When I started this piece, I genuinely thought the only thing these two actors had in common was they are both my favourite actors, but having thought about this a lot more than anyone with imminent deadlines ever should, I think I’ve found some more interesting commonalities or at least comparisons between Marlon Brando and Domhnall Gleeson.
Starting with kind of a banal one: the year 2004 is significant for both actors, as it is the year Brando passed away and also the year that Gleeson was featured in Martin McDonagh’s short film Six Shooter starring his father, Brendan. I have to admit that in 2004 I probably didn’t know who either of them were; I wasn’t even aware of Gleeson till Anna Karenina in 2012, which was probably around the time my Brando obsession started.
Personally, I think everyone, especially film students, should have a Brando obsession at some point in their life. His 50-year career is one of the most impressive in terms of skill and iconography and his image as the Godfather is up there with Pulp Fiction, in terms of the most clichéd student posters (I can say that – I have one). Rarely does someone make it through education without watching his powerhouse performance as Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire, where he is both despicable and really bloody sexy. Brando is remarkable not only in his iconic career but also in his activism, though he was notoriously difficult to work with and his characters often had an intimidating exterior his altruism shows the softer centre at his core. Most famously he rejected his Oscar for The Godfather by sending a Native American, Sacheen Littlefeather, in his place to the ceremony in order to protest the disrespect shown to Native Americans by the film industry.
Now to make the awkward transition back to Gleeson, whose burgeoning career seems to be on a very different path. Both actors have amazing leading men qualities but are vastly different. Brando possessed the burly American masculinity that was suited to his generation of men and film star, whereas Gleeson represents a softer but also attractive type of man. He typically plays an intelligent and awkwardly endearing type, even in Frank, where he is condescending and very out of his depth, he still possesses a quality that makes me root for him. Gleeson’s career was definitely propelled by Alex Garland’s remarkable Ex-Machina, as this was one of the first films that really elevated him to the top tier of young actors. My love for Gleeson outweighs even my hate for Tom Cruise: I saw American Made in cinemas mainly because I spotted him in the trailer and it was great. Unlike Brando, Gleeson can play comedy as well as drama. His form of masculinity is more malleable to different genres than Brando’s intensity, he is equally convincing as a distressed computer technician, as he is as a stuck-up Selfridges manager being bullied by an animated James Corden.
Though they represent entirely different generations, styles and even nationalities of actors, what makes Brando and Gleeson an interesting comparison to me is their shared ability to be a dynamic leading man. They both possess charisma and appeal that many lack, and, though Brando will always be an iconic and marvellous example of a leading male actor, Gleeson is more suited as a modern-day star, where we expect a more multifaceted understanding of masculinity. Whereas Brando’s stoicism and bad boy attitude are what made him a star in the 50s, Gleeson’s softness and affable demeanour are what makes him so engaging today.
National identity may also be a contributing factor to why these two actors have such different screen presences. Gleeson is almost an Irish Hugh Grant in terms of his charming clumsiness in romantic roles (About Time), and he also just seems genuinely lovely in interviews. Personally, in terms of contemporary actors, I am far more drawn to those who seem down to earth and easy to talk to rather than the more classical ego driven diva attitude that Brando certainly possessed in his interactions with both the media and the crews of his films. Perhaps because it is in hindsight that I read about Brando’s brattish behaviour on films such as Apocalypse Now, I find it funnier than anything else because I only became aware of him following his vast success. It is almost as though he retroactively earned the right to be such a nightmare, whereas if I heard about Gleeson berating fellow cast members I don’t think I would be as forgiving.