On July 19 1947, the producer Irene Selznick drew up a contract for the 34-year-old John Garfield, one of the few sexy Hollywood stars with a proletarian pedigree, to play Stanley Kowalski in the debut of A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway. The Selznick office leaked the big news to the press. The contract was never signed. On August 18 the deal with Garfield collapsed.
Selznick, feeling “low as a snake,” immediately started turning over other Hollywood options. Richard Conte, Dane Clark, Cameron Mitchell, Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster were mooted. “I HAVE GARFIELD-ITIS IN CHEST AND THROAT. OIVAY,” she wired Irving Schneider, her business manager, signing herself “Polyanna”. Then, on August 29, a name that didn’t appear on any of her extensive casting lists was being wired to Selznick at her Summit Avenue home in Beverly Hills: Marlon Brando.
Brando, who was 23 years old, had appeared without much critical attention in five Broadway plays. He was a beautiful, brooding specimen: mercurial, rebellious and rampant. Like Stanley, he was a ruthless man-child with reservoirs of tenderness and violence.
“That boy’s having a convulsion!”
A year before on Broadway in Maxwell Anderson’s Truckline Café, which Elia Kazan co‑produced and which Harold Clurman directed, Brando stopped the show with a five-minute ‘murder monologue’. According to Clurman, who claimed the audience applauded him at the curtain call for a full minute, Brando “was never better at any time later” – a judgement that could hardly be contradicted since Truckline Café lasted only 13 performances.
None the less, another witness to Brando’s memorable, ferocious psychic explosion, the critic Pauline Kael, thought to herself: “That boy’s having a convulsion! Then I realised he was acting.” Brando wasn’t trying to act, at least not in the hidebound acting tradition hitherto practised on the American stage.
“There was nothing you could do with Brando that touched what he could do with himself,” Kazan said. “In those days he was a genius. His own preparation for a scene, his own personality, armament, memories and desires were so deep that there was very little you had to do, except tell him what the scene was about.”
Brando’s acting style was the performing equivalent of jazz. The notes were there, but Brando played them in a way that was uniquely personal to him. In his ability to call out of dialogue a heightened sense of emotional truth, the freedom of his stage behaviour was mesmerising and revolutionary. Instead of making everything learned and clear, Brando let the lines play on him and rode his emotions wherever they led him.
Acting on impulse
“He even listened experientially,” Kazan said. “It’s as if you were playing on something. He didn’t look at you, and he hardly acknowledged what you were saying. He was tuned in to you without listening to you intellectually or mentally. It was a mysterious process… There was always an element of surprise in what he did.”
By turns charming, witty, wounded, cruel – Brando presented the public with an immediacy that seemed unworked out; his reliance on impulse made him unpredictable and therefore dangerous. For both actor and audience the experience was a submersion in emotional contradiction. “There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people,” Tennessee Williams wrote to Kazan when negotiations with Selznick seemed to have broken down, “Nobody sees anybody truly, but all through the flaws of their own ego.” Brando incarnated this ambivalence, and made it sensational.
Over the years, as the legend of his performance as Stanley grew from its initial mixed critical response to what The New York Times in his obituary called “epochal”, many theatricals took credit for casting him. Audrey Wood claimed it was her husband William Liebling; with more justification, Kazan maintained it was him; Brando insisted that Harold Clurman planted the idea in Kazan’s head.
A shot in the dark
“Gadg [Kazan’s nickname] and Irene both said I was probably too young, and she was especially unenthusiastic about me,” Brando recalled in his autobiography. After pondering the script for a few days, even Brando called Kazan to decline the role. The part, he felt, was “a size too large”. “The line was busy,” Brando said. “Had I spoken to him at that moment, I’m certain I wouldn’t have played the role. I decided to let it rest for a while and the next day he called me and said: ‘Well, what is it – yes or no?’ I gulped and said ‘Yes’.”
To Kazan, Brando was “a shot in the dark”: now only Williams needed convincing. Kazan called Williams, gave Brando $20, and sent him up to Provincetown to read. “That’s all I said,” Kazan recalled. “I waited. No return call. After three days I called Tennessee and asked him what he’d thought of the actor I’d sent him. ‘What actor?’ he asked. No one had showed up, so I figured I’d lost 20 bucks and began to look elsewhere.”
Brando, who was broke, had decided to hitchhike with his girlfriend to Provincetown. When he finally arrived at “Rancho Pancho” – the name Williams gave to the Nantucket summer house, which he and [his partner Pancho] Rodríguez rented on 31 Pine Street – around dusk in the last week of August, Brando walked into a scene of “domestic cataclysm”, according to Williams.
The kitchen floor was flooded, the lavatories were blocked, and the light fuse had blown. Like the blackout during Wingfield’s supper in The Glass Menagerie, Williams and his house guests were plunged “into everlasting darkness”. “It was all too much for Pancho,” Williams said. “He packed up and said he was going back to Eagle Pass. However, he changed his mind, as usual.”
Beauty and drains
To Williams, Brando was a spectacle of both beauty – “He was just about the best-looking young man I’ve ever seen” – and prowess. Brando fixed the lights, then unblocked the pipes. “You’d think he had spent his entire antecedent life repairing drains,” Williams said.
An hour later, Brando finally got around to reading. He dismissed his girlfriend and sat in the corner of the clapboard house with Margo Jones, her friend Joanna Albus, and Williams, who cued him as Blanche. According to Williams, Brando read the script aloud “just as he played it”.
“I was the antithesis of Stanley Kowalski,” Brando said. “I was sensitive by nature and he was coarse, a man with unerring animal instincts and intuition… He was a compendium of my imagination, based on the lines of the play. I created him from Tennessee’s words.”
Letting Williams’s words take him where they would and exuding the freedom of this approach, Brando was only 10 minutes into his audition when Jones bolted from her chair with a whoop of delight. “Get Kazan on the phone! This is the greatest reading I’ve ever heard, in or outside of Texas!” she shouted.
“A new value came out of Brando’s reading,” Williams wrote to Wood. “He seemed to have already created a dimensional character, of the sort that the war has produced among young veterans.” He added: “Please use all your influence to oppose any move on the part of Irene’s office to reconsider or delay signing the boy, in case she doesn’t take to him.” Brando was signed within four days; on September 3 1947, his photo and the news of his signing ran for the first time in The New York Times.
On the evening Brando read, after he’d kvelled about him over the phone to Kazan, Williams recalled that Brando “smiled a little but didn’t show any particular elation”. Later, after dinner, Williams read some poetry, then they retired for the evening.
“Things were so badly arranged that Margo and Brando had to sleep in the same room – on twin cots,” Williams wrote to Wood on August 29. “I believe they behaved themselves – the fools!” To Williams, Brando was “God-sent”. Brando seemed also to sense the immanence of some big thing. A great actor had met the great writer whose lyric power would release his genius.
“When an actor has as good a play under him as Streetcar, he doesn’t have to do much,” Brando said. “His job is to get out of the way and let the part play itself.” This powerful alchemy produced in Brando a peculiar shyness when he was around the author. The morning after his audition Brando insisted that Williams walk up the beach with him. “And so we did – in silence,” Williams wrote. “And then we walked back – in silence…”
Taken from Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr, which is published by Bloomsbury .
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