Susan L. Mizruchi was 12 and living in upstate New York when she turned on the TV one day and watched Marlon Brando playing Fletcher Christian in the 1962 version of the seafaring tale "Mutiny on the Bounty."
She was as she described it "struck by the Brando lightning."
Even to this day, his performance affects her. "It's still very powerful," said the Boston University English professor, who has written a new biography, "Brando's Smile: His Life, Thought, and Work" which was published by W.W. Norton & Co. in late June.
She was so obsessed with the late Oscar-winning actor (
Besides watching his movies, she read many of the Brando biographies but found them lacking because they focused on more salacious aspects — his womanizing and lifestyle — rather than his acting and his intellectual interests.
Mizruchi believed there was room for a different kind of biography. So shortly after Brando's death at the age of 80 in 2004, she began interviewing his former lover and longtime friend, Ellen Adler, the daughter of his acting teacher Stella Adler, as well as learning about his personal scripts and books from his extensive library that had recently been sold at Christie's by his estate.
Mizruchi wrote to Christie's, which had the names of everyone who had bought lots at the auction. "They protected the privacy of the buyers but they let me write anonymous emails to all of them," she said.
After explaining in her email she wanted to write an "intelligent" biography, most of the people wrote her back and opened their homes to her. One collector from Moscow, who had bought 3,000 books from Brando's library, brought his collection to the Bronx where Mizruchi spent four months there doing research.
When Brando's estate learned she had collected the Christie's material, "they gave me full access to everything in their archives."
Brando's library, which the actor had meticulously cataloged, "would blow you away. He was better than an intellectual. He had endless curiosity. He was also a skeptic. He didn't take anyone's word. He had spirited conversation in the margins of his books. He argued with the authors."
He owned books on a wide spectrum of subjects. "He had dozens of diet books," said Mizruchi. "If there was anything that mattered to him in his life he had books about it. I think his self-indulgent lifestyle, the part of his life that has been so well publicized, is in fact the most conventional thing about him."
The book's title was inspired by Brando's fascination with the face and his belief that "you can figure which salary bracket a Hollywood actor is in by the kind of smile he gets. I'll never get the kind of big fat grins that go with $250,000 a picture. They only pay that kind of money to cowboy stars." Brando's sense of "what a smile could expose," Mizruchi notes in the book, "explains why he was sparing with them on camera."
Since the mid-1950s Brando had final say over his scripts, and as Mizruchi discovered, rewrote a lot of his dialogue, such as the opening sequence of "The Godfather."
The original script has Don Corleone telling the undertaker Amerigo Bonasera:
"You never armed yourself with true friends. You thought it was enough to be an American. After all, the police guarded you, there were courts of law. You could come to no harm, you had no need for friends like me."
Brando's rewrite is what appears in the classic film:
"But let's be frank here, you never wanted my friendship. And you were afraid to be in my debt. I understand. You found paradise in America, had a good trade, you made a good living, the police protected you, and there were courts of law. You didn't need a friend like me."
"Brando's Smile," said Mizruchi, "requires people to be willing to change their minds" about the actor. "They have been hearing the same Brando stories over and over. These documents tell a different story and describe a side of him that is absolutely documented that we just didn't know."
Brando, she noted, was always challenging himself and developing as an actor.