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Marlon Brando will forever be associated with the T-shirt he wears throughout most of A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s an image that crawled into my head some years ago and refused to leave. Brando wears that T-shirt like a second skin, the outer layer that helped him get inside the brutish Stanley Kowalski. And he got so close that his Stanley is a pivotal performance in the history of film acting, dividing it sharply into two chapters – before and after Brando.

I was 17 the first time I saw Brando in that T-shirt. I only had a vague outline of him from some photos in coffee table books, and from The Godfather, but it wasn’t until my final year of high school that it was filled in when we were studying A Streetcar Named Desire in my Literature class. We had been reading the play and my teacher, Mr W, screened the 1984 made-for-television film starring Treat Williams as Stanley and Ann-Margret as Blanche DuBois. I remembered that my parents, great lovers of the classics, had recorded the 1951 film directed by Elia Kazan from Bill Collins’ Golden Years of Hollywood one Saturday night. I hadn’t seen it yet, so I suggested to Mr W that I bring it to class so we could contrast it with the other film. He declined.

I wonder now, whether Mr W knew something I didn’t when he chose the other film for the classroom. Did he worry that the sight of Brando in that T-shirt might prove too much for his mostly female cohort to handle? Did letting Brando loose in our suburban classroom mean unleashing an exhilarating mix of sexual allure and danger? Things could get out of hand.

When I finally watched it, in the privacy of my own home, Brando’s performance was a revelation to me. While Williams spent much of his time on screen shirtless, his acting is unnatural and contrived, as though trying to achieve Brando’s intensity and falling short. As I grew up and my film viewing took on prolific proportions, I knew that there was no comparison between the two. The initial shock of seeing Brando in that tight T-shirt was actually the realisation that I had never seen anything like him before – here was a man who seemed to be living a part, not just performing it.

Stanley Kowalski remains one of Brando’s most iconic roles (he first performed it on Broadway, with Kazan as director). It is a performance in which he held nothing back, and which effectively introduced the American film-going public to Stanislavski’s Method acting. And, for better or worse, every performance of Stanley Kowalski since Brando’s has taken place in the shadow of its incandescent flame.

Of course, I also had a little crush. Brando at 27 was beautiful, sexy and masculine. Not much like high school boys. As many others have noted, in his prime, Brando had the face of a poet (dark, soulful eyes, sensual lips) and the body of a prize fighter (taut, compact, muscular). And no matter what he was wearing, he was an actor you simply couldn’t take your eyes off. He dominated all spaces; Kazan was said to have remarked: ‘It’s like he’s carrying his own spotlight.’

In Streetcar that spotlight is firmly on his torso. His T-shirt became more than just a T-shirt – it’s an object that signals a cultural shift as well as a challenge to ideas about masculinity in post-war America.

While T-shirts are a simple item of clothing today, worn by everyone on all occasions, they were once worn only by men and strictly as undergarments. The T-shirt emerged from the 19th-century, one-piece long underwear known as the union suit. It was issued to troops in the Spanish American War (1898) as a cooler alternative to the collared shirt and in the early 20th century it remained popular with Marines stationed in warmer climates. During the Great Depression farmers wore them in place of the button-up shirt, and by the end of World War II it was a common item of casual clothing for returned servicemen.

By the time James Dean wore a T-shirt in Rebel Without a Cause it was the uniform of teenagers all across America and Europe, becoming part of a dress code that heralded the loosening of social conventions and the wearer as a rebel against old values.

streetcarBrando’s T-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire marked the garment’s first appearance as outerwear in an American film, giving the impression that he was always undressed. As film costume, it leaves the performer nowhere to hide. Brando’s T-shirts in Streetcar are notable for their fit – they are very tight. They were made specifically for Brando; the film’s costume team washed, shrank and sewed them down the back to achieve the desired look. The result for the audience was a new way of looking at the male body on screen – released from the constraints of formal clothing it was now an object of consumption, of pleasure and desire, subject to the sexualised gaze of the audience.

