Stanley and Clyde: The Changing of Masculinity in Films

This is an excerpt from a research paper I did for my class, Introduction to Masculinity, in which I was asked to write about masculinity in culture and its effects. So naturally I decided to write about masculinity in films, in particular two films, A Streetcar Name Desire and Bonnie and Clyde. Here is part of that paper in which I discuss Streetcar and Brando’s groundbreaking performance. Note: I don’t speak as much about the film itself as I usually do but instead the single importance of the Brando performance.

Although A Streetcar Name Desire is mostly remembered for introducing film audiences to Marlon Brando and in particular an acting style known as method-acting, its contribution to popular culture goes further with the way men could be seen sexually.   Prior to the release of A Streetcar Name Desire, male sexuality was more used in an unseen nature of sexual innuendos or longing glares at female counterparts.   How did this particular film change the presentation of men as sex symbols in later films? First, we must not pretend that male actors weren’t sexy or sexual before Streetcar but they weren’t presented as sexual objects in the manner that we see Marlon Brando. Male sexuality prior 1951 was bottled up or under strict control (mostly due to the “Hollywood Codes” that were governed by Motion Picture Production Code, which monitored and prevented any strong use of profanity, violence or sex in films). In Roger Ebert’s 1993 re-review of Streetcar, he discusses the lack of edginess to performances before Brando. He says, “Before this role, there was usually a certain restraint in American movie performances. Actors would portray violent emotions, but you could always sense to some degree a certain modesty that prevented them from displaying their feelings in raw nakedness.” The measure of a man’s sexuality such as Cary Grant was in how he wore a black suit, not in the way he looked without his shirt on.

Charm, style, and a winning smile were the best and only way to display male sexuality pre-Brando in his sweat-covered tank top.   In his classic performance of Stanley Kowalski, Brando is presented as the object of sexual desire, which we see him using his sculpted body to his advantage. In the most memorable scene in A Streetcar Name Desire (the Hey Stella! Scene). Stanley is beside himself after an abusive fight with his wife Stella, Stanley (Brando) is in agony, begging for Stella to return to him. He is screaming out to the heavens for her to come back home and in the scene his shirt his ripped showing Brando’s exposed back. Stella eventually comes out from hiding at her neighbor’s home to see her crying, begging husband. She begins to come towards him while he screams for forgiveness and she does so. Although it may appear that Stella returns to Stanley because he has apologized for hitting her, she has returned because she can’t refuse the sexual desire she has for him. This is made clear by Stella admittedly needing to rub Stanley’s exposed back, then kissing him.

Susan Bordo discusses in her book, The Male Body, which examines the history of masculinity in culture, how despite his villainous behavior in the film, Stanley and Marlon Brando became sex symbols, “However women viewers may have responded to the ending, they undoubtedly went away from the movie with a set of powerful images emblazoned on their sexual imaginations. That first shot of Brando, taking off his bowling jacket, revealing a wet clinging short-sleeved T-shirt stretched over the most beautiful male chest ever (pg.136).” Along with his physique being an obvious part of the sex appeal, his wardrobe as Stanley Kowalski was key to cementing the character and actor as part of the new era in masculinity. The simple wardrobe of tight blue jeans and tight white shirts would be a style that would forever be part of male culture, from greasers to hipsters. Again, Susan Bordo explains how revolutionary Brando’s performance in the film was in shaping masculinity in the 50’s and beyond saying, “Brando almost went crazy when he saw how he looked in the skintight shirt and jeans: “This is it! This is what I’ve always wanted!” he exulted. Not just Brando. Brando’s look in Streetcar, (shortly to be copied by James Dean, Paul Newman, and others) became the style for sexual macho in many gay male circles and a required uniform for many would be teen rebels (pg.138)” So with that, A Streetcar Name Desire importance in film history is not only due to the importance of the way actors perform but in how we can see men’s sexuality while speaking of their masculinity at the same time. Brando’s sexuality would change not only the mediate films of the 50’s and 60’s but now can be seen to have an effect on modern performances such as Michael Fassbender in the intensely animalistic sexual showing in the film Shame or Joaquin Phoenix role as an untamed man with little on his mind besides sex in The Master Ironically or perhaps unsurprisingly, if you know the history of Brando, he slowly tried to avoid being thought as the honking stud with his film choices after Streetcar and his eventual infamous weight gain during the filming of Apocalypse Now, 30 years after Streetcar was released.


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