Marlon Brando’s raw, intense performance as brutish Stanley Kowalski redefined mid-century acting, and the masculine screen image. But it was Leigh (as fragile Blanche DuBois) Hunter and Malden who won Oscars for their roles. Elia Kazan directed Tennessee Williams' landmark play on stage, and Brando consigned this ground-breaking performance, one of the great moments in theatrical history, to celluloid.
Playwright Tennessee Williams' previous Broadway play, The Glass Menagerie, was a big hit, and won a Drama Critics Circle Award. He had been working on a new play, titled first The Moth, then Blanche’s Chair on the Moon and later, The Poker Night. Williams moved into an apartment in New Orleans' French Quarter, where he could hear a clattering streetcar named Desire and one named Cemeteries through his open windows. He found the juxtaposition an inspiring metaphor for the human condition and in 1946 finished the play, now called A Streetcar Named Desire. The theme was the defeat of traditional Southern gentility by a harsh modern world, as personified by the heroine, Blanche DuBois. In fact, according to Tennessee’s brother Dakin, Blanche was an avatar of the author, and Stanley Kowalski, the leading male character was likely inspired by the author’s live-in lover at the time, the rough-hewn Pancho Gonzales. The author’s homosexuality and director Elia Kazan’s complex about being an immigrant to the US bonded them in a shared feeling of being outsiders, “America made us both quirky rebels,” Kazan said in his autobiography. Williams instinctively trusted Kazan to do right by his play, which Kazan visualized with the audience’s sympathy being first with Stanley and over the course of the play turning to Blanche.
Director Elia Kazan alternated between working for the stage and screen. He had just directed an important "message" film denouncing anti-Semitism, Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). Streetcar's producer, Irene Mayer Selznick, daughter and ex-wife of powerful Hollywood producers thought first of casting movie stars, John Garfield and Margaret Sullivan, to headline the stage production. Garfield wasn’t available, and Burt Lancaster, Van Heflin, Edmund O’Brien, John Lund and Gregory Peck all passed. Marlon Brando’s agent proposed him for the leading part of Stanley Kowalski, but he was dismissed as too young (23) and too pretty. Brando thought Stanley was “a size too large for me” and almost declined when Selznick offered him the part. Williams was enthusiastic about Brando’s electric reading and wrote his agent, “It had not occurred to me before what an excellent value would come through casting a very young actor in this part. It humanizes the character of Stanley in that it becomes the brutality of callousness of youth rather than a vicious older man…” Harold Brodkey of the New Yorker wrote much later, “Brando’s new take on the working class father of the country was a very important cultural invention…He was in many ways a kind of unknown soldier—not dead, but dead-souled as a result of the Second World War.” Biographer Peter Manso commented, “Brando was not the first choice to play Stanley Kowalski, nor was he expected to steal the show from the play’s heroine and turn his character into an American icon.”
Marlon Brando was born in Omaha, Nebraska, into a chaotic family life. His parents were both alcoholics, his father a traveling salesman prone to destructive rages, and his mother an unenthusiastic housewife and parent who was hopelessly stage struck. Marlon had two older sisters, and was extremely close to his mother, in spite of her faults. He was expelled first from a public high school, and then from a military school for chronic misbehavior; he never finished high school. His sisters had both moved to New York, and he followed them there, thinking he might try acting as a profession. He arrived with his father’s contemptuous, “Take a look in the mirror and tell me if anyone would want to see a yokel like you on the stage” ringing in his ears. He enrolled in the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village and found a mentor in Stella Adler. It was she who recommended him to Elia Kazan for an intense part in a play written by Maxwell Anderson called Truckline Café, although his previous experience on stage had been playing a teenaged boy in I Remember Mama. He also began taking lessons at The Actor’s Studio, where Kazan was one teacher working with this revolutionary method of acting that “turned psychology into behavior” on the stage. One of Brando's classmates, Elaine Stritch, said, “Marlon’s going to school to learn the Method was like sending a tiger to jungle school.”
Nearly everyone in the A Streetcar Named Desire was from the Actor’s Studio, except for Jessica Tandy who played Blanche Du Bois, the other leading role. It was a challenge for her to meld her classical training with the technique of the rest of the cast. Kazan conducted improvisations as the actors played imaginary scenes before the beginning of the play in order to crack through Tandy’s more restrained notions of acting. Kazan interviewed the other cast members, including Kim Hunter as Stella and Karl Malden as Mitch almost casually, usually over drinks in a bar, but mined personal material he could use in directing the play.
Brando wrestled with his role, exasperating the other cast members. He worked out to bring himself closer to his physical image of the part. His gestures and silences began to eclipse the dialogue in importance. He had trouble memorizing his lines and was depressed and moody. For a while he brought a cot to the theater and slept there. His relationship with the rest of the cast, particularly Tandy, was touchy, and Kazan used that to the play’s advantage. The longer Kazan and Brando worked together the more Marlon grew into Stanley, using a swaggering body language (perhaps copying his director’s) to convey the character. Brando hung around Times Square observing voices and mannerisms in the crowd “guys like Stanley, who hold a cup of coffee like an animal with a paw around it. The Stanleys of the world have no self-awareness” (Bosworth). Brando said of Stanley, he was “a man without any sensitivity, without any kind of morality except his own mewling, whimpering insistence on his own way…” Williams said of his character, “There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people. Someone a little better or a little worse, but all are activated more by misunderstanding than malice. A blindness as to what is going on in each other’s hearts” (Manso).
