The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando by William J. Mann

To say that Marlon Brando was one of the greatest screen actors is uncontroversial. Many would claim that he was the greatest of them all, though Brando himself, as William J. Mann, in his remarkably ambitious new biography, faithfully reports, derided such judgments as absurd. What can safely be said is that he was one of the most original actors ever to come before a camera, and one of the most creative. Creativity in actors—transcending technical brilliance, personal charisma, and emotional range, making at least an equal contribution as the writer and the director—is uncommon. When it is present, the screen becomes a truly great art form.

Most of the many books that have been written about Brando take his work as a starting point. Despite a highly colorful life, including heroic sexual activity, highly publicized and sometimes effective political protest, 11 children from many different women, a son who was imprisoned for manslaughter and a daughter who committed suicide, most of these—even my particularly favorite nadir, Brando Unzipped, in which our hero is alleged to have had sex with just about everybody you’ve ever heard of—assume that Brando was aware of his unique gifts, cultivated them, and cared about the results, at least during his glory days.

Creativity in actors is uncommon. When it is present, the screen becomes a truly great art form.

From the beginning, Mann is very firm in his disagreement with this view: “The major conundrum any assessment of [Brando’s] life and career must face is this: the talent that others revered in him excited very little interest on his part.... In truth, nearly everybody who has written about him has gotten him wrong.” Journalists and critics, Mann says, “often presumed to know more, or better” than the man himself—“It’s time to see his story the way he did.” Acting, he tells us, was not the most interesting thing about Brando. “We need to respect what Brando had to say and not refute it, or doubt it, or read ulterior motives into it. His story is far more interesting, valuable and relevant that way.”

His Story, His Way

This approach has its advantages. Mann uses a wide range of sources, including, perhaps most illuminatingly, the transcripts of the many hours of interviews conducted by the journalist Robert Lindsey in preparation for Songs My Mother Taught Me, the autobiography finally released in 1994, which, though long, omitted a great deal of remarkably candid material. He has conducted many vivid interviews with Brando’s friends and associates, and been exceptionally thorough in his investigation of Brando’s boyhood, his family life (if you can describe it as that, with children spread across the globe and hostile relationships with many of their mothers), and his political activities.

Of these he gives the fullest and most sympathetic account yet, showing how deep-rooted was Brando’s commitment to social justice and racial equality. Most fascinating is his membership, after three years of on-off small-time success in the theater, in the American League for a Free Palestine, performing agitprop plays and giving impassioned lectures on the rights of the Jewish people to a homeland of their own.

Most assume that Brando was aware of his unique gifts, at least during his glory days.

The structure of the book is interestingly nonlinear: “I drop in at key moments of his life and get in as close as possible to understanding him and his world, then fade out and drop in again, a few years down the road.” This montage-like, back-and-forth technique—the book opens in the courtroom where his son Christian is being sentenced for manslaughter, then jumps back to his time in New York as a drama student—is by no means unsuccessful in exposing layer after layer of Brando’s life: the author goes back when he needs to. Sometimes he leaves something and never returns to it, but the weaving is handled with remarkable deftness.

The passages of reporting—like on the civil-rights march—are highly successful, dramatized but factual and credible; less convincing is Mann’s attempt to enter into the mind of the man he invariably refers to as “Marlon”—never a good sign in a biographer. He muses on Brando’s attraction to Spaniards, blacks, Chinese: “So different from the women he’d grown up with. So different, especially, from his mother. He had needed to get away from her. He had needed to find a world where the women were not fragile blue-eyed blondes liable to shatter if he gripped them too hard. The women he desired were those who could survive in a world of wolves and brutes, women who were sturdy and strong and different from the others.” This takes us into the world of romantic fiction. It takes us into a sort of no-man’s-land: as unconvincing as Brando’s own thoughts, it also deprives us of the voice of the author.

All in the Family

Mann’s uncontroversial theory is that Brando’s life was an attempt to resolve the trauma of his childhood. His family background was indeed almost absurdly, archetypally dysfunctional in the classic American vein, somehow interweaving The Iceman Cometh and The Glass Menagerie. His father was a frequently absent, aggressive, drunken, philandering salesman, his mother a fragile beauty with yearnings for the theater, likely driven to promiscuity, often taking to her bed with a bottle of gin. The young Brando—“Bud,” as he was known—took her part against his father, who regarded him as stupid, lazy, and worthless.

Brando accepted his father’s verdict on him. “Your dummy son,” Bud called himself in letters home. He was sent to military academy, where he failed and from which he was finally dismissed. While there he discovered his sexual attractiveness to his fellow students; sex with both men and women would always be a way of numbing his rage and sense of powerlessness. He drifted into acting; in drama school, where he encountered the great teacher Stella Adler, who was immersed in Stanislavski’s work and the Tolstoyan philosophical background to it, he suddenly found a sense of meaning, a place in the scheme of things. The job of the actor, Adler told her students, was “to lead society into a higher self,” and that the essential element of acting was the imagination. “Your life is one-millionth of what you know. Your talent is your imagination.” Here was a sphere in which he could stand tall.

Brando’s background was dysfunctional in the classic American vein, interweaving The Iceman Cometh and The Glass Menagerie.

He remained a complex, guarded, skeptical presence in the school, until, halfway through his training, playing the almost impossibly difficult double role of a schoolteacher and Christ in a visionary play by Gerhart Hauptmann, Brando had a breakthrough. His teachers and fellow students were astounded: he had found a way of engaging his imagination at the deepest possible level, giving himself over completely to the inner life of the character. He scarcely knew what he’d done, but no one who saw him play that double role doubted that they were in the presence of a wholly uncommon talent.

Mann thinks “the key to his success was simple.” How we all wish that it were. Despite the author’s constant assertion that Brando regarded acting as a childish, insignificant activity, the actor’s own words, liberally quoted, give the lie to this. He fought fiercely and constantly to take his work beyond the competent, the intelligent, the attractive. And, pace Mann, his contribution was not to make acting “natural, honest, personal.”

On the contrary, he was not a naturalistic actor: he was a poet of acting who in his greatest work harnessed his subconscious, stirring us in ways we can scarcely understand, but which leave us changed. He approached acting as an artist, striving to create images of human destiny, unforgettable visions of character. Fighting with Irwin Shaw, author of the original novel on which The Young Lions was based, Brando said: “It’s my character. I play the role; now he exists. He is my creation.”

And it cost him dear. After his performance in Last Tango in Paris, Brando decided not to be a creator in that sense anymore: it was too exhausting, he said. “I decided that I was never going to kill myself again, emotionally.” This is what he felt about acting, not that it was a childish activity, but that it was a calling which demanded total and draining immersion in his own emotional and imaginative resources. Easier to dismiss it as silly than to wage the unrelenting war with oneself that takes acting to the plane of art. Mann’s book is continuously fascinating, vivid, and full of new information; for anyone interested in Brando, it is indispensable. But about the central activity in his life, it is fundamentally wrong. So, yet another book on Brando is still to be written.

Simon Callow is an actor and director, and the author of several books, including an acclaimed three-volume biography of Orson Welles