Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando go together like fine wine and ripe cheese. Like platinum and diamonds. Like Kim K and a selfie stick… You get the idea. These are combinations that bring out the very best in both parties, that enhance talents whilst allowing faults to be glossed over. The best kinds of collaborations are a relationship of equals, where everyone plays a part that’s perfectly in tune and perfectly pitched. That’s based on giving and sharing. Often known as an ‘actor’s director’, thanks to his ability to coax performances of great psychological realism out of his leads, it was with Brando that Kazan created characters and scenes that continue to influence and inspire.
The roots of their relationship were founded not in cinema but on stage. Kazan first encountered Brando in a Broadway production of Truckline Café, an ill-fated play that closed after a measly 13 performances in February 1946. Written by Maxwell Anderson, it was directed by Harold Clurman and – crucially – produced by Elia Kazan. Brando had a small role as an ex-G.I. who comes home to find that his wife has been unfaithful; the part included a confession scene during which he admitted that he had killed his wife and carried her body out to see. According to co-star Karl Malden, the rest of the cast sometimes had to wait for nearly two minutes after Brando’s exit while the audience screamed and stamped its feet. This was acting like many in the audience had never seen before. Brando’s raw energy and visceral rage was first awkward and confrontational, then compelling and enthralling.
Although the play was a dismal failure, it inspired Kazan (and producer/director Cheryl Crawford and actor Robert Lewis) to form the Actors Studio. Not just a reaction to the failure of Truckline Café, the aim of the Actors Studio was to continue the work of the Group Theatre, which had closed in 1941. That company, itself formed by Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman and Stella Adler, had studied and explored the art of acting – Kazan felt that the progress that the Group Theatre had made was in danger of being lost; his non-profit would function as a private workshop, where actors could work on their craft and be offered on-going training. Of the actors involved in Truckline Café, only Brando and Malden were invited to join. Brando had previously taken lessons with Stella Adler, who encouraged students to use their imagination to enrich their roles, to study nature, art and history because the more they knew, the more choices they would have.
Brando’s break came when he was chosen over John Garfield to appear in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Running on Broadway and directed by Kazan, Brando was an instant hit as Stanley Kowalski, a violent and aggressive Polish-American who rapes his wife’s sister, the aristocratic Blanche du Bois. The play was an enormous success, thanks mostly to Brando’s intense and powerful performance, which, Kazan feared, was in danger of turning the play into ‘the Marlon Brando show’. Streetcar would run for almost two years, cementing in audience’s minds ‘Brando’, a man filled with uncontrollable, violent rage – a man very different to the peace-loving actor. Once the play was over, it was almost inevitable that Brando would look to Hollywood for his next role – although he would always shun the studio system, and had a disregard for contracts and his own profession.
After a turn as Ken in Fred Zinnenmann’s The Men, Brando was reunited with Kazan – and the rest of the Broadway cast – for the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire (the only exception was Vivien Leigh, who had played the role of Blanche in the London production). Although Brando is excellent on-screen (more about that in a moment) it should be noted that this is an ensemble production: Leigh excels as the promiscuous yet emotionally unstable Blanche and Kim Hunter brings depth and maturity to her role as Stella, Kowalski’s wife. But the reason why this film always becomes so much about Brando is because his performance marked a before and after juncture, the kind that comes around very rarely. As Rick Lyman observed, ‘simply put, in film acting, there is before Brando, and there is after Brando. And they are like different worlds’. Brando’s performance – sexually charged, animalistic, greedy, rage-filled and tender all at once – was instinctive, and held nothing back. It went against the restraint that was usually found in film performances (from Roger Ebert: compare Brando’s performance with Bogart’s captain in African Queen, released in the same year. He’s rude and crude, but Bogart’s natural elegance shows through). Able to fully embody the role to the extent that it’s impossible to separate Brando from Kowalski: this was a type of super-realism, a riff on reality that went beyond convincing. Brando gave himself up to Kowalski – perhaps a little to well. Earning the less than flattering moniker of ‘Neanderthal Man’, for years he would struggle to escape from the slouching shadow of his own creation.
Kazan’s skill was in letting Brando give that performance. For not asking him to rein it in, to colour between the lines. Other directors might have been over-awed by the power within Brando, but not Kazan. He fought the censorship cuts that Warner Bros. insisted on, in an attempt to make the film more ‘audience friendly’. Maybe Kazan knew that it was Brando that would carry the film – in his autobiography he was honest about his lack of directorial range, and there’s certainly weight behind those who claim Kazan was over-reliant on dramatic staging and performances, a hangover from his theatrical roots. Yet he made some excellent decisions too: choosing to shoot in black and white, for example, which allowed the film to be suffused with a down-and-out tragedy and seediness.
