Acting Lessons from Brando

“Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”

 – Walter Benjamin

 

 

The heavy New Orleans air weighs him down like the look of desperation does his features. Mouth quivering, his wet muscles gleam in the light of a streetlamp, their tension showing his anguish as he cries out: “Hey, Stella!” Hands press to his face as if he is witnessing some catastrophic disaster, his face twists, every crinkle of skin exposing his emotions.

“Hey, Stella!” he screams out again, and it’s one of those screams that makes your throat burn, one that can only be conjured up in a fit of rage or hopelessness. He watches despairingly as she descends from the balcony, down the winding stairs with an unbreakable glare. When she is almost upon him, he shatters, falling to his knees, sobbing. Her hands curl through his hair and his arms wrap tightly around her thighs as she begins to cry. He stands, lifting her up from the ground, clinging to her as she forgivingly and desperately kisses him over every inch of his face.

In his role as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon Brando utilizes method acting to not “just play a character, [but become] that character” (Gilsenan 1).

A system devised by Russian actor, director, and theoretician Konstantin Stanislavsky, method acting involves reliving scenes of an actor’s “emotional memory” in order to slip beneath the skin of and, in essence, live through his character (Encyclopædia Britannica 1). Writing about his method acting lessons, Brando paradoxically asserted that his teacher, Stella Adler, “taught [him] to be real and not to try to act out an emotion [he] didn’t personally experience during a performance” (quoted in Pierpont 1). In teaching him to act, Adler also taught Brando to be real. Brando’s acting, as Harold Clurman wrote, had “it’s source in suffering” (Pierpont 4). The only true beauty comes from suffering, and the only realness comes from acting.

In “Attack of the Superzeroes,” Thomas de Zengotita contemplates the “sort of God’s-eye view” that is delivered to us through the media and how it attributes to a “form of flattery that is so pervasive” that “the alchemy that fuses reality and representation [is] carried into our psyches”  (138). This “flattery” enables what is actual and what is acting to become intertwined. For example, when Marlon Brando’s son Christian was on trial for the shooting of his half-sister’s Tahitian boyfriend, Marlon Brando took the stand. Ironically, his “performance” was considered “one of the best he ever gave: sobbing, dazed, and often incoherent, he was wretchedly apologetic for what he swore had been a terrible accident” (Pierpont 8). This account of Brando’s “performance” acts as evidence for the warped line between reality and acting; Brando wasn’t planning a performance, he was acting out of realness. That is what we all do on a day to day basis—we’re all method actors: self-aware, laughing at the right moments, landing each line, bawling at Princess Diana’s funeral as if our own mothers had just died because we acknowledge our parts on the world stage.

But it isn’t just acting; we often become characters with certain codes and convictions to live by. Our identities are something impossible to fathom—you can’t know who you are until you step out of yourself, but who are you once you do that? To make things simpler, we assume our own roles, just as Brando assumed the role of Stanley Kowalski. Take your pick: the disgruntled youth, the bored housewife, the unhappy office worker, etc. Our dialogue and actions revolve around what is acceptable for our characters. Sure, the roles can change, but “you” are only an invented entity.

It’s five AM and I don’t know why I’m awake. The stale taste of Eggos holds my mouth hostage and I’m starting to think I’ve been in these clothes too long. I slump on the bench in the corner—away from the cold—John is beside me, and to the left of him, some girl named Char who reeks of a 40 and desperation. John is probably the only person I’d be comfortable calling a best friend and an arch nemesis simultaneously.

“Do you still have that ponytail in your hair?” that Char girl asks, and John says no, smoothes his hand over the back of his head where a Brad-Pitt-in-Interview-with-a-Vampire-ish ponytail had been. Char says she doesn’t like it; I don’t like it either, but I remain silent.

“I don’t know, I kinda like it. It’s very ‘hipster made easy,’” John says with a hint of amusement on his lips. I stare down at the concrete, letting the smoke from the cigarette clasped between my fingers whirl around my coat, like the special effects from some second-rate movie. Too many cigarette butts to count and I decide that I don’t like myself that much.

From the five minutes I’ve been here, I’ve gathered that Char’s a cokehead with a boyfriend and intensely attracted to John. She revels in referring to herself as a ‘crazy bitch’ and is appalled by the terms ‘hipster’ and ‘scenester.’

“Oh, fuck that, John. You don’t need to be a fucking hipster. Hipsters just want to belong, so they look exactly like one another, dress exactly like one another, think exactly like one another then have the audacity to consider themselves original. They just want to belong,” and she is pounding her fist into her palm.

This is “real emotion, produced on cue” (Pierpont 1). This scene, this reality—the words become interchangeable when talking about method acting and realness—is all about the characters: me as the distanced narrator; Char assuming the role of critical bitch; and John wavering between ‘to be hipster, or not to be hipster.’

“What should I be then?” and the amusement is still glistening on his mouth.

“An asshole, because that’s what you are. I’m a crazy bitch and you’re an asshole and we’re good together, ya know?” and her skinny leg crosses over his. “I’m so cold, Johnny. Could you just keep me warm?”

“I’ve got a girlfriend,” he laughs and the heat from my face warms my fingertips.

