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Marlon Brando
Patricia Bosworth
London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001 (hardcover).
£12.99, 176 pages, ISBN 0-297-84284-6.

London: Phoenix, 2002 (paperback).
£6.99, 160 pages, ISBN 0-753-81379-3.

New York: Viking, 2001 (hardcover).
$21.95, 228 pages, ISBN 0-670-88236-4.

James Friel
Liverpool John Moores University

The film star biography is more often the province of the hack journalist or, occasionally, the slumming Great Writer—Norman Mailer’s Marilyn comes to mind—but Bosworth’s brief life of Brando is a definite delight. As in her superlative biography of Montgomery Clift, she displays an intelligence and sympathy where lesser practitioners become dim-witted and judgmental.

The book is a more than honourable addition to the Weidenfeld and Nicolson Lives series. The success (and the occasional failures) of the series comes from matching writers with subjects and the best of these biographies reflect back upon the biographer so that Proust, for example, becomes a proto-Edmund White and James Joyce is lyrically feminised by Edna O’Brien’s fond regard. Sometimes the pairings are genuinely insightful (Wayne Koestenbaum’s obsessive ardour for the embalmed art of Andy Warhol—reviewed in Cercles) and sometimes they are not (Jane Smiley’s dull trot about the foothills of man-mountain Charles Dickens); others promise much but unaccountably fail to deliver (Carol Shields on Jane Austen). It’s a simple and winning concept and the books worthwhile primers for those interested in the biographers as much as the biographees, but the most reliable in the series are the ones that match a keen and judicious mind with subjects too often dealt with foggily (Karen Armstrong on Buddha or Mary Gordon on Joan of Arc) and Bosworth is one such mind, her approach delicately complicated and enriched by the obvious spell Brando casts upon her—on us all.

As with other books in the series, a degree of personal interaction with the subject is encouraged but Bosworth’s personal knowledge of the subject—she met him only once and fleetingly—is nowhere near as illuminating as her evocations of Brando’s stage performances or the quotes she has elicited from Elia Kazan and others (presumably remnants from her research for the Clift biography).

Much of the groundwork has been done by others but the debt to Peter Manso’s epic biography (1,118 pages) and Brando’s own remarkable book, Songs My Mother Taught Me (1994), is honestly acknowledged. In truth her book is a scissors and paste job but Bosworth cuts with great dexterity and glues with exemplary neatness and, as the biography of Clift again attests, she knows this world thoroughly and her love of it is evident. Moreover, her writing is supremely lucid and her tone is discriminating, warm and involving.

Brando’s childhood and early life is especially well-done. Bosworth recounts with an equable sensitivity his upbringing (downbringing?) by the moody and abusive Brando Senior and bohemian mother, Dodie, who claimed in her drunkenness to be ‘the greatest actress not on the American stage.’ The scars the couple left on Brando, their burdensome heritage, his terrible dependence on the pair of them energise, demonise and cripple him for the rest of his life and Bosworth’s own humanity is most apparent in the way she traces their influence upon him and yet also makes us understanding of them.

Throughout these first chapters one feels that one is reading some muted draft of what might be a great American novel; the father coming home with lipstick on his underpants; the adolescent Brando rescuing his mother, naked and drunk, from some cocktail bar and bundling her into a taxi cab; his life-long friendship with Wally Cox, an equally precocious child whose mother runs off with a lesbian lover and whom Brando protects as he protects sick animals or the bag lady he brings home to stay with them; the nurse who seduces him when he is five years old, fondling him as he crawls over her naked body: ‘Danish, but a touch of Indonesian blood [that] gave her skin a slightly dark, smoky patina [...] she was all mine; she belonged to me and me alone’; the portraits of Polynesian native faces he stares at for hours— ‘happy unmanaged faces’—that will inspire him and turn him into, it sometimes seems, a mystic in search of Paradise. The novel goes unwritten—it would need an American Herman Hesse—but, as the quotes throughout suggest, Brando himself is no mean literary stylist.

Bosworth is equally good on Brando’s early career on stage and in cinema—again, perhaps, because she covers the same period so well in her Clift biography. There she gave a detailed and incisive picture of the culture and politics of the age but she also gave full tribute to Clift’s beauty and delicacy as both man and actor and showed how his own neuroses and difficult personal life fed into his art. Clift was a technically exquisite performer, febrile, sensitive, thoughtful and vulnerable—in many ways a more radical and innovative male presence on the screen than Brando—but here Bosworth feelingly suggests not only Brando’s volcanic energy, his aggressively sexual presence and incipient violence but also his great stillness at high dramatic points and the admirable detail of his best performances. She reminds us how quiet his best moments are by giving us, say, Mankiewicz’s memory of filming a scene in which Brando’s Mark Antony realises he will replace Caesar. In a garden of ruined statuary Brando faces the bust of the murdered emperor so that it gazes down upon him and he transforms himself into another statue, a moment of ‘simplicity and balance [...] like an exquisite piece of music.’ She does likewise when she quotes Elia Kazan recalling how, at the end of the famous cab ride scene in On the Waterfront, ‘his brother pulls a pistol to force him to do something shameful (Brando’s character) puts his hand on the gun and pushes it away with the gentleness of a caress.’

