best film:   Marlon Brando has Francis Ford Coppola to thank (and certainly more than a little to thank the other way around) for this category with The Godfather and Apocalypse Now as clearly Brando’s top two films. Brando was already a living legend and acting icon in the 1970s (from his string of work in the 1950s) but undoubtedly in a long career tailspin when he and Coppola collaborated. Brando is electric in Apocalypse Now as Colonel Walter Kurtz – perhaps the greatest of all the Harry Lime-like roles (from Orson Welles in The Third Man – a character that is talked about for the entire running time but rarely appears on screen). When he finally does appear on screen – Brando is absolutely mesmerizing. He and Kurtz are most definitely worthy of such a buildup and this all in one of the two greatest films ever made.


Brando stuns in roughly fifteen (15) minutes of screen time in Apocalypses Now

after a long, dormant period – Brando would explode in 1972 with not one, but two of the best performances of the decade (including The Godfather)



best performance:  On the Waterfront. With On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire Brando changed film acting. Sure, he is preceded (just a few years) by Montgomery Clift in regard to method acting and the generational shift at the midway point of the 20th century and yes, Paul Muni is an important figure in the lineage of Brando (Muni decades before of course) as well – specifically when talking about an actor transforming for a role (and one could argue Lon Cheney before that). But still, no one actor had the impact Brando did on film acting. His instinctual style in On the Waterfront is still significant today. Brando’s famous glove scene (improvising with Eve Marie Saint), the physical and emotional tour-de-force throughout, and the final speech to Rod Steiger in the back of the car at the end (inspiring monologues to end Raging Bull and Boogie Nights among others) show a true virtuoso at work.


Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront – the height of the Brando revolution in the 1950s



stylistic innovations/traits:   Marlon Brando is, unequivocally, an artist. He is the most talented actor of all-time and if that is all that mattered for this list, then he would be, without hesitation, in the #1 slot. Brando’s resume makes for another story. His top five films below are strong indeed – he is more than acceptable there (though the masterpiece number is a sight lower than others that will follow Brando on this list). He is in, and sets the screen ablaze, in two of best films of all-time (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather). Brando gives two of the better performances of the 1950s (Streetcar, On the Waterfront) and gives two of the best performances of the 1970s (Last Tango, Godfather). These five films and the weight of his genius are the case for Brando. Julius Caesar may even slide into that group as a sort of backup dancer or be on the fringe of that upper class. The camerawork on Brando is in Julius Caesar is sublime – Mankiewicz knows he has something special – there is a crane that backs up and expands when Brando yells to give him space and then comes back in closer at the more intimate end of the scene. Brando’s case gets a little shaky beyond that top six (6) though. Slots seven (7) through ten (10) below cannot contend with his peers at the top of this list. Brando has twenty-one (21) total films in the archives – far less than most of the others the per film average argument does not work as his list of twenty-one (21) includes plenty of films like A Dry White Season, Superman, and The Freshman. Brando was often disinterested in his own career – and even sort of contemptuous of the profession of acting. He threw away almost an entire decade in his prime. His work in the 1960s is remarkable in its unremarkableness. And Brando was done after Apocalypse Now for all practical purposes at the age of fifty-five (55). Still, Brando is a fascinating sort of solo show in many films that ended up well outside of their respective year’s top twenty (20) – films like The Missouri Breaks, Guys and Dolls, Sayonara. Brando broke onto the scene in 1950 and rifled off an impressive run of six (6) straight archiveable films and four (4) Oscar nominations (and one win) in five (5) years.  Speculation is that something happened with On the Waterfront (rumors persist that he felt betrayed by Elia Kazan who used the film as a defense for his HUAC actions).  Kazan and Brando would never work together again despite their success together. Brando seems to have an air of disinterest in his own work (even when he is masterful) ever since. Again, his career from On the Waterfront to The Godfather (ages 30 to 48) is nothing special – and it does not include a single film that whiffs a top ten of the year. Still, when Brando was on – there was nobody better. For those glass half full people, the chills Brando can induce, witnessing him as Vito Corleone, Stanley Kowalski, or Mark Anthony – holds no match. For the glass have empty crew, there is a lot of headshaking to be had at that filmography, the clear apathy, and those wasted years.


Brando in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris – an important role for Brando – it is on on the very short list of best performances of the 1970s


directors worked with: Elia Kazan (3), Joseph Mankiewicz (2), Francis Ford Coppola (2), Arthur Penn (2), Fred Zinnemann (1), Sidney Lumet (1), Bernardo Bertolucci (1)


the true start of Brando’s legend – as Stanley Kowalski in 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire


top ten performances:

  1. On the Waterfront
  2. The Godfather
  3. A Streetcar Named Desire
  4. The Last Tango in Paris
  5. Apocalypse Now
  6. Julius Caesar
  7. The Wild One
  8. The Fugitive Kind
  9. The Young Lions
  10. The Missouri Breaks


archiveable films

1950- The Men
1951- A Streetcar Named Desire
1952- Vita Zapata
1953- Julius Caesar
1953- The Wild One
1954- On the Waterfront
1955- Guys and Dolls
1957- Sayonara
1958- The Young Lions
1960- The Fugitive King
1961- One-Eyed Jacks
1965- Morituri
1966- The Chase
1969- Burn!
1972- The Godfather
1972- The Last Tango in Paris
1976- The Missouri Breaks
1978- Superman
1979- Apocalypse Now
1989- A Dry White Season
1990- The Freshman