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In his first real scene in Streetcar, Stanley is prowling around his steamy New Orleans apartment after a session at the bowling alley. Blanche (Vivien Leigh) has seen him earlier, from a distance, when Stella (Kim Hunter) gushed about how ‘wonderful looking’ he is, but it’s the first time he lays his hungry eyes on her. And rather than adhere to a sense of propriety, he’s completely unselfconscious, removing his jacket to reveal a T-shirt plastered with sweat. It’s stretched tight across his shoulders and sits high on his arms. Not an inch of fabric is wasted. Stanley asks, ‘Hey, you mind if I make myself comfortable. My shirt’s sticking to me.’

When he peels it off there’s a pause. He bends over to get a new one, his back muscles ripple and he turns to face the camera and Blanche, before he puts on an identical, clean shirt. She’s visibly unnerved – by making himself Brando in comfortable, Stanley has made Blanche uncomfortable. Compromises were made in Streetcar’s original script, after a number of elements did not meet the standards of the 1950s Production Code. Some changes saw the toning down of the overt sexual content. Fearing a boycott by the Catholic Legion of Decency, Warner Bros made further edits to the finished film before it opened in cinemas, without informing Kazan. Most of these changes centred on dialogue that alluded to sex, as well as reconfiguring the staircase scene in which Stella returns to Stanley after they fight. All evidence of Stella’s lust was removed. (A restored version of the film was released in 1993, and it’s the restored version of this scene to which I refer below.)

Throughout the 1950s, America was happily prosperous in the post-war boom. But beneath the surface tension simmers everywhere, especially around sex and sexuality, ready to erupt and disrupt the utopian façade of suburban life. It’s there in films like All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Picnic (1955) and in Marilyn Monroe’s curves threatening to burst the seams of her dresses. And it’s there when Brando’s body escapes from his T-shirt to expose the stifling conformity and puritanical morality of the period. It’s a surprise to me then that the censors didn’t add ‘loosen Brando’s T-shirt’ to their list of demands.

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Brando’s T-shirt in Streetcar, as an object that focuses our attention on the body and movement of the actor, also provides a window into Method acting. If the wearing of a T-shirt on screen sexualises the body and strips a character down to its internal core, what we know as the Method can also be credited with stripping much of the gloss and artifice from the classical acting tradition, encouraging a move towards more lifelike performances. The Method demands the ‘wearing’ of character like a second skin, like a T-shirt, so close to the actor that one becomes indistinguishable from the other.

Where the classical style embodied by Gary Cooper, Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart is stiff and stylised and typified by the feeling that you can always see the actor within the character, with the Method the space between actor and character breaks down. The Method is a technique where the primary vehicle for storytelling is the body. It’s not difficult to see how an item as simple and unobtrusive as a T-shirt might be integral to this process if we understand character as being built from the inside out, requiring external elements to aid in expressing this internal truth. Such minutiae are central to many of the key Method performances of the 1950s, such as Montgomery Clift’s George Eastman in A Place in the Sun and James Dean’s Cal Trask in East of Eden.

But it is Brando again who bestows on an external prop the deep resonance of his character’s internal life, as he does as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. As his character walks with Eva Marie Saint’s character Edie, he picks up her dropped glove and plays with it, eventually putting it on his hand. As we now know, this was not in the script. Brando interacted with the material within the scene in a sensitive way. He ‘behaved’ to reveal something quite important about Terry in a perfectly natural way – his nervousness; his vulnerability and his tender need for love.

Viewed as the highpoint of Method acting, Brando’s Stanley remains appealing today not only for its authenticity, but also for a carnality that pushed screen masculinity into unchartered territory. It’s this carnality, magnified through the costume that’s central to A Streetcar Named Desire’s most compelling and controversial moment: the ‘Stella’ staircase scene.

Brando gives us this scene with his body. Our eyes are focused on it, as he appears, his back bare, his T-shirt dramatically ripped by Stella during an earlier argument. He slinks outside his apartment at the bottom of the staircase that leads to Stella, who has taken refuge in the apartment upstairs. He’s contrite, seeking forgiveness, seeking his baby. He pulls at his hair, falls against the wall and eventually, when Stella appears, drops to his knees. It’s confronting and sexy and Brando makes it very easy to forget that Stanley has been a pig in the previous scene – drunk, argumentative and abusive. He presents this character’s sexuality with wonderful complexity – both overt and boyishly vulnerable. Even today, Brando in that torn, wet T-shirt is more arousing than most contemporary actors manage to be wearing far less.