“Johnny…Johnny, you need to get rid of that. You don’t need a girl in high school,” Char says in her sassy Jersey accent and in my mind she’s making some ridiculous hand motion, but I can’t be certain whether that’s my imagination or reality. “You should be with me. You’re missin’ out.”

“Nuh uh, you’re missin’ out, girl,” he grins slyly and takes a drag of his cigarette.

I sit quiet as the scene unfurls in front of me like some bad teenage comedy. We’re all acting, fueled by our desperation: John is desperate to not seem desperate at all; Char is desperate to have John; I am desperate to be recognized.

Desperation reinvents itself as motivation. In “The Blue of Distance,” Rebecca Solnit explores how the captive undergoes a rebirth in the most hopeless of circumstances. In the 18th century, Native American tribes often captured American settlers as a “ceremonious form of adoption in which a captive could replace a family member who had died” (127). Usually, the captives “felt that they were far from home, distant from their desires, and then at some point, in a stunning reversal, they came to be at home and what they had longed for became remote, alien, unwanted” (126). Just as the captive participates in this change like “the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life cycle,” desolation tears a person down and allows him to rebuild something beautiful and original (131). My rebirth in the most hopeless of circumstances—my desperation to be noticed by John and my trying to experience something real in an atmosphere that is so fake—is my writing. Writing endorses the true self: every one is an actor, but you’re only your true self when you’re creating art; creating art is a solitary action in which there is no one to impress. The desperation and suffering that inhibits acting turns inward and allows you to take off the fluorescent smile that is meant for the world stage and make something undeniably real.

So, let me trail after George Orwell and Joan Didion—panting and grabbing my aching side—to expand on “Why I Write.” As it is for Didion, writing for me is “an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.” I’ve come to realize that writers are often tyrants and cowards: obsessed with conquering the reader, of espousing the words and eyes without a chance for objection; and at the same time, too afraid to utter the words, too fearful of physical confrontation. The gall to say it, but not aloud. Writing functions as a confessional booth: those awkward thoughts about the man on the subway, the sparks of genius that flare up while walking down the sidewalk, the stupidest questions that pop into your mind as you stare into the abyss of a blackboard.

I write because I’m too arrogant to admit my desperation and too reserved to admit my arrogance. Writing is the only place where I’m allowed to be both; I’m allowed to assert myself, but I’m not making a scene. You could put this down at any second; choose to forget me, problem solved. But I’m still there, my words are still there, begging to be read and the fact that I have them out, floating around in the world, is satisfaction enough for me.

In his version of “Why I Write,” George Orwell narrows his need, as well as other writers’ needs, to write to four reasons: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. I think I’d most have to identify with sheer egoism which is the “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death.”

But I don’t think my reason for writing is that simple. Maybe my sheer egoism is dominating the previous sentence. When my veins feel like they’re starting to curl, when everything inside of me wells up to the point of explosion, when my desperation feels like it’s flaying my flesh, I write. Writing constitutes an attempt at finding a remedy for the players we force ourselves to be on the world stage. Writing isn’t supposed to be something easy; as Larry King accounts in a story about Marlon Brando, Brando once said, “acting is easy, writing is hard.”  While method acting is the representation of the “emotional past” in order to portray reality, creating art is that emotional past coming to life. As Orwell says, “one would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Writing is my attempt to understand by building up and tearing down myself to see what happens, by taking my flaws and putting them under a magnifying glass. Writing shoves what you hate and love into one sentence together and watching them battle to the death.

 

 

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Downloaded from Introduction to Media Criticism Blackboard site. 1936, 1-20.

Didion, Joan. “Why I Write.” Advanced College Essay: Education and the Professions. Ed. William M. Morgan, Jono Mischkot and Nat Bennett. Pearson, 2008. 27-32.

Gilsenan, Alan. (2008, December 6). “The Method to His Acting Madness.” The Irish Times.

Kazan, Elia. (Director). (1951). A Streetcar Named Desire [Film]. Los Angeles: Charles K. Feldman Group.

King, Larry. Larry King Live. Posted on YouTube August 2008. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=540ihpCsWWk&gt;.

Orwell, George. “Why I Write.” A Collection of Essays. San Diego: Mariner, 1970. 309-324.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. “Method Man.” The New Yorker. 84.34 (27 Oct. 2008): p66. Literature Resource Center. Gale. New York University. 22 Feb. 2009 <http://go.galegroup.com/ps/start.do?p=LitRC&u=new64731&gt;.

Solnit, Rebecca. “The Blue of Distance.” Advanced College Essay: Education and the Professions. Ed. William M. Morgan, Jono Mischkot and Nat Bennett. Pearson, 2008. 123-132.

“Stanislavsky Method.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 23 Feb. 2009 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/563178/Stanislavsky-method>.

Zengotita, Thomas de. “Attack of the Superzeroes: Why Washington, Einstein and Madonna Can’t Compete with You.” Advanced College Essay: Education and the Professions. Ed. William M. Morgan, Jono Mischkot and Nat Bennett. Pearson, 2008. 133-142.

 

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Written by: Cassidy Havens

 

 

 

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