There are bushel baskets full of terrible things you could say about Marlon Brando that would all be true. This insult from actor Jeff Daniels, however, is not one of them:
— Jeff Daniels (@Jeff_Daniels) March 13, 2014
Brando could be a lazy, self-involved, selfish, pain-in-the-ass actor with the best of them. And that might have even been the case with Brando’s use of cue cards on other films. But there was nothing lazy about Brando’s work or method on “The Godfather.”
Brando not only desired and pursued this part, he humiliated himself for the role. To appease Paramount, he agreed to a screen test. He also took a $110,000 salary (but ended up making a fortune with a cut of the gross). This is not a small deal. In 1972 Marlon Brando was 48 years-old and already Marlon Brando.
Brando wasn’t perfect on the set of The Godfather. He was late a few times and always managed to miss whatever red eye flight he was supposed to be on. But the time and care he took with the role was extraordinary, including the make-up. Brando also put enough care into the role to come up with almost all of the iconic moments we remember about Vito Corleone, which were not in the script.
It was Brando who invented the idea of slapping and mocking Johnny Fontaine. It was Brando who thought Don Vito Corleone should stroke a cat in the opening shot. It was Brando who improvised the Godfather sniffing the rose and the line “We’re not murderers … despite what the undertake thinks.” The orange peel? All Brando. And it was Brando who believed his lines would sound more real, more spontaneous and extemporaneous if he didn’t have them memorized cold.
That’s why he requested cue cards.
The actor holding the cards in the photo is Robert Duvall. Accounts I’ve read suggest that the two had a good working relationship. They had already worked together a few years earlier in “The Chase.” No longer being in awe of Brando, Duvall even felt comfortable teasing his co-star about the cue cards. As time passed, though frustrated with Brando’s method of talking everything to death, the other actors also teased The Legend about the cards.
During one scene, the actor who played Luca Brasi stuck his tongue out at Brando. James Caan had taped a cue card to his tongue that read, “Fuck you, Marlon.” Everyone broke up, including Brando. During a later take Brando stuck his tongue out to reveal a card that read, “Fuck you too.”
Brando wasn’t perfect but he was decent enough during production that when a terrified producer had to tell him he was mumbling, Brando replied with, “Why didn’t anyone tell me? It’s no problem. Just tell me and I’ll speak more clearly.”
The method that Daniels would “enter a home” before trying won Brando his second Best Actor Oscar and brought about one of the greatest performances ever committed to film.
Maybe Daniels should try using cue cards.