The craft of acting was seriously challenged in the late 1940s. Acting coaches like Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, Uta Hagen, Sanford Meisner and Viola Spolin developed techniques, many based on the teachings of Stanislavski. Montgomery Clift (1920-1966); Marlon Brando (1924-2004) and James Dean (1931-1955) are prime examples of actors whose dedication to these techniques remain influential.
Montgomery Clift, Serious Actor
He was the sensitive young man who worked in both theatre and movies. He was also an intellectual rebel. He preferred to live in New York, (although a property he owned in Hollywood is now owned by Sharon Stone, who has preserved it). Like Marlon Brando, he was born and raised in Omaha. Following a stint in summer stock, Clift made his debut in New York, where he worked with Frederic March, Tallulah Bankhead and the Lunts. Among his early appearances were Cole Porter’s Jubilee, the original production of Thornton Wilder’s Skin of our Teeth and Robert Sherwood’s There Shall Be No Night, starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who would give him a photograph signed “from your real parents.”
He made his film debut opposite John Wayne in Red River, directed by Howard Hawks, still one of the best Westerns ever made. The 1949 production ofThe Heiress is an outstanding movie where he was cast as Morris Townsend opposite Olivia de Havilland’s Catherine Sloper (based on Henry James’ Washington Square). However, de Havilland, (who won her second Academy Award for her striking performance) and Clift didn’t get along and his sex-symbol marketing was unappealing, especially to Clift. One of the first method actors in cinema, he was invited to study with Strasberg and Elia Kazan. Clift didn’t spend much time there.
In 1951 he was cast opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun, George Stevens’ remake of An American Tragedy. As research for this production, Clift actually spent a night in a state prison. The movie was a hit and he remained lifelong friends with Taylor. However, his next stint was his first real failure.
Clift returned to New York, for a much-anticipated revival of Chekhov’s The Seagull, featuring Judith Evelyn, John Fiedler, Will Geer, Sam Jaffe, and his good friends Kevin McCarthy and Maureen Stapleton. While individual performances were celebrated, the production was not. Disappointed, he returned to Hollywood, where, in quick succession, he starred in Hitchcock’s I Confess, co-starring Ann Baxter; Indiscretion of an American Wife with Jennifer Jones (www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQJoJEr-OHg) and as Robert E. Lee Prewitt, the bugle-playing soldier in From Here to Eternity. The all-star cast included Oscar-winner Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed and Ernest Borgnine.
He signed to co-star with Elizabeth Taylor in the Civil War melodrama, Raintree County. Following a party at the home of his co-star and her husband, Michael Wilding, Clift fell asleep at the wheel and smashed into a telephone pole. Taylor rushed to her friend’s side and pulled two teeth out of his tongue when he started choking. He broke his jaw and his nose, fractured a sinus and had facial gashes that were treated with plastic surgery. Clift remained in pain for the rest of his life.
Bisexual, Clift kept his private life private. He wasn’t seen much in public, yet he had a close relationship with Elizabeth Taylor and was linked to the older Libby Holman. He turned down Sunset Blvd, because he thought it reflected their relationship. Perhaps his most renowned male lover was choreographer Jerome Robbins.
Following Raintree County, Clift started relying on alcohol and prescription medication. The accident also brought continual intestinal problems. In 1958, he appeared opposite Marlon Brando and Dean Martin in The Young Lions. Like similar films before it, the story revolves around three soldiers and how their lives have changed by their military experiences. It has a strong supporting cast that includes Maximillian Schell (who would star with Clift in Judgment at Nuremberg), Hope Lange, and Lee van Cleef. In 1959, Clift appeared with Taylor and Katharine Hepburn in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer. Director Joseph Mankiewicz wanted Clift replaced and was openly hostile to him. When the final shot was finished, Hepburn, angry over the directors’ treatment of Clift, spit in his face and walked off the set.
Directed by John Huston, The Misfits, with a script by Arthur Miller, was the last film for Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, but it includes one of Clift’s best screen performances. Monroe and Clift got along well, although she later told a reporter that her health was better than his.
Clift gave his last great performance as a physically and emotionally disabled man in Stanley Kramer’s remarkable epic drama, Judgment at Nuremberg. A victim of sterilization, his character, like Clift himself, was severely damaged. Having trouble with the lines, Kramer recommended that he improvise. His performance earned Clift an Oscar nomination.
A few years later, Huston got a decent performance from Clift playing Sigmund Freud. Elizabeth Taylor managed to get him a role in Reflections in a Golden Eye, however, on July 22, 1966, while The Misfits was playing on television, Montgomery Clift passed on at the age of 45, from a coronary.
