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Vol. 17 No. 1 (2023): New Lenses on Old Hollywood

Brando's Engaging Contradictions

June 4, 2023


This article belongs to the continuing work on the labor and craft of screen performance, feminist scholarship that recognizes women’s overlooked contributions, and cultural-materialist research that examines film practice in relation to its historical context. It deconstructs the Cold War and Hollywood-friendly idea that Marlon Brando was a Method actor by untangling the term’s multiple meanings, contextualizing the factors that gave rise to Brando’s association with Method acting, and highlighting the ignored evidence that he studied with Modern acting teacher Stella Adler. The article details contrasts between the Method’s Freudian focus on actors’ inhibitions and the holistic, research-intensive Modern acting principles Brando employed. It clarifies that Strasberg’s Method was designed to make actors’ more responsive to (male) directors, whereas Modern acting strategies foster actors’ agency and collaborative abilities. The article explores connections between Modern actors’ in-depth exploration of characters’ social realities, Brando’s interest in films with diverse casts and progressive politics, and his offscreen work to support social justice initiatives. It highlights his involvement in One-Eyed Jacks (1961), Burn! (1966), and other films that align audience identification with the autonomous nonwhite characters. The discussion also outlines Brando’s participation in political actions integral to the rise of the American Indian Movement in the 1960s, the work of Martin Luther King Jr., and the Black Panthers. It proposes that contradictions between well-publicized aspects of Brando’s star career and the mundane dimensions of his work as an actor and citizen reveal new insights into American acting, Hollywood cinema, and mid-twentieth century America.