Seven years ago this week, after revealing that President Obama planned to enroll for medical coverage under the Affordable Care Act, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney laid to rest one of those faux controversies that fixates modern politics: namely, was referring to the ACA as "Obamacare" some sort of pernicious slur?
"I know I'm fine with calling it Obamacare," Carney said. "The president is fine with it. We're focused on making sure that the ‘care' part is delivered to the Americans who want it."
We're still arguing about that part of it, even as we struggle with the worst global pandemic of our lifetimes. But by 2013, Barack Obama had long before revealed a character trait that almost certainly benefits presidents: He didn't sweat the little things. Earlier that year, in a harmless Hollywood short produced for the White House Correspondents' Association annual dinner, Obama starred in a clever spoof of "method" acting.
Once associated most closely with Marlon Brando, its most famous and accomplished practitioner today is Daniel Day-Lewis. Which brings me to this morning's historic point of departure: 73 ago today, director Elia Kazan and his cast of stage actors electrified the audience at New York's Ethel Barrymore Theatre in the premiere of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire."
When the curtain went down on opening night after the last shocking scene, theatergoers sat momentarily in stunned silence. Then they erupted in applause, which soon became a standing ovation, wave after wave of clapping that didn't fully die down for 30 minutes.
The postwar period was not a time when American audiences routinely did such things. "In those days, people only stood for the national anthem," producer Irene Mayer Selznick wrote. "That night was the first time I ever saw an audience get to its feet."
But new days were coming, both on stage and in the cinematic arts -- and in America as a whole -- despite the best efforts of censors and traditionalists. One of those at the vanguard was the 23-year-old dynamo playing Stanley Kowalski.
In casting Tennessee Williams' transfixing story, Elia Kazan assembled a respected group of actors that included Karl Malden, Kim Hunter, British-born Jessica Tandy as Blanche DuBois -- and, of course, Marlon Brando.
The young man out of Omaha had made his stage debut in 1944 and was impressive enough to be named "most promising young actor" by New York's drama critics. But no one was prepared for what happened at the Dec. 3, 1947, premiere of "A Streetcar Named Desire," or in the hundreds of subsequent performances and the 1951 movie that followed.
"I will never forget the impact Brando had on me and the rest of the audience," novelist Budd Schulberg recalled. "The bar for dramatic actors was being raised before our eyes. The way Brando's Kowalski raged at his fragile victim and totally destroyed her at the climax was like a hard punch to the belly of the audience, and at the curtain there was a strange pause, as if the audience were trying to catch its breath. Then the thundering applause, the standing ovation, and the bravos came as a burst of relief that Blanche's ordeal was over and that the cast could return to their dressing rooms and become themselves again."
"Who was this incredible newcomer?" he added. "Where had he been while we were enjoying more conventional Broadway fare?"
The short answer was that Brando, like Tennessee Williams, had been trapped in his own miserable childhood -- in Brando's case, in a Midwestern town and family that didn't understand his rage or pent-up energy. The playwright unleashed his grievances in New Orleans, where "A Streetcar Named Desire" was written and set. Brando's salvation, if you can call it that, came in an acting class at the New School. The actor's bellowing of "STELLAAAA!" remains an iconic moment in American arts, but it was another Stella, an actress and drama teacher named Stella Adler, who helped Brando find his craft. She was a disciple of Konstantin Stanislavsky, via Lee Strasberg, the autodidactic and self-styled master of "The Method."
Strasberg's devotees were taught to draw on their own life's experiences -- and deeply held fears and anxieties -- to interpret the characters they were portraying. It was almost a combination of group therapy and self-analysis.
Stella Adler took these ideas and went further with them. Yes, her students were encouraged to be aware of their own inner feelings while interpreting a character, but to transcend them -- to employ their imaginations in fleshing out their characters as well as expanding their own minds: "She urged them to grow as human beings, to study nature, art, and history," Schulman wrote, "because the more they knew, the more choices they would have."
After his performance as Stanley Kowalski, Marlon Brando had many choices in life. He didn't always use them wisely -- who among us can say that we do? -- but he left his mark.
"In cultural terms, Marlon Brando was an attitude; Marlon Brando was a way of approaching life," film critic Neal Gabler noted when Brando died in 2004. "There was a kind of recklessness to him, a danger. He was the Elvis Presley of acting before there was Elvis Presley."
Brando's life was also a cautionary tale about attaining the summit too early in life. "He was the golden boy, beautiful, muscular, hugely gifted, successful, recognized, applauded, worshiped," eulogized James Lipton, a board member of New York's Method-teaching Actors Studio. "He couldn't bear it."
Perhaps. But at 48, Brando was also Vito Corleone, a quieter figure than Stanley Kowalski, and one who managed a much trickier task -- simultaneously exhibiting dignity and menace, all while conveying calm reassurance to those who depended on him: "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse. Now you just go outside and enjoy yourself, and, ah, forget about all this nonsense. I want you to leave it all to me."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.