Brings Method Acting to the Screen Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando collaborated on A Streetcar Named Desire, they created a landmark film that influenced directorial and acting techniques for decades.

Summary of Event

On September 20, 1951, the film version of Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama A Streetcar Named Desire Streetcar Named Desire, A (Williams) opened at New York’s Warner Theater. This landmark film was created by the combined talents of Tennessee Williams, who wrote the screenplay; director Elia Kazan, who also had directed the original Broadway production in 1947; the actors, Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden Malden, Karl , and Kim Hunter Hunter, Kim , the last three of whom won Academy Awards Academy Awards;Best Supporting Actor Academy Awards;Best Actress Academy Awards;Best Supporting Actress ; and, finally, art director Richard Day Day, Richard and set designer George James Hopkins Hopkins, George James , who also won Academy Awards Academy Awards;Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White[Best Art Direction Set Decoration, Black and White] . Streetcar Named Desire, A (Kazan) Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];A Streetcar Named Desire[Streetcar Named Desire] Method acting Cinema;acting techniques [kw]Streetcar Named Desire Brings Method Acting to the Screen, A (Sept. 20, 1951) [kw]Method Acting to the Screen, A Streetcar Named Desire Brings (Sept. 20, 1951) [kw]Acting to the Screen, A Streetcar Named Desire Brings Method (Sept. 20, 1951) [kw]Screen, A Streetcar Named Desire Brings Method Acting to the (Sept. 20, 1951) Streetcar Named Desire, A (Kazan) Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];A Streetcar Named Desire[Streetcar Named Desire] Method acting Cinema;acting techniques [g]North America;Sept. 20, 1951: A Streetcar Named Desire Brings Method Acting to the Screen[03590] [g]United States;Sept. 20, 1951: A Streetcar Named Desire Brings Method Acting to the Screen[03590] [c]Motion pictures and video;Sept. 20, 1951: A Streetcar Named Desire Brings Method Acting to the Screen[03590] [c]Theater;Sept. 20, 1951: A Streetcar Named Desire Brings Method Acting to the Screen[03590] Kazan, Elia Brando, Marlon Leigh, Vivien Williams,Tennessee

Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando as Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.

(Museum of Modern Art, Film Stills Archive)

Kazan had been an actor-producer-director for the Group Theatre in the 1930’s, and in 1947 he, Lee Strasberg, and Cheryl Crawford organized the Actors Studio Actors Studio , which taught the method acting techniques pioneered by the Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky Stanislavsky, Konstantin , cofounder of the Moscow Art Theater. Brando, a stellar graduate of the Actors Studio, first played the story’s protagonist, Stanley Kowalski, in the original Broadway production. After making his screen debut as an embittered paraplegic in The Men Men, The (Zinnemann) (1950), he electrified the public and gained stardom with his revolutionary performance in the 1951 film.

Kazan employed almost the cast as he had on Broadway, but he replaced Jessica Tandy with Vivien Leigh, who had played the female lead, Blanche DuBois, in a London production directed by her husband, Laurence Olivier. Twelve years after her role as the headstrong Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939), Leigh played the sensitive and doomed Southern dreamer who is raped and driven to insanity by the twentieth century ape-man Kowalski.

A Streetcar Named Desire was a landmark film for three related reasons: its blending of theatrical and naturalistic Naturalism (cinema) Realism;cinema elements, the method acting of Brando, and the complexity of its characters and the uncompromising nature of its mature themes and subject matter. Kazan blended Williams’s characteristic lyricism and realism into a highly theatrical, symbolic, and naturalistic production that captured the essence of the conflict between Blanche and Stanley. Kazan artfully balanced scenes of poetic sensibility with brutal confrontations. For example, Blanche’s mesmerizing reconstruction of her haunted past, filmed on a pier fronting a dance hall made spectral by swirling fog and a shimmering lake, is followed by her abortive birthday party, during which Stanley disgustingly licks his fingers and then smashes plates against the wall as he attacks Blanche’s checkered past. Williams’s artistic magic found its ideal presenter in Kazan, who explained that it was “a beautiful play that I shot without softening or deepening . . . because there was nothing to change.”

Leigh and Brando established their characters through their different acting styles. Blanche is slight, sensitive, sultry, and confused. In the beginning of the film, she steps through the steam at the train station into vision like a sleepwalker. At Stella’s apartment, Blanche is always bathing, as she tries to cleanse herself of her sordid past. Stanley is stubbornly hostile, sweating in his stained T-shirt, unregenerate in his earthiness, and determined to rip apart her life.

His rape of Blanche is consummated on the night Stella has given birth, and the attack is signified by the cracked mirror and the washing of the dirty street the next morning. Stanley has won the intense cat-and-mouse game with the pathetic Blanche, and although Stella is appalled at what has happened to her sister, it is obvious that after a period of anger she will return to the arms of her barbaric husband, because they need each other. Kazan, Brando, Leigh, Malden, and Hunter captured the essence of Williams’s unflinching vision of “the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the savage and brutal forces of modern society.”

