He bellowed ‘Stella!’ . . . and acting was never the same : BRANDO: Songs My Mother Taught Me, <i> By Marlon Brando with Robert Lindsey (Random House: $25; 468 pp.)</i> : BRANDO: The Biography, <i> By Peter Manso (Hyperion: $29.95; 1,172 pp.)</i>
Marlon Brando’s hold on the public imagination has more to do with his scandals, his acting fees and even his weight than any of his recent performances. It wasn’t always so. Between 1947 and 1954, from “A Streetcar Named Desire” to “On the Waterfront,” Brando changed the way we think about acting. After Brando’s raw passion and emotional truth, it wasn’t so easy to accept Hollywood stars whose appeal was based on ingratiating personality or the hammy performance style that had come down from the British stage. No actor ever had a more dazzling beginning than Brando. He spent the next 18 years squandering it.
Now, on the brink of old age, after many false starts, he has written his memoirs. At the same time, a comprehensive biography has also been published. Brando’s own book, possibly written as a hedge against what the biography might uncover, is set down in a gentle mood. “My memories,” he writes, “are colored by later events and distorted by the blurred prism through which my mind now chooses to examine my life.”
In Brando’s best performances, he doesn’t judge his characters. He creates a life, often prickly and contradictory, usually searching and often unhappy, then shows it whole, without apparent comment. Now he’s tried to achieve something like the literary equivalent of that strategy, reporting even his most extreme behavior in something like a dispassionate voice. The result can be sweet and beguiling but maddeningly incomplete.
Manso’s biography, surely the longest ever written about an actor, pays respect to Brando’s best work but portrays his personal life as going from outrageous to near-criminal. Manso has conducted 750 interviews. In addition, he has drawn on many books and articles, ranging from Richard Schickel’s insightful “Brando: A Life in Our Times” to the spiteful “Brando for Breakfast,” by Anna Kashfi, one of Brando’s ex-wives. In Manso’s biography Brando comes across like Amadeus. In his own book, he’s more like Candide.
Marlon Brando Jr., called Bud, was born in Omaha, the third child and only son of a salesman of limestone products. His mother, Dorothy Pennebaker Brando, known as Dodie, was a gifted amateur actress with a bohemian disposition. Marlon Sr., a man of more conventional outlook, found himself in a household of rebellious spirits, none of whom he ever understood. Both he and his wife were alcoholics; both were promiscuous. Marlon Sr. was also something of a bully. His son hated him.
After a difficult time in high school in Libertyville, Ill., where the family had landed, Bud was shipped off to Minnesota, to Shattuck Military Academy, his father’s old school. It was wartime. Shattuck took seriously its charge to train future officers. Young Bud, however, spent his time in pranks and erotic pursuits: He romanced the school maids, the girls of the town, a few faculty wives and, by Manso’s account, some of the cadets.
Brando was expelled from Shattuck and wound up in New York. It was 1943. He was 18, 4F because of a football knee injury, and except for a few well-received turns in school plays, had no skills. His sister Jocelyn was an actress, so he enrolled at Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop at the New School, hoping to meet girls. One of the teachers was Stella Adler, the grandest of dames, who once said, “I could live in any Communist country if I were Queen.” She saw that this young man from the provinces, with the hooded eyes and the soft, mumbling voice, was “the most keenly aware, the most empathetical human being alive.” He was also an erotic magnet for all around him, Adler herself included, according to Manso.
Adler’s method, which came out of the Group Theater and her own private study with Stanislavsky, stressed inner reality and emotional exposure. Authenticity of feeling was the goal. Brando mastered it from the start. Adler became his patron and took him into the sophisticated circle of her family and friends, which included her husband at the time, the director and critic, Harold Clurman, and her teen-age daughter, Ellen, who was also one of Bud’s conquests.
Brando was soon on Broadway in “I Remember Mama.” People who saw it remember only Brando. The acting teacher and director Bobby Lewis thought Brando was so real “that a stagehand must have wandered on stage.” Brando became bored with the production and began making trouble both on and offstage. There were always women in his dressing room, or waiting at the stage door, often available to him between his entrances.
At Adler’s urging, Elia Kazan cast Brando in Tennessee Williams’ play, “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Kazan had worked with Brando earlier, in Maxwell Anderson’s “Truckline Cafe,” and now wanted “to mine what was beneath the surface,” to excavate what he later called Brando’s “great underground.” Brando’s brooding hunt for his character was a trial for Jessica Tandy, who played Blanche Dubois. She was English, trained traditionally, and a woman of regular habits. It was her husband, Hume Cronyn, who recognized that Brando’s intensity was changing the play, making it more about Stanley Kowalski than Tennessee Williams had intended.
