Part I
An American hero -- and antiheroBeyond anything else, Marlon Brando is the towering original who came out of the Midwest 58 years ago and electrified Broadway and then Hollywood with the visceral excitement and veracity of his acting. He exploded propriety and expressed intimate yearnings with unprecedented nakedness and power, only to have studio executives try to cut him down to conventional stardom.

Even now, he seesaws between living legend and butt of late-night jokes. Whenever another maverick is profiled or interviewed, Brando is apt to be invoked as a model or a friend. But Brando is just as sure to be parodied by comedians who mock the way he once fed Larry King a health-food cookie and kissed him on the lips.

Brando's ability to embarrass as well as to inspire is part of what I admire about him. When he turns interview sessions with King or Connie Chung into showcases for his own eccentricities, he's being true to his roots. He was at the hub of that generation of artists who viewed the celebrity-fueled media not as allies in the American Success Game but as distorters of their work and invaders of their lives.

Again and again in books on Brando, biographers seize on the real-life scene of Brando testifying in tears on behalf of his son Christian, who shot and killed his half-sister's lover. They use the broken-lion image as counterpoint to Brando's masculine potency in movies of the '50s. It's as if they think Brando had embodied some stoic man's code that made it unseemly for him to break even under such tragic circumstances.

So I was almost dizzy with delight when I re-read this proclamation by the late film critic Pauline Kael: As "the major protagonist of contemporary American themes in the fifties, [Brando] had no code, only his instincts. He was a development from the gangster leader and the outlaw. He was antisocial because he knew society was crap; he was a hero to youth because he was strong enough not to take the crap."

In the course of devouring the recent flood of DVDs that immortalize Brando's movie roles in pristine digital, I kept looking for coherence in the arc of his career. Is arc the right word? Brando's stratospheric hits and subterranean flops and a fair number of little-known, underrated accomplishments oscillate over the second half of our last century like a drunken top.

For help I pored through all the available biographies and found occasional insights wrapped up in confusion or abashment or wool-gathering. But the repeated quoting of Kael in several books sent me back to her 1966 essay, "Marlon Brando: An American Hero." It was a revelation.

Kael's essay does more to summarize Brando's blistering appeal and the perilous nature of his acting life than anything written before or since. When thinking of Brando getting caught in ghastly messes like Morituri (1965), Kael quotes Emerson on the American artist's way of life: "Thou must pass for a fool and a churl for a long season."

"We used to think that the season meant only youth, before the artist could prove his talent, make his place, achieve something," she notes. "Now it is clear that for screen artists, and perhaps not only for screen artists, youth is, relatively speaking, the short season; the long one is the degradation after success."

In a passage that goes beyond conventional criticism to a personal declaration of values and philosophy, Kael writes: "He was our angry young man -- the delinquent, the tough, the rebel -- who stood at the center of our common experience. When, as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, he said to his brother, 'Oh Charlie, oh Charlie ... you don't understand. I could have had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody, instead of a bum --which is what I am,' he spoke for all our failed hopes. It was the great American lament, of Broadway, of Hollywood, as well as of the docks."

To Kael, Brando at his early peak "represented a contemporary version of the free American." She admired "the sense of excitement, of danger in his presence, but perhaps his special appeal was in a kind of simple conceit, the conceit of tough kids. There was humor in it -- swagger and arrogance that were vain and childish and somehow seemed very American." By the mid-1960s, though, after too many movies like A Bedtime Story and A Countess from Hong Kong, she felt he had become "a selfparodying buffoon."

Still, her realization that Brando represented the first male American protagonist who didn't have a code, who found new audacity and power from his very lack of mooring, accounts for Brando's continued power to intrigue us. He moves us like no other actor when his intuition and intelligence connect with our own contradictory feelings. He remains our genius of the inchoate.

Part II
'On the Waterfront' and 'Wild One'

Brando had a rare potency in movies right from the start -- that's what makes him so ferociously affecting as a World War II paraplegic who doubts his ability to please his wife in Fred Zinneman's The Men (1950). In Elia Kazan's film version of his stage triumph, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Brando, re-creating his role as Stanley Kowal-ski, brought off a lowdown burlesque poetry, spitting out unintentionally hilarious non sequiturs while parading around in his tight T-shirt and jeans. What's more, he made it mesh with the heartbreakingly delicate lyricism of Vivien Leigh's Blanche DuBois.

Brando burned with revolutionary fire in Kazan's visually exciting Viva Zapata (1952) -- it's his most uncomplicatedly stirring, and macho, performance -- and he showed his range with his Mark Antony in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (1953). British critic Alexander Walker wrote of his performance: "None of us was prepared for the twist Brando gave the famous line, 'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.' He shouts it. He bawls it. He bellows it above the crowd, like a maitre d'hotel bringing restaurant gossip to a stop for some announcement, perhaps about evacuating the place because of fire. And he puts enormously unexpected emphasis on the word 'lend.' This is a Mark Antony who has lost his temper."

It was Brando's next two films, The Wild One (1953) and On the Waterfront (1954), that made him a movie idol. Aside from Brando's performance, The Wild One hasn't aged well. Although its leather and chrome iconography and Brando's hipsterism inspired biker and rebel cults for decades to come, it fits all too snugly into the musty category of "cautionary tale." Its story ultimately reduces Brando's biker to the quintessential crazy mixed-up kid.

It's worth watching on DVD for the sensational way Brando slithers his casual, charged artistry through every crack in the movie's makeshift architecture. When the small-town waitress who is supposed to be his salvation asks "Where are you going when you leave here?" Brando's Johnny responds "Oh man, we just gonna go," expressing the central beatitude of the Beat culture better than any features about Neal Cassady and Kerouac. When another girl asks, "What are you rebelling against?" and Johnny replies, "What've you got?" you see the 1950s roots of the 1960s counterculture.