(2 of 3)
But there was more to his gift than his sometimes mumbled challenge to convention, both middle class and theatrical. Had to be, or he would have been no more than a momentary phenomenon. Kazan found in the man-boy he made into a star "a soft, yearning, girlish side...and a dissatisfaction that can be dangerous." There's "a hell of a lot of turmoil there," he said. "He's uncertain about himself and he's passionate, both at the same time." The performances that defined Brando's screen character, and that somehow articulated the postwar generation's previously inarticulate disgust with American blandness and dishonesty, its struggles to speak its truest feelings, are powered by that rough ambivalence. The rage and self-pity of his grievously wounded paraplegic in The Men, the rebel angel of The Wild One, above all On the Waterfront's Terry Malloy, the dock walloper struggling for transcendence--these roles informed our aching hearts at the time, and go on tearing at us when we re-encounter them.
All these movies were small, intense, black and white, ideally suited to the psychological realism of the Stanislavskian Method, as it came to be known; ideally suited, as well, to Brando's questing spirit. But in the '50s, as he reached the height of his powers, Hollywood sank to the nadir of its strength. Competing with TV, it embraced color, wide screen, spectacle--and was looking for bold, uncomplicated heroes to fill its big, empty spaces. Brando looked (and felt) ludicrous in this context.
Worse, his own admirers kept piling pressures on him. An actor and friend named William Redfield spoke for them all when he said, "We...believed in him not just as an actor, but as an artistic, spiritual and specifically American leader." But this was not a role that suited him, for there was nothing in his nature that he could draw on to fill it out. The son of alcoholics--a stern taciturn father; a sweet, culturally aspiring mom--he had drifted to New York City and into acting when he was expelled from the military school that was supposed to shake the flakiness from his soul.
His first and most influential acting teacher, Stella Adler, thought him "the most keenly aware, the most empathetic human being alive," yet thought his commitment to acting was, at best, "touch and go." But the work, the community he found among New York's eager young actors, gave shy, sly Bud Brando two things he never had before--a sense of identity and a sense of direction.
So he had found himself in his work. But he had not been looking for a cause to lead. It was a historical accident that he appeared to those idealistic rebels against theatrical tradition, the Stanislavskians, as the messiah they had sought for decades--the genius-hunk who could sexily take their case to the starstruck public, help them reform not just acting technique but the whole corrupt Broadway-Hollywood way of doing business.