Past Times: Marlon Brando

According to the LA Times: “Marlon Brando was rock and roll before anybody knew what rock and roll was”. Feral, raw, physical and vulnerable, Brando was arguably the most instinctive actor of the 20th century. A proponent of method acting – an improvisatory, psychological technique taught to him by Stella Adler – Brando electrified film audiences in the 1950s with a series of rough, untamed blue-collar roles.

Brando’s star rose playing Stanley Kowalski in the Tennessee Williams masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway in 1947. Kowalski’s sweaty tight white T-shirt and blue jeans became the uniform of a generation of rebels without a cause. Though fellow actors, including Frank Sinatra, criticised Brando’s delivery, he won the 1951 film role of Kowalski opposite Vivian Leigh as the unhinged, ageing southern belle Blanche Dubois. One of the most brutally honest actors in Hollywood, Brando said of Leigh: “She was Blanche Dubois. Like Blanche, she slept with almost everybody and was beginning to dissolve mentally and to fray at the ends physically.”

Brando won his first Oscar in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) in which he played a New York longshoreman. Of his interpretation of the role, Kazan said: “If there is a better performance by a man in the history of film in America, I don’t know what it is.” His performance as Johnny Strabler in The Wild One a year earlier introduced the leather biker jacket to mainstream teen fashion.

Marlon Brando
A leather jacket clad Marlon Brando in the movie 1953 film, Wild One


Marlon Brando’s most well-known watch, a Vacheron Constantin, was bought for him by Hungarian siren Zsa Zsa Gabor to celebrate his Oscar for On the Waterfront. The back of the case was engraved “To Marlon love Zsa Zsa June 24th 1954” (shown right). Miss Gabor was one of Brando’s many lovers. They met again in 1963 on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show during an infamous encounter when Brando, soused on neat vodka, leaned over to Carson and slurred live on air: “Do you know what I want to do with that girl, Johnny? I want to f*** her.” The yellow gold wristwatch was sold at auction by Antiquorum in 2009 for $18,000.

Zsa Zsa Gabor
Hungarian-American actress, Zsa Zsa Gabor

The Vacheron Constantin was not the first important timepiece given to Brando, however. Rumour has it that, in 1943, his alcoholic parents (for whom he had little time) gifted him a Rolex Oyster Royalite Observatory model inscribed with the legend “To Bud, from Mother and Dad 1943”. Brando said he would have been happier had he been raised an orphan, which might go some way to explain his love affair with Marilyn Monroe who was raised in a series of children’s homes.

Brando and Monroe enjoyed an intermittent affair up until her mysterious death in 1962. Of Monroe, Brando said: “She was a sensitive, misunderstood person, much more perceptive than was generally assumed. She had been beaten down, but had strong emotional intelligence.” Until his own death, Brando maintained that Monroe was murdered rather than killed by accidental overdose or suicide.

Disillusionment with Hollywood began to set in after Brando filmed his first and last musical Guys and Dolls in 1955, co-starring his nemesis Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was famed as a one-take wonder, whereas Brando could waste a day on one scene. Sinatra allegedly told director Joe Mankiewicz: “Don’t put me in the game, Coach, until Mumbles is through rehearsing.” Of his performance as Sky Masterson, Brando would only say: “I couldn’t hit the notes with a baseball bat.”

Marilyn Monroe with Marlon Brando
Marilyn Monroe with Marlon Brando
Marlon Brando next to Frank Sinatra in Guys and Dolls
Marlon Brando next to Frank Sinatra in the 1955 musical film, Guys and Dolls

The Troughs And The Peaks

Brando’s disrespect for the craft of acting can be dated from Guys and Dolls. He all but sabotaged filming Mutiny on the Bounty on location in Polynesia in 1961. Wilderness years followed before his stunning comeback as Don Vito Corleone in the 1972 film The Godfather. Director Francis Ford Coppola’s Mafia masterpiece won Brando his second Best Actor Oscar.

Brando followed The Godfather with Last Tango in Paris (1972), in which he wore a yellow-gold Rolex Datejust, and a powerful cameo in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now in which he wore a Rolex GMT Master  with its bezel missing (shown right). By then Brando was openly disdainful about his craft, calling acting “an empty and useless profession”. Of his public persona, Brando would only say: “I don’t know what people expect when they meet me. They seem to be afraid that I’m going to piss in the potted palm and slap them on the ass.”

In addition to being married three times and officially siring 11 children, Brando was a notorious lothario. He claimed to have bedded Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy and also admitted in a 1970s interview that: “Like a large number of men, I too have had homosexual experiences and I am not ashamed.” Brando’s male lovers allegedly included Rock Hudson, James Dean and character actor Wally Cox. Indeed, when Brando died in 2004 aged 80, his ashes were scattered in Death Valley with those of Wally Cox – Brando had kept Cox’s ashes at home ever since his friend’s sudden death in 1973.

French actress Maria Schneider next to Marlon Brando
French actress Maria Schneider next to Marlon Brando (yellow gold Datejust on his wrist) in the 1972 film, Last Tango in Paris