His costumes in the play and film, designed by Lucinda Ballard, revolutionized the way America looked and still looks. Inspired by Con-Ed ditch diggers, she refitted loose fitting, longer sleeved t-shirts, and modified them, even tearing one shoulder to suggest Stella’s sexual violence. And, she invented tight blue jeans. She took out the pockets, fitted them wet on Brando, pinned them tight, and then washed them for 24 hours to get them to fit like a second skin. Brando’s blond hair, lashes and eyebrows were dyed brown.
The play debuted December 3, 1947, and heralded a frank new era in American drama, winning its author a Pulitizer Prize. The Broadway premiere was explosive, Producer Selznick said it was the first time she ever saw an audience give a standing ovation, and it lasted half an hour on opening night. Camile Paglia wrote, “Brando brought American nature to American acting and he brought the American personality to the world…Brando the wild, sexy rebel, all mute and surly bad attitude, prefigured the great art form of the Sixties generation, rock and roll” (Bosworth).
The film rights were purchased by agent turned producer Charles Feldman in 1949, a pioneer in the “packaging” of stars and properties that would herald the end of the old studio system. He knew there would be serious objections by the still powerful Production Code Office to the play and he staged a reading for the censors to try to head off any objections. Although the censors objected to a pivotal scene, compromise was reached by cutting the profanity and the implication that Blanche’s husband had been homosexual.
Jessica Tandy knew she didn’t have enough star influence to play Blanche on screen. First, Olivia deHavilland was cast, but her salary demands were too high. Former Scarlett O’Hara Vivien Leigh had played Blanche in the London production and was cast as the movie’s Blanche, although she had played the part, directed by her husband, Lawrence Olivier, quite differently than she would on the screen. This initially caused some tension with Kazan, who was forced to chide her, “But, you’re not making the film with Larry in London, Vivien, you’re making it here with me.” He said, somewhat uncharitably of her, “She had a small talent, but the greatest determination to excel of any actress I’ve known. She’d have crawled over broken glass if she thought that it would help her performance. In the scenes that counted, she is excellent.” Brando, however felt that the movie version was in fact better than the play for the reason that Leigh’s performance as Blanche was much stronger than Tandy’s. He had played the part 500 times on Broadway and essentially recorded his ground-breaking role. But he was reinspired by Leigh. Kazan said, “It was different in the movie. Vivien’s wild sexual craziness, her flirtatiousness, her faded southern belle appearance turned him on. Brando exuded a rage and passion even greater than on the stage.” (Bosworth). Leigh said, “Blanche is a woman with everything stripped away. She is a tragic figure and I understand her. But, playing her tipped me into madness.”
Leigh, author Williams and director Kazan
The film was booked into Radio City Music Hall and then withdrawn, as the Catholic Legion of Decency threatened to place it on the Condemned list, making it a sin for a Catholic to see the film. By order of Jack Warner, and without Kazan’s consent, several minutes were cut, watering down the plot, obscuring the female characters' sexual desires and implying a happy(ier) ending. Even Alex North’s jazz score was edited, because it made Stella and Stanley's marriage, in the words of the censors, “too carnal.”
Kim Hunter had been an ingenue since the early 1940s
The film was nominated for 12 Oscars and Leigh, Hunter and Malden all won for their roles. Humphrey Bogart won that year—deservedly!—for The African Queen and the Best Picture was An American in Paris. Kazan did not win, but that was likely sheer politics and political paranoia. The second wave of House on Un-American Activities investigations into Hollywood Communists had begun and Kazan testified as a “friendly witness” naming names, even though he swore they were names the committee already had. Many in Hollywood never forgave him for his betrayal.
Brando was slighted for different reasons. He held Hollywood
and its commercial aspirations in complete contempt, and he expected
his 36 day
shooting schedule to be a brief stopover before returning permanently
to the stage. He never revised his low opinion of the movie business.
Years later he said, “It’s
been said that I sold out. Maybe that’s true—but I knew what
I was doing. I’ve never had any respect for Hollywood. It stands
for greed, avarice, phoniness, crassness, but when you act in a movie,
you act for three months and then you can do what you want for the rest
of the year” (Bosworth). Through the ups and downs of his career,
Brando’s early rebellious roles in Streetcar, On the
Waterfront and The Wild One permanently recast images
of masculinity in American movies. Interestingly, at the screening at
the North Carolina Museum of Art, his huge performance elicited laughter.
How quickly the revolution becomes caricature. Nevertheless, countless
actors from the last 50 years owe his trailblazing a debt of gratitude.