In the 1970s, Marlon Brando was unforgettable as “The Godfather” and shocked filmgoers with his powerful performance in “Last Tango in Paris.” The two-time Oscar winner, who would have turned 97 on April 3, made the role of Colonel Kurtz his own in “Apocalypse Now” and negotiated a stunning payday to play Superman’s father Jor-el.
But long before those marquee roles, 1950s critics sometimes had a hard time embracing the young stage performer who developed his highly naturalistic style of acting after training with Stella Adler and director Elia Kazan, who taught at Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio. He modeled his Stanley Kowalski character in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway after boxer Rocky Graziano, and the rawness of his performances were sometimes confusing to observers more attuned to formal, old-fashioned acting. Long before “mumblecore” became a film genre, critics complained about Brando’s speech patterns until it finally became clear they were an integral part of his performances.
After he made a big impression starring in “Streetcar” onstage, Brando was cast a a paraplegic veteran in his first film, Fred Zinneman’s “The Men.” A 1950 Variety review somewhat tersely concluded “Brando, a newcomer from Broadway stage, where he starred in ‘Streetcar Named Desire,’ plays his role realistically, often without sympathy but certainly with a feeling for the part. He is a new type of leading man, and as such must be accepted.”
In 1949, a Variety feature on up-and-coming actors predicted big things ahead for the young star, who had just been cast in “Streetcar.” The article breathlessly reported, “Brando undoubtedly is destined for topflight stardom, as result of his work in ‘Men.’”
It was only natural that after his success on Broadway, Brando would return as Stanley Kowalski in Kazan’s 1951 screen adaptation of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
But he might have ended up as a TV actor, had the timing worked out slightly differently. Variety reported in a gossipy 1954 item that Marlon Brando was “saved” from TV by “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The article explained that Brando had made a “kine audition” (a kinescope, or early videotape) to play a boxer in a projected television series, “Come Out Fighting.”
“Kine was favorably received, but about that time MCA had a chance to sell Brando for the film version of ‘Streetcar,’ so quietly removed Brando from the TV series,” the article recounted.
When “Streetcar” was released, the New York Times praised Brando’s performance, but Variety was among those complaining about his dialogue, saying, “Marlon Brando at times captures strongly the brutality of the young Pole, but occasionally he performs unevenly in a portrayal marked by frequent garbling of his dialog, though it is to be granted that, as a brutish mechanic, he wasn’t expected to project with an Oxonian accent.”
Misguided reviews aside, the film version was widely acclaimed, though it was Vivian Leigh who won the best actress Oscar for her role as Blanche DuBois, while Brando faced heavy competition in the best actor category from Humphrey Bogart, who won for “The African Queen.”
Even after Brando’s Oscar for best actor for Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” in 1954, some moviegoers still had trouble adjusting to the new contemporary acting style.
Brando’s delivery was one of the primary punching bags in a Variety guest column by CBS “Person to Person” field man John Horn, titled “The ‘Inarticulate’ Era (Of Mumblers, Grunters & Groaners).” Horn opined, “In motion pictures, for instance, the idol of the day is Marlon Brando, who has made quite a career of talking as if he doesn’t know how to. In the Broadway play, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ his first hit, Brando grunted and groaned to perfection in his depiction of a brute who was all muscle and no mind. In the Oscared ‘On the Waterfront,’ Brando ‘duh-ed’ and ‘dah-ed’ in almost a symphony of animal sounds, playing, of course, a young dock walloper who just can’t get the words out.”
Of course, the last laugh was on these uptight cultural observers who let a grunt or two get in the way of seeing a new wave of acting talent dawning on the horizon. From Paul Newman, James Earl Jones, Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson to Ryan Gosling and Edward Norton, generations of actors since have been influenced by the his singular performances.
Brando later made waves in numerous ways, such as when he advocated for native Americans by sending Sacheen Littlefeather to the Oscars in his place. The actor, who died in 2004, became one of the most important — and controversial — actors of all time.