March 26, 1990. I stand alone in the wings at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Alone with my thoughts. Alone in the darkness. Backstage mayhem swirls around me. Stage managers and crew are hauling cable, wrangling talent, scrambling. Usually these people are dressed in jeans and T-shirts. Tonight they are wearing tuxedoes as they desperately try to get a show on the air. A show that will be seen by hundreds of millions of people around the world. The Oscars.
I remember how I used to watch newsreels of the Academy Awards in the days before the show was televised. The glamour and the excitement enthralled me like everyone else on earth. But they had nothing to do with my life as a young actor trying to make a living, to get a part, to make a couple of lines memorable if I did get the part. Even when I was fortunate enough to win an Oscar myself, the event was more like a company party. It was the spring of 1952. Still no television cameras. It certainly did not carry the weight that “Oscar night” does now.
Even as I sat in my seat in the Pantages Theater, waiting to hear if they would call my name, I did not have the same kind of butterflies I do on this night.
I knew – all too well – the butterflies you have when you’re waiting an eternity to see the man in the inner office about a job. I knew the feeling of the butterflies you get when you’re opening out of town and hope you stand a chance of making it to New York. I knew Broadway opening-night butterflies. I knew the butterflies you get the first day you show up on a movie set and find yourself face to face with an actor you have idolized. But the butterflies I’m having right now, the butterflies I feel in the pit of my stomach as I stand in the darkness backstage, are almost overwhelming.
Gradually, the buzz begins to calm, though a white hot tension still fills the air. The stage manager’s flashlight leads the way. “Let me take you to your mark for your entrance.” I stand there in the darkness for an endless two minutes.
Finally, I hear the announcer open the show. “Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.” It takes me a long moment to remember. That’s me. It is the last thing on earth I ever dreamt I would hear myself being called.
I see the set part. The elaborate glittering flats in front of me slide off into the wings. As they do, the stage manager points at me and whispers: “Go!”
I take a deep breath and walk from upstage center down to the footlights. It’s a short distance, no more than forty feet, but it’s a very long walk. I scan this full house – some three thousand people – and try not to think about the millions more sitting in front of their television sets.
Faces gradually come into focus. There is Gregory Peck. He smiles at me. I smile at him, thinking, “He was president once. He had to do this. I can do it, too.” I spot other familiar friendly faces as well as the tense faces of this year’s nominees – smiles plastered on gallantly –all clustered in the first few rows: Tom Cruise, Daniel Day-Lewis, Robin Williams, Michelle Pfeiffer. And the particular thrill of seeing Jessica Tandy (who would win that night) with whom I had played in A Streetcar Named Desire over forty years before. I spot my family several rows back and I take another deep breath. It's not going to be so bad after all. Even so, thank God for the teleprompter.
“I'm here tonight to tell you that Oscar is beside himself. I mean, this is one of those nights when ‘One World’ is more than a philosophical dream. It’s a reality.”
My mouth keeps drying up. Cotton mouth, they call it. In the back of my mind, a monologue keeps running: “My God, after all these years, my mouth is still getting dry. This is pathetic.” But I make it through the speech describing the global thrust of this year’s show, complete with its international satellite hookups.
“How can you have a closed society when the skies are open from Moscow to Beijing to... to you name it, Gary Indiana.”
I heave a sigh of relief. As I walk off, one thought overtakes all the rest – how incredibly far the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is from Gary, Indiana.
* * * * * * * * * * *
It was also during rehearsals for Streetcar that I really began to know the kid playing Stanley Kowalski. I had been in those paltry eight performances of Truckline Cafe with this kid in his early twenties – Marlon Brando – and had come away from that experience wondering if he would prove to be the force he obviously could be, or if his promise would evaporate.
Streetcar would tell.
Marlon took the concept of reality to a totally new level. He was Stanley Kowalski. To this day, I cannot think of a marriage of character and actor to rival that of Marlon and Stanley. I cannot imagine why any other actor would ever want to attempt that part, so profound and absolute was the connection. To use a “Method” acting term, he instinctively lived “in the moment” in a way that no other actor ever had before. Not only was he in the moment, you felt that he had never been there before. Every breath brought a new sense of discovery with no censor between raw emotion and action. He was a revelation.
Watching this marvel in action – not to mention having to act with him – challenged me to make the character of Mitch more real than anything I had ever done before. Marlon made me work harder, dig deeper than any other actor I have ever worked with.
Marlon himself had Kazan to bring out the best in him. Kazan’s gift was that he was somehow able to see into Marlon’s soul and set him free. Marlon also had Stella Adler, the acclaimed acting teacher, who took the time to probe him, to coax. She really made a pet project of him, instructing him to read certain books, listen to certain music, study certain paintings. She fancied that exposure to the arts could help turn raw talent into a cultivated artist.
In Streetcar, the combination of working with Marlon and Kazan was unbeatable for me. Kazan was the great psychological mind of the theater. In subtle ways, he got to know the people he was working with so well that he knew more about what made them tick than they did themselves. Often, he manipulated actors and their off-stage relationships for the good of the play. Of course, you weren’t aware of this when it was happening to you. You never knew what he had told other people about you, or if what he had told you about the other people was true. He just presided over the production like some magic puppeteer jerking the strings of his actors, the marionettes. But it turns out to be a wonderful, freeing experience for the actor because you feel safe and in good hands, and he makes you feel as though you have thought up all the good ideas yourself.
