If there were to be a Mount Rushmore made of the greatest actors, the first face on that cliffside would be Marlon Brando’s.
Sure, Brando is a polarizing figure with his career consisting of both performances that re-wrote the book on acting and also some films where he phoned it in and did terribly on screen. While that isn’t something generally encouraging when making a case for the who’s who of acting, Brando knew the immense talent he had, and when he decided to put work in to bringing a role to life, arguably no one has before or since done it better than him.
One example of Brando’s prowess as an actor is his performance as dock worker Terry Malloy in 1954’s classic, “On the Waterfront.”
Terry is a former prize fighter. His brother, Charley, is the right-hand man of the mob boss who runs the neighborhood and docks, Johnny Friendly. Terry himself now labors down at the docks while he cares for and raises pigeons in his spare time.
One night, Terry has fellow dock worker Joey go to the roof where Terry believes Johnny Friendly will only talk to Joey.
Not understanding the gravity of what he has just set up, Terry walks in the neighborhood like it’s a normal night, that is until he sees Joey thrown from the roof of a building.
To stir things up even more, Joey’s sister, Edie, tries to get involved and make the mob pay for killing her brother and perpetuating corruption in the neighborhood and docks.
From this point we see everything in the film awaken as “On the Waterfront” delves into the soul of Terry Malloy.
Feeling uneasy about the circumstances around Joey’s death and beginning to have feelings for Edie, Terry starts to question his entire life and willingness to sacrifice for his brother, and subsequently the mob, so they can benefit while he and everyone else toils and dies.
While exploring these feelings and complex relationships, Brando masterfully illustrates Terry’s confusion and desire to understand a world he previously went along with. Terry is in a position where his brother and everyone in his life served as a leach, and the first person to really care about him and show him that there can be more is Edie.
Most movies in this era that tried to tackle topics like this generally saw their lead characters suddenly change and become heroes that eliminated corrupt systems, but “On the Waterfront” did it differently.
Instead of Brando’s Terry immediately going against the “bad guys” in his community, Brando provides the audience with a contemplative and delicate performance as a man who lost his identity.
It’s what makes “On the Waterfront” such a classic.
Terry is heartbroken by the way his life has turned out and he hadn’t even noticed it until the person he falls in love with reminds him of what it’s like to feel alive.
The point of the film where we really see all of this come together is the “I coulda been a contender” speech. It’s here where Terry is, for the first time, able to put his thoughts and emotion together and say how he feels.
Terry tells his brother that he could have had a life, been a success and done something other than hard labor. But because Terry didn’t have anyone looking out for him, it was his brother Charley who saw success off of the failure of Terry’s life.
The scene is heartbreaking. It feels like you’re there watching Brando have this conversation, and it is truly devastating.
That’s the power of Marlon Brando.
He can present you with a character that looks ordinary and is just like the Mr. Smith’s and other copy-and-paste characters of the era, but instead Brando turns everything upside down as he gives one of the most honest and human performances ever.
Brando wasn’t a perfect actor, but the films he excelled in are unmatched. If you have not yet seen “On the Waterfront,” I recommend you do as soon as possible.
Grant T. Mitchell is a senior majoring in public relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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