Marlon Brando's Birthday: His 15 Best Movies Ranked

Marlon Brando
Marlon Brando earned eight Oscar nominations. He took home Best Actor for 'On the Waterfront' (1954) and 'The Godfather' (1972). Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Marlon Brando was born on April 3, 1924, in Omaha, Nebraska. He took to acting naturally—his mother was an actress—and young Marlon showed talent early with spot-on impersonations. (He also had an early job working as an usher in a movie theater.)  Despite his talent, Brando's childhood was marred by his parents’ alcoholism and a strained relationship with his father. He dropped out of military school after clashing with the staff, and was rejected from the Army due to his trick knee.

Instead, the teenage Brando moved to New York to study theater under Stella Adler—she developed his naturalistic approach with her approach, taking acting away from glossy theatrics toward a rough, emotional realism.

His determination to forge his own path earned Brando a reputation for being “difficult” but it soon became clear the young actor was something special. His first film role was as a paraplegic in 1950’s The MenThe New York Times described his performance as "vividly real, dynamic and sensitive... Out of stiff and frozen silences he can lash into a passionate rage with the fearful and flailing frenzy of a taut cable suddenly cut. Or he can show the poignant tenderness of doctor with a child.”

Brando's next role, Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, stands as one of his greatest. He had played the role on stage, and his sweaty, shirt-tearing performance on screen catapulted the actor into fame and earned him the first of four consecutive Best Actor nominations at the Academy Awards. His rebellious image was augmented by his part  in 1953’s The Wild One, which kickstarted a spike in leather jackets and motorcycles.

On the Waterfront followed the next year, with Brando’s sensitive, semi-improvised acting finally earning him a Best Actor Oscar. In what's been described as miscasting, he played Sky Masterson in the Hollywood adaptation of Guys and Dolls, clashing off-screen with co-star Frank Sinatra. Brando made his directorial debut with western One-Eyed Jacks, taking over the reins from original director Stanley Kubrick. The movie was panned, and Brando’s controversial behavior on his following movie, Mutiny on the Bounty, led some to question whether he was done with Hollywood.

The 1960s were not kind to the actor, who seemed only semi-committed to the poor roles he chose. Then came Frances Ford Coppola’s The Godfather in 1972, which would re-establish Brando’s reputation and win him a second Best Actor Oscar. Last Tango in Paris was also released that year, signaling that Brando had found an affinity with the New Wave auteurs that emerged at the dawn of the 1970s.

But other than his appearance in Superman, the decade wouldn’t give him a meaty part until he reunited with Coppola for Apocalypse Now in 1979. There weer more roles in the 1990s—The Freshman, Don Duan DeMarco and The Island of Dr Moreau, among them—but none as acclaimed as Coppola's re-envisioning of The Heart of Darkness. Brando, who had battled obesity, diabetes and substance abuse, died on July 1, 2004 of respiratory failure.

Newsweek looks back over Marlon Brando's incredible career, ranking his 15 best movies according to critical aggregation websites Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and IMDb.

01 A Dry White Season
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

15. A Dry White Season (1989). Total score: 69.88%. 
Directed by: Euzhan Palcy. Starring: Donald Sutherland, Janet Suzman, Zakes Mokae, Jürgen Prochnow, Susan Sarandon, Marlon Brando, Winston Ntshona. 
Plot summary: A South African schoolteacher gradually begins to realize his society is built on a pillar of injustice and exploitation after his gardener's son is brutally beaten up by the police at a demonstration by black school children.
What the critics said: "This movie isn't just a plot, trotted out to manipulate us, but the painful examination of one man's change of conscience." Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

02 Burn
United Artists

14. Burn! (Queimada) (1969). Total score: 70.54%. 
Directed by: Gillo Pontecorvo. Starring: Marlon Brando, Evaristo Márquez, Renato Salvatori. 
Plot summary: A professional mercenary instigates a slave revolt on the Caribbean island of Queimada in order to help improve the British sugar trade. Years later he is sent to deal with the same rebels because they have seized too much power and now threaten British sugar interests.
What the critics said: "Pontecorvo's pointed 1969 drama of the politics of war feels surprisingly timely." Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post

03 The Wild One 12jpg
Columbia Pictures

13. The Wild One (1953). Total score: 71.08%. 
Directed by: Laslo Benedek. Starring: Marlon Brando, Mary Murphy, Robert Keith, Lee Marvin. 
Plot summary: Two rival motorcycle gangs terrorize a small town after one of their leaders is thrown in jail.
What the critics said: "Marlon Brando turns in a tremendously powerful performance as the inarticulate, frozen-faced, truculent outlaw who heads the gang of motorcycle hoodlums." Milton Luban, Hollywood Reporter

