Method Man: How the greatest American actor lost his way.

Marlon Brando in 1948, when he played in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” on Broadway.Photograph by Serge Balkin / Condé Nast Archive

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In the midst of Broadway’s “victory season,” in March, 1946, an outraged ad denouncing the critics appeared in the Times. Signed by the production team of Elia Kazan and Harold Clurman, the ad failed to save their drama about returning vets, “Truckline Café,” from closing after a mere thirteen performances. But the play has gone down in history, thanks to a five-minute speech made by a little-known actor in a secondary role: Marlon Brando, at twenty-one, played an ex-G.I. who comes home to find that his wife has been unfaithful; in his final scene, he entered exhausted and wringing wet, and confessed that he had killed her and carried her body out to sea. Karl Malden, who played another minor role, reported that 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. The performance was as remarkable for what Brando didn’t do as for what he did. Pauline Kael, very young herself and years away from a critical career, happened to come late to the play one evening and recalled that she averted her eyes, in embarrassment, from what appeared to be a man having a seizure onstage: it wasn’t until her companion “grabbed my arm and said ‘Watch this guy!’ that I realized he was acting.”

The dismal fate of “Truckline Café” inspired Kazan to form the Actors Studio. Of the entire cast, only Brando and Malden had given the kind of performance that he and Clurman wanted: natural and psychologically acute, as contemporary American plays required. Their ideal of acting derived from their days in the Group Theatre, which had flourished in the thirties with brashly vernacular and politically conscious plays—Clifford Odets’s “Waiting for Lefty” was its first big hit—in which ordinary people were portrayed in a startlingly realistic style. (Group actors were so authentic that it was sometimes difficult to understand what they were saying.) This revolution in acting grew from Stanislavsky’s accounts of his performances with the Moscow Art Theatre—an approach eventually known simply as the Method—and, in its quest for onstage honesty, replaced traditional theatrical training with exercises designed to stir up personal memories, refine powers of observation, and free the imagination through improvisation. The Group’s larger goal was an anti-Broadway, anti-commercial theatre of power and relevance. For the actors, the goal was a paradox: real emotion, produced on cue.

Although the Group had disbanded by the time Brando arrived in New York, in 1943, he soon began taking classes with a charter member, Stella Adler, who had actually studied with Stanislavsky, and whom he credited as his teacher to the end of his life. (“She taught me to be real,” he wrote, “and not to try to act out an emotion I didn’t personally experience during a performance.”) Adler seems to have taken less than a week to decide that the brooding nineteen-year-old in the torn bluejeans and the dirty T-shirt was going to become “America’s finest actor,” but she always denied that she had taught him a thing. As his fellow-student Elaine Stritch later remarked, “Marlon’s going to class to learn the Method was like sending a tiger to jungle school.”

Yet Brando’s early rehearsals for “Truckline Café” had been disastrous. He mumbled his lines and could not be heard past the fifth row; Kazan, who was producing, worried that Adler—who was, not incidentally, married to Clurman—had made claims that her protégé could not fulfill. But Clurman, who was directing, sensed that the fledgling actor was nearly choked with feeling, and pushed until he got him to explode. As it turned out, that Broadway season was the first sign of a momentous transition in the art, if not the business, of acting: Varietys annual poll named Laurence Olivier Best Actor for playing Shakespeare and Sophocles on tour with England’s Old Vic; Brando, in a forgettable play, won Most Promising Young Actor and was out of work as soon as it closed. But he had learned from all his early mentors that even in America, deprived of Shakespeare and Sophocles, theatre was a morally serious enterprise that treated life’s important themes. And so, after an awkward stint in Shaw’s “Candida,” the Most Promising Young Actor turned down Noël Coward’s “Present Laughter,” imperiously demanding, “Don’t you know there are people starving in Europe?” He turned down a seven-year contract at three thousand dollars a week with M-G-M. Instead, in the fall of 1946, he chose to do a play that Ben Hecht had devised to raise money for transporting Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine, during which he shouted at the cowering audience, “Where were you when six million Jews were being burned to death in the ovens of Auschwitz?” It may not have been art, but a lot of people filled out the donation forms inserted in their programs.

Brando was no one’s first choice when, the following summer, a great American play finally came along. Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” was the story of a highly sexed and poorly spoken middle-aged Polish-American man named Stanley Kowalski—another vet with a violent streak—who rapes an emotionally fragile and aristocratic woman, Blanche DuBois. The play’s cautionary theme was described by Williams, who strongly identified with Blanche, as “the apes will inherit the earth.” Kazan was scheduled to direct, Irene Mayer Selznick to produce, and all agreed that John Garfield, not only a movie star but a street-talking graduate of the Group Theatre, was the right choice for their antihero. It was only when Garfield made impossible demands that Kazan, scanning his “beginners” class at the Actors Studio, decided to take a risk on Brando, even though he was too young for the role. Auditioning for Williams, Brando was like lightning: electric and illuminating. Not only did he have the sexual power the play required; he provided the key to redressing what Williams had worried was the too easy moral imbalance of his work. Precisely because he was barely twenty-three, Brando humanized the vengeful Stanley, reducing his willful destructiveness to what Williams excitedly described as “the brutality or callousness of youth.” Good and evil were now more subtly matched: it would not be so easy to take sides. Brando was not as sure as Williams that he was a “God-sent Stanley.” He worked slowly, and seemed to find it difficult to learn his lines; Selznick repeatedly complained that she couldn’t hear him. But Kazan had faith, and so did Williams, whose opening-night telegram to Brando predicted, “From the greasy Polack you will someday arrive at the gloomy Dane.”

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Claudia Roth Pierpont has contributed to The New Yorker since 1990 and became a staff writer in 2004. She has written on numerous subjects, ranging from the Ballets Russes to the Chrysler Building to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Pierpont is the author of “American Rhapsody: Writers, Musicians, Movie Stars, and One Great Building,” “Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books,” and “Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World,” a collection of New Yorker essays about the lives and works of women writers, including Hannah Arendt, Gertrude Stein, Anaïs Nin, Margaret Mitchell, and Zora Neale Hurston, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. She has received a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, of the New York Public Library. She lives in New York City.


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