At the end of the film, as Blanche is led away by two nameless and ominous representatives of the institutional world, a poker game, the round of bestial life, goes on, with Stanley as its leader. Brando translated the brutal, domineering psychology of Kowalski into an unpredictable, menacing, and explosive presence. Leigh invested Blanche with a ghostly, spiritual aura. The sneering Kowalski pursues her relentlessly in the close and tawdry confines of their Elysian Fields flat; they engage in a dance of death to the accompaniment of Alex North’s sensual and raw jazz score. Although the actual rape is not presented, the film serves as a milestone in the depiction of sexual relationships: In a sense, the entire film is an intense assault inflicted by Stanley’s insistent physicality and brutal psychological need to strip Blanche of her pretensions.

Three years after the appearance of A Streetcar Named Desire, Kazan and Brando collaborated again to create another major film, On the Waterfront (1954), for which they both won the Oscars that had eluded them in 1951. In addition, Eva Marie Saint won the best supporting actress award, Budd Schulberg the Oscar for best writing, Boris Kaufman the best cinematography Oscar, and Richard Day, the art director for A Streetcar Named Desire, the award for best art direction. In this exposé of waterfront gangsterism, Brando played Terry Malloy, a tough longshoreman with a Kowalski-like philosophy of life, who, unlike Stanley, undergoes a process of moral regeneration through the love of Edie Doyle. In the guise of the reformed Terry Malloy, Stanley Kowalski passed into the mainstream of American film as the sensitive brute with a capacity for violence, honesty, and regeneration.

Significance

A major tenet of method acting is that the director and actor become so closely involved that they serve as mirrors of each other’s creativity. Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando achieved this kind of productive involvement in their films. Kazan’s background in the Group Theatre and Actors Studio gave him a respect for the written script and method acting, which he defined as psychology turned into behavior. Kazan made poetry out of the common elements of life and invested acting with a naturalism that conveyed the psychological conflicts of the characters.

After A Streetcar Named Desire and Viva Zapata! (1952), Kazan and Brando next teamed together for On the Waterfront, in which Terry Malloy informs on his father-figure, waterfront gangster Johnny Friendly. As a sanctified informer, Terry is an idealized validation of Kazan’s testifying against friends before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1952. After he was attacked for “naming names,” Kazan transformed his personal tensions into notable films, including, in addition to On the Waterfront, East of Eden (1955), Baby Doll (1956; written by Tennessee Williams), and America, America (1963).

Kazan’s films exerted an important influence on Sidney Lumet, who in 1959 directed The Fugitive Kind, which starred Brando and which was based on Williams’s Orpheus Descending. They also influenced Arthur Penn, who in The Left-Handed Gun (1958), Mickey One (1965), and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) used Paul Newman and Warren Beatty as disaffected heroes. John Cassavetes’s improvisational techniques and exploration of blue-collar angst in Shadows (1960), Faces (1968), Husbands (1970), and Woman Under the Influence (1974) arguably made him Kazan’s closest heir.

Marlon Brando initiated a revolution in American acting with his role as Stanley Kowalski, for which he employed method acting techniques as a new means of naturalistic self-expression. Brando embodied the voices of angry young men who were both brutish and sensitive but who hid their vulnerability under grunting exteriors. As Richard Schickel has remarked: “This untutored, unspoken sensitivity informed all of Brando’s early roles, and the suspense in all of them revolved around whether or not he would acknowledge his best self, articulate his aspirations and his pain.” Brando’s great accomplishment was to make self-consciousness and self-doubting visible.

In A Streetcar Named Desire, Kazan and Brando prepared the way for some of the most exciting actors and directors of the next four decades. Although the method acting approach was derided by some critics as the “grunt and groan” school of acting, its techniques provided the impetus for a naturalistic style of American performing that also influenced the “Angry Young Men” of England, such as Richard Burton in Look Back in Anger (1958), Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), and Richard Harris in This Sporting Life (1963). It is no coincidence that many of Brando’s acting heirs had roles as athletes, usually boxers, whose competitive viciousness must be disavowed in order for them to develop into decent human beings.

In 1955, James Dean Dean, James appeared in two movies, Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and Kazan’s East of Eden, in which he played sensitive, troubled, and unpredictable heroes who desire to discover who they are. Dean did not have the bullying presence of Brando, but he did convey a similar yearning for authenticity, which he transmitted by idiosyncratic physical and verbal gestures.