04 The Freshman
TriStar Pictures

12. The Freshman (1990). Total score: 71.37%. 
Directed by: Andrew Bergman. Starring: Marlon Brando, Matthew Broderick, Bruno Kirby, Penelope Ann Miller, Frank Whaley. 
Plot summary: An N.Y.C. film school student accepts a job with a local mobster who resembles a famous cinema godfather who takes the young man under his wing after demanding total loyalty.
What the critics said: "Brando does a wonderful sendup of Corleone that manages to play off the Don's entrenched place in pop culture. But The Freshman is no copycat comedy." Desmond Ryan, Philadelphia Inquirer

05 The Men
United Artists

11. The Men (1950). Total score: 72.34%. 
Directed by: Fred Zinnemann. Starring: Marlon Brando, Teresa Wright, Everett Sloane, Jack Webb, Richard Erdman, Arthur Jurado, Virginia Farmer.
Plot summary: A paralyzed war vet tries to adjust to the world without the use of his limbs.
What the critics said: "Even in his first movie, Brando's ability to transcend mediocre material is very much in evidence." Geoff Andrew, Time Out

06 Sayonara
Warner Bros.

10. Sayonara (1957). Total score: 73.1%. 
Directed by: Joshua Logan. Starring: Marlon Brando, Ricardo Montalban, Patricia Owens, James Garner, Red Buttons. 
Plot summary: A US Air Force major in Kobe confronts his own opposition to marriages between American servicemen and Japanese women when he falls for a beautiful performer.
What the critics said: "It is Mr. Brando's offbeat acting of what could be a conventional role that spins what could be a routine romance into a lively and tense dramatic show." Bosley Crowther, New York Times

07 The Young Lions
Twentieth Century Fox

9. The Young Lions (1958). Total score: 75.19%. 
Directed by: Edward Dmytryk. Starring: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Dean Martin, Hope Lange, Maximilian Schell, Lee Van Cleef. 
Plot summary: WW2 drama that follows the lives of three young men, one German and two Americans, during wartime.
What the critics said: "Mr. Brando makes the German much more vital and interesting than Montgomery Clift and Dean Martin make the Americans." Bosley Crowther, New York Times

08 Last Tango in Paris 2
United Artists

8. Last Tango in Paris (1972). Total score: 75.59%. 
Directed by: Bernardo Bertolucci. Starring: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Massimo Girotti. 
Plot summary: A young Parisian woman meets a middle-aged American businessman who demands their clandestine relationship be based only on sex.
What the critics said: "The movie breakthrough has finally come... Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form." Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

09 Guys and Dolls
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

7. Guys and Dolls (1955). Total score: 76.08%. 
Directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Starring: Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra. 
Plot summary: In New York, a gambler is challenged to take a cold female missionary to Havana, but they fall for each other, and the bet has a hidden motive to finance a crap game.
What the critics said: "Brando is hulking charisma personified, scrawny Sinatra still has the most remarkable voice ever committed to two-channel audio, and the pastel-shaded, neon-lit sets are a marvel." Tom Huddleston, Time Out

10 Julius Caesar 2
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

6. Julius Caesar (1953). Total score: 77.22%. 
Directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Starring: Louis Calhern, Marlon Brando, James Mason, John Gielgud, Louis Calhern, Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr. 
Plot summary: The growing ambition of Julius Caesar is a source of major concern to his close friend Brutus. Cassius persuades him to participate in his plot to assassinate Caesar, but they have both sorely underestimated Mark Antony.
What the critics said: "Next to Mr. Gielgud's Cassius, the delight and surprise of the film is Mr. Brando's Mark Antony, which is something memorable to see. Athletic and bullet-headed, he looks the realest Roman of them all and possesses the fire of hot convictions and the firm elasticity of steel." Bosley Crowther, New York Times

11 Superman
Warner Bros.

5. Superman (1978). Total score: 77.44%. 
Directed by: Richard Donner. Starring: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty, Marlon Brando, Terence Stamp, Susannah York. 
Plot summary: An alien orphan is sent from his dying planet to Earth, where he grows up to become his adoptive home's first and greatest superhero.
What the critics said: "Developed by Godfather scribe Mario Puzo with reverence for the venerable superhero, Superman pays homage to the legend's mythology without losing sight of the character's essential humanity. Other superhero movies have attempted to recapture the feel and intent of Superman; to date, none has succeeded." James Berardinelli, ReelViews.