Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.
Recipient: Marlon Brando
Born: April 3, 1924
Died: July 1, 2004 (80 years old)
Died: July 1, 2004 (80 years old)
Nomination: Best Supporting Actor - The Godfather (won) as Don Vito Corleone
It is near impossible to have a wrong pick when it comes to Marlon Brando or his eight Oscar nominations and two wins. He is by many accounts considered to be one of the greatest and most influential actors of his era. With The Wild One, he introduced a new, rawer form of acting to the masses and with On the Waterfront managed to perfect the style with a complicated tale of unions and giving up on your dreams. Despite all of this, it is hard to look over the looming elephant in the room. It is one so large that it even is bigger than Brando's reputation. I am talking about of course The Godfather.
Largely considered to be one of the all time best movies, the film has been ingrained in pop culture not only as a bunch of references, but shorthand when describing any film of any genre post-1972 as a masterpiece. Rightfully so, a large portion of it is because of the presence of Brando, who played the elderly mob leader with a mushy voice that because the go to impersonation when anyone thinks of the actor. What's more impressive is the make-up work that turned the actor into the elderly figure that was many years his senior. Add a few cotton balls in his mouth and you have one of the most iconic performances of the 70's.
While the series would go on to focus predominantly on Al Pacino's Michael Corleone, the first film was about the fading legacy of Vito's career. It was not only his departure from the family, but a simpler and respectable way of doing things. It was chaotic and to watch Vito spend the film spouting wisdom and trying to keep the peace only makes you more aware of Brando's genius as a performer. He doesn't make you realize he's entirely taken on a new persona, but tricks you into believing so. In a film that is front to back iconic, he provides the heart to the film and rightfully allows for the rise of Michael to seem both more shocking and poetic in ways that hearken back to classic Greek tragedies.
There's plenty that could be said about The Godfather. There's even arguments that The Godfather Part II is better. However, what makes Brando quite eccentric not only is his transformation, but how he handled the press that followed. As he was overseas shooting The Last Tango in Paris, he was losing interest in the Hollywood system. Since his role was iconic, it seemed obvious that it would win him his second Oscar. When it did, he sent an Indian woman to give his speech discussing the treatment of Indians in America. It was one of many soap box moments at the Oscars, though likely the most noteworthy since George C. Scott didn't show up to pick up his Best Actor statue for Patton. It wasn't the last time that Brando would do a Hollywood film (Superman wasn't too far off) nor was it his last Oscar nomination. Yet his retaliation against the system showed that he wasn't doing acting for the awards. It is admirable and odd, considering the roles he started doing in the decades following.
However, Brando's long and storied reputation is full of great performances and ones that the Academy are smart for recognizing. He may seem old hat to modern audiences, but his influence cannot be denied. The way that he embodied rebellion allowed cinema to become dangerous and interesting within the frame of studio dramas. If this doesn't seem plausible, look at films prior to the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire and everything afterwards. Notice how staged the acting was and how it felt more natural/realistic afterwards. He took the pretentious out of drama and helped to make film into what it is today. While he has done a lot of admirable, if not better, work over his career, it is interesting to notice him in The Godfather and how he commands presence, as if ushering his "new" style of acting to the next generation's style as symbolized through Pacino. Either way, it's likely that you'll unconsciously be referencing him for the rest of your life. That alone makes this film one of his greatest legacies.