In two roles as a brutish strongman and fading heavyweight boxer, Anthony Quinn Quinn, Anthony followed Brando’s style. As Zampano in Federico Fellini’s La Strada Strada, La (Fellini) (1954), he played a cruel circus strongman who abuses and deserts his mute consort Gesolmina. After her death, he feels remorse and recognizes the magnitude of his resulting solitude. As the victimized heavyweight boxer Mountain Rivera in Requiem for a Heavyweight Requiem for a Heavyweight (Nelson) (1962), he tries to find a new life after fourteen years of boxing beatings, but he is thwarted by his exploitative manager and becomes a clownish wrestler. Quinn’s groping and gruff attempts to find respectability make him a tragic figure of unrealized worth.

Paul Newman Newman, Paul , as Rocky Graziano in Robert Wise’s Somebody Up There Likes Me Somebody Up There Likes Me (Wise) (1956), rises to the top of the middleweight ranks after he learns to leave behind his loutish, tough-guy persona. Newman mimics Graziano’s New York accent and his bouncy walk to achieve a winning style. In 1976, a second cinematic Rocky, played by Sylvester Stallone Stallone, Sylvester , also achieved greatness inside and outside the ring. Earlier in his acting career, Stallone had expressed the desire to play Kowalski; in Rocky Rocky (Avildsen) (1976), Stallone’s character is a blend of Kowalski and Malloy who works as a waterfront enforcer and a part-time club fighter. He is a never-was who gets a second chance and overcomes all odds to save himself and his shy girlfriend.

As Jake La Motta, Robert De Niro played another troubled boxer-bum in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). In Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), New York, New York (1977), The King of Comedy (1982), and GoodFellas (1990), Scorsese and De Niro established a reciprocal artistic relationship similar to that enjoyed by Kazan and Brando. In Raging Bull, De Niro fulfilled method acting’s injunction to inhabit the role from the inside out by gaining sixty pounds to play the bloated La Motta, who brutalized himself, his family, and his opponents. After his traumatic arrest and disgrace, Jake begins a comeback as a comic actor who practices Terry Malloy’s celebrated “I could have been somebody” speech in front of a mirror.

Although some critics have attacked the excesses of Kazan and Brando’s respective styles, when these artists collaborated on A Streetcar Named Desire, they created a milestone film that influenced future directors and actors and expanded the psychological and sexual boundaries of the cinema. Through the intelligence and intensity of their involvement, they asserted that films have moral, social, political, and psychological importance. Streetcar Named Desire, A (Kazan) Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];A Streetcar Named Desire[Streetcar Named Desire] Method acting Cinema;acting techniques

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Benedetti, Jean. Stanislavski: An Introduction. Rev. and updated ed. New York: Routledge, 2000. Study of Stanislavsky’s teaching and explication of the Method, treating both theory and practice. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kazan, Elia. Elia Kazan: A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. An 850-page reconstruction of Kazan’s eventful life. Kazan discusses his fruitful personal and artistic relationships with Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando. He also provides fine insights into the many decisions he had to make to satisfy the conflicting artistic and moral forces involved in the filming of A Streetcar Named Desire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Manvell, Roger. “A Streetcar Named Desire.” In Theater and Film. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1979. Manvell clearly identifies the elements that made the play great and then explains how the movie developed from the play and at the same time diverged from it to establish its own effectiveness. Contains a dated bibliography on film and theater and an appendix listing dramatists whose plays have been filmed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murphy, Brenda. Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan: A Collaboration in the Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Murphy provides an excellent discussion of Kazan’s work with the Group Theatre and Actors Studio and then shows how he brought these methods to the stage version of A Streetcar Named Desire. Murphy details the complexities of the relationship between Kazan and Williams, as these two artists merged their respective talents into a writing and directing partnership. Contains an extensive bibliography on Williams and Kazan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phillips, Gene. “Elia Kazan: A Streetcar Named Desire and Baby Doll.” In The Films of Tennessee Williams. London: Associated University Presses, 1980. Phillips’s discussion of the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire provides important insights into the ways Kazan and the Breen Office conflicted over its mature aspects: homosexuality, carnality, and the rape of Blanche. Phillips astutely describes the symbolic ways Kazan managed to convey these themes without directly presenting them. Contains selected bibliography and filmography up to 1980.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schickel, Richard. Brando: A Life in Our Times. New York: Atheneum, 1991. Schickel provides not only an account of Brando’s life and career but also an assessment of what his stage and film roles have meant to his art and audiences. Schickel traces the dimensions and significance of Brando’s various roles as Stanley Kowalski, Terry Malloy, Fletcher Christian, and Don Corleone and shows how his performance as the lonely and embittered Paul in Last Tango in Paris (1972) is the culmination of the first two decades of his career. Contains many pictures and a short bibliography and filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Staggs, Sam. When Blanche Met Brando: The Scandalous Story of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005. Study of both the Broadway production and the film version, focusing on Brando’s performance, as well as his off-stage behavior and relationship with Vivien Leigh. Bibliographic references and index.

Kazan Brings Naturalism to the Stage and Screen

HUAC Investigates Hollywood

McCarthy Hearings

The Crucible Allegorizes the Red Scare Era

On the Waterfront Wins Best Picture

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