Marlon Brando: Actor, star, liar

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


It is one of Hollywood's deep ironies that a man who hated stardom, and professed himself to be in it for the money on most pictures, became one of the most admired star personae to emerge from the last days of the studio system. But Brando's perceived failures as an actor were also regarded as a violation of the contract made with his audience. His insistence on describing acting as fakery and as "sickly" (Manso 116), as well as his disrespect for his own talent and for those fooled by the artifice of Hollywood (Manso 633-34), gave him the dubious prestige of a disinterested genius. What has been called Brando's "rogue personality" first came to public attention when his star began to rise on New York's theatrical scene (Hatch 50). In 1976, Pauline Kael described her first view of Brando, while he was performing in Truckline Café: We all know that movie actors often merge with their roles in a way that stage actors don't, quite, but Brando did it even on the stage. I was in New York when he played his famous small role in Truckline Café in 1946; arriving late at a performance, and seated in the center of the second row, I looked up and saw what I thought was an actor having a seizure onstage. Embarrassed for him, I lowered my eyes and it wasn't until the young man who'd brought me grabbed my arm and said, "Watch this guy!" that I realized he was acting. (Kael 57) Kael's confusion and her escort's excitement anticipate the range of responses to Brando's style reiterated throughout his film career. On the laudatory side, critic Steve Vineberg describes Brando's "uncanny absorption" in this role, and his ability to give a "new vitality" to the old strategy of "playing a subtext at odds with the text" (Vineberg 155) in his stage and screen performances of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Vineberg praises his ability to "[tear] apart the conventional music of a line of dialogue, discovering a way for scripted words to express the tension in an inarticulate man between what flies out of his mouth and what he can't find words for" (155). This unconventional approach to dialogue, which sometimes annoyed other actors who waited in vain for their cues, was often perceived as "mumbling." Associated with the painful inarticulacy of oppressed masculinity, his diction was certainly appreciated by the New York intelligentsia, who thought they heard the "genuine" man breaking through the muttering. The general public, however, seems to have regarded Brando's mumbling with amused suspicion. The film adaptation of Streetcar, in which Brando bares his muscular chest, also inspired both discomfort and arousal: "The Age of the Chest" was born at this moment, according to Playboy writer Richard Armour (qtd. in Cohan, Masked 167). Brando was aware of the impact he had made in Streetcar both on Broadway and onscreen, and, as he metamorphosed into a film actor, he was cautious about accepting film roles that focused on his potential for brutality. Even, or perhaps especially, in the roles where he played a brutal, inarticulate working-class man, Brando was cinematically treated as an erotic object. He was lit as if he were a woman. Not since Valentino had male eroticism in film ignited such public debate. Brando's betwixt and between status as actor and as sex object was reflected powerfully in the many roles he played between 1946 and 1960. The 1950s rebel (whether Brando, James Dean, or, more subtly, Montgomery Clift) was advertised as using Method acting to project outward his (for it was almost exclusively male) inner angst. By the 1940s, "the Method" had become a lucrative brand name - and like "independent" cinema in the early twenty-first century, the New York-based Actors Studio became a repository, even a factory, bringing the aura of genuine emotion to films that would become mainstream hits or otherwise impact mainstream film style. But even Brando's status as a Method actor has produced doubt, although he became virtually the poster boy for this acting style. (A casual survey of books on Method acting reveals that many of them index Brando's name more often than that of any other actor.) In a crucial essay on Brando's performance in On the Waterfront (1954), a pivotal film in the development of Brando's image as Method actor and for which he won his first Academy Award, James Naremore comments: Brando's emotionality and slight Abstractedness has something in common with the Method's valuation of expression over rhetoric - an essentially romantic attitude that reaches its ultimate form in what Strasberg called the "private moment." In the Actors Studio, Strasberg frequently requested professional actors to imagine or relive an experience for themselves alone, ignoring their audience. . . . It gave Hollywood acting an emotionalism not seen since the days of Griffith, but it reversed Griffith's priorities, viewing characters in somewhat clinical rather than purely moral terms and (in its first stages at least) centering on male rather than female stars. (202-03) Just how did Brando deviate from the Method - as conceived by the Actors Studio or by the general public? One might answer that question by examining the acting philosophy of one of Brando's most important mentors in both the Method and other acting techniques - Stella Adler - who studied with Stanislavski and worked for many years with the Group Theater, where the Method was formulated. The Method as Adler conceived and practiced it differed profoundly from that of the Actors Studio's most famous director, Lee Strasberg, who took over in 1951, when Brando was still a young actor. Whereas Strasberg interpreted Stanislavski's system using the technique of "substitution" - substituting personal memories for those of the play's character - Adler's approach was more textual and less focused on "affective memory." Elia Kazan, another of Brando's most important mentors and a founding member of the Actors Studio in 1947, shared the approaches of both Adler and Strasberg, although his relationship with the latter was fraught with conflict (see Hirsch). This question of influence is crucial to understanding Brando's acting style. As Naremore puts it, Even though the Studio was often associated with a new American style, its work was easily assimilated into the mainstream of expressive-realist acting, and its specific achievements are difficult to assess. Brando and Marilyn Monroe are often singled out as two of the Studio's "pupils," but they barely qualify. Brando was trained chiefly at Erwin Piscator's Dramatic Workshop, where he encountered both Lewis and Strasberg, but where he also learned about Brecht. (198) Bertolt Brecht's theater is associated with the actor's self-conscious distancing from his or her role. It is a form of anti-realism or anti-naturalism that draws on ideologies in conflict with the romantic/realistic idealism of the Method. Naremore's comment about Brando's exposure to Brechtian acting styles is important in that it allows for the possibility of regarding Brando's performances as self-conscious and technical, rather than as spontaneous outbursts from the heart. Oddly enough, the seemingly authentic emotions displayed by the Method actor were closely associated (as in On the Waterfront) with the political movements of the period, although Brechtian "distanciated" acting is a more sustained form of political theater than is the Method. This conflict between acting as pure and highly self-conscious technique versus acting as spontaneous outburst is an ancient one. More perhaps than almost any other star, Brando found himself in the middle of the conflict, as his acting style began to deviate from the projected interiority that audiences expected of him. The kind of theatricality that emerges at the end of the decade in Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and even in many of Brando's earlier roles has traditionally been placed by critics at the opposite end of the spectrum from the received ideas regarding "natural" performances associated with the Method. This dichotomy between an actor's self-conscious awareness of his technique versus the immersion or absorption in a role is a rewriting of an old conflict in the Western perception of theater, which certainly goes back to Plato's condemnation of mimeticism in theater and has been perhaps most aptly articulated by the eighteenth-century French philosophe Denis Diderot.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationLarger Than Life
Subtitle of host publicationMovie Stars of the 1950s
PublisherRutgers University Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)9780813547664
StatePublished - 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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