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Oscar Ironies: Brando Gets Dissed

April 15, 2011


In 1951, a sopping wet 27-year-old Marlon Brando yelled these two words in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire and forever changed the history of the movies.

Brando’s performance as the volatile yet vulnerable Stanley Kowalski was unlike anything moviegoers had seen before, a far cry from the more mannered, radio-influenced film acting style that predominated during the 1930s and ‘40s. In Brandon’s hands, Kowalski became a primal force of nature: sensual, violent, mumbling, and irresistibly compelling to watch. Supported by his stellar co-stars Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, Kazan’s deft direction, and playwright Tennessee Williams’s brilliant writing, Brando delivered a landmark performance that has influenced generations of actors, and that continues to electrify audiences sixty years later.

Brando didn’t win an Oscar for his performance.

But all of his fellow co-stars did.

That’s right. Streetcar won four Academy Awards in total: Best Art Direction, Best Actress (Leigh), Best Supporting Actress (Hunter), and Best Supporting Actor (Malden). Brando lost Best Actor to Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen (a highly entertaining performance, but certainly not as game-changing as Brando’s).

Needess to say, it must’ve been strange for Brando to see all of his Streetcar co-stars walk away with Oscars and be the only one to go home empty-handed. Perhaps he even wanted to say to the Academy (to borrow one of his lines as Don Corleone in The Godfather): “What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?”

Brando eventually got the Academy’s respect. Three years later he won Best Actor for On the Waterfront (“I coulda had class, I coulda been a contender!”), and won a second time in 1972 for his performance in The Godfather (although in that case, it was Brando’s turn to disrespect the Academy, since he famously refused to accept the award for political reasons).

But as brilliant as these and other performances of his are, it was his performance in Streetcar that first introduced the world to Marlon Brando and a new method of film acting. “HEY, STELLA!” wasn’t just the desperate cry of a remorseful husband; it was the cry that changed the movies.

(P.S. – Due to requests from several readers, I’m extending the deadline for the Best Actor Trio Trivia Challenge till midnight this Sunday, April 17th. So if you think you know the answer–and you want that iTunes gift certificate!–send me an email. I’ll reveal the answer on Monday. Till then, have a grand weekend!)

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