Two lines from his 1953 movie The Wild One might have served as the soundtrack to Marlon Brando’s monumentally tumultuous life: Sweet young Kathie asks leather-jacket-wearing, motorcycle-riding, authority-baiting Johnny, played by Brando, “What are you rebelling against?” Johnny replies: “Whaddaya got?”
Marlon Brando – seen by some as the greatest movie actor of the last half century, and by nearly everyone as a defiant public figure who embraced causes with intense passion and as a steadfastly private man whose romantic escapades and personal tragedies made headlines nonetheless – died Thursday at the U.C.L.A. Medical Center in Los Angeles of lung failure at the age of 80.
Born in Omaha in 1924, the young Bud Brando went to New York after being expelled from high school. He soon began working with the great acting teacher Stella Adler, and barely a year later he was on Broadway. In a forgettable drama called Truckline Cafe, Brando hooked up with its producer, Elia Kazan, who cast him in the role that made Brando’s career, in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Hollywood called, and Brando made his screen debut in 1950’s The Men. Starting with the 1951 film version of Streetcar, he enjoyed an unprecedented string of four consecutive Oscar-nominated performances. After Streetcar came Viva Zapata!,1953’s Julius Caesar, and On the Waterfront (1954); for the latter Brando won a Best Actor Oscar. “If there is a better performance by a man in the history of film in America,” said director Kazan, “I don’t know what it is.”
While filming 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty in Tahiti, Brando, then 36, fell in love with both the tiny island nation and with 19-year-old Tarita Teriipaia. He purchased the nearby island of Tetiaroa and made a home there, which he shared with Tarita (and later their two children) off and on for nearly 20 years. “The happiest moments of my life have been in Tahiti,” Brando wrote in his 1994 autobiography, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me. During the Tahitian years, 1962-90, Brando worked occasionally, but by the late ’60s the former revolutionary had become, according to some film critics, little more than a hack.
All that changed when Francis Ford Coppola called him to star in the 1972 film version of Mario Puzo’s bestseller The Godfather. Brando, then 47 – his cheeks stuffed with tissues, his eyes half-closed, his voice a croaking whisper – was back.
But although that role and the one that followed, in Last Tango in Paris (1973), represented a major comeback for Brando, it wouldn’t last.
After a now-infamous stunt at the 1973 Oscars, Brando stayed away from Hollywood for three years. When he returned, it was almost always in a small role (Superman’s father in Superman, Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now), for big money – which he used to support his gluttonous lifestyle; the once-buff hunk had transformed over the years into a 350-pound behemoth.
But if Brando became a lethargic older man, and his idealism of the civil rights years turned to cynicism, his unhappy private life may have been justification. His son Christian spent five years in prison for killing his half-sister Cheyenne’s boyfriend. And in 1995, Cheyenne hanged herself in her mother’s house in Tahiti.
“I’m certain that there were things I could have done differently, had I known better at the time,” Brando told the judge at Christian’s sentencing hearing. “I did the best I could.”