Brando, Dean and The Method

Years ago, while taking a film course on Hollywood’s, “The Studio Years,” I was given what I thought then was an odd assignment.  We were discussing the period in Hollywood when an acting “technique,” for lack of a better word, referred to as “The Method” changed attitudes toward acting, acting preparation and filmmaking to some degree.  Based on readings and discussions on the topic, and of course watching the films and performances we’d chosen, we then had to compare two films and “method” performances and put our thoughts and commentaries in a film journal we had to submit at the end of the semester.

As things go, I watched both of the films I compared that day fairly recently and thought of posting some commentary on each but I was going through old paperwork not long ago and found that journal.  So, I thought this comparison might be interesting to share.  Or at the very least, post it on this blog to refer to it if I ever feel so inlined.

The first thing that struck me as I read those old notes is that I certainly preferred to take the safe route, to stay far from the limb, so to speak.  I chose to compare the two most obvious and, arguably, most renowned of method actors and performances.  Marlon Brando in Elia Kazan‘s, On the Waterfront (1954) and James Dean in Nicholas Ray‘s, Rebel Without a Cause (1955).  One performance I love and another that I don’t particularly like.  As an aside, I’m thinking now I may have probably served this assignment better if I’d chosen East of Eden, which was directed by Elia Kazan as was On the Waterfront, instead of Rebel.  Perhaps that would have been a “fairer” assessment.  But I didn’t because it’s always been my impression that at the time of their releases, Dean in Rebel had a bigger impact than East of Eden, although some of that was probably due to the fact the former was released a month after James Dean’s death.  I might as well also mention my professor in that course has always been a huge admirer of James Dean’s performance in Rebel without a Cause, which is something I considered when I made my film choices. I have always tended toward going against the grain a bit.  I ‘m not partial to Dean’s performance in Rebel just as I’m not crazy about the film.  All of that out of the way, here is my commentary with views that remain the same for me through the years as I’ve re-watched these films.

On the Waterfront (1954) / Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Brando and Dean

Although both Marlon Brando and James Dean are known as Method actors, I don’t see their styles as particularly similar.  After rereading descriptions of Method acting it occurred to me that “The Method” has nothing to do with style. All I read on The Method explains that this acting technique has to do with an actor preparing for a role from within, using his own past experiences and researching, on an emotional level, where the character has been, what he’s done and what he’s gone through in the past to get him to the point where the story is being told so that each actor is not only saying the words of a character but also carries around the required emotional baggage.

“An actor must interpret life, and in order to do so must be willing to accept all the experiences life has to offer. In fact, he must seek out more of life than life puts at his feet.” – James Dean

“To grasp the full significance of life is the actor’s duty, to interpret it is his problem, and to express it his dedication.” – Marlon Brando

Let me say first that as a fan of film, I tend to like actors who give somewhat subdued, but intense, performances (in dramas especially), who say a lot with their faces and eyes, who say volumes with the inflection in their voices, and who use natural body movements that don’t detract my attention from the dialogue or scene or drama.  When asked who my favorite actors are, and I have a few (Spencer Tracy and Jack Lemmon lead the pack), I never mention Marlon Brando, mostly because it’s what everyone says.  But the truth of the matter is that each time I see him in a film he blows me away.  His performance in On the Waterfront is no exception.  He is simply mesmerizing.  And not knowing much about acting, except as a film fan, I can’t explain much about the details except to say that it seems to come from the gut – and that is probably what Method acting is supposed to be, a performance from the gut.

In order to support my choice of Brando in On the Waterfront, I wanted to choose one scene where I felt Brando is particularly good but it proved difficult as all his scenes are amazing.  One that I am particularly fond of, however, is the one where he’s talking to Edie (Eva Marie Saint) in the bar sharing a beer.  She tells him at one point that  “…there’s no spark of sentiment or romance or human kindness in your whole body” and that’s exactly what he does have here, all of it.  As he is shot from the front I could feel his vulnerability by seeing his whole expression and emotions, in short, the whole truth. The fact that he is starved for affection, love and support is clear and evident and I want to hug him – literally.  Brando’s innate sensuality comes across in this film and it is palpable despite his character being a tough guy.  There is a softness to him that reaches the deepest recesses of my soul – a softness not from weakness, but vulnerability, from hurt.  I can’t describe it any better and do it proper justice, but it is very powerful.  Marlon Brando’s physical attractiveness and rough exterior blended with an internal innocence and longing is a superb combination.   As pertains to The Method, we are able to read a lot about the background of Terry’s character without his uttering a word about it.  We can tell he hasn’t had a lot of close relationships, if any at all, with a woman or anyone else.  He hasn’t been presented with opportunities to completely open up, connect with and depend on someone else and so when he does so here, we actually see his soul.