He’s buried at the Friends (Quaker) Cemetery in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. His role in Reflections in a Golden Eye would be taken by Marlon Brando. Several biographies contradict facts about Montgomery Clift, and evidently there’s a film about his life in the works. Still, it’s Clift’s acting that speaks for itself.
Marlon Brando: The Temperamental Movie Star
No one ever burst on the scene and made as big an impact as Marlon Brando. A student of Stella Adler, he appeared in the original Broadway productions of I Remember Mama, Truckline Café and revivals of Antigone and Candida, for which he received good notices. However, on December 3, 1947, at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, Brando played Stanley Kowalski, opposite Jessica Tandy as Blanche DuBois, Karl Reiner as Mitch and Kim Hunter as Stella in Tennessee Williams’ landmark drama, A Streetcar Named Desire. The rest is history.
Brando brought a natural energy and style audiences had never seen before, and it quickly became the quest for every actor of the period. It was even satirized by Frank Gorshin playing an out-of-work imitator in Bells Are Ringing. While living in New York, Brando maintained an odd, but fascinating lifestyle. He shared an apartment with his childhood friend Wally Cox and annoyed many by keeping a raccoon as a pet. When the Tony nominations for 1948 were announced, only Jessica Tandy was on the list. Because of the impact this play still has today, this is startling.
Brando moved to Hollywood, never returning to the stage. Streetcar was filmed by Elia Kazan with the original cast – with one exception. Vivien Leigh, who had played Blanche in London, played the role onscreen. Leigh, Hunter and Malden were honored with Oscars. Brando was not. He’d be honored for his performance in On the Waterfront in 1954. He then appeared in Julius Caesar, Viva Zapata, The Wild One, Guys and Dolls and Sayonara. His iconic performance as Johnny Strabler in The Wild One, is a classic image of the 1950s. Method teacher Lee Strasberg tried taking credit for Brando’s fame and technique, but the actor dismissed him. His mentors were Stella Adler and Elia Kazan!
The New Wave of the 1960s brought artistic challenges. Brando wasn’t invited to participate. The only film he directed and starred in, the western, One-Eyed Jacks, was a failure. While it can be downloaded on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sf_UKobXIH4), due to its cult status, it’s been restored and now part of the Criterion Collection. The 1962 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, was next. Cast as Fletcher Christian opposite Trevor Howard’s Captain Bligh, the project was doomed. It fell behind schedule, went over budget and replaced its director. For Brando, something special came of it.
Much of the filming occurred on a small island in French Polynesia, Teti’aroa. Brando bought the island, and this was his home for decades. Tarita Teriipaila, who became Brando’s third wife, later took over the property. Now called Marlon Brando Island, it’s been developed as a resort hotel. A lack of challenging roles caused Brando to realize that acting was now just a means of paying for the island and the support of his 16 known children! (This number varied in my research from 11 to 16).
Films like The Ugly American, The Night of the Following Day, Candy and The Appoloosa are best forgotten. Sadly, so is A Countess from Hong Kong, Charles Chaplin’s last film. Even with Sophia Loren and Margaret Rutherford in the cast, it’s almost unwatchable. Bedtime Story, costarring Brando, David Niven and Shirley Jones, was remade, first as a movie and then a musical, as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Steve Martin played the Brando role.
Things changed in the 1970s, as character roles came his way. First, there was Don Corleone in The Godfather, which brought him his second Oscar, He turned it down, sending Sacheen Littlefeather, in Native dress. She told Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann that he wouldn’t accept the award because of the manner in which Native Americans have been treated over the history of movies. He then went to France to work with Bernardo Bertolucci in Last Tango in Paris, co-starring Maria Schneider. Rated X, the drama of a widower grieving his wife by having an anonymous affair with a young woman was a resounding, if controversial success.
Five years later, Brando had yet another success as Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. From this point, he appeared in Superman, The Freshman, Don Juan DeMarco, The Island of Dr. Moreau, all highlights of his late career. His health began to suffer as he gained over 300 pounds and developed Type 2 diabetes. He passed on from congestive heart failure. Respected as one of America’ most important performers, his work speaks for itself, even the failures.
James Dean: The Cultural Icon
On September 30, 1955, James Dean forever became a classic icons of 1950s Hollywood. He crashed his Porsche Spyder and died at the age of 24. At that time, East of Eden, the only film he had a leading role in had been released.
