Few cultural icons have embodied animal magnetism the way Marlon Brando did.
When he blazed across the theatrical sky as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” he brought to acting a raw, organic style that viewers had never encountered before, along with a brutal beauty that they could neither deny nor resist.
In this the age of YouTube and reality TV, it may be hard to grasp the revolutionary nature of Brando’s naturalism – which some credited to Lee Strasberg and “the method” of his Actors Studio and Brando credited to coach Stella Adler and her Stanislavski approach. There were also those, particularly in the press, who assumed that in giving voice to the inchoate everyman, Brando (1924-2004) was merely playing a version of himself – a notion that headlines of far-flung love affairs, paparazzi brawls and prima donna behavior did little to dispel.
But Brando – who was deeply conflicted about being an actor, let alone a movie star – served notice that the relationship between the man and the myth was more complicated.
“I’ve run into a few Stanley Kowalskis in my life,” he wrote in his 1994 memoir “Songs My Mother Taught Me” (Random House), “muscled, inarticulate, aggressive animals who go through life responding to nothing but their urges and never doubting themselves, men brawny in body and manner of speech who act only on instinct, with little awareness of themselves. But they weren’t me. I was the antithesis of Stanley Kowalski. I was sensitive by nature and he was coarse, a man of unerring animal instincts and intuition.
“Later in my acting career, I did a lot of research before playing a part, but I didn’t do any on him. He was a compendium of my imagination, based on the lines of the play. I created him from Tennessee’s words.”
Mr. Fix It
Indeed, a reading of “Songs My Mother Taught Me” and Peter Manso’s exhaustive biography (Hyperion) reveals a sensitive child whose rebellious, self-contained exterior enabled him to cope with the artistic, alcoholic mother he adored and the tough, demanding father he seemed to fear. His letters to his family from New York City – where he went to study theater after a somewhat chaotic childhood in the Midwest – are poignant illustrations of a child still eager to please. Here he is informing his father that he’ll be making $550 a week in a “strong, violent, sincere play” – “Streetcar”:
“Pop, I want the money I make to help in a large part to take the load you’ve been handling. I’m not counting my eggs, but I want it known that I would like to have my money be of use….”
Throughout his life, Brando would be generously protective, particularly of those he considered vulnerable, be they nerdy roommate Wally Cox, onetime girlfriend Marilyn Monroe or the Indians and African-Americans whose quest for civil rights he embraced.
The “Streetcar” gig had not been a sure thing. After making a strong Great White Way impression as one of the kids in the heartwarming “I Remember Mama” and a tortured World War II vet in “Truckline Café,” Brando was deemed too young, too pretty and too fair – like Elvis, he was a natural blond who died his hair dark – for the brutish Stanley, who destroys the fragile reality of his deluded sister-in-law, Blanche, with an act of sexual violence. In a story that has become part of the Brando legend, he auditioned for Williams at his Provincetown home, but not before fixing the plumbing and the electricity. Williams, who had wanted John Garfield for Stanley, gave Mr. Fix It the part.
Brando would bring the ineffable, visceral, sensual expressivity he displayed in “Streetcar” to the movie version and a host of other well-known films like “The Wild One”; “On the Waterfront,” (or which he won the first of his two Oscars, the other being for “The Godfather”; “Mutiny on the Bounty,” in which he fell in love with Tahiti and his Tahitian co-star, Tarita Tumi Teriipaia; and the notorious “Last Tango in Paris.”
But two lesser-known films – “The Nightcomers” and “The Fugitive Kind” – bear mention, because they capture different aspects of Brando’s animal magnetism.
“The Nightcomers” – a prequel to Henry James’ truly creepy horror story “The Turn of the Screw” – is in some ways a companion to “Streetcar,” with Brando’s Quint the sweaty, sinewy, hairy cousin of his Stanley. And just as Kim Hunter’s Stella descends to Stanley’s oft-parodied mating call (Stellaaaaaaaa!), so Stephanie Beacham’s Miss Jessel succumbs to the pleasure-pain of Quint’s hunger games.
Forget the romance-novel flutterings of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” This is S&M in all its raw realism, setting in intelligible motion not only the depravity of Miss Jessel’s young charges but the unhinging of the governess who succeeds her in “The Turn of the Screw.”
“The Fugitive Kind” – the film version of Tennessee Williams’ “Orpheus Descending” – presents Brando’s wildness as vulnerability and liability. His itinerant musician Val Xavier – Williams is said to have based the character on Presley – is a modern-day Orpheus who descends into the hell of a lifeless, hate-filled Southern town to rescue his Eurydice, the loveless wife of a cruel, dying merchant. Key to the Xavier character is the snakeskin jacket he sports. Like the snake, Val must sacrifice his own skin to be reborn in love.
He’s a reminder of how many times Brando played someone who was more sinned against than sinner. It’s no accident that in the only movie he directed – the offbeat western “One-Eyed Jacks,” which features a marvelously malevolent turn by Brando pal and “Streetcar” co-star Karl Malden – the bank robber he plays is savagely whipped and mutilated. He is as much Blanche as Stanley.
As he grew older and heavier, Brando – who fathered 13 children – bequeathed his animal magnetism to the spiritual sons he worked with and influenced – James Caan, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and particularly, Johnny Depp in “Don Juan DeMarco.”
Brando should’ve played Don Juan. He should’ve played Don Juan’s author, Byron. He should’ve played the Byronic Heathcliff – wandering the moors, howling for his Stella, Cathy, his spirit free at last on the untamed land.