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Karl Malden 1912 - 2009

Posted by Ty Burr  July 1, 2009 07:23 PM

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I'm on vacation at the moment and really supposed to be keeping away from the blog, but, I'm sorry, the man deserves our respect. All rise. Hold your snap-brim fedora over your heart. One of the finest character actors of all has passed.

Malden was 97 years old, and I probably wasn't alone in expecting him to make it to 100. Underneath the nice guy exterior was the soul of a hardass survivor, born Mladen Sekulovich (what a name! I wish he'd kept it) to Eastern European immigrants and raised among the farms and steel mills of Gary, Indiana. And he survived them all: Marlon Brando, his good friend and co-star on stage and in films; Elia Kazan, who directed the two in their greatest roles, almost everyone he worked with. (Well, not everyone: Eva Marie Saint is still going strong, and that sidekick kid from Malden's 1970s TV show "The Streets of San Francisco," Michael Douglas, ended up making a name for himself.)

By the time he became a star, Malden was nobody's idea of handsome, but decency and a canny intelligence shone through even when he was playing a louse. He had thinning hair, a bizarrely penile nose, eyes that probed and found you solid or lacking, a forceful manner of speaking, as though time was shorter than we all thought. If I had to explain him to a young moviegoer who'd never seen one of his performances, I'd say think of John C. Reilly -- Malden got similar sorts of roles, sad sacks left holding the firecracker -- but with a steel core. Actually, I'd say just rent the following, or catch the first three when they show up at the Harvard Film Archive's Kazan retrospective later this summer:

"A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951) Yes, it's Brando's show and Vivien Leigh's, but Malden won a supporting Oscar and deserves every bit of it as Mitch, Stanley's poker buddy who takes a shine to Blanche DuBois but isn't the sensitive suitor either she or we hope he is. It's really an amazing little performance: Malden gives us a man who knows he's smarter than his friends but doesn't understand that still makes him dumb.

"On the Waterfront" (1954) With Kazan and Brando again, taking what was even then a cliche role -- the tough inner-city priest, no matter that the part was based on a real person -- and investing it with not just force but startling desperation and fury. Malden's Father Barry is the movie's conscience, and he wields his moralism with the force of an Old Testament prophet.

"Baby Doll" (1956) Absolutely outrageous assault on all that was holy and decent in 1956, written by Tennessee Williams as if he'd just mainlined about five Nabokov novels. Malden, in one of richest, ripest performances, plays the dirty old mill owner who marries thumbsucking Carroll Baker but can't sleep with her until her 15th -- um, 20th -- birthday. Enter Eli Wallach as the snake. This is as dirty as the movies got back then (condemned by the Catholic legion of Decency and everything) and Karl is right there on the film's vile, hilarious pulse.

"Fear Strikes Out" (1957) Malden plays the sports dad out of your worst nightmares in this not-quite-faithful biopic about Jimmy Piersall, the Red Sox center fielder who struggled with mental illness throughout his career. The movie lays all the blame on Piersall Sr. (one reason the real Jimmy Piersall disowned it), but Malden takes that and runs with it, creating a figure of such maddening, needling patriarchal pressure that you may feel like getting the bat yourself.

There are other fine Malden performances ("One Eyed Jacks," "Birdman of Alcatraz," "Patton," those old American Express commercials), but this is the starter kit. God bless you, Mr. Sekulovich, wherever you are.

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1 comments so far...
  1. Great post about a true legend. I went ahead and nominated this post for a BoB award so you may get the credit it deserves. The top prize is 1000 dollars so good luck.

    Posted by Nick Sherman July 9, 09 04:29 PM
 

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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