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August 30, 2007 |

By John Williams | Film | August 30, 2007 |

Marlon Brando was a lot like The Beatles, and not just because he was indescribably cool — in a relatively short amount of time, he profoundly changed an entire art form. Unlike the Fab Four, Brando hung around long enough to create the illusion that he was a lifelong achiever, but other than his brief resurgence in the early 70s in The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris (quite a resurgence, granted), his most important, enduring work occurred between 1951 and 1957, during which time he received five nominations for the Best Actor Oscar. Two of those nods were for A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront.

Streetcar, the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play, was only Brando’s second role on the big screen, and watching it today is no less startling than it must have been at the time. For the first few minutes, we’re introduced to Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh), the nervous beauty, as she arrives in New Orleans and meets up with her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter). Leigh and Hunter, both accomplished actors, were a few short moments away from running head-on into the future of their craft, and to watch the collision on screen is bizarre. From the moment Brando appears, playing Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski, it’s clear that he’s doing something different. Watching him share a scene with the overly mannered Leigh is like watching Jackson Pollock drip his paint on to a Rembrandt portrait. But unlike the neverending debate about the virtues or sins of modern art, only the certifiably insane could deny the brilliance of Brando’s performance.

When Stanley tells Blanche that her sister is pregnant, Leigh looks at herself in a mirror and whispers, “Stella’s goin’ to have a baby? I didn’t know that she was goin’ to have a baby.” All the while, she’s mugging it up in the style of psychodramas up until that point, raising her eyebrows at herself like she’s a daytime soap character who just found out her evil twin survived a car crash off a cliff. Brando spends the entire movie not just throwing radios through glass windows and hurling dinner plates to the floor, but beating the life out of an entire acting tradition.

Maybe the best argument for the virtue of hindsight ever made, Brando was the only nominated cast member to not win an Oscar. Leigh, Hunter, and Karl Malden all left the ceremony with statues. They were all deserving (especially Hunter and Malden), but it’s harder to see that now. Like Marty McFly playing his ecstatic guitar solo at his parents’ high school dance, Brando’s naturalism was just ahead of its time.

In a documentary included on the DVD, film critic Richard Schickel discussed the rehearsals for the Broadway version of Streetcar that preceded the film, in which Brando played opposite Jessica Tandy’s Blanche:

(Brando) began to dominate Blanche and throw the balance of the play off… And it very much worried (director Elia) Kazan, and he said, ‘What am I supposed to do, say to the guy, ‘Be less good’?

If Streetcar remains notable mostly for its indelible Stanley, On the Waterfront, also directed by Kazan just three years later, surrounds Brando with enough timeless quality to earn a place as one of the greatest movies ever made. Waterfront won eight Oscars, and probably lost the supporting actor race because it had no less than three of the five nominees splitting the vote (Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Rod Steiger).

The story of corruption among New York dockworkers, it’s most often represented by the clip of Terry Malloy, the ex-boxer played by Brando, telling his brother Charlie (Steiger) that he “coulda been a contender.” It’s a great scene, but one of the most pointed in the movie, and Brando’s subtle performance is even more impressive taken as a whole. Terry is a strong man with a soft, confused soul, Mike Tyson with a higher emotional IQ — he even tends a large flock of pigeons, like the real-life ex-champ. His transformation from stubborn pragmatist to lovestruck idealist, from reluctant defender of the union’s “deaf and dumb” code about any wrongdoing to brave crusader, is seamless and believable from first frame to last.

Living in a time when realistic acting often means just bringing your own personality’s strengths to the screen (see Vince Vaughn in his most entertaining efforts and then on the talk shows), we could all learn a lot by watching Brando’s earliest film work. Like spinning Revolver or Rubber Soul, it will make you simultaneously pine for the good old days and something truly new.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

He's the King Around Here, and Don't You Forget It

On the Waterfront / A Streetcar Named Desire / John Williams

Film | August 30, 2007 |


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