Brando’s Feminine Side

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“You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.” Those words, spoken by washed-up prizefighter Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) to his mob-connected brother Charley (Rod Steiger) in Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront, are among the most famous in American cinema. Brando liked to claim the contender scene was improvised, but writer Budd Schulberg’s original shooting script shows the words were spoken exactly as written. But Brando did show his improvisational prowess in On the Waterfront in a beautifully touching boy-meets-girl scene that includes an accidentally dropped white glove. When Malloy, who oozes testosterone, pulls a delicate glove over his beefy hand, he reveals a feminine vulnerability that proves to be his salvation.

According to film historian David Thomson, Brando “was so beautiful he altered our idea of maleness.”

Director Elia Kazan cast Eva Marie Saint as the virginal Edie Doyle in On the Waterfront after testing the sexual chemistry between the actress and Brando. Saint remembers Kazan “whispered to me, ‘Eva Marie, you’re home alone, and your sister’s boyfriend is coming. Do not let him in the house.’ So here comes adorable Marlon, knocking on my make-believe door…and somehow he got in the room…he put the radio on, and we started dancing. The sparks just flew.” The sparks between Brando and Saint continued to fly during the freezing location shoot in Hoboken, New Jersey. Edie Doyle does not know Terry Malloy was involved in the death of her brother Joey. Alone in a public park Terry assures Edie, “You don’t have to be afraid of me. I ain’t gonna bite ya.” When Edie drops her white glove, Malloy scoops it off the ground.

As Kazan remembers it, “I didn’t direct that; it happened.” Brando pulls at and plays with the glove, symbolically peeling away his brutish exterior. Unexpectedly, he puts her glove on his own hand. What other actor would make that choice? Suddenly Terry is all raw helplessness. He wants, he needs this girl. Terry asks Edie, “You don’t remember me do ya?” She replies, “I remembered you the first moment I saw you.” The sexual tension that began with the white glove climaxes with Malloy, channeling his inner Stanley Kowalski, breaking down Edie’s apartment door. “You love me Edie!” he shouts. But in a softer voice he tenderly pleads, “I want you to say it to me…I want you to say it to me.” Malloy knows her love is his only chance at redemption.

Malloy rejects the traditional male code of silence—“Deaf and dumb. We don’t rat”—and testifies against the crooked union leaders. R. Barton Palmer, writing in Larger Than Life: Movie Stars of the 1950s, notes the box office success of On the Waterfront “flowed from Brando’s ability to project a sexual openness that seems to know no gender.” James Dean, Richard Gere, Johnny Depp, Ryan Gosling and James Franco have all built on the fluid sexuality of the bad-boy persona Brando introduced in Waterfront. According to film historian David Thomson, Brando “was so beautiful he altered our idea of maleness.”

This year marks the 60th anniversary of On the Waterfront, and it would have also been the year Marlon Brando turned 90. Eva Maria Saint, who turned 90 this month, remembers him as the “finest actor I’ve ever worked with. And what a great-looking guy! I think it’s one of the saddest things that ever happened in our profession when Marlon lost the joy of acting.”

Photo courtesy of Everett

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