By John H. Foote
After the Method swept through New York, film actors began studying the system and the results were apparent on screen. More than ever, acting was at a peak for realism from actors such as Marlon Brando, Joanne Woodward, and Paul Newman. James Dean claimed to be hardcore Method but was instead controlled by Lee Strasberg who made it his mission to make his student entirely dependent on his influence. Kazan asked that his actors find their character in the text, not their own past, which he considered dangerous. What good is having an actor dredge up their past to emote on stage? Sure, thinking about a dead aunt or dying dog might help you cry on stage, but eventually the tears dry up. What happens if the tears will not come on the day of the scene? Or worse, what happens if the actor is not ready to deal with emotions he or she is being asked to explore from their past? That can bring about a whole other series of problems.
Acting evolved in the 50’s, leading to some of the most extraordinary performances in the history of the cinema. Along with the striking realism of Brando came exciting work from Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Joanne Woodward, Elizabeth Taylor, and countless others.
What I found personally exciting was the commitment to realism. The actors might not have been interested in the Method or learning the system, but they did commit to greater authenticity in their work. Through the 50s you can see the greater depth in the work of Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Ernest Borgnine, and many others. The 50s cinema was often beautifully directed by the likes of realists Eliza Kazan and George Stevens. John Ford’s westerns became darker, especially The Searchers (1956), and the performances aligned with that change.
The best 10 (plus one, a tie) of them are below.
1. MARLON BRANDO IN ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) — Astounding, astonishing, breathtaking were just some of the superlatives used to describe Marlon Brando’s stunning performance as Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan’s greatest work. With a dreamy look in his eyes, Brando portrays an ex-boxer who now works on the docks for the mob, a cushy job provided he does what he is told. But when he is unwittingly used in a murder, and meets the dead man’s distraught sister, he begins to see things differently. Asked to testify against the powerful yet corrupt men he knows, he is conflicted because his brother is the lawyer for the mob on the docks. Slowly it dawns on him in one of the greatest acted scenes of all time, that his brother was responsible for the end of his boxing career, asking him to take a dive. The film is truly astounding, and Brando is galvanizing throughout. Not a flaw in it, and he is surrounded by greats at the top of their game. The film won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture. And yes, Brando won his first Oscar after three consecutive nominations.
2. GLORIA SWANSON IN SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) — The silent screen great came back to the movies to portray a demented silent screen star, Norma Desmond, lost in the past, who has deluded herself into think she has a comeback set up at the studio. Into her world rolls Joe (William Holden), a young writer on the run from bill collectors, who Norma allows to stay provided he works on her Salome screenplay. She takes him into her life and yes into her bed. The longer he is with her, the more he sees the madness. When she breaks and goes into full insanity, she kills him, and when the police come with news cameras, she descends the staircase as though she is making her long-awaited comeback, setting up for her close up. As the camera closes in, we see that she is gone, and madness has taken over. Swanson was superb, giving one of the greatest performances ever by an actress. I still wonder how she lost the Oscar.
3. MARLON BRANDO IN A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951) — For his second film, Brando chooses the role of Stanley Kowalski. After a long Broadway run in which he altered the course of American acting, Brando teamed up with Elia Kazan, the play’s director, and all but one of the stage cast for the film production. Jessica Tandy, the actress who played Blanche DuBois on stage, was not a box office name, and the studio cast Vivien Leigh instead who became a perfect and haunting foil to Brando’s Stanley. Initially brutish, Stanley is prepared to like Blanche. He certainly gives her a chance but sees right through her lies and deception. As he rapes her, he hisses, “We’ve had this date from the beginning,” sending her into insanity and far away from her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter). Brando was electrifying, but the entire cast was absolute perfection. A superb ensemble, with Brando and Leigh highlights. Any actor to ever play this role stands in the formidable shadow of Brando.
4. VIVIEN LEIGH IN A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951) — Her broken Blanche could be Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara years later, a shell of the strong woman she once was. Leigh was heartbreaking as Blanche, a sad devastated woman driven to nymphomania by the rejection of so many men, including the man she so loved, a homosexual which gutted her. She preys now on young boys, her do not reject her, but her brother-in-law Stanley sees right through her. No longer the wealthy Southern belle she was in her youth, she is now just a sad, aging woman with an addiction to sex. Stanley shatters her in so many ways, it is heartbreaking to see. Leigh captures every broken nuance of the character. Others have portrayed the part, some have been very good, Ann-Margret and Jessica Lange among them, but Leigh owns the role.
5. JOHN WAYNE IN THE SEARCHERS (1956) — As the towering Ethan Edwards, Wayne plays a hate-filled racist storming across the landscape of the Old West to his brother’s farm. When Native Indians massacre his brother and his family, kidnapping the two daughters, Ethan gives chase. The Natives have no idea what they have unleashed. Hell is chasing them, and hell will find them. Wayne has never portrayed such a character before, one consumed with hatred, and he never would again. Those working on the film said, “You looked into his eyes and saw the meanest, most vicious man you could encounter.” He chases after his nieces for years: the older one they find raped and butchered; it soon becomes apparent he no longer wishes to bring the remaining sister home. His plan is to kill her, but when he finds her, he can’t follow through. The sight of her, his last family member, overwhelms him. He lifts her high above his head, scoops her into his arms, and whispers, “Let’s go home Debbie.” We instantly love the man we feared and hated. Oscar? Not even a nomination. Shameful.
