Monday, February 29, 2016

Marlon Brando, The "Method", and Toxic Masculinity

In his description of the "Method" outlined in his book, Stars, Richard Dyer notes that actors who use the "Method", an acting system based on interiority and emotional meaning, are often perceived as more "authentic". Referring to Marlon Brando's performance in A Streetcar Named Desire Dyer explains that the fact that the general audience oftentimes believes that a Method actor "became" a character, such performances are attributed more authenticity than others (142). The words used to describe Brando's performance, "basic", "raw and violent", "animal aggressiveness", alongside Dyer's note that the Method's tendency to favor roles that expressed "disturbance, repression, anguish", reveal a sexist bias in the discursive construct of "authenticity". This bias is further validated by Dyer's assertion that the film plays Brando's performance as "authentic" in "opposition to the falsity of Blanche" (142). The fact that both actors are utilizing the same "Method" of character construction, typified by "redundant performance signs" like Blanche's constant fretting and hand-wringing, is irrelevant (Dyer 142). Brando, though obviously using a complex system to signal character, is "real" and Leigh, precisely for her carefully constructed cracked persona, is "fake".

This bias reveals the underlying toxicity of the depiction of masculinity in Brando’s performance. As Dyer notes regarding E. Ann Kaplan’s description of Brando’s performance in On the Waterfront, because of the Method’s tendency to draw audiences into a performance, Brando’s character’s subjective ideological point of view comes to dominate the film’s meaning (125). Whatever the initial intention of the film, Brando’s character’s “hatred of the ‘false middle-class way of being’” and its articulation in his violence against female characters tilts the message of the film in a very sexist direction (125). The same could be said of Brando’s performance in Streetcar. Though Blanche is the film’s main character, the audience’s understanding of the way she fits into the film’s world, morally and psychologically, comes from Kowalski’s perception of her. This is further emphasized in the climax of the film, in which Kowalski dominates Blanche, both literally assaulting her and figuratively overpowering the mise-en-scene and dispelling any reading of the film that might be sympathetic towards her.

Both Brando’s and Leigh’s performances in A Streetcar Named Desire are focused on interiority, emotional instability, turmoil, and anguish. Though both behave erratically and are clearly unhinged, Brando’s character has the advantage of channeling his instability through outbursts of violence. His character is depicted as troubled but relatable, the film expects us to tolerate his presence. On the other hand, Blanche is depicted as hysterical and in serious need of psychological help. This biased representation of character, articulated across gendered lines, is related to the film’s central construction of Brando’s class-rooted “authenticity” in opposition to Leigh’s bourgeois “falsity”. The film’s construction of toxic masculinity as somehow more “authentic” is a brutal vision that subordinates oppositional readings more sympathetic towards Blanche’s struggle.

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