Thursday, April 23, 2015

the last book I ever read (Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, excerpt six)

from Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh: A Biography by John Lahr:

Brando’s acting style was the performing equivalent of jazz. The notes were there, but Brando played them in a way that was uniquely personal to him. In his ability to call out of dialogue a heightened sense of emotional truth, the freedom of his stage behavior was mesmerizing and revolutionary. Instead of making everything learned and clear, Brando let the lines play on him and rode his emotions wherever they led him. “He even listened experientially,” Kazan said. “It’s as if you were playing on something. He didn’t look at you, and he hardly acknowledged what you were saying. He was tuned in to you without listening to you intellectually or mentally. It was a mysterious process . . . . There was always an element of surprise in what he did.” By turns charming, witty, wounded, cruel—Brando presented the public with an immediacy that seemed un-worked out; his reliance on impulse made him unpredictable and therefore dangerous. For both actor and audience the experience was a submersion in emotional contradiction. “There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people,” Williams wrote to Kazan when negotiations with Selznick seemed to have broken down. “Nobody sees anybody truly, but all through the flaws of their own ego.” Brando incarnated this ambivalence and made it sensational.

Over the years, as the legend of his performance as Stanley grew from its initial mixed critical response to what the New York Times in his obituary called “epochal,” many theatricals took credit for casting him. Audrey Wood claimed it was her husband William Liebling; with more justification, Kazan maintained it was him; Brando insisted that Harold Churman planted the idea in Kazan’s head. “Gadg and Irene both said I was probably too young, and she was especially unenthusiastic about me,” Brando recalled in his autobiography. After pondering the script for a few days, even Brando called Kazan to decline the role. The part, he felt, was “a size too large.” “The line was busy,” Brando recalled later. “Had I spoken to him at that moment, I’m certain I wouldn’t have played the role. I decided to let it rest for a while and the next day he called me and said: ‘Well, what is it—yes or no?’ I gulped and said ‘Yes.’” To Kazan, Brando was “a shot in the dark”: now only Williams needed convincing. Kazan called Williams, gave Brando twenty dollars, and sent him up to Provincetown to read. “That’s all I said,” Kazan recalled. “I waited. No return call. After three days I called Tennessee and asked him what he’d thought of the actor I’d sent him. ‘What actor?’ he asked. No one had showed up, so I figured I’d lost twenty bucks and began to look elsewhere.”

Brando, who was broke, had decided to hitchhike with his girlfriend to Provincetown. When he finally arrived at Rancho Pancho around dusk in the last week of August, Brando walked into a scene of “domestic cataclysm,” according to Williams. The kitchen floor was flooded, the toilets were blocked, and the light fuse had blown. Like the blackout during the Wingfields’ supper, Williams and his houseguests were plunged “into everlasting darkness.” “It was all too much for Pancho,” Williams said. “He packed up and said he was going back to Eagle Pass. However he changed his mind, as usual.” To Williams, Brando was a spectacle of both beauty—“He was just about the best-looking young man I’ve ever seen”—and prowess. Brando fixed the lights, then unblocked the pipes. “You’d think he had spent the entire antecedent life repairing drains,” Williams said.

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