I remember an episode during Streetcar, rehearsals, which, to this day, I do not know if Kazan masterminded. There was a moment in the play when I came out of the bathroom and bumped into Blanche. My line was, “Excuse me, excuse me.” As she and I were dodging each other, Marlon would call, “Hey, Mitch!” and then a second time, “Mitch!” I was to yell back, “Coming!”
Some days, Marlon took the longest pauses I have ever sweated through. Other days, he would come in too soon. Sometimes, he just said the line flatly, giving me nothing to scream back at.
After a few weeks of this, I hit the ceiling. “Who the hell can get anything done around here? There’s no rhythm to the scene. One day you’re too early, the next day you don’t come in at all!” Kazan played the peacemaker, but for all I know he had directed Marlon to deliver that line differently every time to keep me on edge and uncertain.
I have always differed from Marlon in that regard. I like to be cooperative in a scene, to help someone deliver in any way I can. Marlon’s attitude was very much, “This is how I’m going to play this scene today. I may play it differently tomorrow. You have to figure out what you're doing yourself.” It’s an attitude that can make playing a scene with him pure hell. Especially because of those damn pauses of his. I firmly believe that he was never trying to steal a scene. He just had a tempo all his own.
Other actors (usually young ones trying to find their style) often try to imitate him, but their pauses are flat. Just so much dead air. Marlon could fill a pause because he had a fire inside him that kept everything he did interesting. Later, he perfected this on screen. You could look at his face for two minutes and stay fascinated. I knew that if you stayed on my face that long, the audience would be pleading, “Say something, do something already.” Not necessarily because I’m not “full,” but because there is something about beauty on screen that captivates us. Marlon knew how to work that.
A year after wrapping Streetcar, I was working on a stinker of a movie called Operation Secret with Cornel Wilde when word came that I had been nominated for an Academy Award. It never occurred to me that I would have a shot at winning. Nor did I even think about attending the ceremony, which, at that time, was more like an industry party, not the worldwide media event it is today.
But when the night arrived, Steve Trilling, a Warners executive, asked me if I was going.
I told him, “No, I’m not a part of that crowd. I live in New York.”
Trilling said, “You should go.”
“I haven’t got a tux.” That had been a crisis in high school; now I just hoped it would work as an excuse. Trilling instructed me to go to wardrobe and get myself one. “You've got to go.”
That night, I put on my Warners wardrobe tux and drove to the Pantages Theater in my same old rented green Chevy. As I turned onto Hollywood Boulevard, I spotted searchlights in the distance. When I realized they were illuminating lines and lines of limousines, I began to get a sense of what I was in for. Embarrassed by my old rented rattletrap, I parked two blocks away and walked to the theater, happily unnoticed, wearing my brown overcoat over my tux. I was, as I had said, still very much the New Yorker and couldn’t go anywhere without a topcoat.
Once inside, I took my seat. I had the third seat in from the aisle. Actually, I had a ticket for the fourth seat, too. But Mona and I had agreed she should stay in New York with Mila while I shot the film and I saw no reason why she should fly out for this one evening. I threw my overcoat over her seat.
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall took their seats, the aisle seats, right next to me. I knew Bogart from the Warners lot at least enough to say, “Hello, how are you? ” He introduced me to his wife, we all smiled at each other, then I faced the stage and waited for the evening to begin.
Danny Kaye was the master of ceremonies. I was enjoying the show in the way that you can when you are sure you’re not going to have to get up there. I sat there, pretty calm, as they announced my category. Best Supporting Actor.
Then, suddenly, I heard my name. I jumped up and bolted into the aisle. I took a few steps, paused, and turned back to Bogey.
“Look after my coat, will you?”
Bogart looked at me like I was crazy. “Just get up there.”
Ultimately I grew to look forward to the challenge of playing with Marlon. I am competitive enough to flatter myself into believing I could keep up with him. And that is why I say I believe playing with Marlon consistently brought out the best in me. I guess, in the final analysis, it is impossible to beat genius, but it can be great fun to try to match it.
In Streetcar, it worked for the character I was playing, Mitch, to let Marlon’s Stanley take the lead. Mitch would have loved to have been Stanley, so I just did a lot of watching him in the beginning, practically the whole first act. Once again, I had to make it personal. Mitch was in awe of Stanley, so I was in awe of Marlon.
I have no recollection of what I said on stage. The usual thanks, I’m sure. They didn’t have television cameras recording the event then, so I can forever hope that I didn’t make too big a fool of myself.
Then I was ushered backstage to meet the press. I was there for about a half an hour, when who should appear but Humphrey Bogart. He had just won the Best Actor award for The African Queen.
He stepped up to join me at the podium. And what did I have to say to him?
"What did you do with my coat?"
Bogey shot me that same look. Then he said, “Screw your coat. You’ve got an Oscar.”