Maybe I’m the only one that hears The Godfather when his name comes up? Or think of him singing and dancing in Guys and Dolls? Or, infamously, the captain in Mutiny on The Bounty? Yet, there was so much about Marlon Brando. He was a painfully private man, even although he was one of the most influential stars in Hollywood. So how did it come to be that someone so private would end up serving publicly during the Civil Rights Movement?
Marlon Brando was a deep thinking man that kept a careful eye on the equal rights of all people, so much so that he refused the Oscar he won for The Godfather. Why? Because he had grown tired with how the film industry had treated Native Americans. Turning down the award wasn’t something he took lightly. Before The Godfather, Brando had been suffering in Hollywood. Many directors refused to work with him and thought he was difficult and tired. After his role in Mutiny of The Bounty, the critics crucified him. The Godfather was his comeback on the silver screen and he delivered. So refusing the Oscar wasn’t no small thing. It was a huge statement, and one that some believe forced Hollywood to reevaluate the role in which Native Americans were given and portrayed on screen.
In 1963, Brando boarded a plane with many other A-lister stars to fly out to Washington and join Martin Luther King Jr. in his march. He appeared with Sydney Poitier, Paul Newman, Charlton Hesten, Burt Lancaster and Joanne Woodward, among others.
Again, this was no small matter. You have to remember that during that time, Hollywood leading men and women were trying to avoid political press. The anti-communist movement was in full swing and being called into court and possibly convicted meant jail time and a ruined career. Yet, according to Susan Mizruchi (a Brando biographer), “He modeled a kind of social activism – the idea that actors were obligated in some sense to use their fame to help others.” And so he did.
It is heartbreaking that much of the reflections of Marlon Brando conjure up a fat man that womanized, over drank, had a massive ego, a dysfunctional family and a love of a big paycheck. There was more to the man. There was something very good and useful—something I hope we all aspire to. To wrap this short highlight and time hop up, Mizurchi said in her book, “I think that he believed [not only] that actors had to be citizens of the planet, but everyone had to be. I would say that one of my big discoveries was that Brando was someone with a big conscience. He was a really moral man.”