'Greatest actor of his generation,' Brando dies at 80
Oscar winner starred in 'On the Waterfront,' 'Streetcar,' 'Godfather'
Then came Brando as Stanley Kowalski.
Tyrone Power, Van Johnson -- and along comes Brando," actor Anthony Quinn said later. "The character of Stanley [stuck it to] them all."
Lyall Bush, writing in Film Comment in 1996, said, "The whole notion of the character who is driven by excess rather than control, heat rather than cool reserve, is almost impossible to imagine before 'Streetcar.' Brando didn't give a damn for the theatrical tradition that came before him. He ripped it up."
Through his studies with Adler and his involvement with others in the Group Theater -- including Harold Clurman, Clifford Odets and, especially, Kazan -- the young actor became the front man for Konstantin Stanislavsky's psychologically oriented acting technique. Emphasis was placed on exploring a role from the inside out, tapping into personal experience rather than merely reciting lines.
Adler "taught me to be real and not to try to act out an emotion I didn't personally experience during a performance," Brando said.
But Adler once said, "I taught him nothing. I opened up possibilities of thinking, feeling, experience, and I opened the doors He never needed me after that."
Brando was 23 with a few stage roles to his credit, including a two-year run on Broadway as Nels in 1944's "I Remember Mama," when he came to the attention of Kazan. The director decided that, despite his youth, the actor would be a compelling Stanley opposite veteran stage actress Jessica Tandy as Blanche DuBois in "Streetcar."
But it was a risky choice, and Kazan left the decision up to the playwright, who was living in Cape Cod. Kazan lent Brando $20 for a train ticket, but Brando spent it and had to hitchhike.
When he arrived there, he found Williams in an agitated state because his toilet was overflowing. Brando fixed it, but that was "not what determined me to give him the part," Williams later joked. The playwright said that when Brando read for the role, "He seemed to have already created a dimensional character, of the sort that the war has produced among young veterans. And in addition to his gifts as an actor, he has great physical appeal and sensuality."
The play opened Dec. 3, 1947. And though Brooksv Atkinson of the New York Times barely noted his performance the next morning -- commenting that, along with the other actors supporting Tandy, Brando acted "not only with color and style but with insight" -- nothing would ever be the same in acting after that.
"There had never been such a display of dangerous, brutal male beauty on an American stage," film writer David Thomson said. "Its influence can still be felt, in fashion photography and sport as well as acting."
"I made a study for guys like Stanley Kowalski," Brando told one writer. "You know, guys who work hard and have lots of flesh, having nothing supple about them. They never open their fists, really. They grip a cup of coffee like an animal would wrap a paw around it. They're heavily muscled in body and manner of speech."
The late Kim Hunter, who played Stella opposite Brando's Stanley in both the stage play and the movie of "Streetcar," said Brando was her all-time favorite actor to work with. "Anything you do that may not be true shows up immediately as false with him," she said. "He yanks you into his own sense of reality."
For example, she said, in the stage version of "Streetcar," Brando constantly changed the way he played the scene in which Stanley goes through Blanche DuBois' trunk and Stella tries to stop him. The scene is important because it is the one in which Stanley gathers evidence for his cruel opinion of Stella's sister.
"He had a different sort of attitude toward each of the belongings every night," Hunter said of her co-star. "Sometimes it would lead me into getting into quite a fight with him, and other times I'd be seeing him as a silly little boy." That kept "Streetcar," which ran for 855 performances, fresh for her, she said.
So real was his portrayal of the boorish Stanley that people confused the man with the role -- as they did throughout his career with his roles, especially with brooding or rebellious characters.
Brando resisted this transference, insisting in the case of Kowalski that the actor and the character had little in common -- that he "detested" him and was turned off by his "brutal aggressiveness" and absence of fear or doubt.
But like him or not, Brando's Stanley made a mark on nearly every actor who came after.
The reaction of one of them, Ben Gazzara, was typical. He said that Brando's Stanley "got me terribly worked up -- I reacted strongly to the raw emotion, the animal vitality in his acting." Actors were known to go night after night to see "Streetcar" to try to figure out how Brando did it.