But are there unseen costs to this talent for rambling about imaginary places and stumbling over emotional furniture? At a 2001 memorial service for Kim Stanley -- by peer consensus Brando's equal in the '50s and '60s, who prematurely retired from the stage after a series of breakdowns -- Elaine Stritch, her costar in the Broadway premiere of William Inge's "Bus Stop," confided to all who had assembled that, in her view, what happened to Stanley was that "she got too goddamn real."
There's a price
Realness doesn't come cheaply. If you read about the life of Eleonora Duse, the Italian actress who inspired Stanislavsky with her anguished truth, you'll discover that the radiant pain she drew out of Ibsen, Zola and Dumas' "La Dame aux Camelias" was already overstocked in her disappointed heart. The point is that this ability to burst the bounds of artifice and create art that bleeds has to come from somewhere. Imaginations need roots.
Even for the buttoned-up English, it's not easy to shut the door on that troubled place when the gig is done. On the set of "Marathon Man," Laurence Olivier is said to have advised Dustin Hoffman, who had been putting himself through the ringer for his character, "Dear boy, you look absolutely awful. Why don't you try acting? It's so much easier." It's a good, if over-used, anecdote (apocryphal or not). But not even Lord Olivier, who strode the public scene more and more like an over-complicated Shakespearean king, was always so adept at maintaining a firewall between his life and work, to say nothing of wife Vivien Leigh, whose fragile mental health wasn't exactly shored up by her time as Blanche DuBois.
Roles aren't to blame, of course, for alcoholism, addiction and bipolar disorder. But when they are realized with fierce riptides of feeling, they hint at something peculiarly vulnerable about our icons. What's more, transcendent acting takes a toll in a way that goes beyond painting, poetry or other creative disciplines, because actors must utilize themselves in an inescapably naked way. There's nowhere to run when the camera or audience is before them. And though sophisticated veterans such as Judi Dench or Meryl Streep seem to handle the professional burden without too much wear and tear, it's no wonder they're eager to lighten the load with some lucrative James Bond or brainless "Mamma Mia!"
Let's not pretend there's no difference between Brando in "Tango" and the majority of acting work that earns our aloof respect. The quality that distinguishes the excellent from the extraordinary is danger -- sometimes informally referred to as "going there." It involves enormous freedom as well as discipline, but the genie isn't so easily put back in the bottle.
Ledger had the threatening spark that marks the best, and in "The Dark Knight" it's allowed to erupt into a magnificent flame. The proper response to such a gift, frustratingly short-lived as it was, is gratitude and awe.