Brando on Lee Strasberg: Gifts and Contributions

In the course of writing Follies of God, I interviewed a number of actors and actresses--as well as playwrights and directors--whose opinion of Lee Strasberg had violently shifted: The man they had once adored as their greatest teacher and supporter was now vilified in their statements.

I never met Lee Strasberg, and I did not want the book to be an attack on the man, so I sought balancing opinions from others. One of the most forthcoming was Marlon Brando, who admitted the man's faults, but who also trumpeted his indisputable gifts and contributions.

In one of my interviews with Kim Stanley, she  was particularly hard on Strasberg, and I read her comments to Brando by telephone. This is his full response:

Kim is entitled to her opinion of Lee, no matter how often it shifts. We are entitled to feel as we do and as we must, but let us remember that I honor and adore--just to name two actors--Al Pacino and Ellen Burstyn, and they both state--not to me, but publicly--that Lee Strasberg is responsible for their growth as actors. I trust and honor those two people, and I trust their word. I could name you a hundred people, easily, who feel the same way, so my feeling is that what we'll call the Lee Strasberg Argument needs to find some balance, some contours.

Lee Strasberg impressed me, but he did not shape or alter me as an actor: I have told you and I have told many that Stella [Adler] may take blame or responsibility for the good work that I may have done. Nonetheless, what Tennessee himself calls the 'kinetic nest' that was the Actors Studio is the result of work done by [Harold] Clurman, Bobby [Lewis], Cheryl Crawford, Gadge [Kazan], and Lee, and it was Lee who remained and kept the nest operating and humming and producing actors and writers. The nest also produced people who might not have remained in the professional theatre, but who remained fervent lovers of good acting and good theatre. We cannot dismiss that.

Whatever else may be said about Lee, he allowed a great number of actors to trust themselves and to feel comfortable to grow as artists. That is a huge statement, but I find it dismissed as light praise. I found this comfort and this inspiration from Stella, and others found it with [Sanford] Meisner or Herbert [Berghof]. Another group loved Mira Rostova. Listen, a lot of people don't get the message of Jesus, but they thrive on the words of Buddha or Confucius. That has to be honored. No one is wrong. We all thrive on that which we thrive, and Lee was a great teacher to a great number of people.

That is that.

His knowledge of the theatre was vast--he was a walking encyclopedia--and he traveled the world to see and to study what was done and what was good. Lee then shared this with his students, and almost anyone who asked him questions. This cannot be underestimated. Imagine yourself in, say, 1952, and you think you want to be an actor, and all you know about are the few productions you've done in high school or college--not to mention what you've seen on film--and you find yourself in the presence of this man, who can tell you what the Russians, the French, the Italians are doing; who can quote virtually any playwright or critic or philosopher. That was valuable, and it was very cheap--often free--to attend the Studio. This cannot be discarded.

Kim made some mistakes and entered into a relationship with Lee that served neither of them very well. I am glad that she takes responsibility for her role in that relationship, but she still has some serious issues with Lee, and we can't let her issues devalue the man.

Lee was criticized--and correctly, I think--by his role, and that of his wife, Paula, in the grooming, I suppose we can call it, of Marilyn Monroe. I called it remedial tutoring, and any actor who requires round-the-clock ministrations in the reading of a line or a call sheet is not a serious actor. Marilyn was a lovely and sad woman, but she needed help that extended far beyond the exercises given to her by Lee and Paula. Lee and Paula wanted the reflected fame that came by being in Marilyn's orbit. They were seduced and betrayed and battered. I know that scene. All of us might have been tempted by it; many of us would have taken the same path. It is a creamy and lovely path, and we cannot be too harsh on the man for taking it. We can be harsh on him for abandoning some of his early principles and for moving toward the acquisition of fame and money at the expense of good teaching, but I have word from many that he found that balance again, and good work again came from the studio.

The man stumbled, but the man walked greatly for a long time. Focus on the long walk.

Marilyn Monroe and Paula Strasberg

There is no right way or one way to become an artist. As Tennessee liked to say 'We do what we can.' And we do. Over and over. Time after time. There is great value in Lee Strasberg. There is great value in all the teachers: look at their students; look at the work that continues to flow from their efforts.

We--and by we I mean humans--have an insatiable need to root for one sports team or one candidate or one religion or one sex or one soda or one TV network, and we feel strong if we demonize the ones that do not fit our needs or our hungers. This is corrosive and has to stop. I'm telling you as a service that it has to stop: You can't do it. I tell it to everyone. Our time here is limited; our time as artists is limited. Everything is limited. However, teachers like Lee allowed a lot of people--and even me, by being in his orbit--to forget the limits, to forget the insane odds of working at all or working well.

And that is a massive contribution.

Honor the man.



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