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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs. A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire (Four Stars)

U.S.: Elia Kazan, 1951 (Warner)

A Streetcar Named Desire is Elia Kazan‘s peerless staging and filming of Tennessee William’s masterful play, set in a steamy New Orleans where Eros and death (“Flores para las muertos!”) dance their first tango.

This movie has one of the all-time great movie casts (three of whom, but not Brando, won Oscars). Brando is the brutal, animalistic but charming Stanley. Vivien Leigh is the fragile, sensual, haunted Blanche DuBois. Kim Hunter is Stanley‘s wife and Blanche’s sister, the screamed-over Stella. And Karl Malden is Blanche‘s kind and respectful suitor Mitch. This is Kazan’s preferred cut, with the more downbeat ending, one which gives full power to Blanche’s wrenchingly poignant last line “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” No arguments: A masterpiece.

But why ddn’t Brando win the Oscar? Did people confuse him with his bad boy role?

Brando, by almost universal consent America‘s  champion movie actor, began his career (or nearly began it) at the top, in his early 20s, with that revolutionary stage and film performance — as Stanley Kowalski in playwright/screenwriter Tennessee Williams’ and director Elia Kazan‘s classic American stage drama of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” “Streetcar” vaulted young Brando to the leading position among the actors of his generation, and made “Method“ and “Stanislavsky” synonyms for the new postwar trends and styles in movie and theatrical realism. And Brando followed Stanley with a string of great performances that climaxed with his powerhouse Oscar-winning role as washed-up boxer/longshoreman Terry Malloy in Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg’s On the Waterfront.

Then, after hitting what most people regarded (wrongly) as a long dry spell, Marlon reclaimed his champion’s belt with two extraordinary 1972 performances, as the fatherly, menacing Don Vito Corleone in Francis Coppola’s and Mario Puzo‘s The Godfather, and as the sensuous and self-destructive expatriate Paul in Bernardo Bertolucci‘s Last Tango in Paris.

Those roles sealed his reputation, and his fate. Most actors and critics, if not always audiences, worshipped Brando to the end. (He died in 2004.) But by the time he’d made his last movie in Montreal, The Score (a Frank Oz-directed comedy heist film costarring Robert De Niro and Edward Norton in the larger roles), he’d long demonstrated a kind of weird contempt for the profession that had made him a legend — neglecting to learn his lines, sewing his speeches into the clothes of his costars (a problem for poor nude Maria Schneider in “Last Tango“), eating himself into a mountainous 300 pounds, sometimes going for years without acting professionally at all.

The young Adonis-like Brando was the actor whom critics and Britons believed would be the American stage and screen’s great Hamlet. (But he never even tried.) He was the player for whom Tennessee Williams wrote play after play year after year. (But Brando turned them all done, except for the Sidney Lumet movie of “Orpheus Descending,” retitled The Fugitive Kind). He was the star for whom Coppola intended The Godfather II and Kazan intended The Arrangement. (But he turned those down as well.)

He was the producer/star for whom Calder Willingham wrote and Stanley Kubrick was set to direct Brando’s own pet project One Eyed Jacks (but he fired Kubrick); the great but perverse artist whom every director and every writer wanted for their films, but who always found reasons to turn projects down and go his own way.

In his latter years, Brando no longer tackled the challenging roles of his youth, and he gradually stopped trying for his oddball later triumphs like The Missouri Breaks or Apocalypse Now. Instead, he parodied himself, parodied his great role of Don Corleone in movies like The Freshman, camped it up in shows like John Frankenheimer’s bizarre horror film The Island of Dr. Moreau. He was brilliant there, too.

I sometimes have a nightmare in which Marco Ferreri’s dark film comedy La Grande Bouffe — the movie in which Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli, Philippe Noiret and Ugo Tognazzi eat and debauch themselves to death in a banquet room — has been remade especially for Orson Welles (who also directs), and for Gerard Depardieu, Robert De Niro (who has pulled another Jake La Motta especially for this production) — and for Brando. You don’t want to watch or dream this movie; sheer flatulence alone makes it a nightmare. At one point, Brando insists on having his speeches written over the torsos of all his co-stars, who willingly submit, though Welles insists on being decorated with Hamlet’s soliloquies, in an attempt to jar his fellow actor back to greatness.

There’s something sad about Brando’s strange lack of ambition in his later career, his odd contempt for the whole tradition and discipline, even the whole vanity, of acting. But he never lost his great talent, even when he seemed to be perversely hurling away his career. His roles may have become smaller and less interesting. But he himself was never uninteresting, never remotely run-of-the mill.

This box set contains one of Brando’s two premier film performances — as Stanley in Kazan‘s preferred cut of “Streetcar.” (The other is Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. Great roles. Great performances. Of course.

In Brando’s most famous scene and speech, in the back of the cab in On the Waterfront, he cries out to Rod Steiger as his crooked shyster brother Charlie, mouthpiece of Lee J. Cobb’s labor mob, “You don’t understand! I coulda had class! I coulda been a contender! I coulda been somebody!” We’ll always remember that electrifying confession of failure, from the young brilliant actor who started out at the top. Because he was more than the contender; he was the champ. He had more than class; he had genius. He was more than somebody. He was Brando.

How odd that the actor hailed since his youth as the greatest in his profession should have so carelessly thrown it all away time and again. But talent is a curse as well as a blessing, It always came back to him. So let’s raise a glass to Marlon, the patron saint of all actors, players and comedians — and make sure that the speeches scribbled on our jackets and cuffs are clearly legible. After all, this isn’t just anybody. This is the champ.

Extras: Commentary on “Streetcar” by Karl Malden, Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young; Trailers.

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