At the time of his first impact, Marlon Brando was a joke figure to any cinema-goer who wanted the face on screen to say the words so that they could be understood. Still of a tender age, I was included in the number of those who scorned the Brando mumble, although his physical appeal immediately worked its influence, so that in my slouching attitude and the area of my curled lip I was sometimes hard to distinguish from the original: or so I fancied. Doubts that Brando had any capacity for clear speech whatsoever were cleverly put to rest when he starred as Mark Antony in a Hollywood Julius Caesar directed by Joseph Mankiewicz in 1953. There could be no doubt that John Gielgud and James Mason (as Cassius and Brutus respectively) amounted to an Anglo-voiced double act that left Brando sounding short of aged-in-the-wood sonority. But he spoke with perfect clarity, and his speech over Caesar’s corpse stole the movie. From then on, everyone knew that Brando’s impressionistic smearing of dialogue was a style that he had chosen, and not one that he had been stuck with by some deformity of the mouth. (When On the Waterfront came out the following year, the critical appreciation of his performance in the role of Terry Malloy was immeasurably enhanced by the knowledge that he could recite Shakespeare when the chips were down.) Nevertheless, Brando’s handling of the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech had to fight the essential thinness of his voice. He had no natural bass tones – in his other early movies, the mumble might have been designed to lend his adenoidal reediness the illusion of timbre – so everything depended on emphasis and rhythm. At these he proved masterly. He catches the cadences of the pentameter almost as well as the English actors, and his use of rallentando is of operatic standard. (In later movies he would pause sometimes forever, but here, under tight direction, he pauses just the right amount.) The civilized, tasteful and infinitely experienced Mankiewicz was a big help in giving Brando’s Antony a dynamic cunning to go with his sculpted gravitas. (Like Elvis Presley’s, Brando’s face was chiselled by Greeks.) Watch the way the shots are framed when Antony sneaks a look at the crowd to see how the speech is going down at the crucial moment. What neither Mankiewicz nor anybody else could do was shape Brando’s subsequent career, which the actor took charge of and wrecked all by himself, although the debacle wasn’t entirely his fault. Born to play senatorial roles, he was sabotaged by a lifelong shortage of suitable scripts, and so was forever ruining the movie by adding extra weight and complexity to the character. His Fletcher Christian wanted to be Napoleon and vice versa, thereby making a mess of both Desirée and Mutiny on the Bounty. In his end-game role as Don Corleone the Godfather, he finally got back to where he had already been when he was a beautiful young man, asking the Romans to lend him their ears while he made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Marlon Brando as Mark Antony (1953)