Wednesday, 29 June 2011

On Any Other Year: Marlon Brando vs. Humphrey Bogart

Two very different actors. Two very different shows of masculinity.

As I have written about before, the 1952 Academy Awards saw The African Queen and A Streetcar Named Desire facing off against each other - great films with very different content and a great deal of parallels to be drawn, not least in the performances of the films' stars.

The Best Actress category had seen Vivien Leigh and Katharine Hepburn facing off for the top prize, but the remarkable thing about Streetcar and The African Queen is that their greatest strengths come from the interplay between leading lady and leading man. As strong as Leigh and Hepburn were in these films, their performances would have been diminished without a strong, male sparring partner to face off against, and vice versa. For both films to work, a very special chemistry was required between their stars. That is exactly what we got.

Just as Leigh had put in a landmark performance in Streetcar, Marlon Brando matched her as the repugnant yet compelling Stanley Kowalski. It is surprisingly rare to see a star born over the course of a single film, but for Brando, an unknown in one of his very first films, it was a performance that set him on the road to becoming one of the greatest actors ever to live. Brutal, manipulative and charismatic, Brando perfectly captured a deceptively complex character - a man that has an almost hypnotic hold over his mistreated wife Stella. His routine life is turned on its head by the arrival of the disapproving Blanche DuBois.

It is the chemistry between Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando that makes this film such a brilliant adaptation. The sexual charge behind their exchanges bubbles under the surface as they display their contempt towards each other - elegant femininity contrasted with raw animalism. In all their scenes, a sense of impending dread that something is going to go horribly wrong between the two of them builds. Those who know the play will, of course, know something will go wrong, but the tension developed by Brando and Leigh is a remarkable display of acting talent.

For Leigh, this meant Oscar glory, but Brando was to (unfairly, in my view) miss out. Standing in his way was the legendary Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart was a man in transition. He was, perhaps, two old to hold the role of traditional, dashing leading man. He always had a world weary air about him but, now in his 50's, Bogart was crying out for a role that took the idea of a mature, grizzled man who was been there and done that, and just roll with it. The African Queen  was just such a roll.

It is impossible for Bogart not to be charming, but the character of Charlie Allnut was a world away from Phillip Marlowe or Rick Blaine. The gin swilling and the cynicism are familiar character traits, but Allnut is Blaine without the hope or kindness; a slob who has all but given up on himself. Grumpy to the point of being cruel, Bogart pushes his traditional image to its limits in his early exchanges with Hepburn in the film. But, as with so many films from this era, it takes the love of a good woman to turn him around.

The chemistry between Hepburn and Bogart is perfect. Nowhere near as intense and combustible as Leigh and Brando, Charlie and Rose's chemistry is reluctant, moving slowly from intense dislike to mutual respect and, finally, to pure attraction. It could more or less write the rulebook for the love-hate relationship - something that Hepburn and Bogart were used to, but perfected alongside each other.

Brando should have won this particular showdown, but on any other year, Bogart would have walked this award without a problem.

On Any Other Year will return to examine the Best Actor category once again, and the 1963 competition between Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird and Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.

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  1. Marlon brando is the best actor ever, nice analsyis though :D

  2. I think Brando should have won as well, and I love Bogart, but he had many better roles than The African Queen. He definitely won because the academy felt bad about not giving it to him for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre