''He gave us our freedom,'' Jack Nicholson said simply. The actors Marlon Brando released from the structured politesse of Old Hollywood -- from Nicholson, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino to wannabe bad boys like Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke -- have now become the Tinseltown norm. But when Brando took his revolutionary stage performance as ''A Streetcar Named Desire'''s Stanley Kowalski to Hollywood, he had neither peer nor precedent: The emotional nakedness and naturalistic grace of his early work blazed a trail for the Gritty American Actor.
Invading a screen tradition that counted on words to carry emotion, Brando used bullish yet nuanced turns in ''Streetcar,'' ''On the Waterfront,'' and ''The Wild One'' to raise mumbling to an art form. After a long dry spell in the '60s, with his cinematic heirs grown and acting alongside him, his performance in ''Last Tango in Paris'' could still rewrite the possibilities of portraying self-loathing.
Brando's mentor, the legendary acting teacher Stella Adler, once said, ''Right from the start he was a universal actor. Nothing human was foreign to him.'' Later, his pursuit of all things human led Brando to forgo on-screen challenges for well-publicized offscreen crusades on behalf of Native Americans and others -- epitomized by his proxy rejection of an Oscar for ''The Godfather'' in 1973. But his political impact never came close to matching the influence of his talent. So in his grateful praise, Nicholson may have captured Marlon Brando's most feared irony -- that he had become what he ached to be, a liberator, a savior, in a profession he claimed to despise.
*''A Streetcar Named Desire'' (1951) Brando's revolutionary, brutish Stanley Kowalski still has the shock of the fresh.
*''The Godfather'' (1972) He won his second Oscar for a mid-life performance that's a triumph of cold technique.
*''Last Tango in Paris'' (1973) Ignore the notoriety: Brando gives the performance of his career as a man trying to erase both sorrow and self through anonymous sex.