It used to be said that great clowns, like Chaplin, always wanted to play
Hamlet, but what happens in this country is that our Hamlets, like John
Barrymore, turn into buffoons, shamelessly, pathetically mocking their public
reputations. Bette Davis has made herself lovable by turning herself into a
caricature of a harpy—just what, in one of her last good roles, as Margo
Channing in All About Eve, she feared she was becoming. The women who were the
biggest stars of the forties are either retired, semi-retired, or, like Davis,
Crawford, and DeHavilland, have become the mad queens of Grand Guignol in the
sixties, grotesques and comics, sometimes inadvertently.
Marlon Brando's career indicates the new speed of these processes. Brando, our
most powerfuI young screen actor, the only one who suggested tragic force, the
major protagonist of contemporary American themes in the fifties, is already a
I mean by protagonist the hero who really strikes a nerve—not a Cary Grant who
delights with his finesse, nor mushy heart-warmers like Gary Cooper and James
Stewart with their blubbering sincerity (sometimes it seemed that the taller
the man, the smaller he pretended to be; that was his notion being "ordinary"
and "universal" and "real") but men whose intensity on the screen stirs an
intense reaction in the audience. Not Gregory Peck or Tyrone Power or Robert
Taylor with their conventional routine heroics, but James Cagney or Edward G.
Robinson in the gangster films, John Garfield in the Depression movies, Kirk
Douglas as a post-war heel. These men are not necessarily better actors, but
through the accidents of casting and circumstances or because of what they
themselves embodied or projected, they meant something important to us. A
brilliant actor like Jason Robards, Jr., may never become a protagonist of this
kind unless he gets a role in which he embodies something new and relevant to
Protagonists are always loners, almost by definition. The big one to survive
the war was the Bogart figure—the man with a code (moral, aesthetic,
chivalrous) in a corrupt society. He had, so to speak, inside knowledge of the
nature of the enemy. He was a sophisticated, urban version of the Westerner
who, classically, knew both sides of the law and was tough enough to go his own
way and yet, romantically, still do right.
Brando represented a reaction against the post-war mania for security. As a
protagonist, the Brando of the early fifties had no code, only his instincts.
He was a development from the gangster leader and the outlaw. He was antisocial
because he knew society was crap; he was a hero to youth because he was strong
enough not to take the crap. (In England it was thought that The Wild One would
incite adolescents to violence.)
There was a sense of excitement, of danger in his presence, but perhaps his
special appeal was in a kind of simple conceit, the conceit of tough kids.
There was humor in it—swagger and arrogance that were vain and childish, and
somehow seemed very American. He was explosively dangerous without being
"serious" in the sense of having ideas. There was no theory, no cant in his
leadership. He didn't care about social position or a job or respectability,
and because he didn't care he was a big man; for what is less attractive, what
makes a man smaller, than his worrying about his status? Brando represented a
contemporary version of the free American.