Becoming a fan of Brando and Dean in the formative years of adolescence left me with the indelible impression that the fifties was a rebellious age. The era was electrifying for so many reasons – Hitchcock’s pacy thrillers appealed to Cold War anxieties; Ford’s westerns were glorious and sprawling; Gene Kelly was singing in the rain – but the 14 year-old boy in me will always visit 50s cinema to meet up with just two young stars.
The voice of youth and Stanislavski’s radical ‘method acting’ married in 1950 and found an accommodating home in the body of Marlon Brando. The Men (1950) was Brando’s first feature after a thrilling stage-career which paved the way for stronger, more anguished characterizations that were made all the more exciting by naturalistic acting. In previous decades Clark Gable and Cary Grant gave Hollywood clean looks and enunciating voices but they lacked a pulse. When Brando collapsed in 1951, hands gripping his face, and bellowed ‘Hey Stella!’ it was clear that what was expected of actors would never be the same again. This was real.
Brando granted the 50s his charming and mesmerising presence which looked effortless but was really the result of dedicated work. In an industry where acting consisted of playing a version of one’s best self, Brando worked hard to become a different person in each role. Viva Zapata! (1952) had him perfect a Mexican accent; The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) had him learn Japanese and Orientalize his face; The Young Lions (1958) had him mastering German playing a Nazi. He furnished each character with a detailed background and distinct psychology: when the object of his affection in On the Waterfront (1954) drops her glove Brando’s Terry Maloy retrieves it, unscripted, cleans it and wears it as if unconsciously communicating his desire for her. His acting was often that of the minute, yet he mastered the grandiose as well – bringing colour and life to Mark Antony in Julius Caesar (1953) and showing his musical skill in Guys and Dolls (1955).
Brando set the yard-stick for actors and James Dean swiftly took up the challenge. His tortured personal life came through strongly in his roles and what was clearly a cleansing for him proved cathartic for the audience also. His iconic cry, ‘You’re tearing me apart!’, still resonates today, whilst the father-son scenes in East of Eden (1955) are painfully, and importantly, real and do great example to display the split between traditional acting styles and the new breathtaking one that was emerging.
For me, these two actors are what 50s cinema is all about – in an era dominated by traditional values, Brando and Dean gave voice to a feeling of frustration and desire for change that was bursting to be expressed. When asked what they were rebelling against, they replied ‘What’ve you got?’