6. BETTE DAVIS IN ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) — “Fasten your seatbelts, we’re in for a bumpy night” spits Margo Channing (Davis) in this superb film about the inner workings of the theatre world. A major stage star, Channing takes under her wing the treacherous Eve (Anne Baxter) who, like a snake, slips into Margo’s world and takes over where Margo had once reigned. Watching Davis seethe is frightening; she clearly has murder in her eyes in this superb performance, easily the finest of her career. Never a victim, the wheels never stop turning in Margo’s head, unbeknownst to Eve. Never mess with a leading lady as they protect their turf. Margo might hide it better, but she is equally venomous through and through.
7. KIRK DOUGLAS IN ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) — When Kirk Douglas threw himself into a role, he could be a fearsome character, radiating danger, menace, and a frightening presence. He reminded me of a clenched muscle throughout this film, moving on sheer testosterone as he manipulates a dangerous news story to his own advantage. When a man becomes trapped in a deep cave, Tatum (Douglas), a disgraced newsman, plays all those involved to draw the story out, letting it get national attention while he deliberately delays the rescue and seduces the vile wife of the poor man. They both know the man will die if a rescue isn’t imminent but continue with the delay regardless hoping to profit from the prolonged story. Tatum is an intensely dislikable character, which Douglas had the courage to see through to the bitter end. A vicious, uncompromising film.
8. KATHERINE HEPBURN IN SUMMERTIME (1955) — Katherine Hepburn was never a classic beauty, but she could be radiant on screen. Much of her beauty came from within—her intellect, her humanity, and her love of life. When on her game, which was most of the time, she was a formidable talent. She would continue her incredible run of great performances into the 60s, but she was at her peak here as the spinster teacher. What a magnificent performance this is. After saving her money to take a long-desired trip to Venice, the melancholy on Hepburn’s face seeing the hand-holding lovers around the old city is heartbreaking. But when a man begins to pay attention to her, she blossoms like a rose, only to realize he is married with children, and much of what he says is suspect. Still, she falls for him, knowing in her heart it cannot last. She leaves before she gets in any deeper. Hepburn is truly brilliant here, excellent as the plain Jane in Venice who, sparkles under the spell of love. David Lean directed this film and the pair loved working together. It shows in every frame. She might have had one or two performances that matched this one.
9. JUDY GARLAND IN A STAR IS BORN (1954) — Though massively talented, I was never sure of just how great an actress Judy Garland truly was. She was good, but was she great? Of course, she could sing, and she seemed to come alive during song, but could she carry a drama? Yes, indeed she could. The problem was she was not often given the chance. Remember the scene in The Wizard of Oz (1939) where she is trapped in the witch’s castle and as the sands of the hourglass fall, she realizes she is going to die? She carries the heartache and fear in the scene superbly. In the second remake of A Star is Born (remember there have been four versions), Garland was superb, carrying the film on her slender shoulders with an astonishing performance. As Vicki Lester, a rising star, she must deal with a drunken husband, threatening her climb to fame. But he is beginning to drag her down, and she might not see it, but she feels it. Garland was nominated for an Academy Award for this performance and richly deserved to win but did not. Why? Who knows? A few years later she was brilliant again in Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) in a small role that, along with Montgomery Clift, stole the film. A remarkable talent that Hollywood did not know what to do with.
10. (tie) – ANDY GRIFFITH IN A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957) — The first time I saw this film I was stunned, as in blown away, knocked out. Like most of you, I knew of Andy Griffith as Andy, the likable Sherriff of Mayberry, widowed father to Opie (Ron Howard), the decent, wise man of the town. As Lonesome Rhodes, a sly conman created by the man himself and the media around him, he was alarming, frightening and positively brilliant. As a drunk pulled out of the drunk tank, his singing talent recognized and supported, he very quickly becomes a major star. He speaks out about the state of things in the United States and people listen. They believe him! With radio and television loving him, he becomes drunk with power. Realizing he must be stopped, a microphone is turned on as he is ranting about the American people, disparaging them as stupid sheep. Overnight, he is ruined. Griffith dominated every frame of this powerful Kazan-directed film and deserved to win the Academy Award which might have sent him down a very nice career path. One of the greatest non-nominated performances ever given.
10. (tie) – MARILYN MONROE IN SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) — They say her greatest role was playing Marilyn Monroe and that might be true. Yet she portrayed a variation on her personality in this film and was never better. Funny, vulnerable, sexy, she was wonderful, despite Tony Curtis’s insistence “she was like kissing Hitler.” Not sure how he would know that so I will let it go. She was terrific, moving into a scene with all her parts moving in the right way, arousing any man in the audience and likely some women too. One critic described her as “sex incarnate” and he might have been right. Widely acclaimed as one of the greatest comedies ever made, we are in on the joke that Curtis and Jack Lemmon are disguised as women to hide from the mob after they witness a mob killing. Hiding in an all-girl band, they stuck out like sore thumbs, but we go along because it is funny. Their sham is even more obvious when standing next to Sugar, the ultimate woman. The lady got little respect until after she was gone.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.