Volume 74, Number 10 | July 7 - 13, 2004

Reflections


Marlon Brando and the birth of American acting

By JERRY TALLMER

A young Brando in the movie version of “A Streetcar Named Desire”
An actress once told me about having seen one of the first things Marlon Brando ever did on the Broadway stage, perhaps in “Truckline Cafe” (February 1946) or, more probably from what follows next, as Marchbanks to Katharine Cornell’s Candida (April 1946). “He had to make his first entrance crying,” said the actress who’d witnessed it, “and that’s what he did, came out on stage in the midst of tears. Have you any idea how hard that is? It’s impossible.”

The next year, 1947, was the year of “Streetcar,” and this time I was there, not so long after having been introduced to the nightlife of East St. Louis, Illinois, by a big rawboned Polish-American GI named Eddie Szemplenski, and, a bit later, having watched with gladness as a tough kid from New Jersey named John “Whitey” Wodarski beat the shit out of a smooth-faced Jew-hater in our squadron, under a barracks in British Guyana. Suddenly, there in the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, there burst in from the wings, back from bowling and demanding his supper, an Eddie Szemplenski/Johnny Wodarski whose name happened to be Stanley Kowalski. I knew him through and through. And he was what they were, through and through, as American and as male as sandpaper.

In “Broadway: The Golden Age,” a stirring documentary film by Rick McKay, that fine actor Charles Durning says of his first sight of Brando (in “Truckline Cafe”: “I thought [he was a] guy they pulled in off the street. Too good to be an actor.”

Exactly.

Close your eyes and what do you see? I see Terry Malloy picking up that glove, of course, the one that had dropped from Edie’s hand by accident, there in the churchyard, and pulling it gently, without thinking, over his own hand. (“No, I didn’t arrange that,” Kazan would one day say, “but I was smart enough to keep it in.”) I see an exhausted, world-weary, fucked-out Paul of “Last Tango in Paris” plastering his chewing gum on the edge of that balcony and then letting go. I see the old man, Don Vito Corleone, stumbling around that garden in pursuit of his giggling, squealing 2-year-old grandson, and I see Brando kidding his own Corleone icon 18 years later in “The Freshman.”

I see brazen, brooding Johnny the wild one slowly circling his motorcycle around and around the small-town sheriff’s fragile, lovely daughter. I see and hear Terry Malloy shrugging and, with an apologetic smile, saying to Edie (the no less astonishing Eva Marie Saint): “Well, you grew up very nice.” I see Eddie Szemplenski/Johnny Wodarski/Stanley Kowalski, not as a brute, just as a virile human male baffled as hell by this sex-starved nutcase who’s squirting perfume all over the joint, just asking for trouble. I see American acting waking up. I see American acting being born.


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