number one for me. He was enigmatic and incredible as Stanley. No one can remake that movie because no one can ever play it as well as he did.

    • Heather, you are absoutely right. No one can ever do the role — they will ALWAYS be compared to what he did here. And his Stanley is phenomenal. I know a few actors have tried to do it on Broadway (I saw two, including a poor Alec Baldwin years ago) and they were killed for it.

  6. I haven’t seen as many Brando films as I’d like to, but are my favorite performances from the ones I have seen:

    1. The Godfather
    2. A Streetcar Named Desire
    3. Apocalypse Now
    4. On the Waterfront
    5. The Island of Dr. Moreau

    • I didn’t care for Morneau…seemed to me he was mocking his Kurtz role and wasn’t taking it all very seriously. You’re dead on with your top 4, in my opinion. I would recommend Sayonara, Viva Zapata, Mutiny on the Bounty and Young Lions if you are looking for other great Brando performances.

  7. I don’t think it’s legend. After all I saw in the documentary and what I have read, I am sure that this is all true. Brando was, in addition to being extraordinarily gifted, incredibly lazy. I agree with your feeling about waiting for impending doom….well put. And yes, there is a story for most of his films, most notoriously, Mutiny on the Bounty….

    • Dan says:

      True…the guy is a Hollywood enigma. It’s perhaps this laziness that has meant he hasn’t been in half as many films as he should have been.

    • Raul Duke says:

      Maybe lazy is too harsh a word. Who knowswhat motivated him to do anything. Just because there were skills (and maybe your right about his own belief that he had any) does notmean that he had ambition to do more work than it took to support his family and lifestyle or passions. He obviously did not appreiciate his own work enough to make more films. I really liked The Freshman.

      • I just wrote that based on all interviews and books I’ve read on him. He has admitted in interviews that he only made movies for the money, which is sad to hear but at least he is honest. I think it took a lot to motivate the guy, but maybe lazy is a bit harsh….

        • Anonymous says:

          @peter, I too am a enormous fan of Brando and have seen most of his movies. I am juggling between his role of Kurtz and Zapata simply because of the screen time. I had a problem with him saying he only made films for the money. However I have a cousin who is a police office who is apathetic about his profession as well. He does his job according to how he is direct to and does not lend himself to emotional involvement at all.

  8. Dan says:

    For me, it’s difficult to look past Apocalypse Now. I seem to spend the whole film awaiting his presence like some impending doom. The whole thing with Brando in that film is Hollywood legend. The legend plus the performance makes it stand out. But then again, there’s a Hollywood story to go with Brando in each of his films…

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