The best measure of the power of Brando’s performance is in the censorship dispute around the film of “Streetcar.” The Legion of Decency demanded cuts in the finished film. Only recently has a restored version been made available. The other performances all benefit from the restoration. It makes no difference with Brando. From his first appearance, walking home after work, his every step and gesture simmering with rude sexuality, he is uncensorable, short of cutting out every frame he’s in.
After “Streetcar,” Brando never did another play. In his first six films, he made such an impression on the public that all actors were measured against him. Bobby Lewis put it best: “He’d created not only a standard of acting, but a style, which was unfortunate, since everybody after that wanted to act like Marlon Brando.” He was a new kind of movie star. He was seen to be rebelling against everything in American life. He was soaked in sensitivity and Angst, the embodiment of the neuroses of the era.
From the beginning of his career, Brando voiced doubts about being an actor, often saying that he only did it for money and travel. His first Hollywood offers were for term deals that would last for years. He always said no. He accepted his first screen role as a paraplegic veteran in “The Men” in part because no options were attached. That was followed by the film of “Streetcar” and then “Viva Zapata!,” the story of the Mexican revolutionary, directed by Kazan. In his memoirs, Kazan says, “In ‘Streetcar’ he’d been playing a version of himself, but in ‘Zapata’ he had to create a characterization. He was playing a peasant, a man out of another world. I don’t know how he did, but he did it; his gifts go beyond his knowledge.”
He was the most famous young actor in the world, already a subject for comedians who mumbled a lot and yelled “Stella!” As if in response to having his diction mocked, he played Mark Antony in Joe Mankiewicz’ production of “Julius Caesar.” The reading is clear and unmannered and, unlike so much of American Shakespeare, not faux English. Antony’s speech to the body of Caesar, “O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth . . . “ is the center of the film, a great theatrical moment that makes the design of the play clear. Brando now says in his memoirs that to play Shakespeare “was asinine,” because he’d had no classical training. Manso reports that at the time, John Gielgud, who was Cassius, asked him to come to London and play Hamlet. It was probably Hamlet-like of Brando never to be able to make up his mind to dare the role.
“The Wild One,” Brando’s biker movie, is unwatchable today, except for his performance. But “On the Waterfront,” the last picture of his early period, his last with Kazan and his greatest triumph, is one of the enduring glories of the postwar cinema. This was not a literary adaptation or a script he had to carry on his back, but a film grounded in political controversy. Kazan and Budd Schulberg, who wrote the script, had both been cooperating witnesses for HUAC. The movie is a defense of their position. Its most celebrated scene is Brando’s cab ride with Rod Steiger: “I could have been a contender.” Although now Brando seems to claim that he and Steiger improvised it, that is unlikely, given Brando’s own account of it. Kazan, in his memoirs, puts it in perspective. “Who else could read, ‘Oh, Charlie,’ in a tone of reproach that is so loving and so melancholy and suggest that terrific depth of pain. I didn’t direct that. Marlon showed me, as he often did, how the scene should be performed.”
And then the bottom fell out. Brando spent the next 18 years making uneven movies, some commercially successful, others not. Actors are at the mercy of their opportunities. Their careers only have discernible patterns in hindsight. It’s now clear that Brando began to draw less on himself and more on accents and disguises. He played leading roles as if they were character parts, hiding in eccentricity.
He was regarded as capricious on the set, refusing to adhere to schedules or scripts. His behavior was blamed for the ruinous cost overruns and delays on “Mutiny on the Bounty.” The picture was shot in Tahiti and he fell in love with Polynesia, eventually buying the atoll of Teti’aroa, which became his refuge. His performance as the foppish Fletcher Christian, was badly received. Today, more than 30 years on, it seems to outline a life not unlike the one Brando sought for himself. In Polynesia, Fletcher Christian finds his truer, more arcadian self. He is still an officer and a gentleman but no longer a fop. He tries to reconcile these aspects. It can’t be done and he suffers for it and dies by fire. It’s a classic Brando arc: A man more sensitive than he appears discovers his true self only to be punished for it.
As his career diminished, Brando became known for his politics. Before “Streetcar,” he had performed in a benefit written by Ben Hecht in support of Jewish refugees. Brando donated his salary to the Irgun, the militant--some might say terrorist--Jews in Palestine. Later, he was active in the civil rights movement, supporting the Black Panthers and marching with Martin Luther King. And of course, he has long been active in Native American rights. These are deeply held views, developed over many years. Yet, with politics, Brando has always looked a little ridiculous, unlike, say, his contemporaries Paul Newman on the left, or Charlton Heston on the right. They speak persuasively, a couple of recognizable gents who always put a sensible amount of themselves into a performance. Brando either puts so much of himself into a character that he’s like Prometheus, his guts pecked out before us, or he hides in technique. When he speaks as himself, it’s a shock and not always effective.
