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Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in the film of "A Streetcar Named Desire," 1951
Player's Dispassion: The Style of Marlon Brando

By Robert Brustein






The death of Marlon Brando at the age of eighty signifies the end not only of a great screen icon, but of an entire era of American realism. Brando famously broke upon the American consciousness playing Stanley Kowalski in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947. It was a stunning demonstration of naturalistic acting that left an indelible mark on everyone who saw it. In a role Tennessee Williams designed as a brute beast slouching towards Bethlehem, Brando leavened his character's violent outbursts with a glowering sensitivity that tipped the sympathies of the audience away from Blanche towards Stanley (when Anthony Quinn replaced him in the role, we saw a lesser performance but one more faithful to the author's vision of a selfish lout swatting a helpless moth).

Stanley Kowalski was not Brando's first part on stage, but it was to be his last. Hollywood beckoned, first with The Men, a film about paraplegics, then with the screen version of Streetcar, then with Viva Zapata!, and soon with On The Waterfront for which he won his first Oscar in 1954. Eighteen years later, he rejected his second Oscar, for his groundbreaking performance in The Godfather, through the agency of a Native American woman who took the occasion to read his statement protesting Hollywood's treatment of American Indians.

Marlon Brando and his sister Jocelyn, who was visiting him on the set of "The Wild One," 1953By this time, Brando had become both the Peck's Bad Boy of Hollywood and the Maserati Radical of Beverly Hills, lending his name to causes as far afield as Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement and the Black Panther Party. Although he earlier had supported Israel and denounced the plight of Soviet Jewry, he later raised some hackles by saying that Hollywood was controlled by greedy Jews who failed to show enough social conscience. Meanwhile, he was extorting huge sums from these moguls for every movie he made. He married three times and had innumerable mistresses, mostly non-Caucasians, though his Indian wife (Anna Kashfi) embarrassed him by turning out to be Irish. He named some of his eleven children after Native American tribes or after his movie parts, and suffered the pain of seeing one of them (his son Christian) get convicted for murder, and another (his daughter Cheyenne) die a suicide.

Physically, he had transformed from the graceful loping Terry Malloy of Waterfront into the elephantine hulking Kurtz of Apocalypse Now, ballooning into a figure so huge that he could only be photographed in shadows. Like Marilyn Monroe, he became notorious for his delinquent artistic behavior--cutting up on the set, showing up late, and failing to learn his lines (much of his deliberate pacing with certain characters was a result of his reading his cues off idiot cards). The great actress and teacher, Uta Hagen, once wrote a book called Respect For Acting. Brando's autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, would have been more accurately called Contempt for Acting.

F. Scott Fitzgerald regretted that he had been "a poor caretaker of my talents." Brando was a really slobbish janitor of his own. He never recognized that his mighty acting gift was his only by sufferance. He was, by nature, a lazy man who preferred hanging out on beaches in Tahiti to developing his craft and sullen art ("The only reason I'm here," The New York Times quotes him as saying, "is that I don't yet have the moral courage to turn down the money"). Surely that same laziness was responsible for what I consider Brando's greatest artistic delinquency, his failure ever to return to the stage.

Marlon Brando and Bob Hope, pretending to struggle over a Brando's Oscar in 1954Being in a position to pick any role he wanted, he could have single-handedly revolutionized the American theatre. Alas, Brando's mutinies remained confined to the Bounty. Actors were following Brando's example not only by imitating his partly deliberate, half-improvised vocal mannerisms (you can see his influence on Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, James Dean, Ben Gazzara, and a host of others). They also imitated him by neglecting a crucial obligation of the actor, which is to preserve the great roles of the classical and modern repertory. (Brando did attempt to play Marc Antony once in John Houseman's movie version of Julius Caesar about which John Gielgud, playing Cassius, wrote loftily: "Marlon looks as if he is searching for a baseball bat to beat his brains with.") I do not mean to underestimate Brando's genuine achievements as a movie actor, or those of his gifted imitators. His Vito Corleone may be the single greatest performance ever filmed. But Brando did not have a sufficient sense of the actor's calling to help advance the cause of theatrical art, which may be why he became embroiled in so many causes he knew little about.

Perhaps he was trying to compensate for his non-verbal style of acting. Brando virtually invented a type that many years ago I called "the inarticulate hero in American life." Whereas, in the 1930s, American dramatic characters--typically those of Odets and Barry and S.N. Behrman--were essentially talkers, by the late '40s the mumbling, steaming, explosive figure Brando first created as Stanley Kowalski had become the archetypal American dramatic hero (O'Neill's Hairy Ape was the prototype). Unlike, say, Ralphie Berger in Marlon Brando as Don Corleone in "The Godfather"Awake and Sing, who was able to find a political voice with which to air his grievances, the new hero was less inclined to describe an injustice than to stomp on it. That these characters sometimes had a gentle side to their nature made them no less threatening. Like Melville's stammering Billy Budd, who could respond to slander only by killing his defamer, the inarticulate hero was always primed to erupt into violence.

But for all his artistic and moral failings, regardless of his behavior on and off the set, there is no question that Brando was an acting genius. His contribution is often described as having brought American naturalism to its ultimate conclusion. But looking at any of Brando's performances now, it is possible to see how highly stylized they are. Take his Stanley Kowalski, which, at the time, seemed so spontaneous and intuitive one thought he was making it up as he went along (Brando did, indeed, improvise a lot of his own lines but not those). His approach to that character now seems almost as mannered to the present generation as, say, Barrymore's snorting Hamlet did to the generation of the '40s. Every age believes it has reached the ultimate truth in acting when it has only achieved the ultimate in its own style. It is a shame that this great actor only applied his extraordinary style to a limited number of contemporary movie roles, brilliant as some of them were. Inside that huge prodigal body was imprisoned a supreme artist too seldom permitted to serve the actor’s calling.


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