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The Contender

What made Marlon Brando so compelling? Entertainment Weekly film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum examines the late actor's life -- and how his rebellious nature and dedication to craft influenced a new generation

Marlon Brando | DANGEROUS BEAUTY Brando's antiauthoritarian style can be seen in today's best actors, including Sean Penn to Russell Crowe
Image credit: Marlon Brando: The Kobal Collection
DANGEROUS BEAUTY Brando's antiauthoritarian style can be seen in today's best actors, including Sean Penn to Russell Crowe

It is an irony of Brando-esque proportions that Marlon Brando was known best of all as the Godfather: Never was a man less comfortable with the power his talent brought him, and never was a talent more potent.

Brando, who died in Los Angeles on July 1 at the age of 80, changed the shape of movie acting over a half century ago and changed it forever, but he hated his profession. He created the modern Hollywood ideal (or is it an anti-ideal?) of sexually dangerous, antiauthoritarian, anti-glamorous masculinity -- rebels Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, and even Russell Crowe wouldn't exist without him -- but he let his once beautiful face and body balloon in later life as if he despised his very flesh. In ''A Streetcar Named Desire,'' ''On the Waterfront,'' and ''The Godfather,'' he created three of the greatest characterizations in 20th-century film history, but Brando squandered his intensity in many more duds as if he couldn't bear the responsibility of making decisions or carry the weight of expectations.

The Brando man simmered and mumbled, he was a slob in an undershirt or he wore a muumuu. But even when he was at his most incomprehensible and painfully eccentric, his risk taking was never less than mesmerizing. The offscreen Brando, born in Omaha, Nebraska, on April 3, 1924, was mesmerizing too, but out of a deeper torment than even the hard-luck tales from his early days could explain: His parents were alcoholics (his father abusive, his mother a frustrated actress); he was kicked out of military school for insubordination, and sidelined from the draft by a bad knee; and he came to acting by a kind of surly accident, following his sisters, Jocelyn and Frances, to New York City, where he ended up studying the famous Method approach with Stella Adler.

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