His screen debut in Zinneman’s The Men is as sensitive and finely honed as Clift’s debut in the same director’s The Search. In the screen version of A Streetcar Named Desire his Kowalski supersedes his stage performance because in Vivien Leigh he meets his match and the pair ignite in a way not seen before or since. There is also that revelatory performance as Mark Antony. The Mankiewicz film seems a stagy piece now but it is still illumined by Brando’s smooth beauty and very fine control of the language. The famous Brando mumble might typify him—then as now—but his vocal range and finely attuned ear, Bosworth is right to observe, is never given full credit and his performance in his early films is evidence of it.

This is also the period in which Brando appears to have been happiest, his potential about to be made real—a free spirit sexually, emotionally and professionally, testing his wings, amazed as much as his audience by how far he can soar, a brute and an infant with a stevedore’s body and an angel’s face, an amazing mimic whose impersonations were built from deep within or from long, soulful observations and deep reflection.

Success as an actor—success as Brando knew it and knows it even now—is rare and, when achieved, must seem absurd, excessive. He was not only celebrated, well-paid, lauded but made an icon, a figure of awe for his generation and those who came after. Acting is such an evanescent activity and, even at its most physical, a ghostly activity, a thing of mood and nerves, that the material wealth, the loud attention it can bring can seem inordinate; your part in it mean, insubstantial and the world must look a fool to be so easily taken in.

Bosworth suggests several reasons for Brando’s decline in the Sixties: Brando’s ennui with his own brilliance, the film world’s inability to cope with him or provide material to stretch him but, most affectingly, she suggests it may well be the death of his mother—who else was there left to impress?—and a deepening and unsatisfying desire for revenge against the father. She traces a line—often noted in Brando’s films—in which he is savagely beaten: On the Waterfront, The Wild Ones, The Chase, each with a scene that seem not so much exorcisms of his father’s abuse but re-enactments of them. In the most stunning and gory of them, the self-directed One-Eyed Jacks, his character, Rio, is betrayed and then beaten to a pulp by a treacherous partner called Dad.

Perhaps Brando in the Sixties simply lacked taste. He turned down a role in The Sweet Smell of Success, a fact that for a moment encourages a fantasy of giving Brando in these years Burt Lancaster’s career. Lancaster, ten years older, had a similar grace, a muscleman’s body and a ballerina’s poise. I’d not cheat him of any of his great moments except to imagine for an instant Brando as the Prince in Visconti’s The Leopard or in Malle’s Atlantic City. Or as Julien Sorel in Le Rouge et Le Noir, another rejected role.

In the Sixties Brando did not work with the best. He met Chaplin in his seeming dotage in the limp A Countess from Hong Kong. His performance in Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye is mannered and off-kilter although Bosworth defends it well. Kubrick wisely left One-Eyed Jacks as soon as he could—if only to work with an equally if more productively ‘hands-on’ actor, Kirk Douglas. (Again the fantasy occurs, this time with Brando replacing Douglas as Spartacus or Van Gogh in Minelli’s Lust for Life or as the director in Two Weeks in Another Town, even perhaps redeeming Kazan’s indulgent The Arrangement.)

Brando’s presence weighs down a mediocre film and he cannot save a bad one. Dean Martin steals The Young Lions from both Brando and Clift, and Teahouse of the August Moon, Sayonara and Desirée do not suggest a great and transfiguring actor. What can Bosworth do with these years except what we might do if faced with videos of Bedtime Story, Morituri, The Ugly American or The Appaloosa: fast-forward, skip, get through them as quickly as possible until it is 1972, the annus mirabilis of Brando’s career, the extraordinary, unexpected and magnificent flowering that is his back-to-back performances in The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris.
Here Brando wins out over his peers. Other actors may be more consistent and, sometimes, superior—Anthony Quinn who replaced him on Broadway was said to be a better Kowalksi—but these two roles could only have been achieved by Brando. They seem like roles inhabited not just by different actors but different men from different traditions, different generations. In The Godfather he is armoured by wardrobe, mummified in make-up, contained, courtly, made of ice; in Tango he is naked, an open wound. As Don Corleone he disappears—Paul Muni-like—into the role; in Tango, as Bosworth and others observe, he appears to project not a persona but his very self. If only Maria Schneider had matched him as Vivien Leigh matches him in Streetcar. Seldom in his career—only once perhaps—did he have a female star to equal and to provoke him. Bosworth could make more of this lack.

Brando’s personal life, the kidnapping, trials and drug addictions of his many children, his numerous wives, his own ballooning weight and battles with food are outlined by Bosworth succinctly and with probity but her attention is on the work and how the man is present within it.

Brando is his work—astonishing and exasperating, glamorous and indulgent, sexually charged; compelling and, all too often, ludicrous and unintentionally comic but Brando gave us a Kowalski, a Corleone and the Paul of Last Tango in Paris. It is enough. It is plenty. Yet it leaves us wanting more.

As does, in her way, Bosworth. This brief life feels too short, too easily digested. As well as her biography of Clift, there is also an underrated life of Diane Arbus. One wishes, as with Brando, there were more.

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