I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about Karl Malden. I saw that Baby Doll was coming on TCM on Friday, and it’s always been a film I wanted to see. I set it to record, obviously, but as I await its arrival on my DVR I wanted to chat a bit about what I love so much about this man’s legacy. I remember a few years ago reading this blog where they mentioned that Malden was a terrible actor with one good performance in his resume, the one for which he won an Oscar. I remember being baffled at this statement (I tried googling the blog but I couldn’t find it, so sorry for no link to the atrocious statement) and being somewhat insulted that someone could really garner such a dismissive attitude towards Malden’s undeniable talents.
And this is coming from someone who has only seen five of his films; of which I nominate three of his performances (and at the moment I hand him TWO Fistis).
The five films I’ve seen of his are ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, ‘On the Waterfront’, ‘The Birdman of Alcatraz’, ‘Gypsy’ and ‘Patton’. For the sake of this blog entry, I’m only going to talk about the three performances that I personally nominate (although he comes close for ‘Patton’), so let’s take a look at his tremendous work in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, ‘On the Waterfront’ and ‘Gypsy’.
In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ we are introduced to Malden’s Mitch, one of Stanley’s poker buddies and an obvious contradiction to Stanley himself. Mitch is more dignified; dressing and acting like a gentleman, which is a sharp contrast to the way in which the rugged and brutish Stanley throws himself around. What makes this performance so extraordinary though is that Malden never once makes Mitch so black and white. There are colors here, ever so subtle, that cast a sort of doubt on the man that Mitch truly is. We watch him attempt to better himself and set himself apart from his peers by his gentlemanly actions, and yet we are always left to wonder how much of it is genuine and how much of it is for show; not necessarily rooted in his soul. As Malden builds on the relationship with Leigh’s explosive DuBois we get to watch the layers fall away to reveal the gutted soul of this man, and as Malden rounds out his character in the final moments (especially with regard to the secret DuBois has been keeping) we are given a true arc, a complete performance; a complete character.
In ‘On the Waterfront’, Malden holds his own against a brilliant cast where basically every actor received an Oscar nomination. In the Supporting Actor category alone, Malden shared the ballot with co-stars Rod Steiger and Lee J. Cobb; all of whom completely deserved their nominations. For me though, this is rather easily Malden’s triumph as he pulls our attention to him rather than the others and creates a three-dimensional character that, much like Mitch, is not so easily labeled ‘black and white’. Playing Father Barry, Malden plays the moral compass for the film, portraying the ‘good’ side of the morality struggle (Cobb portraying the obvious ‘bad’ and Steiger somewhere in between) and as such he could have very easily become a mere prop or plot point but instead finds a way to balance out his character’s symbolism as well as his humanity. I’m most impressed with the way that Malden handles his monologues. The monologue is something that is really hard to master, for it has dethroned many a great performance and yet Malden offers up so much raw conviction that he simply nails every moment he’s on the screen. You breathe in his internal frustrations as he buries himself in his own desire to right the wrongs he sees and build a better place for his sheep. It is such a stirring performance.
And then we have ‘Gypsy’. I absolutely loved this performance because it was such a sharp contrast to the darker more gritty performances I had seen from Malden. Here he plays the showman to perfection, capturing the heart of the story that brings such a rich charisma to every scene he’s in. His showmanship is beyond exceptional, even filtering into the way he sells himself to other. I still remember his big introduction scene on the stage and the way he slyly pours himself all over Rosalind Russell. But, much like the rest of Malden’s work, he is never so obvious so as to deprive the audience of a little something extra, and watching him build behind the eyes is something this performance would be nothing without. If it weren’t for Peter Sellers staggering performance in ‘Lolita’, I’d probably hand Malden a THIRD Fisti!
So that is that. I wholly look forward to indulging in Baby Doll on Friday and adding yet another great (assumed) performance from this underrated actor to my list. While he is no longer with us, Malden’s presence was undeniable and I certainly hope and pray that more people invest in digging up his work.