Screaming out for Stella, this scene is the reason that Brando is often said to have changed the face of acting. His instincts, the lessons he learned from teacher Stella Adler, allow him to burn alive on the screen in ways that his co- stars (who are all exceptional) can only dream about. And Brando in the torn T-shirt is a symbol of the challenge he poses both culturally and cinematically – a striking visual contrast to the popular 1950s imagery of the man in the grey flannel suit. He’s alive, primitive and untameable; the opposite of that grey suits’ narrative of repression and control. Brando is Stanley, and while he’s on record saying that Stanley was everything he loathed in men, he so fully wears his skin that it’s difficult to see where actor and character begin and end.

I felt the same way watching Brando performing in another T-shirt, when I first watched arguably one of his last great performances – along with his Oscar-winning role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola) – as Paul in Last Tango in Paris (1972, Bernardo Bertolucci). Although the T-shirt is much looser this time around and the torso not so taut, the line between actor and character seems even less distinct. Brando doesn’t simply become Paul, but allows his own life to spill into the film. And if Streetcar reveals the triumph of the Method, Tango suggests its tragedy.

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In his late 40s when he made Tango, Brando was no longer a beautiful young man. Although softer around the belly, he remained an imposing figure, still carrying his own spotlight; older but still handsome.

Paul is an American living in Paris. We first meet him in the immediate wake of his wife’s suicide. He’s screaming for ‘fucking God’ under a bridge as a train roars overhead. Not long after, he tries to sort out the turmoil of his grief through a series of anonymous sexual encounters and intimate conversations in an apartment with Jeanne (Maria Schneider). With her, Paul tries to erase himself and start again.

Throughout Bertolucci’s film, Brando’s astonishing gifts are on show in all their ferocious glory. Wearing a version of Stanley’s T-shirt in the Paris flat, it’s now a symbol of the past – and it’s easy to make the connection from one very physical performance to the other. He is Paul just as he is Stanley, and he draws us in close and compels us to suffer along with him.

I felt distressed watching Last Tango in Paris, and awed. What was discomfiting wasn’t the often cruel nature of the sex between Paul and Jeanne, but the feeling that I wasn’t watching a fiction film so much as an act of self-revelation. There is more than just physical bareness in Last Tango in Paris.

In a pivotal scene, in which Brando wears a white T-shirt, the film takes the Method to its logical conclusion. Paul, shot in close up, rambles at length about his tough, drunk father and his poetic, drunk mother. But this is actually Brando sharing a story about his own life, excavating his past to create Paul’s. It’s just Brando in the scene (Schneider somewhere off camera asking occasional questions) and once again he has nowhere to hide. Improvised under Bertolucci’s direction, this scene effectively draws Brando’s real skin into Paul’s fictional one.

It’s not really a surprise that Brando said that the film emotionally destroyed him, that he resented this invasion and that he felt violated every day he was on set. A great Method actor to the end, Brando nevertheless agreed to ‘act out’ his personal history. A less harrowing example can be found in the charming scene when Paul talks to his dead wife’s lover, Marcel (Massimo Girotti). Paul wonders how Marcel maintains such thick hair (Brando was prematurely balding) and a trim stomach (Brando’s fluctuating weight is well documented) and says that he must have been very handsome twenty years ago. Marcel cheekily responds, ‘Not as much as you,’ drawing in Brando’s own mythology.

And yet there are other moments in Tango where Brando isn’t drawing on his own history, where his instincts are flawless and Paul feels no less real. He fills each scene, especially the wonderful tango ballroom scene near the film’s conclusion, with some internal truth. There’s sadness, playfulness, vulnerability, anger, kindness and despair. It’s the full spectrum of human emotion in all its splendid contradictions and Brando takes risks to show it all.

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In her ecstatic review for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael suggested that Last Tango in Paris was the most powerfully erotic and most liberating film ever made. I’m not so sure – but I’m glad I watched it as an adult, and not as a teenager back in my Literature class. And whatever it cost him, selfishly, I’m glad that we have this magnificent performance later in Brando’s career. As Paul, he tempts us to hate him, but it’s the honesty of his performance that creates a serious attachment. Just like it does in Streetcar.

In both films, there are no accents and no concealing prosthetics. There’s just Brando exposed, wearing another character like a tight T-shirt, like a second skin – tender, brutal and extraordinary.