There is also the physical aspect of Brando’s performance in Waterfront to consider as part of this naturalistic approach.  There is a scene, another with Edie,  that is just beautiful and simple and is an example of what I was trying to describe above – a physical action that doesn’t distract me from the scene or dialogue.  I am not completely sure what is included in a script as far as telling the actors how to do the “extra” things, besides speak, that add or detract from a character, scene or story.  Without knowing this I can’t say this is a choice Brando made himself, but I can say that he does it beautifully.  I am referring to the scene when he and Edie are walking in the park toward the beginning of the film – as they walk she drops a glove and he picks it up.  He soon puts the glove on so that as the scene and their exchange progresses he is fiddling with it as anyone would do as a behavioral aside.  Slightly exasperated by their conversation, Edie takes the glove off him herself so she can move on.  It is all done so naturally that it feels improvised and it turns out, in my opinion, to be a simple act of great significance for these characters and for their relationship.  To me it shows that he feels instantly connected to her and inadvertently does something I don’t think he would have done with anyone else.  I love this simple gesture and find it innocent and intimate at the same time.  On her part, taking that glove back shows she’s connected to him almost instantly – the real him, inside.  Take a look at the scene here.  (By the way, Eva Marie Saint is wonderful in this film as well as are all the players.)

Since I chose to discuss scenes between Terry and Edie from On the Waterfront I wanted to choose comparable scenes from Rebel Without a Cause.  However, I didn’t find one.  I find James Dean’s performance believable and several scenes in the film very emotional but I have to admit there is never that “WOW” moment for me in this film, with the exception of one.  That one being the scene where the father is kneeling with the apron on cleaning the spilled food off the floor.  This particular scene is very disturbing, even grotesque in a way.  I’d go as far as to say that it actually goes too far in making the point that the father is spineless and domineered.  To me Dean is best in this scene – the quiet way he tells his father to get up is real and the disgust he feels is apparent, palpable – almost as if the wind is taken out of him.  I prefer this to the other scenes where he shows more emotion and yells “you’re tearing me apart!” or something like that.  I might as well also add that I don’t necessarily buy James Dean as a teenager in the first place.  He was 24 when he made the film and to me he looks like he’s in his twenties.  This is part of the problem with what I see as extreme physicality in some of his scenes.  While teenagers may well “act” that way, I find it awkward to watch him in a few instances.

The bottom line is that I don’t really like Rebel Without a Cause much.  I expect most who may read this disagree, much as my professor did judging my his comments on my assignment.  I’m not sure if the central point in the film is that teenage angst needs no point, but I admit I didn’t get it.  Each of the three main characters have valid reasons to feel like outcasts but at the same time I almost felt like telling them to just get over it.  I “get” that the characters in the film represent the restless youth of the 1950s but I can’t connect with them.  I know my opinion is unique today as many people consider this a great film,  but I think no more of the film than the synopsis of the film as listed on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which states simply, An alienated teenager tries to handle life’s troubles and an apron-wearing dad.  I also like the review Robert J. Landry did for Variety in October 1955, which he began, “Here is a fairly exciting, suspenseful and provocative, if also occasionally far-fetched, melodrama of unhappy youth on another delinquency kick.”  I wouldn’t attribute to this film “fairly exciting,” however, but it is melodramatic.   It also feels dated to me.  I didn’t particularly like the direction or the editing, which I feel interrupts a couple of the more intimate scenes.  I think one of the reasons I couldn’t connect with these characters was because of the way it was filmed.  For instance, of all the scenes between Dean and Natalie Wood few are shot from the front.  Instead we get profiles or slight profiles and the actors are not looking at each

other but are seen looking off somewhere else, as if thinking rather than feeling – rather theatrical and unnatural to me.  Although this may well be because teenagers are prone to looking away, I suppose.  Or at least more likely to do that than adults would be.  Still, it bothers me.  This is in contrast to Elia Kazan’s choice in Waterfront in the bar scene I mentioned above, where he films the actors so that we can see their eyes.  The more intimate the scene gets, the more the characters reveal ever so subtly, and the closer the shot.  Much of Brando’s vulnerability in that scene comes across in his eyes and how they are pleading with Edie without his having to say the words.  Had Kazan shot that scene in profile I think much of the emotion would have been lost.  I would imagine a Method actor’s eyes are extremely important because it is the internal way they connect without having to touch or say the words.  Both Brando and Dean’s characters, Terry Malloy and Jim Stark respectively, are hungry for affection and tenderness but only one of the two convinces me through the performance.  I know that to be true for the other through the story.  And, that may well be  the difference for me.

