J. Paul Getty Museum, Photographs, Film, and Video

Portraits of Brute and Brood

“Never allow yourself to feel anything, because you always feel too much.” —Marlon Brando

“Only the gentle are ever really strong.” —James Dean

Beyond fitting, this weekend’s concluding film series What Becomes a Legend offers the increasingly rare opportunity to screen A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) in all their haunting glory. Only a few years apart, these two films succeeded in extracting moving-portraits (literally) of two men, iconic images of masculinity and rebellion—Marlon Brando and James Dean.

Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Photo: Photofest/Warner Bros. © Warner Bros.

Both films use an excellent cast and great, tragic storytelling to their best advantage—highlighting the insecurities of a damaged woman in a A Streetcar Named Desire and the never-ending disconnect between teens and their parents in Rebel Without a Cause. Yet the lone, overwhelming images lingering in our minds and culture are those of Brando’s Stanley Kowalski and Dean’s Jim Stark. Though it’s easy to group these two legendary portrayals into the same category now, they are perhaps better viewed in contrast with each other. Brando’s black-and-white performance harks back to the theater, while Dean’s colorful CinemaScope hints at the youth culture here to stay.

James Dean as Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

James Dean as Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Photo: Photofest/Warner Bros. © Warner Bros.

Brando’s Kowalski and Dean’s Stark are the yin and yang of postwar male angst. While the sweat-and-grease-covered Brando distracts himself from a pregnant wife and a complicated sister-in-law with card games and bowling lanes, the red-leather-jacketed Dean is forced into knife fights, racing stolen cars, and trying to make his parents understand. Even if they were to play the same roles, you quickly understand that Brando’s rough exterior is suffocating the child within, while Dean’s tender tendencies are holding back the desperate man inside, for a while at least. However, it’s still not that easy to simplify what these portrayals bring to the screen, “Brando the soul and Dean the heart” as some have described.

Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). © Warner Bros.

One thing no one can deny either of them is a raw, burning intensity, rarely seen in actors since. Brando balances brutish tactics with a seeping pain the audience can’t truly take in all at once. And Dean, despite the smoothness of his efforts in protecting others, cannot contain the despair that’s tearing him apart. Maybe these portrayals remain dear to us not because they’re trying to present a flawless ideal—far from it—but rather, because they are flawed…just like us. Though I’ll admit, few can make inner suffering look as good as they could. Time will tell how much longer Brando’s brute and Dean’s rebel will persist in our collective psyche.

James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). © Warner Bros.

The What Becomes a Legend film series complements the Getty Museum exhibitions Portraits of Renown: Photography and the Cult of Celebrity and Herb Ritts: L.A. Style. Other legends on view this weekend are Brigitte Bardot in And God Created Woman (1956) and Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock (1957) with lines such as “That ain’t tactics, honey…it’s just the beast in me.”

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