Success is a real and subtle whore

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In 1955, award-winning playwright Tennessee Williams sent a copy of his new play, Orpheus Descending, to friend Marlon Brando along with a letter. Following the success of their previous collaborations — both stage and film versions of A Streetcar Named Desire — Williams was understandably keen to involve Brando again and so offered him the roles of lead actor and director, whilst also approaching feisty actress Anna Magnani to play the female lead. Thinking there might be a clash, Williams wrote "Is it true that you are frightened of Magnani?"

Brando's captivating response — in which he humorously praises Williams, clinically dissects Magnani and even takes a swipe at Burt Lancaster, the 'trapeze artist' who regrettably turned down A Streetcar Named Desire before it was offered to Brando — can be read below.

Transcript follows

(Source: Heritage Auctions)





Transcript
May 24, 1955

Dear Tenn:

I have read the play three times since yesterday and am going to read it again. I think it is the best play that you have done so far. I have been afraid for you sometimes, because success sings a deadly lullaby to most people. Success is a real and subtle whore, who would like nothing better than to catch you sleeping and bite your cock off. You have been as brave as anybody I've known, and it is comforting to think about it. You probably don't think of yourself as brave because nobody who really has courage does, but I know you are and I get food from that.

There are so many things that I want to tell you about the play, I wish to hell that I could see you. When are you going to be back? There is a chance that I might get to Europe, but it is a skinny one. If you do the play next year, exactly what part of next year did you have in mind?

Magnani doesn't frighten me. How can anyone so homely and so choked with longing frighten anyone. I think that she is a woman of unusual force who'd had a very hard time because she can't find anyone that would be willing to defeat her if they could. She yearns to be subjigated in a way that is natural to all women but she can't find anybody with enough fire to "burn her down". As well as strength, she has weakness, and that makes her pitifully incongruous because it makes her domineering in her search to being dominated. The total effect of her forces doesn't make her frightening. It just makes her unattractive. When I refer to her wanting to be "burned down", I don't mean just sexually, I mean she must find someone that will utilize her completely as a woman and love her too. As an actress, she is a different rag on a different shoe. I can't think of an actress I would rather play with providing the potential dynamics of the parts are equal. I haven't see ROSE TATOO yet, but I am sure that Burt Lancaster, trapeze artist, and all, was given a lesson in the art of not being remembered after the lights go on. When you play with her you either make sure that the PARTS are equally volatile, or plan to carry a fair-sized rock in your hand when you go on stage.

I want so much to talk to you. Do you know your plans? If I shouldn't be able to get to Europe when would you possibly be back?

What you said about me directing the play really thrilled me and scared me. [REDACTED] (ridiculous thought).

Anyhow, I want you to know that you wrote your funky ass off in that play. And I wouldn't begin to scrape up an answer about the direction I'd talked to you a long time ago about it. Let me know what's going to happen with your schedule please, so I will know when I can see you. It is difficult to tell you what I feel about the play but you should be content to know that the anguish you invested has been returned many times over in the beauty of the play. Write me as soon as you know your plans. I am very anxious to hear.

Give my best to Maria and Frank. Love to you.

(Signed, 'Marlon')

MARLON