On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan, and "The Method"

Elia Kazan is celebrated for his incredible talents as a director and the masterpieces he helped to create during his long (if controversial) career, but his main legacy as a director is his special knack for working with actors and his use of the famous "Method" technique in order to harness raw, realistic acting performances. Marlon Brando, the star of On the Waterfront as well as an earlier film of Kazan's, the screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, is the poster child of "the Method" to this day, and perfectly embodies the magnetic dynamism of the midcentury acting technique. Together, these two giants of the American stage and screen were able to revolutionize cinema and usher in a new era of cinema and drama. Elia Kazan's commitment to emotional authenticity is perhaps best encapsulated in his statement, “If you can stir up the real emotion—whether of anger or love or desire . . . if you can stir it up and use it, now you have something that’s unique or unusual, that’s what drama is.”

After graduating from Yale School of Drama, Elia Kazan moved to New York City and immediately began working with the Group Theatre, where he became acquainted with "the Method." Simply put, the Method was an acting training methodology that was derived from the teachings of the famous Russian acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavski, and emphasized the importance of the actor culling memories and emotional material from their own life experience in order to craft deeply-felt and authentically-realized performances. Lee Strasberg, one of the most famous pedagogues of "the Method" in America, was a member of the Group Theatre, and went on to succeed Elia Kazan as director of the Actors Studio, an acting studio that specialized in Method training. Kazan's training in the Method, and his belief that it allowed actors to immerse themselves in the inner lives of their characters, served him well as a theatre and film director. Foster Hirsch, a film historian, is quoted in an article about Kazan in The Los Angeles Times as saying, "the Method allowed for the actors to create a great depth of psychological realism. It just went deeper than acting had done before." Kazan believed that actors ought to mine their own experiences to create a greater intimacy with the viewer, to invite them in to their psychological landscape, no matter how difficult or emotionally intense.

Marlon Brando became the quintessential Method actor, and first cut his teeth in the style with Kazan in his work as Stanley Kowalski in both the Broadway and the film versions of A Streetcar Named Desire. Having studied with the great Method teacher, Stella Adler, as a young actor in New York City, Brando was highly proficient at bringing his deepest, truest self to his stage and screen performances. His intimacy with his characters was complemented by Kazan's commitment to his actors' craft. Marlon Brando once said of Kazan, “Kazan was the best actors’ director by far of any I’ve worked for. [He] got into a part with me and virtually acted it with me.” Kazan fought for Brando to play Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, believing that he was perfect to play the complex hero of the longshoremen. What resulted was the performance that would catapult Brando into an ambivalently held fame, one of the finest, most nuanced screen performances of all time. Brando allegedly could not even sit through the film because he hated his performance so much, but this seems almost unimaginable when one watches On the Waterfront.