Marlon Brando and the education of an American icon

 
 
 
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Marlon Brando, the actor credited with bringing greater realism to film acting, is widely known for his Academy Award-winning performances as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront and Vito Corleone in The Godfather, as well as for his performances in A Streetcar Named Desire, Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now, and many more.

It may seem that Brando’s magnetic screen performances were the result of a raw, unsculpted gift for creating characters. Brando obviously possessed great talent. But he studied the craft of acting carefully and with diligence.

Marlon Brando helped to popularize the Stanislavski system of acting after studying with Stella Adler in the 1940s.

Marlon BrandoAuthor: Lou Wolf49CC BY-SA 2.0

From a young age, Brando was a talented mimic. He easily absorbed the mannerisms of his friends and portrayed them dramatically. In the 2007 TCM biopic Brando: The Documentary, his childhood friend George Englund recalled Brando’s earliest acting as imitating the domestic animals on the family farm in order to distract his mother from drinking. His budding interest in acting was postponed in the early 1940s, when he was sent to follow in his father’s footsteps at the Shattuck Military Academy. Brando was a very good student, but in his final year he was put on probation for being insubordinate to a visiting army colonel. He left the academy, becoming a high school dropout. and ended up working several menial jobs.

A 24-year-old Marlon Brando on the set of the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, 1948

He had managed to act in school plays before his departure. His sister Jocelyn recalled, “He was in a school play and enjoyed it … so he decided he would go to New York and study acting because that was the only thing he had enjoyed. That was when he was 18.” Jocelyn was also keen to to pursue an acting career. She moved to New York City to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and was soon joined there by another sister, Francis, who was studying art. Marlon decided to follow his sisters, so he also hit the road to New York, enrolling at the American Theatre Wing Professional School. 

Brando with Eva Marie Saint in the trailer for On the Waterfront (1954)

Brando was an ardent student and became a proponent for the Stanislavski System taught by Stella Adler. The method was based on the idea that actors should stimulate emotional experience by imagining the scene’s “given circumstances,” rather than recalling experiences from their own lives. With Brando’s exceptional insight, the technique allowed him to develop a unique sense of realism of the character being portrayed.

Regarding Brando’s remarkable talent, Adler recalled that once she instructed the class to act like chickens, and added that a nuclear bomb was about to fall on them. While most of the students in the class ran around and clucked, he was sitting calmly and pretended to lay an egg. When Adler asked him why he chose to react that way, he explained, “I’m a chicken – what do I know about bombs?

Brando has sometimes been regarded as a student of Lee Strasberg, considered the founder of the Method acting at the Actors Studio. (Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner are also considered originators of the Method.) Brando himself firmly disagreed, claiming to despise Strasberg’s teaching methods: “I sometimes went to the Actors Studio on Saturday mornings because Elia Kazan was teaching, and there were usually a lot of good-looking girls, but Strasberg never taught me acting. Stella [Adler] did—and later Kazan.

Stella Adler Theatre, 6777 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles
Author: Andreas Praefcke
CC BY 3.0

Brando used the skills Adler taught him for his first summer stock roles on Long Island. In 1944 he was cast in a Broadway production of the drama I Remember Mama.

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He was noticed at once, and cast in one play after another until he found fame as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, written by Tennessee Williams and directed by Elia Kazan.