On the Waterfront (1954)

Marlon Brando's Method Acting: The Seamless Blend Of Masculine And Feminine

By: Domonique Cox-Salberg

Marlon Brando’s approach to acting has left an enduring impression on audiences and showbiz. He has the ability to tap into feminine and masculine energy seamlessly like no other, with an underlying fiery component for which he has brought to several roles. Magnetic, vivid, and penetrating, are what define Marlon Brando performances and what came to be from his portrayals was the popularizing of method acting.

For those unfamiliar, method acting (created by Konstantin Stanislavski) involves utilizing techniques that seek to encourage sincere and emotionally expressive performances. Artists that favor the style are some of the most popular and sought-after actors, such as Christian Bale, Daniel Day-Lewis, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, and the late James Dean. But among all these talented individuals, Marlon Brando radiates an aura, not better, but indeed unlike the others. One of mystique, deep intensity and unpredictability.

Marlon Brando’s Tender Performance in On the Waterfront (1954)

On the Waterfront (1954) | BFI

Instinctive, tremendously creative, Brando knew when to let things flow and when to pow—this is how the director Elia Kazan of On the Waterfront described Brando’s acting. Later, saying he is a genius and a trailblazer, for which many others would agree. His turn as Terry Malloy, for instance, highlights his intuitive acting, together with his ability to tap into feminine and masculine energy that set him apart from the rest. Two scenes in particular stand-out most to exemplify this sentiment; when Terry and Edie are in the park, and arguably the film’s most powerful scene, when Terry and Charley are in the taxi.

The famous glove scene between Terry and Edie helps us to grasp Brando’s pioneering side, which radiates. She drops a glove. He picks it up, and rather than handing it back, he pulls it on over his hand. He naturally and confidently, improvises putting on her glove while still carrying on their conversation. It was so great that Kazan chose to keep it in the film.

Still, the real magic that Brando brings to the scene is his talent for embodying the persona of Terry Malloy with a subtle mix of charm and sensitivity. He demands Edie’s attention with just enough assertive energy as he initiates and controls most of the conversation (masculine), then keeps her engaged with an undercurrent of warmth and gentleness (feminine) to his approach.

We see this when he removes some dirt before putting the glove on with care (he was famous for physical gestures like this during critical scenes), communicating to her, ‘I like your company, let’s talk more’ without being aggressive or too forthright. Now, some may be thinking, the other great actors listed above can authentically evoke a surplus of emotions, so what is so different about Brando? Well, the difference is when he does it, a parody is not created because he was a pioneer for the way modern actors perform and method acting. Brando was one of the first and best at bringing this style to the silver screen. Everyone after him will always be an extension of Brando until a new method is created.

“I coulda been a contenda”

Nevertheless, the film’s most iconic scene that speaks to Brando’s affinity for linking both masculine and feminine energy to his performance happens during the profoundly remembered Terry and Charley taxi scene. Those who have not even watched On the Waterfront, know the famous line, “I coulda been a contenda” it is that ingrained in pop culture. For those that have seen it, they know that the entire scene is marvelous.

It begins with Charley pulling a gun on his brother, Terry, for which he responds with tenderness and disappointment instead of fear or anger. What other actors, when his brother draws a pistol to force him to do something shameful, would put his hand on the gun and push it away with the gentleness of a caress? Who else could read `Oh, Charley!’ in a tone of reproach that is so loving and so melancholy and suggests the tremendous depth of pain? Brando did that.

Terry Malloy: It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, “Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.” You remember that? “This ain’t your night”! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.

Charley Malloy: Oh, I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.

Terry Malloy: You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley.

In that small amount of time, Brando delivered a range of emotions effortlessly. Sentiments of surprise, disappointment, shock, anger, deep sadness, regret, and brutal acceptance in this scene, show us what Brando is capable of at his best. To that end, Marlon Brando’s immeasurable influence on the general change of tone in American movies can be seen not only in the 1950s but today in our favorite stars. However, what has yet to be replicated, is his talent for balancing masculine and feminine energy, with a spark of his fiery charm that may never be forgotten. 

Are you a fan of method acting? If so, what actor do you love seeing most use the famous style?

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