I’ve never understood the whole Marlon Brando thing. Granted, until recently, I’d only seen him in the movie version of Guys and Dolls (which pales in comparison to the stage version) and uttering grandiose, pseudo-biblical phrases at the beginning of Superman. But within the past month I’ve finally seen both On the Waterfront (1954) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and I have to say, I still don’t get it. Is it really acting to play the same character in every single movie? I suppose that’s why we remember him as “Brando,” more than as any of his characters.
I still enjoyed seeing the movies, though. Both were directed by Elia Kazan, and both featured Karl Malden as well as Marlon Brando. His button-nosed face appears as Stanley Kowalski’s working-class, card-playing friend in Streetcar and as the justice-driven, speechifying Father Barry in On the Waterfront. Interestingly, Malden won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Streetcar, and the film would have had a complete sweep of all four acting awards (Vivien Leigh won Best Actress and Kim Hunter won Best Supporting Actress) if Brando hadn’t lost Best Actor to Humphrey Bogart. Somehow that makes me want to snicker. Anyway, Brando did win three years later for On the Waterfront.
Enough Oscar trivia. Let’s start with Streetcar. How perfect is it that “fading” Southern belle Blanche DuBois is played by Vivien Leigh, a.k.a. Scarlett O’Hara of twelve years prior ( . . . even if she was British)? She’s fabulous.
Until seeing the film of Streetcar, I wasn’t aware that it revised the play’s ending. In the play, despite the fact that Stanley abuses his wife (Stella) when he gets drunk, despite the fact that he raped her sister Blanche, Stella goes back to Stanley when he calls her name. She’s trapped in their cycle of animalistic passion. The very last line of the play goes to one of the minor characters, announcing the status of the men’s card game. It emphasizes their callousness toward everything Blanche has just gone through (she’s been carted away to a mental asylum earlier in the scene).
In the film, however, after Blanche is taken away, Stella announces that she will never go back to Stanley, and she runs up to the neighbor’s apartment, carrying her baby. The last line we hear is Brando doing his “Stel-LA!!!!” thing, futilely this time.
The play’s ending is certainly more in line with its Southern Grotesque genre. I’m certainly more pleased, emotionally and psychologically (even though I realize it doesn’t have the same tragic effect), with the movie’s ending. I’m surprised that it was altered, and I wonder why. After all, it’s only five years later, in 1956, that Carousel tells us that a man can hit a woman without her even feeling it all, ‘cause she’s so dopily in love with him. Yuckiest movie line ever.
Anyway, I wonder how playwright Tennessee Williams felt about the movie ending. Too bad we can’t ask him: he died about twenty-five years ago when he choked to death on a bottle cap. I am not making this up.
I found it a little harder to follow On the Waterfront, possibly because there’s no play version I know inside and out, but also possibly because it was hard to decipher the whole corrupt union set-up. But I was a sucker for Father Barry’s speech over the dead body of a mob-killed man: “Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. Well, they better wise up!” Seriously, I thought it was a lot more memorable than Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” speech.
Speaking of which, I didn’t recognize Rod Steiger (playing Brando/Terry Malloy’s brother Charley) until he tried to hand Terry a gun and said “You’re gonna need it real bad.” That’s exactly the same line he says to Curley a year later in the 1955 film version of Oklahoma! Was the line added to Oklahoma! as some sort of inside joke?
On the Waterfront was also a bit marred for me by Leonard Bernstein’s schizophrenic score. I’m just not used to Bernstein’s jarring dissonance when it occurs during the most insignificant moments of the film. Sure, there’s such a thing as not over-emphasizing the dramatic moment, but his score went so far in the other direction that it sounded like the music randomly popped up every once in a while just to say, “I’m still here! I’m the composer, and I’m still here!”
It’s now well-known movie lore that On the Waterfront was Elia Kazan’s attempt to make “snitching” (he had given names of his possibly Communist colleagues to the House Un-American Activities Committee) honorable. Whatever the political context, however, the end of the movie, with the beaten, bloody Terry Malloy rising to lead the men to work, is still moving. My favorite Brando? The one with his face bashed in.
3 comments March 30th, 2007