Marlon Brando’s death last Thursday has resulted in acres of coverage that could easily be mistaken for hyperbole. But in Brando’s case there should be no doubt that the praise is justified.
Brando was fortunate enough to begin his career at a time when film acting was still struggling to define itself. Actors came from and trained for the stage. Yet stage and screen acting require very different skill sets. A stage actor must project a character into the audience in a process that creates a façade or mask they hide behind. So early film acting, especially silent movie acting, looks exaggerated or hammy. Brando was among the first cohort of actors to recognise that the screen demands a subtle approach; the close-up allows the actor to make a point with a look. He was the first and most effective performer to take that process to its logical conclusion. Brando internalised rather than projected his characters creating performances that convince in a way nobody before him had achieved.
Brando proved the method worked (although strictly speaking he wasn’t a method actor), making his Oscar for On The Waterfront the best deserved award; he became Terry Malloy, the docker who could’ve been a contender.