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Method and Madness

Here are the seven Brando movies you must see. The actor created some of the most memorable moments in film history, even when he was tearing down his own legend

Marlon Brando, The Godfather | FIESTY TO BOOT Brando earned an Oscar for ''Godfather,'' which he declined to accept
Image credit: The Godfather: Everett Collection
FIESTY TO BOOT Brando earned an Oscar for ''Godfather,'' which he declined to accept

Here are the seven Brando movies you must see

Like his admirer Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando had a career that could be divided into lean and fat years. There's thin, sexy, hungry Brando who burst on the scene in the 1950s and forever changed his art form, and there's the beefy Brando who, after years spent wandering in a career wilderness in the 1960s, enjoyed an unexpected comeback and apotheosis in the early '70s and then spent the rest of his career coasting on past glory. The lean Brando is committed, exploratory, and incandescently watchable. The fat Brando is often odd and erratic, yet still incandescently watchable. Even when he seems to be commenting on or mocking his earlier glory, he's still on fire, still making every performance an event, edgy and unpredictable. He leaves behind some of the most iconic moments in movies, as seen on these seven films.

''A Streetcar Named Desire'' (1951)
Movie acting can be divided into before ''Streetcar'' and after ''Streetcar.'' Before: classical, mannered, decorous. After: raw, inarticulate, psychologically probing, emotionally direct, neurotic, openly sexual. Brando's performance as the casually brutal Stanley is still shocking today, still impossibly exciting. Whether bellowing with all his machismo at his wife (''Stella!'') or softly menacing his sister-in-law Blanche (Vivien Leigh), Brando's Stanley seems like not just a new kind of movie character, but a new species of man. Actors still study this performance to figure out how he did it.

''The Wild One'' (1953)
Brando raises insolence to the level of high art. The picture's not much, but Brando is indelible as the leather-clad motorcycle gang leader who, when asked what he's rebelling against, answers, ''Whaddaya got?'' James Dean's own causeless rebellion, Elvis' sneer, and much of what came to define itself as teenage culture, against the safe conformity of Mom and Dad, starts here.

''On the Waterfront'' (1954)
After four tries, Brando finally won his Oscar as dock worker Terry Malloy, who spends most of the movie wrestling with himself over whether to do the safe thing or the right thing. Incredibly tender in his scenes with Eva Marie Saint, incredibly bitter in his famous taxicab confrontation with brother Rod Steiger (say it now: ''I coulda been a contender''), and so many other layers add up to what director Elia Kazan called, without false modesty, the greatest performance by an actor in the history of movies.

''The Godfather'' (1972)
After a decade of duds (''Bedtime Story'') and oddities (''The Nightcomers''), Brando had to submit to a screen test to win the role of Don Vito Corleone, but it proved his great comeback. Brando's misterioso reputation dovetailed beautifully with his role, and the film sees him the way Michael Corleone sees his father: as a whispering, backlit legend who controls events with studied grace. It's a technical performance and an extremely cold one, yet somehow that adds to its power. Hollywood welcomed Brando back with an Oscar -- and took a long time to forgive the snub when he turned it down.

''Last Tango in Paris'' (1973)
This still-misunderstood movie contains Brando's finest performance. Under director Bernardo Bertolucci's prodding, he let down his guard and his pants as a widower who embarks on a no-names affair with a young Frenchwoman (Maria Schneider). Improvising most of his dialogue, the actor created a distressing portrait of an aging lion trying to purge meaning from sex, sorrow, and self. Of the film, Brando would write in his autobiography, ''When it was finished, I decided that I wasn't ever again going to destroy myself emotionally to make a movie.'' And he kept his word.

''Apocalypse Now'' (1979)
With his huge bulk, Buddha head, and dead eyes, Brando's a stunning physical presence, a true heart of darkness. His performance as Col. Kurtz, who's gone mad with power and is targeted for assassination by the increasingly bewildered Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen), hints at impentetrable mysteries and unspeakable evils. Or is Brando simply being opaque, corrupt, and lazy? He once said he had director Francis Ford Coppola delay his first appearance in the hallucinatory Vietnam War epic for as long as possible so that he wouldn't have to do much work. Yet, as in Coppola's ''Godfather,'' his eerie presence comes to haunt the film long before he actually appears.

''The Freshman'' (1990)
The plot of this farce is enough to make you fear the worst: A naive student (Matthew Broderick) gets dragooned into rare-animal theft by Don Carmine Sabatini (Brando), a Mafioso who bears an uncanny resemblance to our old friend Vito Corleone. While it's true that Brando is parodying past glories here, who could have predicted the pleasure that's so obvious in his every scene? Don Carmine isn't a cartoon of Don Corleone -- he's his comic-opera cousin, richer in detail and more alive. The improbable spectacle of the gargantuan actor gliding gracefully on ice skates was proof positive that Marlon Brando could still tap his playful intensity.

Originally posted Jul 16, 2004