If Marlon Brando -- "Bud" to his family and intimates -- was not the finest movie actor who ever lived, he certainly had the greatest gift for reinvention. Between the opening night in 1947 when the lean, cruelly handsome young Nebraskan shouted "Stel-lahhhh!" in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desireto the moment, three decades and 200 pounds later, when he filled a dark jungle hut with a murmur: "The horror . . . the horror," he took on many forms. He was, in turn, the charismatic '50s rebel, the weird Hollywood iconoclast, a menacing Godfather, and a real-life father agonized by his son's conviction for manslaughter. By the end, which came July 2 at age 80, he had so many encrustations of myth that the real Brando, if there ever was one, had almost ceased to exist. But his legacy is unquestionably profound. Having absorbed The Method at the Actors Studio, he dispensed it far and wide through the performances of every awestruck actor who followed him. Troubled and tragic, Marlon Brando had become nothing less than a condition of life.
He may be remembered most vividly for his jowly, grave Don Corleone ("Tataglia is a pimp . . ."), but who among us wasn't captivated by the depressed U.S. expatriate he played in Last Tango in Paris, his tormented pug in On the Waterfront ("I coulda been a contendah"), the vengeful outlaw of One-Eyed Jacks, or the enigmatic, half-crazed Colonel Kurtz of Apocalypse Now, who embodied the American misadventure in Vietnam. Was the giant without humor or irony? Hardly. In The Freshman (1990), he happily parodied his Godfather role and, for reasons known only to himself, he reportedly required all visitors to his Tahitian island hideaway to produce, well . . . stool samples.
"What are you rebelling against?" a sweet-faced teenager asks Brando's sneering, leather-clad motorcyclist in 1954's The Wild One. "Whaddya got?" he replies. That might be epitaph enough for one of moviedom's few authentic geniuses.