Columnist Suzanne Fields has an interesting take on the masculinity of Marlon Brando. According to Fields, Brando, who died last week, personified “virility in transition.”

One might say that Brando foreshadowed the sensitive Alan Alda Man, while playing some of the most macho guys of stage and screen (somehow it is always Stanley Kowalski of “Streetcar” who comes most readily to mind).

A few days before Brando’s death, Fields notes, New York Times had a spread on “leading man under the headline, ’Hollywood’s He-Men Are Bumped by Sensitive Guys.’ The new crop of fresh-faced, dewy-eyed sensitive boys such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Jake Gyllenhaal, the Times pronounced, are ’soft of cheek, with limpid stares and wiry frames,’ and have barely enough hair on their faces, let alone on their chests, to make it worth their while to buy a razor. They are the latest, it is said, in the tradition of Dustin Hoffman, James Dean and Marlon Brando.”

As a transitional figure, Brando “partook of the masculinity of the strong, sexually aggressive heavies from the 1940s, and he reinforced the new trend toward vulnerable and needy antiheroes, the types played by James Dean and Montgomery Clift. Brando was the actor who dished the dichotomy between virility and vulnerability as traits at war with each other. He epitomized the identity crisis the American male suffer for the next few decades.”

“The way Brando portrayed the tension between virility and vulnerability made him unique….”

Brando also manifested the essence of his generation in another way–he embraced every cause that came down the pike.

“If James Dean was a rebel without a cause,” writes Fields, “Brando sought all the causes that defined the ’60s. He moved on from the character of Johnny Strabbler in ’The Wild One,’ who, when asked what he was rebelling against, famously replied, ’What’ve you got?’ In real life Brando championed the rights of the American Indian, the Black Panther Party and Soviet Jews.”

What a mixed-up guy. What a great actor.