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The man who unleashed the method and the madness

Raw emotion:Marlon Brando as the sexually charged Stanley Kowalski brought acertain psychological realism to his character that was repulsive yet desirable.  

If we look at the history of acting in the Western tradition, we would have to go back to ancient Greece. Then head off to its subsequent interpretation during the Italian renaissance period with Commedia dell'arte and the further push it received by influential writers like Shakespeare. Despite centuries of changes, acting in Europe and America still followed the Greek way of reaching out to a massive audience: notably an exaggerated swirl of manners through grand body gestures and powerful vocal projections, endorsed by Benoît-Constant Coquelin, the great 19th century actor.

It was Konstantin Stanislavsky, the legendary Russian theatre actor and director, who shook the system by bringing in a psychological approach to acting, which in turn brought naturalism in theatre. When the Moscow Art Theatre toured the U.S. in 1922, Stanislavsky’s approach took American theatre through an upheaval. The Group Theatre, a New York City theatre collective, was formed in 1931 to develop highly disciplined artistry exploring the possibilities of the Stanislavsky system.

Lee Strasberg, one of its founding members, developed Stanislavsky’s concept of emotional memory: visiting a painful memory of the past to bring a certain truth to the character.

When he directed fellow member Stella Adler in a play with the same approach, the idea of constantly revisiting a painful past drove her so mad that she took off to Paris for a break. Stanislavsky was touring Paris at the same time and, upon securing an appointment with him, Adler almost held him responsible for ruining her life.

Stanislavsky continually altered his views, always trying to find more effectual ways for the actor to perform. This was why he was hesitant to publish his work for a long time. Adler discovered that the teacher had abandoned the concept of emotional memory in favour of imagination. After extensive coaching by the master, she returned to America to form a camp, parallel to Strasberg’s emotional memory method, in which she emphasised physical actions guided by imagination.

Signalling a change

While the New York theatre scene was bursting at the seams, Hollywood mostly had actors playing to certain manners. In their violent outbursts or tender mercies, they remained guarded. But when A Streetcar Named Desire, the screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play of the same name (written in 1947) released in 1951, a new actor arrived to signal a change. Marlon Brando’s sexually charged Stanley Kowalski made Hollywood and the world sit up and notice what the nakedness of emotions truly was. And he was the protégé of Adler.

Brando opened a new chapter in film history, but to look at the film as only his would be a travesty like no other. If you see the film’s intentions, it is most concerned about its female protagonist, Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh). It serves to paint her, from the time of her landing at the station, distinctly out of place, finding her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) in her New Orleans apartment, and in it, her greatest adversary in the form of her brother-in-law, Stanley, who will evoke both fear and desire.

A Streetcar Named Desire sucks one into such a vortex of emotions because it was so adeptly played by a group of actors who chewed on their characters with relish.

But in the skeleton of it, it’s primarily a battle between Blanche and Stanley, and both the actors, Brando and Leigh, play it out like the clash of a lifetime. Leigh makes it scintillatingly theatrical in her campy attire, a cue from her stage days, playing it to the gallery, almost like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, over-the-top, making every single pore of her delusion count.

Brando, on the other hand, displays himself like a sexually charged beast with his Greek god physique, drenched in sweat and grease, bringing a certain psychological realism to his character that was repulsive yet desirable.

Leigh doffs her hat to the old times, like her fading Blanche, to the amplified manner of style, while Brando signals the arrival of the new method, like a firestorm, in brutality that is raw, and in sexuality that is stated without an ounce of inhibition. Between desire and death, illusion and reality, it’s the clash of value systems, between old and new, one eroding, and the other forcing itself to strike, almost metaphorical of the emergence of the new America.

Still a rage

Controversial during its time for its amoral ambience, the film hasn’t lost any of its sheen and fury even after six decades.

Speaking lines that cut like lava, the actors ooze a sexual tension that we seldom see on screen. Tennessee Williams’s Blanche is also a subversion, offering her traits, penchants and a whiplash of a tongue that can be read as a denied gay life in drag.

Director Elia Kazan, also a product of the Group Theatre, deviates substantially from the original play, at the end, he almost mocks it. In the play, Tennessee Williams offers no option for Stella to go against her husband, almost offering a bleak view of life’s cycles. Kazan frees Stella from Stanley; she vows never to return, more idealistic than realistic, but an optimism about the place of the woman in America’s future.

In cinema’s growth, A Streetcar Named Desire is remembered primarily because it paved the way for Brando’s eruption; as director Martin Scorsese famously remarked, “He is the marker. There’s ‘before Brando’ and ‘after Brando’.”

From Stanley’s gentle moments with his wife Stella to the infamous scene in which he violates Blanche, Brando offered his character a scale and liberation that Hollywood’s leading men could never imagine before. But he was an actor who continuously made his brand of screen realism evolve, finally breaking down in the Last Tango in Paris, fully flowering in his naturalism.

Dilip Kumar was the pioneer of realism in Indian cinema, influencing generations of actors in his country, even being a forerunner to Brando himself.

But Brando’s method to madness, taught by Adler, has been an influence that not only inspired actors in his country, but also every single place where Hollywood has been present, that is, the whole wide world.

The writer is a journalist and a screenwriter who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise; he tweets @RanjibMazumder



Martin Scorsese famously said, “He is the marker. There’s ‘before Brando’ and ‘after Brando’.”





Brando’s Best

The Wild One (1953)

On the Waterfront (1954)

The Godfather (1972)

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Apocalypse Now (1979)



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