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|It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to point out that gays objectified men on the
screen decades before Marlon Brando’s riveting screen performance as the brutish über hunk Stanley
Kowalski in Elia Kazan’s 1951 masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire. Tyrone Power, Robert
Taylor, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Joel McCrea, Montgomery Clift, and Clark Gable’s removal of his
undershirt in 1934’s It Happened One Night all preceded Brando’s real arrival at the movies in Streetcar
(he had been seen by audiences as the bitter paraplegic in 1950’s The Man before this).
But the combination of Brando’s frank portrayal of the heated Stanley, his blasé attitude about
applying sexual labels in real life, his insistence in interviews about discussing acting as an art and
not just as a means to a paycheck, his derision about stardom and the limits it enforced on those
who accepted its constraints, and more than anything, his overripe beauty and physicality all said to
canny moviegoers encountering him on the screen in Streetcar, straight and gay, “Go ahead – let your
imagination run wild.” Here at last was an actor who knew he turned on both women and men and
didn’t give a damn. Whose objectification in fact, may have turned him on, to.
Almost 59 years after Streetcar’s initial release Brando’s sexual potency hasn’t dimmed a whit.
Kazan, who had directed the groundbreaking 1947 Broadway production of the Tennessee Williams
play had already conquered Hollywood and had to be coaxed into returning to Streetcar and directing
it for the screen. Part of the reason he made the film was a chance to balance the movie version
more judiciously between Blanche and Stanley – a decision that actually turns up the heat. Kazan
first gives us a look at Stanley through the star struck eyes of Blanche’s sister Stella (Kim Hunter).
Finding her younger sister and husband in a bowling alley, Blanche (Vivien Leigh), the delicate, wilted
Southern belle recoils when Stella points out roughneck Stanley who is briefly glimpsed in the midst
of a scuffle with a group of men.
Back at the cramped apartment of Stella and Stanley, Kazan’s camera lingers on Brando who does a
subconscious striptease for Blanche in his first meeting with her. Stella has retreated to the
bathroom to escape Blanche’s unexpected recriminations and when Stanley strides into the
apartment, she’s shy and reserved. Stanley quickly removes first his silk bowling jacket and then his
sweat stained t-shirt. Nonchalantly, he takes his time about putting on a fresh t-shirt as Blanche
gapes open mouthed, almost salivating (standing in for the audience, unaccustomed to having their
baser instincts so precisely laid open). Interesting trivia: Brando’s chest was shaved and his skintight
t-shirts were custom made to cling to the contours of his muscular torso.
This outright objectification is part of the genius of Williams’ Streetcar – despite Stanley’s crude
tirades and his tendency toward emotional and physical violence his sexual hold on Stella and
eventually Blanche trumps everything (both women at various moments act as stand-ins for the
audience, equally enthralled). In Today’s enlightened, sexed up age we quickly intuit Stella (and the
audience) as being “dickmatized” by Stanley. But in 1951 Williams’ lyrical writing provided the
subtext for what was then an unexplored “fact of life” (and I’ve always loved that it took a gay
playwright to bring this unacknowledged human behavior to the mainstream). Brando’s performance,
as the film attests, made this possible – as it still does. No other male star of the era could have
given the role the unforgettable, unignorable magnetic power it retains.
A Streetcar Named Desire ushered in a decade of both sexually tinged melodramas and the era of
movie stars as sexual glamazons – the physically imposing Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, and the rest
of their ilk for the men and Marilyn Monroe and her thousand imitators for the women (it’s also ironic
to note the prominence of these in your face sexual movie stars during the 1950s – the decade of
conservative repression). Brando enjoyed many other “firsts” when it came to his appearance in
movies but his opening the floodgates for outright sexual objectification (Monroe did it for women)
for film audiences of all stripes may be his true legacy – certainly it’s his most potent. And
objectification is surely one of the most primal allures of the medium – conscious or not. Brando’s
sexual influence and his rebellious attitude on American society (not to mention gay culture with the
experimental films of Kenneth Anger as just one prime example of the Brando Effect) is almost
incalculable and it all started with the removal of that sweaty t-shirt. With regard to movies, as
director Martin Scorsese has noted, “There’s before Brando and after Brando.”
Film audiences who haven’t experienced Streetcar on the big screen and The Brando Effect will have
the chance to see the movie on Jan. 30 at 3pm and Feb. 1st at 6pm at the Gene Siskel Film Center
(164 N. State Street). The film – which is a glorious, mesmerizing experience from beginning to end
(Brando’s performance is matched by Leigh’s and the supporting cast of Hunter, Karl Malden et al –
all speaking Williams lyrical dialogue, set to Alex North’s hot jazz score) – is being shown as part of
the Siskel’s month long tribute to Kazan. Titled “Elia Kazan’s American Century,” the series has
included the majority of the late director’s masterworks. 1956’s highly erotic Baby Doll, Kazan’s
second collaboration with Tennessee Williams, which introduced audiences to actress Carroll Baker
and to another daring Williams’ sexually tinged taboo – is on the bill for Jan. 28th at 6pm.
More Classic Cinema: Beginning on Jan. 29 the Music Box Theatre is presenting a double feature of
Sir Carol Reed’s 1947 British suspense thrillers Odd Man Out starring James Mason and 1949’s The
Third Man starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles (it features perhaps one of filmdom’s most
memorable music scores). The former will feature a new 35mm print. www.musicboxtheatre.com