RIDE OUT BOY AND SEND IT SOLID. FROM THE GREASY POLACK YOU WILL SOMEDAY ARRIVE AT THE GLOOMY DANE. Tennessee Williams' heartfelt (if politically incorrect) telegram to Marlon Brando, on the opening night of A Streetcar Named Desire 51 years ago, got it right and got it wrong. The young actor, in his first starring role, sent it solid all right--sent it immortally. His performance as Stanley Kowalski, later repeated on film, provided one of our age's emblematic images, the defining portrait of mass man--shrewd, vulgar, ignorant, a rapacious threat to all that is gentle and civilized in our culture. He gave us something else too, this virtually unknown 23-year-old actor. For when the curtain came down at the Ethel Barrymore theater on Dec. 3, 1947, our standards for performance, our expectations of what an actor should offer us in the way of psychological truth and behavioral honesty, were forever changed.
But Brando, that heartbreakingly beautiful champion of the Stanislavskian revolution in acting, never arrived at Hamlet. Never even came close. He would go on to give us a few great things, and a few near great things, but eventually he would abandon himself, as every tabloid reader knows, to suet and sulks, self-loathing and self-parody. The greatness of few major cultural figures of our century rests on such a spindly foundation. No figure of his influence has so precariously balanced a handful of unforgettable achievements against a brimming barrelful of embarrassments.
And yet the reverence in which he is held by his profession is unshakable. His sometime friend and co-star Jack Nicholson said it simply and best: "He gave us our freedom." By which he meant that Brando's example permitted actors to go beyond characterizations that were merely well made, beautifully spoken and seemly in demeanor; allowed them to play not just a script's polished text but its rough, conflicting subtext as well.
Stanley Kowalski, for example, may be a brute. But he's also a funny brute, slyly, sexily testing the gentility and hypocrisies by which his sister-in-law, Blanche DuBois, lives as they contend for the soul of Stella, his wife and her sister. Streetcar's director, Elia Kazan, loved this performance because of the way Brando "challenges the whole system of politeness and good nature and good ethics and everything else." It was, of course, this rebelliousness that made Brando a hero to kids growing up in the '50s--and made him a star.