Marlon Brando's Infamous Godfather Cue Cards Were More Than Just A Memory Aid

One of the most enduring Hollywood stories is that of Marlon Brando, widely considered the first actor to bring a naturalistic style of acting to the movies, who apparently wouldn't even bother learning his lines for some of his most classic, later career work, including his iconic portrayal of Don Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather." 

Despite his Best Actor Oscar win for this performance (which he very publicly declined to accept), it was widely known that Brando used cue cards for his dialogue in this movie. There's a not-so-nice industry term for these visual prompts: idiot cards, but Brando was far from dumb, so what was the deal? Was his dialogue difficult to remember? Maybe it was last-minute rewrites that he didn't have time to study? Or was Brando just checked out at this point in his career and being lazy?

Turns out the answer, at least according to Brando himself, was none of the above. 

Brando was adamant that he used cue cards purely for reasons of naturalism. The actor was a devout follower of the Stanislavski Method, which favored relaxed, naturalistic performances over practiced recital, and his turns in "On the Waterfront" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" kicked off a whole new trend where the leading players chased that kind of performance.

Naturalism or laziness?

According to Brando himself, that study evolved from deeply auditing his characters to not memorizing his lines because ... well, that's not what people do when they talk. They don't know what they're going to say in advance, so even the most nuanced reciting of scripted words felt untrue to his ears. In Stefan Kanfer's book "Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando" he said the cadence of such rote memorization sounded like "Mary Had A Little Lamb" to his ear. He continued:

"In ordinary life, people seldom know exactly what they're going to say when they open their mouths and start to express a thought. They're still thinking, and the fact that they are looking for words shows on their faces. They pause for an instant to find the right word, search their minds to compose a sentence, then express it."

This caused a little bit of worry for "The Godfather" director Francis Ford Coppola, not so much that Brando would be bad in the role because he was using "idiot cards," but that he'd inspire the rest of the cast to do the same. Turns out he didn't have much to worry about on that front as the rest of the cast were more than happy to do it the old-fashioned way and the result is one of the greatest films of all time. So, whether Brando was using naturalism as an excuse for laziness or if he was truly on to something we'll never know, but I guess the proof is in the pudding.