Sunday, April 14, 2013

Great Performances In Film: Marlon Brando - On The Waterfront (1954)

And the sole contender for the title of the greatest male performance of all time is...

Do shush, you are
Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront

 Everybody knows how much of an acclaimed actor Brando is. My watching his movies were a means by which I could analyze for myself his worth and his talents. This was only my second Brando film after A Streetcar. I was more than impressed with his work in the previous film and did not expect him to be able to top it. Yet, a few minutes into On The Waterfront, I completely forgot that I was watching Marlon Brando act. He did not only inhabit that character. He was that character.
   There are two main reasons for such a successful career turn. For one, Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy in Waterfront looks very different from his Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar and from how Marlon usually looked in his day-to-day life. This is mostly due to the film's makeup department. They literally transform Brando's face into something that is now dull but retains the marks of a bygone beauty, befitting Malloy's past as a boxer. Second, Brando is so natural in this role! His body language, mannerisms, voice inflection and general demeanor are so drastically different from his work in A Streetcar.  He presents Terry Mallow as a sensible soul hidden behind a rough exterior. As we journey through the film trying to uncover the corruption of the seedy dock town, we in turn uncover Terry's inner sensitivity and his naive soul. Ever seen those movies where a character tries to shoot his enemy as the enermy wrestles underwater with the character's friend/ally/bestie/main squeeze? Well, the audience becomes that character. In On The Waterfront, it's as if both evil and good are hidden under a body of water, each trying to drown the other. Every once in a while, evil (the plot) and good (Terry) brush the surface only to be submerged again, leaving us in suspense as to who will come out on top. Our minds work frantically to determine where evil and good lurks in the movie, in fear that we might pull the trigger in the wrong direction. We sure hope Terry emerges from that murky water, though at times we may doubt his true motives.
     Terry Malloy is a guy who seems to really want the best but, as he's only lived through the worst, he merely accepts his fate and carries on. He does not know that he is equipped to fight evil and that he has the potential to conquer. Marlon Brando's Terry is one of the most root-able and endearing characters in cinema. He seems to be content to just continue on as a dockworker, his dreams of becoming a boxing legend dashed by the very powers whom he answers to. Yet, we get a glimpse into the man underneath when he continuously cares for a family pigeons and tries to make amends for what he's done. Brando communicates all of these attributes to the audience, retaining a certain boyhood naivete about Terry. Brando's Terry knows who and what he is. He is not just some simpleton who can be pulled in different directions. He is aware of what life is about and is still willing to continue living.
    And it is for this extraordinary performance and three more that Marlon Brando has not only my favorite male performance of all time, but remains my favorite actor of all time.
That they do


  1. Great write up. I like that you pointed out why this performance means more to you than his in Streetcar. I actually think his work in Streetcar is the best male acting performance of all time, but it's close. Damn, damn close.

    He's perfect here.

    1. I do recall you lauding his work in A Streetcar. He really is deserving of all the praise he gets no matter how many shitty movies he showed up in later in life.

  2. My vote goes to "On the Waterfront" over "Streetcar", but I agree that it's close. There is a stretch of films that Brando made in the early 50's and each performance has something amazing to offer his audience. From "The Men" to "The Wild One" to "Julius Caesar" to "Viva Zapata!" and even into his performance in "Guys and Dolls" each role is worth examining in, and of itself. There is no mistaking the greatness that is Brando.

    1. He really was on a roll in the 50s. Still need to see Guys And Dolls. He also has a great later performance in Last Tango In Paris. Will be checking out Apocalypse Now soon as well.