James Dean was in Marion, IN. An only child, his mother passed on when he was nine. Dean was sent to Fairmount, IN. He had a Quaker upbringing. Rev. James DeWeerd became his mentor, and allegedly, his first lover. Dean was a good, popular student, who played basketball, appeared onstage in plays and gave speeches in Forensics. While at UCLA, he participated in James Whitmore’s acting workshops.
His good looks got him noticed immediately. He played the disciple John in Hill Number One, an Easter television presentation. After a few minor film roles, he moved to New York, where he appeared in television dramas and took classes at the Actor’s Studio. YouTube has quite a few of these programs. While in New York, he got good notices for The Immoralist, based on a novel by Andre Gide. The play ran for 96 performances.
Then Hollywood called and of course, Dean answered.
Elia Kazan wanted a younger “Brando type,” to play Cal Trask in his film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The script would concentrate on the novels’ last section, set at the start of World War I. The plot of which follows twins Aron and Cal Trask. Cal can do nothing to please his father, Adam, a shrewd, pious man. Adam wants to invent a way of refrigerating vegetables during rail transportation, and when he earns $5,000 taking a risk with beans, Adam refuses it. Their relationship becomes even more strained. Cal also determines to learn the truth about their mother, Kate, who’s presumed dead. Instead, she left her bible-thumping husband and now manages a brothel. Kazan surrounded himself with a first-rate cast: Julie Harris as the girl in love with both brothers, Raymond Massey as Adam, Burl Ives as the Sheriff, Richard Davalos as Aron and Oscar-winner Jo Van Fleet as Kate. The film is shot in deep, rich technicolor (one of the best uses of the form in American cinema) by cinematographer Ted D. McCord. East of Eden is a brilliant film.
His next film, Rebel Without a Cause, would prove to be his most iconic. Dean played Jim Stark, a troubled outsider, needing his father’s attention. At his new high school, he meets Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo), and is drawn into a rebellious gang. Challenged to a game of Chickie Run with Buzz (Corey Allen), it ends in tragedy. Trying to come clean, Jim asks for his father’s help, but is refused. Knowing they’re in trouble Judy, Jim and Plato act out a family fantasy. This, too, leads to tragedy.
Fluidly directed with classic sequences and a cast featuring Jim Backus as Frank Stark, Ann Doran as Carol Stark and Dennis Hopper as Goon, Rebel Without a Cause spoke to its audiences, and perfectly captured how a generation of teenagers experienced the 1950s. Sections of its plot and scenes have found their way into such films as Earth Girls Are Easy, The Room, Grease and Saturday Night Fever. James Dean will forever be remembered for his performance in this movie.
Dean’s last project was George Stevens’ production of Edna Ferber’s novel, Giant, an epic story of cattle ranchers and oilmen. Co-starring with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson as Leslie and Bick Benedict, Dean plays Jett Rink, a ranch hand who owns a plot of land where he strikes oil. Bick and Jett’s rivalry lasts for decades, and Ferber’s story addresses different classes, ethnic groups and changing family relationships. Dean was nominated for a second posthumous Oscar.
Following his death, questions of his personal life began to surface. William Bast, Dean’s roommate and biographer claimed he and Dean had been lovers. Dean dated several women and the great love of his life is generally thought to be Italian actress Pier Angeli, who was filming The Silver Chalice with Paul Newman at Warner Bros, while Dean was on the lot. Yet, Angeli’s mother disapproved, so the actress married Vic Damone instead. Dean dated Ursula Andress (so memorable in Dr. No.), whom at the time was also dating Brando.
Interested in auto racing, his plans for a career were cut short on May 30, 1955 when a blown piston forced him to bow out of the race. Exactly four months later, while driving on Route 466 with three others to Salinas for a race, a car was turning. Unable to stop, Dean’s car slammed into the turning vehicle, skidding across the road. He was dead on arrival at Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital. Buried in Fairmount, IN, he was mourned by thousands of teenagers who could relate to what his character, Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause was going through.
Along with many biographies, two films also reflect Dean’s fandom: September 30, 1955 examines a group of teenagers who break the law upon learning of Dean’s death. Richard Thomas, Susan Tyrell, Tom Hulce, Dennis Quaid and Dennis Christopher are featured in the cast. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a play that was later filmed by Robert Altman (who’d made the documentary The James Dean Story in 1957), is set twenty years after his death, and depicts a group of women still mourning his death.
These three actors helped usher in the modern American theater, which brought new ideas from playwrights, directors, producers and actors. The challenge was on!