Brando revolutionized acting
Brando revolutionized acting
Marlon Brando was born in Omaha, Nebraska to an alcoholic mother and father. His mother was an aspiring actress who worked in regional theater with Henry Fonda. His father, a traveling salesman for a fertilizer company. As a young Marlon, Jr. would charm his siblings—he has two sisters—and his mother with his uncanny ability to mimic specific human behavior. On one occasion, he terrified them by falling to the floor “simulating” an epileptic seizure. They were sure the “fainting” was real.
The family moved from time to time, and Marlon Jr. seemed to develop a penchant for getting into trouble. At one point, his parents enrolled him in Shattuck Military Academy, hoping that his new environment would provide him with some degree of discipline and direction. Their plan backfired when Marlon was kicked out (he was a notorious prankster and after one too many pranks Marlon was history). At some point, with no real ambitions to speak of, he came to New York and enrolled in some acting classes. Irwin Piscator of the New School and Robert Lewis (by then a well-known acting teacher and director) were among his teachers. But the teacher who had the greatest influence on his craft, the one he considered his most influential teacher, was Stella Adler. Mrs. Adler was one of the original members of the The group theater and daughter of Jacob Adler, a giant of the Yiddish theater. Adler taught him well, and Brando, possessing enormous talent (Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams considered him a genius), became a master of the craft.
In the 1940s, Brando appeared on Broadway in Teahouse Of The August Moon, A Flag Is Born, I Remember Mama, Truckline Cafe and A Streetcar Named Desire. After seeing Brando in Maxwell Anderson Truckline Cafe, Elia Kazan was suitably impressed. When it comes time to choose the role of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando was his first choice. To seal the deal, he sends Brando to Provincetown to audition for Tennessee Williams. Kazan gave Brando $20 and sent him on his way. Three days later, Kazan received a phone call from Williams, who told Kazan that Brando never showed up. Knowing Brando’s habits, Kazan was convinced that Brando, free spirit that he was, had used the money for something else and was now hitchhiking to Provincetown to meet and read about Williams. Sure enough, Kazan received a second phone call from Williams, who said that Brando, who had finally arrived, was late because he was hungry and had used the money to buy food. He continued to mesmerize Williams with his reading of Stanley. That was it. Brando will play Stanley and Blanche, Stella and Mitch will be played by Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter and Karl Maldon (who co-starred with Brando in Truckline Cafe), respectively. Nick Dennis, Peg Hilliard and Rudy Bond were taken out by The actor’s studio to round out the rest of the principal players, and Irene O. Selznick, wife of David O. Selznick and daughter of Louis B. Mayer, will produce.
As rehearsals began, something remarkable began to take shape. Something that neither Kazan, nor Irene O. Selznick, nor any of the other cast members ever experienced. Brando was a force of nature. Primarily (by his own description) an instinctive actor who follows his instincts at every turn, sometimes confusing cast members. “His every word seemed not something memorized, but a spontaneous expression of an intense inner experience – which is the level of work that all actors strive to reach.”* Brando was fiery, raw, vulnerable, alive and fierce. Nothing in his work was fake or contrived. “Marlon, working from within, drove his emotion wherever it took him; his performance was full of surprises and exceeded what Williams and I expected. A miracle of performance was in the making. What else was there but to be thankful for.”*
Those of you who have seen the film know that Kazan’s assessment of Brando’s performance is by no means exaggerated. Brando was the epitome of what it means to “live honestly in the given imaginary circumstances.” Sometimes there were complaints; “You never know what he’s going to do next, where he’s going to be or what he’s going to say.” said Vivien Leigh, his co-star in the film version. Brando challenged the other actors and made them better because of it. They were forced to ‘listen’ and ‘respond’. He kept them on their toes and in the end they all thanked him for making them better. He would not compromise his instinctive choice because someone would object or might be offended.
One of the keys to good acting is learning the importance of staying in the moment by focusing your full attention on object of your behavior, listening, and reacting from your truth point of view. Meissner emphasized that in his technique he created repetition exercises to help actors develop their instincts. I have no idea if Brando had any influence on Meissner’s technique. What I do know is that Marlon Brando embodies every specific quality that any good/great actor needs to not only be successful, but to sustain a career. If you watch it over and over again, you’ll understand why he had such an impact on all the actors he ever worked with. It doesn’t matter who is working against him, your attention is always drawn to him. When he’s not on screen, everything slows down. This is not a knock on other great actors who have come out of the stage and cinema. The fact is (in my humble opinion) that at his best there never was anyone like him.
*This is a borzoi book published by Alfred A. Knopf, INC. Copyright 1988 by Elia Kazan
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