The Fugitive Kindness of Strangers

I had another look at The Fugitive Kind last night.

The film, which features Brando, Joanne Woodward, and Anna Magnani, and a script by Tennessee Williams and Meade Roberts, was a premeditated Method-movie made to order. Producers Martin Jurow and Richard Shepherd even went so far as to hire a large part of Elia Kazan’s crew from On the Waterfront, and to lead the charge into hyperrealism, the young director Sidney Lumet. He wasn’t Kazan, but he was New York and he was hot, and that was good enough United Artists.

“How interesting,” I thought. “I’m watching the Method transform from a movement into a franchise.” It may have been ten years after Streetcar, but as a good friend of mine once said, Hollywood is a slow whore.

But before I could get cynical, I thought, “Well, why not?” If one guy makes a product that works, the next guy is going to want to take a crack at it too. That’s America and – surprise, surprise – that’s the American picture business. Why should Tennessee Williams be exempt? Geniuses get hungry too.

It’s useful to watch The Fugitive Kind with this in mind. Knowing that the popularity of the Method played a fundamental part in the conception of the film helps to explain its excesses, which, if you go for them (as I did), you might consider a kind of High-Method. The yelling and sweating and expressionistic camera tricks read to me like a late-in-the-day revision, Method II: Strasberg’s Revenge. If you don’t go for it (as contemporary audiences didn’t), The Fugitive Kind just points you back to Kazan: in case you forgot, the picture says, don’t try this at home.

The only one in the picture who resists the emotional opulence is, shockingly, Brando himself. In fact, his style is so uncharacteristically subdued, it gives one the impression that it emerged in counterpoint to the work he was observing around him, almost as if he waited at a busy intersection, watching as his production ran off into traffic, before he decided to follow behind them, quite coolly, and at a measured pace. The result is Brando’s most low-key performance (until The Godfather), a salve to the hot lesions, and a reminder of how good he truly was, even when the knobs were turned down.

Franchises have been a part of Hollywood since its inception. But it’s harrowing to think yesterday’s cash cow sprung from a major advancement in the art of acting, a milestone. Today, Variety reports news from the production offices of 21 Jump Street.

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