The first Marlon Brando movie I ever saw was ”Last Tango in Paris.” It was 1973, I was 14 years old, and I couldn’t have had less interest in art cinema. I went to the movie to fire up my adolescent hormones – to get a glimpse, I hoped, of what sex actually looked like. On that score, ”Last Tango” was fairly disappointing: The characters didn’t go at it all that often – or take off enough of their clothes when they did. Yet I was far from bored. Quite the contrary. I was transfixed, in the most unexpected way, by the sight of this haunted middle-aged actor, with the parted lips and the grayish long hair and the brooding glint of sad majesty, pushing himself to limits of behavior and emotion that I had never imagined. In ”Last Tango,” Brando poured out his agony and his ecstasy. He screamed, he purred, he screwed, he raged, he joked, he confessed, he mourned, he talked dirty, he dropped his pants on the tango floor, and then, finally, he died. I was too young to really know what I was seeing, yet there was a freedom, a leonine force, to his acting. I felt in a way I could scarcely put into words that I knew this man.
It was all part of the greatest second act in the history of movies. By the end of the 1960s, Marlon Brando was still a nimble screen performer, yet he had all but washed out as a star. Hollywood scarcely seemed to know what to do with him, apart from featuring him in roles like that of a lecherous Indian guru in ”Candy” (1968). So Brando reinvented himself. He became a revolutionary new breed of Method actor, the first – perhaps the only one – to draw not just on the traditional stew of memory and experience but, fundamentally, on the reality of his own stardom. It may be fruitless to psychoanalyze Brando’s life of flakiness and scandal and cultivated excess, but one can definitely say this: He was the most celebrated and influential American actor of the century, and with that godlike status came power, came license. Beginning with ”Burn!” (1970), Gillo Pontecorvo’s Marxist epic in which he played a racist colonialist with a conscience, Brando projected the clout that was dictated by his celebrity directly onto his roles. His acting became a study of power from the inside out.
Hence Don Corleone in ”The Godfather”: the screen’s most indelible portrait of the way that power rules, seduces, and slays. Brando’s performance is a model of classical diction and restraint; one could almost picture the puffed cheeks and gravel rasp fitting into an earlier Hollywood movie. Yet consider for a moment the subversive, ambiguous grandeur of Don Vito: He is played as a patriarch, a courtly family man, a good man who accepts, and orchestrates, barbaric homicide as an act of domination and will. As deeply as we’re attracted to his aura, to the deep comfort of Brando’s bearing, it creeps up on us only slowly that Vito, with his glower of disdain, is indeed a monster. A profoundly human one. (He knows it too; that’s the beauty of his clowning death scene in the garden.)