All 40 Marlon Brando Film Performances Ranked, in Honor of His 100th Birthday

On what would be his 100th birthday, Marlon Brando remains synonymous not with acting, but great acting — even if this ranked list of all his performances represents what may be the most wildly uneven filmography for any talent of his caliber. But that’s the power of Brando: A handful of his performances are so great and influential they shook up the art of acting forever. Even among his lesser performances, there’s compelling work deserving of rediscovery.

In order to best exemplify what made him such a singular onscreen presence, we ranked all 39 of his films (and one TV appearance), reflecting a spectrum as wide as the man’s broad shoulders. Based on the quality of Brando’s performances rather than the overall films themselves, there are some placements that may surprise you; for example, as great as Brando is in “The Godfather,” it’s still just the fourth-best performance in the film after Pacino, Duvall, and Caan — its ranking on our list reflects that.

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Born April 3, 1924 to a stage actress and a salesman in Omaha, Nebraska, Marlon Brando Jr. showed talent as a performer from an early age. He thrived in high school theater but was kicked out when he couldn’t bring up his grades, which he followed with expulsion from a military academy for insubordination and the Army’s rejection after deeming him physically unfit for service.

With no other skills, Brando’s interest in acting brought him to New York, where he studied at the American Theatre Wing Professional School and eventually became a student of Stella Adler. Through her, he began practicing the Stanislavski system, the tenets of which are now known as method acting. The concept has been the subject of recent misinterpretations and controversies, but at the time it was viewed as a radical method of performance that focused on relating and experiencing a character’s inner emotions to bring out nuanced work.

Brando found acclaim in the theater, but he became a legend when he made the leap to film. One of the few trained method actors in Hollywood at the time — his contemporaries included Montgomery Clift and James Dean — Brando’s performances were revolutionary in shifting film acting to a more naturalistic style. Even today, watching his early work in “A Streetcar Named Desire” opposite the more classical Vivien Leigh feels like a shock to the system, a display of expressive, explosive energy that’s impossible to look away from (his famously good looks don’t hurt either).

Despite, or perhaps because of, Brando’s icon status, the actual number of films he made is relatively small; the number that general audiences remember is even smaller. The handful includes his brutish sexpot in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the vulnerable young man in “On the Waterfront,” the ice-cold mafioso in “The Godfather,” or the shadowy menace in “Apocalypse Now.” Some might also think of his brief appearance as the benevolent Jor-El in “Superman,” or his Oscar-nominated turn as a widower in a violent sexual relationship with a younger woman in “Last Tango in Paris.” But his other work tends to be far less remembered, which is a shame — beyond those iconic roles, Brando had a varied and constantly shifting career, from his debut film performance in 1950’s “The Men” to his final role in Frank Oz’s “The Score.”

A leading man from the jump, Brando worked in a variety of genres as a red-hot 20-something. He starred in Shakespeare adaptations (“Julius Caesar”), musicals (“Guys and Dolls”), westerns (“Viva Zapata!”), and culture-clash comedies (“The Teahouse of the August Moon”). In the ’60s, his singular directorial effort, the underappreciated “One-Eyed Jacks,” flopped. From there he experienced a career downturn that resulted in some wild and largely forgotten works like Charlie Chaplin rom-com “A Countess From Hong Kong,” sex farce “Candy,” and “Turn of the Screw” prequel “The Nightcomers.”

Later, he grew notorious for being a prima donna with his eccentric on-set behavior; he worked less frequently. Most of his later roles are supporting turns that range from the relatively prestigious (anti-apartheid drama “A Dry White Season”) to schlockier fare. (“The Island of Dr. Moreau,” anyone?) Somewhere in this bizarre and varied career, he even appeared on TV in limited series “Roots: The Next Generation.”

With Brando’s first centennial upon us, IndieWire is revisiting his entire filmography. Many of his films aged poorly; others are hidden gems that deserved to be remembered. It should also be understood that Brando’s working methods and the characters he played were complicated (as a resurfaced and recently viral clip of Christopher Reeve criticizing the actor to David Letterman illustrated), and were sometimes even disturbing.

On that note: “Last Tango in Paris.” Actress Maria Schneider remained friends with Brando until his death in 2004, but Brando and Bertolucci’s behavior was inexcusable. Brando also delivers an irreducibly complex performance of the highest empathy and sensitivity, a performance that reveals what his work, at its best, could achieve: An illumination of the idea that people are more than one thing and that multiple, seemingly conflicting things can be true at the same time.

Read on for all Brando’s film performances, ranked from worst to best.

With editorial contributions from Ryan Lattanzio, Christian Blauvelt, Sarah Shachat, Bill Desowitz, Jim Hemphill, and Tom Brueggemann.

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