Black and white was Kazan’s choice for On the Waterfront too, the third and last film he would make with Brando (even though he offered him roles in Baby Doll, A Face in the Crowd, and The Arrangement, Brando never worked with Kazan again). Watching Waterfront back-to-back with Streetcar (try it, it’s fun) Brando’s progress is obvious. Although it’s almost impossible to choose a favourite and Streetcar is the iconic Brando role, there’s something emotionally wrenching in his performance as Terry Malloy. It’s mostly to do the toughness and tenderness that he’s able to play almost in the same expression, the fact that he can feel conflicting things at once is wholly identifiable and the biggest component of Brando’s ‘realness’.
A crime drama with elements of film noir, On the Waterfront tells the story of Terry Malloy, a dockworker tied up with the local mob. After he witnesses a murder, his views about the mob and their practices change. Gradually, after a growing friendship with the sister of the dead man, he embraces ‘good’ – although that’s put to the test when his brother is murdered. The film was shot over 36 days on location in Hoboken, New Jersey, and many of the actors were locals. The biting New Jersey cold must’ve worked to Kazan’s advantage – all the actors have a pinched, hollow look that would be impossible to fake, an it prevent indulgent over-acting and unnecessary takes.
On the Waterfront’s most famous scene, the‘ I coulda been a contender’ scene, takes place in the back seat of a taxi. A venetian blind covers the back window, blocking out the world and forcing the audience to focus on the characters. It’s a pivotal moment: Terry reminds Charley that it’s his fault his life is the way it is – had his brother not fixed an important fight, his fighting career could have gone somewhere. An atypical gangster scene, it’s infused with the ties of family responsibility, disappointment and regret. When Charley produces a gun, Terry doesn’t react with anger rather a mixture of confusion, resignation, gentleness and sadness – not the confrontation stance you expect. Everything about the movie is compressed into that intimate, melancholy scene, but also everything about Brando too. About the actor’s performance, Kazan would later comment: ‘if there is a better performance by a man in the history of film in America, I don’t know what it is’. But much like Streetcar, this is an ensemble performance. That scene would be nothing without the input of Rod Steiger, whose responses to Brando are textbook perfect, wonderfully understated and heavy with regret. This is a three-way collaboration: Brando, Steiger and Kazan, although in interviews, Kazan took very little credit for the actors’ performances.
Although undoubtedly the most famous, it’s possibly not the movie’s best moment. I much prefer Brando’s scenes with Eva Maria Saint, which are filled with small human gestures. In one, the two take a walk in a small local park and she drops one of her gloves. The gentleman (the tenderness) inside Terry means that he picks it up, but instead of handing it straight back to her, he puts it on. A small, intimate and commonplace action, but one that’s a Brando trademark. He performs it with ease and simplicity, totally unconsciously. As in his role as Kowalski, Brando understood that it was the small details that bring a character to life. There’s no word on if it was written into the script, if Kazan suggested it or if Brando was improvising, but the latter seems to fit Brando the actor too well for it not to be true. Dockworkers aren’t renowned for their sensitivity, but Budd Schulberg’s screenplay, but Kazan’s direction and Brando’s performance elevated him into something else. Indeed, watching with a contemporary eye, Terry’s decision to embrace what’s right isn’t what draws you in – it’s Brando.
Kazan’s role was less about managing Brando, but managing other actors’ reactions to him. Starring in her first film, Eva Marie Saint was naturally wary of the actor and aware of this, Kazan was keen to put her at ease. Aware of how uncomfortable she felt with Brando’s virility in a ‘love scene’, Kazan (according to Budd Schulberg) ‘came up and whispered a single word in her ear: “Jeffrey.” With her husband in mind she was able to respond in the love scene. This was a Kazan technique I would see again and again—no wordy directions, just that one right word that would trigger the desired emotions in the performer.’
The fact that Kazan and Brando only made three films together isn’t quite the travesty it seems. Indeed the limits of their collaboration are what make it so special. There wasn’t time for the relationship to sour, for either to outgrow the other and Brando always carried the characters he developed with Kazan with him. In truth, his later performances never approached the same level of finesse – whether that’s due to Kazan or Brando’s disillusionment with acting, it’s hard to say – but together the two changed movie acting forever. Being the actor that challenges convention is hard, but don’t underestimate the will that’s needed to let someone take flight. Brando and Kazan, like all the best relationships, needed each other.
This post is part of CLASSIC SYMBIOTIC COLLABORATIONS: the star-director blogathon hosted by the wonderful CineMaven. There are an incredible breadth of actor’s and directors included in the roster, check them all out here.