He found his way again with two films in the early 1970s. “The Godfather” was Hollywood’s biggest hit since “Gone With the Wind.” To a young public who knew Brando’s great work only in revival, he seemed to have returned from the dead. The film, like “Waterfront,” only seems to get better as it ages. It is a great, vulgar epic of America, and Brando is its specific gravity, the master of the minimalist gesture in an operatic story. Is this what a Mafia boss was like in New York after the war? Who knows? For that matter, who cares? Brando has imagined him into existence. It’s the culmination of his character work, done with a vengeance.
Brando’s famous improvised monologues are the most interesting part of “Last Tango in Paris,” a movie best recalled for the controversy it generated. He might not have drawn on himself directly since Terry Molloy; in “Last Tango” he does so literally. As the character speaks of his parents and childhood, Brando uses his own life. It can’t have been easy, but 25 years later it seems more a painful stunt than a coherent creation. He made a few more stabs at acting after “Last Tango,” but mostly there have been highly paid cameo roles in which he seems to be imitating Marlon Brando. From 1980 to 1989 he made no films at all. He retreated to Teti’aroa or stayed in his house on Mulholland Drive, talking about scripts, continuing to seek the truth in Eastern philosophy, but mostly putting on weight.
In his book, Brando speaks tenderly of his mother, the actress who lived long enough to see the glorious unfolding of her son’s career. He’s not so kind about his father. For years, he writes, “I wanted to smash his face and watch him spit out his teeth. I wanted to kick his balls into his throat. I wanted to rip his ears off and eat them in front of him. I wanted to separate his larynx from his body and shove it into his stomach.” When Marlon Sr. died--at 70; his own age now--he thought, “God, just give him to me alive for eight seconds . . . because I want to break his jaw.”
However exasperating and opaque his memoirs frequently are, and however many contradictory assertions and remarks cry out for follow up questions, you put down his memoirs thinking, “I’ve been with this man, I’ve heard his voice.”
What Brando has left out, Manso has uncovered. He is at his best evoking Brando’s New York days. He places them in a cultural and social context, taking us through the rehearsals for “Streetcar” and showing the birth of a great play as well as Brando’s arrival into public life.
Manso has chapter and verse for Brando’s countless assignations and continuing affairs as well as his many bouts with venereal disease. He quotes the actress Sondra Lee saying Brando was involved in “hundreds of abortions.” Brando speaks of nine children, or sometimes 10. The mothers are friends, wives and employees. Brando has had so many lovers, it would only be surprising if they were all of one gender; the law of averages alone would make him bisexual.
Manso reports it all as if he were on a mission. But the care with which the early New York section is composed gives way to peephole fascination and relentless cataloguing. Manso never really puts Brando’s bacchanalian life into its most significant context: Brando is a movie star and he acts like one. Movie stars live on the farthest shore of instinct, their ids given something like free reign. When they’re not being paid huge sums to act, many of them pursue sex and keep people around to carry out their every high-handed whim. It’s the privilege of office. Given that Brando was increasingly unhappy with acting, the rest of it was probably inevitable. Maybe in Brando’s case, sex is sublimated acting.
Most recently, he’s been in the news for personal tragedy. As is well known in Los Angeles, Brando’s son Christian shot and killed his half sister Cheyenne’s lover in the Mulholland Drive house, while Brando was at home. Manso seems to give credence to Cheyenne’s comments to a reporter from Paris-Match to the effect that her father, through “auto suggestion,” put the idea of the murder into her brother’s mind. She also says her father abused her sexually when she was little. As Manso makes clear, at the time of her remarks, she was in a psychiatric clinic. She had been diagnosed as schizophrenic.
Manso quotes Eoghan Harris, an Irish writer who worked on a script with Brando in 1985, and who caught something fundamental of the man when he called Brando “a radical bohemian--a person without barriers, frontiers or boundaries, who has no sense of history nor of his class. . . . Such declassed people . . . are capable of anything.”
On the mysteries of his own character, Brando himself may have put it best. He was speaking of Charlie Chaplin, who directed him in “A Countess From Hong Kong,” but surely the subject was himself: “Like all people he was the sum of his genetic inheritance and the experiences of a lifetime. We are all shaped by our own miseries and misfortunes. He knew how to tap the emotions of his audiences to arouse them, and he had an intuitive knowledge of the workings of the human personality. But he never learned enough to understand his own character.”
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