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.