Friday, September 17, 2010

Stamping a Role.

I'm reading Karl Malden's autobiography, When Do I Start, right now.  A great, no-nonsense piece of writing about what it was like in the forties and fifties in NY when he was struggling as an actor.  Malden was in the epicenter of the whole Method movement in the city at that time.  He hobnobbed with a generation of actors, writers, directors and designers that literally changed theatre in this country.

I always liked Malden as an actor.  A very 'no frills' approach to his work.  He did, of course, Streetcar Named Desire (which he says is the finest American play ever written) for two years on Broadway with Brando, Jessica Tandy and Kim Hunter.  He also, a couple of years later, did the movie with Kazan and ended up nabbing an Oscar for it.

He writes a lot of really interesting things in his book, one of which is something I've often said throughout the years.  He rhetorically asks why anyone would want to do the role of Stanley Kowalski after Brando did it.  He says Brando stamped the role irrevocably and that anyone doing it afterwards would inevitably pale in comparison.  I agree.  There are a few, not many, roles like that in our American Theatrical Canon.  That is one.  Another I've always felt that way about is George in Sunday in the Park with George.  Patinkin simply stamped it.  Another is Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.  It was not originally a play, but Peck becomes Atticus so completely in our collective mind's eye in the film, that it's difficult if not impossible to see someone else do it on stage.  I did the play myself in Virginia some years ago and the actor, while very good, playing Atticus simply couldn't live up to that towering performance left by Peck.

I have a buddy of mine who says he can't watch Hamlet on stage anymore because he thinks Olivier stamped it for all time.  I disagree with that.  Shakespeare is too big to be stamped by a single actor, particularly Hamlet.  There are just too many possibilities in the role.  Richard III is another.  Just too many ways to go with it.

Sometimes a film adaptation of something will ruin it for actors forever after.  For me, not everyone mind you, but for me, The Producers is like that.  Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder have so perfectly matched those two chacracters in my mind that it's difficult to see anyone else do it onstage.  Although, I admit, Nathan Lane was extremely funny in the Broadway production.

If you've ever had a chance to see Bette Davis do Regina in The Little Foxes in the film adaptation of that very fine Lillian Hellman play, well, that's another example.  She is just wonderful in the role.  Tailor made.  Hard to see another actress do it now.

I've talked to some old-timers that feel that way about Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.  I don't feel that way, however.  Granted I never saw Cobb do it, of course, but I've seen some pretty amazing interpretations through the years, including but not limited to, Dustin Hoffman's version.  I understand George C. Scott was amazing in the role a few decades ago at Circle in the Square in NYC.  Would love to have seen that one.  Most recently we had Brian Dennehy do it at both the Goodman in Chicago and then later on Broadway, winning the Tony.  I thought it was an astounding performance.  But Willy Loman is too big for one actor.  It's like Hamlet in that sense.  Just too many possibilities there.

But what I like mostly about Malden's book is that he struggled so very hard early in his career.  From 1939 until about 1947 he, quite literally, was sometimes a starving artist.  A play here, a small part there, some radio work now and then.  He was right on the brink of extreme poverty and even homelessness for a long, long time.  And then he landed Streetcar.  Five years later he had an Oscar in his pocket. 

Another perfect day in the City of Angels.  I think I'll take a walk and look at the mountains.

See you tomorrow.