Marlon Brando in Tennessee Williams 'A Streetcar Named Desire'
Updated on August 5, 2008, 7:49 PM - Written by Tim Buttner
A stellar cast makes this movie as unforgettable as the famous stage play by Tennessee Williams about Blanche Dubois, played here by Vivien Leigh who won the Oscar for her performance, who's reality crumbles around her after she moves in with her sister Stella Kowalski (Kim Hunter) and her domineering and brutish husband Stanley, who's played by Marlon Brando with such ferocity that he leaps off the screen. Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, who plays Stanley's friend Mitch, both won Supporting-Actor Oscars for their performances, but Brando lost out to Humphrey Bogart for the African Queen, and it's debatable whether he deserved it more because his performance lent so much to the greatness of his co-stars.
When Stanley first appears on screen the camera is wide and distant from him, but even with his size reduced by the frame of the shot Brando manages to make his presence felt. He argues with other bowlers and holds his ground in competition to their shoves. It's a brief glimpse of the anger and ferocity we're about to witness from the character. Later when he returns home he casually asks Mitch about their planned poker game and if it would be at his place, witnesses his neighbor and friend argue with his wife, and stumbles upon Blanche inside instead of Stella. When Brando stops, his eyes never leave Blanche but with a simple blink he manages to convey so subtly that he's taken aback. He continues to stare at her studying, swaying, and chewing all in such a way that speaks about Stanley's character. She's the first to speak because Stanley wouldn't; he assesses the situation and always keeps his guard. As soon as Blanche reveals her identity, Brando transitions his facial construct to recognition and easily delivers his lines as if they were his own. He shrugs the whole encounter off and removes his coat as he marches past Blanche into the bedroom, proving with a great introduction Brando's skill at conveying all that needs to be known about the character.
Brando came from the mentorship of Stella Adler where at the art of acting was defined by the motto "Think of your own experiences and use them truthfully." Brando brought this with him to his portrayal of Stanley, not for the film, but the stage. When Brando first was suggested for the role by director Elia Kazan, who had found his presence so magnetic that he had to re-block the play "Truckline Café" to keep the audiences near the major characters, but there was a problem with the fact that Brando was much younger than what Williams had written. Brando took command anyways having smitten the playwright himself and took the character in a new direction under the idea that his character's unintentional cruelty could be attributed to his youthful ignorance. What resulted was the audiences sympathy turning from Blanche to Stanley, which isn't what the playwright intended, but he too was too swayed by Brando's magnetism. Brando brings the same sympathy to his screen portrayal.
Vivien Leigh wasn't the original Blanche that Brando played against in the play, but she had acted it on the stage under the direction of her husband, Lawrence Olivier, and she brought that performance to her role. The two battling sympathies are astounding throughout the picture and as viewable in the scene when Stanley is excited about the coming birth of his first child while Blanche has a mental breakdown claiming that she's going away with a rich friend on a boat, Brando steals the scene with the most brilliant acting and the director and the performance by Leigh brings sympathy back to Blanche only for Brando to sweep back with shocking brutality. The scene begins on Blanche, who believes she's alone, and Leigh brings all our sympathy to her after we've seen her go a little more crazy in the scene before. Blanche's delusion is disrupted by Stanley, who in light of his having a baby humors her delusion despite not believing a word, and lets her go on. He happily has his cigar, which Brando does quickly get rid of as he drops off a bag, keys, and takes off his shirt, all while conversing with Blanche peacefully, and we sympathize with both for the first instance because of the symbolic power of smoking a cigar to celebrate a birth is wielded by Brando as if it was nothing. He only dispenses it when he searches for a bottle opener and here he begins to steal the scene as he delivers the most personal stuff of Stanley's character.
Brando delivers like no other, and no actor can match his delivery. Brando finds the bottle opener and joyously sprays beer all over his face as he guzzles it up. We sense Stanley's happiness in the occasion. Stanley wants to bury the hatchet and get along because he's gonna have a kid. Brando plays that want. Blanche wont have it, and Brando reacts beautifully with just the slightest tinge of anger at her reluctance because he understands that his character is happy and just wants to share that. He moves with Stanley to his pajamas and shares that secret in jest with Blanche to make her be happy and the circumstances. Blanche counters that he's intruding on her privacy and that when she goes it will be better. Brando transitions to inquisitor Stanley and pushes on about the millionaire not giving her privacy, and the audience understands every decision he's making. With him we're asking the same questions and why she can't let go and celebrate. Blanche responds with a longwinded soliloquy of beauty and big words that is not nearly as personal anything Stanley has shared just before. Blanche then goes into lies, or what the audience knows as lies because of what we witnessed in the scene previous, and insults Stanley's friend Mitch. Leigh finishes her monologue and Brando stirs nearby, having listened to every lie and insult to his friend, and he calmly gets up and strolls over to her. He wipes his hands of the cake that he was holding, "Was this before or after the telegram?" As Leigh faintly remembers her delusional lie Brando boils underneath and we can't take our eyes off him. We wait for him to explode and he holds it until the ultimate climax. Our sympathy still remains with him despite the utter monster he becomes. His explosion shocks us, but it's not even full steam compared to where he soon takes it. Every frustration of his character comes out and we realize that Brando stole the scene and our sympathy.
Every actor who won an Oscar on that picture owes their performance to Brando and his genius. Brando received his first Oscar nomination, national recognition, and became a sensational magnet to future actors of the "Method" technique that some at the time said was his, but all those who knew Brando and his acting knew different. Brando was not an actor of "Method" but something more magical that defines him as the greatest movie actor of all time.
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