Marlon Brando is considered by some to be the best American actor, though I do not agree. He is in the Top Ten, possibly Top Five. Acting style in film can be classified as either before Brando or after. He brought Method to the big screen and forever changed how we, the audience, expected roles to be performed. His main negative is his relatively small body of work when compared to other actors. That being said, his performances are typically memorable and unique.
Normally when creating a list like this I try and limit myself to five choices. In Brando’s case I saved the Top Five for roles in which he was the lead actor, and the bottom four (I could not come up with a fifth) for supporting characters.
#9 The Freshman
Carmine Sabatini is basically Don Corleone as a nice guy with a comedic spin. He has good chemistry with Matthew Broderick, and he parodies himself well.
#8 Superman The Movie
Though not on screen long, his Jor-El haunts the remainder of the film. With the distinctive Kryptonian look created by the art and costume designers and his calm demeanor as Krypton crumble, Brando’s Jor-El conveys wisdom, strength, and foresight. And later in the movie when he appears as a holographic tutor for Clark Kent in the Fortress of Solitude, and Superman chooses to go against his command to not interfere with human history you understand the importance of that decision. This is where Clark the boy unyokes himself from the ghost of his father to become a man. The chose is made more poignant because the role of Jor-El was imbued with much power because of Brando’s performance.
#7 Missouri Breaks
A truly bizarre yet captivating performance from Brando in an admittedly off-beat Western. He and Jack Nicholson work well together, with Nicholson saying Brando acted everyone off screen. This film marks Brando’s transition from leading man to character actor.
#6 Apocalypse Now
Unlike Jor-El where Brando creates a performance that informs the remainder of the movie, his Col. Kurtz has to live up to the expectation of the character. He does. Though notoriously difficult to work with during the shoot, Brando creates a character for the ages. After watching Apocalypse Now the first time, you now have the personification of Kurtz in your mind in all other viewings. That image only enhances the experience of the film.
#5 The Godfather
Though Brando won the Academy Award for Leading Man as Vito Corleone, The Godfather is really the story of his son, Michael. Paramount Studios pushed Brando to the Academy because he was the known actor. That being said, the Oscar is richly deserved. His portrayal of a mafia don would be the standard bearing for all others to follow. When someone imagines the glamorous side of the mob, it is to Don Vito Corleone they dream of being. Brando also gave the character a humanity typically not seen for such a role. You felt his loss when he verbalized how he wished Michael did not follow him into the family business; how he imagined a Senator Corleone.
An overlooked performance in an overlooked film. Brando plays a apolitical sympathetic German blackmailed by British Secret Service to assume the identity of an SS Officer, and travel with a German freighter with necessary cargo. The performance like the film is understated and intelligent. (As a side note, the film is incredibly shot in high contrast black & white film.)
#3 Last Tango In Paris
Brando at his most vulnerable as an American Expat in Paris. A broken man looking to feel alive again, and finding that feeling in a young woman. The little private world they create for themselves cannot last, but he does fight for it in the end. He himself claimed he never felt more raw, exposed, vulnerable, then when he was filming this movie.
#2 On The Waterfront
It was a tough call between the #1 and #2 slot. Brando’s Terry Malloy is the vulnerable brute the bad guys take advantage of in order to get their way. From his classic “I could have been a contender” speech, to his fiddling with Edie’s dropped glove in the park on the swings, Brando creates an empathic character you care about.
#1 A Streetcar Named Desire
Because this is the role that changed what we expect from actors and their performances. Mumbled lines, animal passion, brute strength, no one had seen anything like Brando’s performance as Stanley Kowalski. Clear diction? Not for this type of man. Sexual innuendo? No, only raw passion and animal lust. Brando’s Stanley was no fictionalized version of the working man but the real deal.