Breaking Barriers: Dietrich and Brando in the Studio Era

The Studio Era, which spanned roughly from the late 1920s to the early 1960s (Baron), heralded a new age in cinematic history. Early cinema emphasized the spectacle of the performance such as those found in vaudeville productions and small skits, not the role of the actor (Jenkins 114). The advent of the close-up camera angle and an increased focus on narrative cohesion provided a pivotal shift in the relationship between the actor and the viewer (Hollinger 6), bridging the distance between the actor and the viewer. Increased visibility of the actor allowed for charismatic screen personas’ to cultivate fame; however, the idea that actors essentially played themselves was largely abandoned during the Studio Era as ostensive performances lost appeal in favor of more naturalistic acting styles (Baron). Thus, a greater emphasis was placed on actor training, creating a paradox for the film star.

Actors’ performances were expected to demonstrate realism regarding character behavior and interaction while the studios with the aid of the media turned film stars into commodities that could be mass produced. The studios invested in drama coaches, voice trainers, and script analyzers in an effort to turn stardom into an assembly line process, a process which reinforced gender stereotypes prevalent during the time period (Baron 18- 20). Starlets, as demonstrated through various press articles such as Life magazine, were reduced to nothing more than a glamourized image (Baron 21). Picture spreads revealed actresses throughout the entire assembly process, beginning with an actress without makeup and ending with a “film goddess” (Baron 22) as the finished product.

Therefore, natural beauty was no longer a requirement due to makeup, hair, and costume departments employed by the production studios, promulgating the myth that any woman could be a film sensation (Baron 22). Press releases related to male stars, however, emphasized their masculine power; male actors were shown learning how to become a boxer, a swordsman, or whatever action their character role required (Baron 23). Thus, the film industry functioned as a means to preserve the gender status quo. However, the performances of Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (Josef Von Sternberg 1930) and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan 1954) challenge this gender division, producing a bisexual appeal that highlights the uneasy tension of masculinity and femininity during the studio era.

Marlene Dietrich’s performance in Sternberg’s Morocco illustrates the paradox of the female film star during the Studio Era; her performance as Amy Jolly is a virtual balancing act of realism and illusion that subverts gender norms. Consider this early scene within the film – A crowded room filled with wealthy aristocrats and soldiers cheers as new talent takes the stage in a Moroccan performance house; the female entertainer dressed in a gentleman’s black coattails and top hat struts around the room, making her way to a table of admirers. The androgynous performer, played by Sternberg’s silver screen paramour- Dietrich, accentuates her calculated strides with intentional pauses, striking a pose to provide the camera with a profile image along the way.

She approaches the woman sitting at the table, a woman dressed elegantly in a jeweled white dress, providing a stark contrast to the performer’s black boyish ensemble. The singer asks in a pronounced slow drawl for the flower in the woman’s hair to which woman giggles and agrees in response as though the performer were a male suitor asking for a token of affection (Naremore). The singer takes the flower in hand to smell it briefly and then, with a mischievous glint and easy grace, bends down to kiss the woman – astonishing both the audience within the film and the viewer watching the film with her display of sexual independence.

In Sternberg’s Morocco, Dietrich is reduced to a fetishized image. Unlike other female film stars during the Studio Era, this ‘woman as image’ persona is completely intentional (Naremore) – providing a satirical commentary on the role of women both in the film industry and society in general. Dietrich’s acting performance is a self-conscious performance; her character uses her sexuality to garnish applause from the audience just as Dietrich uses the fetishized nature of the film image to enhance her star persona amongst the film viewer. Her performance is, thus, two-fold. The film’s lighting, costume choice, and makeup render Dietrich an extreme example of female glamour even as she is dressed in a man’s attire, thus allowing Dietrich to serve as both object and subject of the camera’s male gaze (Naremore).

With her performance scene, she is an object of male sexual desire as demonstrated by longing gazes of both Monsieur La Bessiere and Legionnaire Tom Brown whom both vie for her affection throughout the film’s narrative (Naremore); she is also the sexual aggressor. In her pursuit of Tom Brown, she initiates the first contact, giving him the flower which she takes from the woman; indeed the early interaction with between Brown, played by Gary Cooper, and Jolly presents an inversion of traditional heterosexual coupling, a theme within the film that serves primarily to restrain subversive elements of Dietrich’s performance (Naremore).

Rather than have Brown approach Jolly, he is framed as the passive recipient of the flower, symbol of courtship, which he then places behind his ear in much the same way as a flattered woman would accept a man’s gift. Thus, the film reverses the roles of man and woman, playing up Dietrich’s masculinity and effectively feminizing Cooper (Naremore). Throughout her courtship with both men in the film, Dietrich remains an active participant, particularly regarding the performance of Menjou who often serves as double for the film viewer – looking on Dietrich with blatant admiration but lacking the ability to touch her (Naremore).

Dietrich’s gender-bending performance highlights the artificial nature of cinema; her acting style is characteristic of what Brewster and Jacobs refer to as the pictorial style, a style which constitutes a blend of stereotyped postures, typically leading up to a dramatic moment, and naturalistic elements typically found in films emphasizing narrative cohesion (Brewster and Jacobs 69-70). The pictorial style of acting theorizes that certain narrative situations have more pronounced poses and gestures than others (71); this is illustrated the first romantic interlude between Dietrich and Cooper where the couple shares a kiss. The kiss is not shown to the viewer but is instead hidden by a hand fan which Cooper holds in front of them. However, the slant and movement of her arm, which is an overt action even for Dietrich, during the kiss conveys the sexual heat of the moment (Naremore).

