I read this book for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2014.
Marlon Brando – Patricia Bosworth
I was born in the mid-Fifties so before my time was Marlon Brando alternately mumbling and braying into stardom dressed in a t-shirt, mixing brutality and vulnerability in A Streetcar named Desire. In the Sixties, I missed his often criticized turns except for his mannered hero in Mutiny on the Bounty. As for his comeback in the 1970s, I was a smart-aleck university student more impressed with Malcolm McDowell’s mixing brutality and vulnerability in A Clockwork Orange than with Brando’s regeneration. I mean, nearly unintelligible with his cheeks full of cotton in The Godfather? Wearing the gingham dress and bonnet in Missouri Breaks? That big biiiggg biiiiiggggg head in Apocalypse Now?
Hey, I was young. Snooty. Older now – if not old – I have to grant that actors have to take the risk of seeming silly. And in Last Tango in Paris, the casket scene has Brando’s Paul doing a helluva monologue. Too bad that nasty butter scene is always the one people remember. What were Brando and Bertolucci thinking, to humiliate a 19-year-old woman like they exploited Maria Schneider? She didn’t know what they were planning in that scene. Bertolucci later said letting her know beforehand what she was in for would have involved “too much discussion.”
I trust Patricia Bosworth because her biography of Montgomery Clift was brilliant. So I was willing to read this very short biography, in the Penguin Lives series. She excels in going over childhood and his early career. Brando’s beloved mother was an alcoholic and his father a philanderer and serial failure as a businessman. Brando was a failure in school and thrown out of a military academy. He hated authority. He had frequent physical complaints, such as headaches or stomachaches, and had panic attacks.
He went to New York City to become an actor on his mother’s advice. He studied at the New School with Stella Adler, who was influenced by the methods of Konstantin Stanislavski. In this method, which I admit seems as vague to me as Zen Buddhism, the actor reaches inside, to plumb imagination to find what’s right for the role. "Stella Adler was much more than a teacher of acting," said Brando. "Through her work she imparts the most valuable kind of information—how to discover the nature of our own emotional mechanics and therefore those of others. "
Brando combined the manner of a caged wild animal with the honesty of the sensitive sincere guy in his own style, which influenced actors from Montgomery Clift and James Dean down to Al Pacino and Johnny Depp. For instance, he learned to handle objects in order to mirror inner turmoil, such as the famous glove scene in On the Waterfront or with the cat in The Godfather. Bosworth tells many interesting production stories, which is the main reason I read Hollywood books. I was perturbed by the stories about Elia Kazan lying to actors to get them angry at each other. Who the hell was he to be messing with other people’s heads like that?
Although he did not abuse drugs or alcohol, throughout his life Brando turned to food to relieve his depression. Like other children of alcoholics, he often took on the role of the “responsible parent" among his iffy friends. After his success on Broadway, he was an ATM for his friends, paying when they were in trouble with a lack of groceries or an unwanted pregnancy. If indeed, as Glenn Close said, "All great art comes from a sense of outrage," Brando had anger to burn. He punished women and men and himself by finding unreliable people to depend on. He belittled the acting profession, likening it to a craft like plumbing.
Anyway, the edition which I read was published in 2001. Bosworth briefly covers the suicide of his daughter and the imprisonment of his son, but does not dwell on how these ordeals may have complicated treatments for his health, which was plagued by overweight, diabetes and liver cancer. Brando died, of respiratory failure related to congestive heart failure, in 2004.