Regarding The Method I am not equipped to say that James Dean doesn’t do a good job in Rebel Without a Cause because I know people who know a lot more than me on this topic would disagree.  There’s no doubt that I did get a good sense of Jim Stark’s background and experiences so that I fully understand where he is coming from regarding what occurs throughout the film.  What I’m not sure about is whether this good sense comes from Dean’s performance or from the writing because to me it often feels as if we are told things, rather than shown.  (As I did with Eva Marie Saint, I must mention Natalie Wood’s performance, one I do like).

In trying to be as fair as I possibly can be in making these comparisons, which are absurd at best to begin with, I’ve thought a lot about why I don’t connect with Rebel Without a Cause versus On the Waterfront as stories in films, aside from the acting.  I think as film viewers we are usually drawn to films and stories that we can relate to on one level or another.  On that note I can say I relate to the story in Waterfront, I recognize the people in it, I sympathize and empathise with their cause.  In contrast, although I recognize teenage angst and familial difficulties, I can’t say that I empathize with the characters in Rebel.  I just don’t. On a further note, I find On the Waterfront and its story still relevant today.  I agree with what critic, Kenneth Turan wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “As unspoiled in its key elements as the day it was made, “On the Waterfront” is indisputably one of the great American films, its power undiminished. Even more today than half a century ago, it demands to be seen.”  Everything in Waterfront works for me.  The film feels fresh, contemporary on many levels.

If I ever do a complete commentary on On the Waterfront, which is inevitable, I will certainly comment on what is for my money, one of the best acted scenes in all of cinema, the “I coulda had class” scene between Terry and his brother, Charley (played by Rod Steiger).  I chose not to discuss that particular scene for my assignment because I thought it was rather cliché.  But I couldn’t submit this post without at least mentioning it.  It is outstanding.

There you have my commentary on method acting, something I know absolutely nothing about.  If you happened on by and read this I’d love to hear your thoughts on these two performances and films.

It’s only fair I end this post mentioning that both On the Waterfront and Rebel Without a Cause are listed on the American Film Institute‘s list of 100 movies (1998 version) determined the “best” by over 1,500 film industry players.  So, regardless of what I think of specifics, both of these films made a lasting impact and left impressions on those who’ve seen them.


[on Method acting] “All this talk about the Method, the Method! WHAT method? I thought each of us had our OWN method!” – Laurence Olivier

“Method acting? There are quite a few methods. Mine involves a lot of talent, a glass and some cracked ice.”John Barrymore

Until next time, stay real.

14 thoughts

  1. Fascinating. I’m inclined to go back and watch these movies again, with a lot to think about as I do. I’m not one to pay much attention to either one of these actors, though I do enjoy some of their movies. I just didn’t know much about them, I guess. I feel better about that now. I really love this, Aurora, it makes me stop and really think. And I love hearing your take on these things. You’re articles always take me someplace I want to spend more time in.

    1. How ever did I skip this comment from you, Sarah? Anyway, I’m glad I encourage you to go back and watch these in a way so I’m not the only one who thinks about this stuff. I find films like On the Waterfront can be seen a million times and a new subject discussed each time. The other one, well…let me know your take after you’ve taken a fresh look.


  2. I really liked your analysis of the “Method” method…and am SO RELIEVED to see that someone else isn’t crazy about “Rebel Without a Cause.” Whew! Was starting to think I was the only one.

  3. Great write up! Waterfront is one of my all-time faves and a film I point new classic film fans to. I just love the ‘do the right thing’ films. Two other great scenes: 1) when Dugan dies in the hold…while Father Barry is giving his speech (sermon) the expressions on Brando’s face are amazing. Almost no lines, but so expressive. And then 2) the scene where he tells Edie about his involvement.

    Great, great piece of film-making all-around.

    1. I agree, Joel and thanks. The entire ON THE WATERFRONT is a lesson in acting. Superb from beginning to end. And we can discuss it forever, which is why I’m sure at some point I’ll be compelled to post something else about it. But that’s why we love these films.


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