One of the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival‘s Marquee Presentations is Steven Riley’s documentary Listen to Me Marlon, in which a treasure trove of audio tapes—augmented by home movies, film clips and other archival materials—yields a unique autobiographical portrait of one of cinema’s greatest actors, Marlon Brando.
The April 25, 3:45 p.m. screening of Listen to Me Marlon features a special introduction by David Thomson, who will sign copies of Why Acting Matters (available from your local bookshop, or through our affiliate links with Amazon and IndieBound) afterward. At once a meditation on and a celebration of a unique and much beloved, often misunderstood, and occasionally derided art form, Thompson’s new book argues that acting not only “matters” but is essential and inescapable, as well as dangerous, chronic, transformative, and exhilarating, be it on the theatrical stage, on the movie screen, or as part of our everyday lives.
In the following excerpt from Why Acting Matters, Thomson examines the influences at play in Brando’s early stage roles:
Truckline Cafe was a disaster. One critic called it the worst play he had ever seen, and it closed after ten performances. It was a play by Maxwell Anderson about the stresses on men returning from the war. The team that put it on was Harold Clurman as director and Elia Kazan as producer. There was one scene in the play where a disturbed ex-soldier, Sage, staggers in from the ocean and confesses that he has killed his adulterous wife. The part was given by Clurman to Marlon Brando, who had played in I Remember Mama in 1944. He was an odd twenty-two-year-old, a very ambitious actor who was famously unconvincing in or unready for auditions, and who could be alarmingly hesitant or withdrawn in rehearsals. But he was very handsome; he had a riotous sexual life; and there was an unmistakable magnetism and potency to him. In casting Brando, Clurman had listened to his ex-wife, Stella Adler (they had divorced in 1943), who had made Brando her protégé and who was confident that he had inner powers just waiting to burst out. Marlon and Stella were close, and it is likely that they had had a sexual relationship (even as Marlon romanced her daughter, Ellen).
The Truckline rehearsals did not go well. Clurman was soon shouting at Brando that he could not be heard: he spoke too softly; he turned away from characters and the audience; he was too easily drawn to using the sighs and groans of uncertainty instead of the text. It was as if he couldn’t find his role yet in a play that seemed foggy. Kazan was of the same opinion, though coming at it from a different direction. He knew the play was going to fail:
Despite—or along with—my disappointment, I took a perverse pleasure in the failure of the performance. That’s not a pretty confession, but it’s true. I couldn’t talk like Harold, but I sure as hell would have done something about that playscript. I’d have kept after the author until he improved his play. I wouldn’t have sat by, being brilliant and adored, while the play failed. I might even have interfered with the rights of the playwright given him by the Dramatists Guild and “fussed” with the text. Harold had said, when I’d indicated my impatience with the meager extent of Max’s rewriting, “That’s the play. You can’t do anything about it. It will succeed or fail, but that’s it.” This fatalism I found intolerable.
Kazan was already fascinated by a lesson he had taken from Strasberg, which in turn had been learned from Vsevolod Meyerhold: “The actor no longer occupies the leading place upon the stage. The director will determine all life there.” The ambition to direct, and the subsequent realization that the director should be a vital leader, was growing in Kazan: he had directed The Skin of Our Teeth on Broadway in 1942, and the next year he went to Hollywood to make his first movie, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn .
The battle between Clurman and Brando, or the struggle to get the actor to harness and deliver his power, was not something from which Kazan could stay an outsider. In later years, Kazan would be known for private, whispered conferences with actors in which he gave them the clue and they thrived on his wisdom. It was Kazan who told Brando that he should undertake violent exercises before Sage’s entrance so that he would be truly breathless, and it was Kazan who threw a bucket of water on the actor so that Sage would seem like someone who had just emerged from the sea. Then in the scene where Sage confessed the murder to his waitress, he got Brando to beat on the table with his fists so that crockery jumped and broke. It was an odd harbinger of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire .
The play was a lost venture, but Brando’s scenes were thought astonishing. He stopped the show. Many in the company felt sure they were seeing a great force in the making. He was voted Most Promising Newcomer for 1946. According to another actor in the play, Richard Waring, Brando even added a pause and changed a couple of lines to ensure that he would get a burst of applause at his exit. Why not? What is a young actor doing in the professional theatre but trying to get ahead? And sometimes that means teaching the audience to respect your act. I directed a play once in which an actress was doing a superb job. But she was shy, or reticent, and maybe fundamentally uneasy over acting. At the end of the show, she got great applause. But I knew she deserved a standing ovation, and I believed that the audience wanted to give it to her. But she resisted her own glory. She was casual, offhand, even a little disdainful. So I taught her to be in awe of the audience and then touched by their kindness. It was a matter of timing and flattery. She got the standing ovation, but I think she always believed I had pulled a dishonest trick. She gave up acting after a while—but so did Marlon Brando.
Truckline Cafe opened and closed in March 1946. By then, Tennessee Williams was writing a play that would be called The Poker Night before it found its eventual identity as A Streetcar Named Desire . Set in New Orleans, the play concerns a young married couple, Stanley Kowalski and Stella DuBois. Stella seldom bears her family name in the play, but the ethnic collision is essential, and Williams stresses how unalike they are at the outset. This is a union of the Old South, with European associations, and Master Sergeant Kowalski of the Engineers’ Corps who fought at Salerno. Call him a Polack and he’ll tell you he’s one hundred per cent American. He relishes reminding Stella that she found him “common,” yet full of sexual energy, and he has to match the horrified view of Stella’s older sister, Blanche, when she comes to visit:
He acts like an animal, has an animal’s habits! Eats like one, moves like one, talks like one! There’s even something—sub-human— something not quite to the stage of humanity yet! Yes, something— ape-like about him, like one of those pictures I’ve seen in—anthropological studies! Thousands and thousands of years have passed him right by, and there he is—Stanley Kowalski—survivor of the stone age! Bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle!
David Thomson is the author of more than twenty books, including biographies of David O. Selznick (via Amazon) and Orson Welles (via Amazon or Indiebound), and The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (via Amazon or Indiebound). He lives in San Francisco.