A look at Brando’s best ’50s films
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Director Elia Kazan brought the Broadway hit to Hollywood with most of its cast intact, but replaced Broadway’s Blanche, Jessica Tandy, with Vivien Leigh — whose brittle performance provides the perfect foil for the great rush of animal id that Brando brings to his Oscar-nominated performance. Together, Brando and Kazan created a new kind of leading man, miles away from the pomaded perfection of the classical Hollywood type. Brando scratched, mumbled, slumped, and bellowed, drawing on the whole range of Method techniques that emphasized emotion over elocution.
The Wild One (1953)
Laslo Benedek’s film was the occasion for a defining Brando moment, when, as the leather-jacketed leader of a motorcycle gang invading a small town, he answers a girl’s question — ”What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” — with ”Whaddaya got?” It’s a line that helped launch several generations of adolescent, anarchic revolt. Mild-seeming now, the picture was considered an invitation to violence in establishment quarters — already upset by the emergence of rock & roll — and was banned in Britain until 1968.
On the Waterfront (1954)
”I coulda been a contender,” sighed Brando, and indeed he was, winning his first Oscar for his portrayal of a failed prizefighter turned enforcer for a corrupt longshoremen’s union. Brando’s Terry Malloy is the iconic role of his early career, a tough guy with a feminine vulnerability, barely articulate but infinitely eloquent in his bearing and expression. Terry’s decision to inform on the evil union leader (Lee J. Cobb) was taken at the time as an attempt by director Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg to justify their own name-naming appearances before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.