The pictorial style also suggests that certain genres such as drama films use more pronounced poses than others (Brewster and Jacobs 71). Dietrich’s performance in Morocco, a film which utilizes the conventions of drama, also fits this criterion. Dietrich’s deliberate use of ostensive poses and striking profiles for the camera, calls attention to the fact that she is, indeed, acting. Her gestures are stiff and poised as though she were modeling for a photographer or painter rather than acting as an agent of narrative within a film (Naremore). Dietrich’s slow pausing during the delivery of dialogue also adds to the presentational nature of her performance (Naremore). Yet, Dietrich is not just playing herself like the ostensive actors who characterize the pre-studio era; she is creating an illusion – deliberately “showing off” (Naremore) her exotic image which flouts sexual appeal. This glamorous portrayal serves to reinforce the romance of the narrative, depicting the sophisticated signer willing to give up everything to be with an average man like Brown (Naremore).

If Marlene Dietrich’s performance as Amy Jolly threatened the established gender roles by providing a satire of the fetishized image of the female film star during Studio Era, Marlon Brando’s celebrated performance in Kazan’s On the Waterfront represents the other side of the coin – a performance that produces a bisexual reading by glorifying a feminized male (Naremore). Brando’s feminization of a male protagonist is most notable in the infamous glove scene where Malloy is situated on a playground scene talking with his romantic interest Edie (Naremore). Malloy during his flirtation picks up a glove which Edie drops and slips it over his hand.

This action signifies Brando’s willingness to don a female garment, effectively engaging in an act of cross-dressing and momentarily transforming his character into a type of transvestite (Naremore); this signaled Brando’s disposition to engage in feminine behavior such as indulging in a character’s emotional turmoil which was uncharacteristic of male film stars during the Studio Era (Wexman 135). Brando’s feminization of Terry Malloy is further emphasized by positions of the characters within the scene (Naremore). Malloy is seated on the swing while Edie remains in standing position; the stances of the characters in the scene allows the female lead to maintain the dominant position while Brando occupies a space of submission as he is forced to look up to Edie’s character (Naremore).

The differences in posture also serve another function. Edie in her possession of the dominant stance symbolizes a position of strength which is reinforced by the narrative as her character never waivers from the morally right position of opposing the local mafia (Naremore).  Malloy’s character, however, spends the majority of the film oscillating between action and passivity as he struggles in defining himself against a patriarchal figure (Wexman 134). As a washed out boxer who experiences a crisis of conscious after partaking in the assassination for the local mobster, Malloy is constantly torn between opposing the local mafia and doing nothing; this indecision illustrates the character’s vulnerability (Wexman 135), a vulnerability that is not shed until the character’s indecision is resolved and his male identity is reaffirmed through the confrontation with the mob boss.

Brandon’s acting style is commonly referred to as Method acting, an acting style fashioned after Lee Strasberg which emphasized actors becoming the role by reliving their own experiences and substituting their emotions for the emotions of the characters in order to give realist performance (Naremore). However, defining method acting is problematic best; indeed the phrase method acting has become an umbrella term to describe a vast assortment of performances styles which premiered during the heyday of the Actor’s Studio which was heralded by the media as a new acting style simply because the rhetoric of film performances had changed (Baron 24-25).

The Method was held up as the first real acting style which could be studied but as Cynthia Baron argues, the Method, which actually has three main variations, was not altogether different than the Hollywood studio era (Baron 25-26). Brando, himself, is a Method actor, but his performance differs than Strasberg’s. Brando’s mentor, Stella Alder, was a student of Strasberg but her performance technique emphasized script analysis and creative imagination rather than emotional memory (Baron 26-27). Under Alder, the script provided the basis for character building and the actor simply had to delve into the fictional world that script provided. Alder’s influence is clearly visible in Brando’s portrayal as Malloy (Baron 26). Brando speaks with a thick accent, pausing consistently in his dialogue with other characters; this conveys the character’s muddled state of mind, illustrating the character’s inner struggle with conscious through Malloy’s lack of articulation (Baron 26).

His inability to communicate gradually improves as his character arch progresses, culminating in the infamous ‘contenda’ speech (Naremore) Brando’s brooding expression, which is punctuated by makeup and physical posture is also indicative of a method performance (Naremore; Wexman 134). Brando’s bulky body weight alludes to his history as a boxer; yet, the masculine power typically associated with his character’s former profession is diminished by his tendency to slouch (Naremore). This posture choice adds to his character’s lack of domination as it allows other actors, particularly the gregarious mob boss to tower over him (Wexman 134-135). Like his speech, his posture slightly improves as his character transitions from a state of indecisive adolescence to hero, rebelling against the local mob (Naremore).

Works Cited

Baron, Cynthia and Carnickle, Sharon Marie. Reframing Screen Performance. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 2008. Print.
Brewster, Ben and Jacobs, Lea. “Pictorial Styles and Film Acting.” Movie Acting: The Film Reader. Ed. Pamela Robertson Wojcik. Routledge: New York, 2004. Print.
Hollinger, Karen. The Actress: Hollywood Acting and the Female Star. Routledge: New York, 2006. Print.
Jenkins, Henry. “Typology of Early Sound Comedy.” Movie Acting: The Film Reader. Ed. Pamela Robertson Wojcik. Routledge: New York, 2004. Print.
Naremore, James. Acting in the Cinema. University of California Press: Los Angeles, 1988.
Amazon Kindle Digital Edition. No page numbers available.
Wexman, Virginia Wright.  “Masculinity in Crisis: Method acting in Hollywood.” Movie Acting: The Film Reader. Ed. Pamela Robertson Wojcik. Routledge: New York, 2004. Print.

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