There was little doubt that Jessica Tandy was going to play Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' theatrical follow-up to The Glass Menagerie, 1947's A Streetcar Named Desire. But Stanley Kowalski was a tougher nut for director Elia Kazan to crack, and it took a while for Marlon Brando, the promising newcomer from the Actors Studio, to emerge as the leading man -- and as one of the greatest actors of any generation.
In his stage and screen performances of Streetcar, Brando, who died of lung failure on July 2 at the age of 80, also created a New Orleans icon. It is no small coincidence that the annual Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest is the best-known event at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. Stanley petulantly crying for Stella, like a baby bawling for his mommy, is as memorable a stage or film moment as one can imagine.
But for Brando to get to that scream, he had to cut through some of the biggest names of his day -- John Garfield and even Gregory Peck were both mentioned as potential Stanleys -- and then through his own psyche. It proved a heady trip.
Kazan, according to his autobiography Elia Kazan: A Life, had had his eye on Brando ever since seeing him and Karl Malden in bit parts in the Actors Studio's (failed) production of Truckline Cafe. "[H]is silences were often more eloquent than the lines he had to say," Kazan recalled. Accounts differ on how Kazan eventually got to Brando, but everyone agrees he slipped him $20 to go read for Williams up in Provincetown. Brando was so broke he spent the money on food and hitchhiked his way. Williams was dazzled.
Next, Kazan had to figure out how to make Brando and Tandy work together. To do that, Kazan relied heavily on the method style of acting based loosely on Constantin Stanislavsky, in which actors related the material to their personal experiences. This proved especially difficult for the 24-year-old Brando, who was extremely private and didn't want Kazan to "sneak in."
"I treated him with great delicacy," says Kazan, as quoted in Peter Manso's exhaustive Brando, the Biography. "One reason he got to trust me -- as a director -- was that I respected his privacy. I was always hoping for a miracle with him, and I often got it." Brando, according to Kazan, found Stanley and his bottled-up rage a little too close to his own experiences, but Kazan also saw the sympathy in Stanley's situation -- that of, as Manso put it, "not a villain, simply a man determined to protect his own home."
In his darkest moments, Brando wondered aloud if in fact John Garfield should've gotten the role instead. At one point, the usually tough Kazan made a point of wrapping his arms around Brando in a blatant show of support. Even still, Brando was problematic. His penchant for mumbling lines and setting his own pace during key passages of dialogue drove cast members crazy. Kazan refereed, gently imploring everyone to cooperate.
Brando, like Stanley, acted out of instinct. But to say (as some critics have claimed) that Brando was Stanley is a disservice to Brando's relentless efforts to get to the truth of his character. He searched hard to find the balance in Stanley, just as Williams sought balance in both Stanley and Stella onstage. Neither one was supposed to be more sympathetic, or "right," than the other. They, like the play itself, were more complicated, more ambiguous.
The entire cast (and Williams) ultimately received immense audience and critical acclaim. Williams would go on to win the New York Drama Critics Circle and Pulitzer Prize awards for the play. Most of the cast would reunite, sans Tandy, for Kazan's film version in 1951, and Vivien Leigh, Hunter and Malden all won Oscars. Brando lost out to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. Looking back, Brando actually said that both he and Tandy were miscast in the stage version, and that both of them threw the play out of balance. "But we had a wonderful play under us and it was a big success," he noted in his autobiography. "In A Streetcar Named Desire, we had under us one of the best-written plays ever produced, and we couldn't miss."