Marlon Brando’s celebrated performance in Kazan’s On the Waterfront represents the other side of the coin – a performance that produces a bisexual reading by glorifying a feminized male.
Brando’s feminization of a male protagonist is most notable in the infamous glove scene where Malloy is situated on a playground scene talking with his romantic interest Edith. Malloy during his flirtation picks up a glove which Edith drops and slips it over his hand. This action signifies Brando’s willingness to don a female garment, effectively engaging in an act of cross-dressing and momentarily transforming his character into a type of transvestite; this signaled Brando’s disposition to engage in feminine behavior such as indulging in a character’s emotional turmoil which was uncharacteristic of male film stars during the Studio Era. Brando’s feminization of Terry Malloy is further emphasized by positions of the characters within the scene.
Malloy is seated on the swing while Edith remains in standing position; the stances of the characters in the scene allows the female lead to maintain the dominant position while Brando occupies a space of submission as he is forced to look up to Edith’s character. The differences in posture also serves another function. Edith in her possession of the dominant stance symbolizes a position of strength which is reinforced by the narrative as her character never wavers from the morally right position of opposing the local mafia.
Malloy’s character, however, spends the majority of the film oscillating between action and passivity as he struggles in defining himself against a patriarchal figure. As a washed out boxer who experiences a crisis of conscious after partaking in the assassination for the local mobster, Malloy is constantly torn between opposing the local mafia and doing nothing. This indecision illustrates the character’s vulnerability, a vulnerability that is not shed until the character’s indecision is resolved and his male identity is reaffirmed through the confrontation with the mob boss.
Brandon’s acting style is commonly referred to as Method acting. Method acting was fashioned after Lee Strasberg and emphasized actors becoming the role by reliving their own experiences and substituting their emotions for the emotions of the characters in order to give realist performance. However, defining method acting is problematic best; indeed, the phrase method acting has become an umbrella term to describe a vast assortment of performances styles which premiered during the heyday of the Actor’s Studio. Method acting was heralded by the media as a new acting style simply because the rhetoric of film performances had changed.
The Method was held up as the first real acting style which could be studied but as Cynthia Baron argues, the Method, which actually has three main variations, was not altogether different than the Hollywood studio era. Brando, himself, is a Method actor, but his performance differs than Strasberg’s. Brando’s mentor, Stella Alder, was student of Strasberg but her performance technique emphasized script analysis and creative imagination rather than emotional memory.
Under Alder, the script provided the basis for character building and the actor simply had to delve into the fictional world that script provided. Alder’s influence is clearly visible in Brando’s portrayal as Malloy. Brando speaks with a thick accent, pausing consistently in his dialogue with other characters; this conveys the character’s muddled state of mind, illustrating the character’s inner struggle with conscious through Malloy’s lack of articulation. His inability to communicate gradually improves as his character arch progresses, culminating in the infamous ‘contenda’ speech.
Brando’s brooding expression, which is punctuated by makeup, and physical posture are also indicative of a method performance. Brando’s bulky body weight alludes to his history as a boxer. Yet, the masculine power typically associated with his character’s former profession is diminished by his tendency to slouch. This posture choice adds to his character’s lack of domination as it allows other actors, particularly the gregarious mob boss to tower over him. Like his speech, his posture slightly improves as his character transitions from a state of indecisive adolescence to hero, rebelling against the local mob.
The Verdict: A Classic For A Reason