- Conversations with Marlon Brando by Lawrence Grobel
Bloomsbury, 177 pp, £14.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 7475 0816 X
- George Sanders: An Exhausted Life by Richard Vanderbeets
Robson, 271 pp, £15.95, September 1991, ISBN 0 86051 749 7
- Rex Harrison: A Biography by Nicholas Wapshott
Chatto, 331 pp, £16.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 7011 3764 9
- Me: Stories of my Life by Katharine Hepburn
Viking, 418 pp, £16.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 670 83974 4
Famous faces. Anyone at home behind them? Let’s begin with Brando, now a famously corpulent body beneath the spoiltangel head. The magnificently instinctual film performer belongs to a past when the man felt able to take acting seriously. By Last Tango in Paris, brooding power had turned to blubbery narcissism, and self-parody, it seemed, had come to stay. More recently, though having agreed to do a pastiche of his Godfather performance for The Freshman, a negligible vehicle, he responded with a largely unlooked-for sophistication – charming, precise, delieiously funny. No more than a witty footnote to his career, perhaps, but one that warns us not to patronise him. Contempt for Hollywood, exile to the South Seas, espousal of the Native American cause, have meanwhile directed attention towards the existence of another Brando.
The bulk of Lawrence Grobel’s Conversations derives from a 1978 Playboy interview (accorded after Hugh Hefner put up $50,000 to bail out the Indian activist Russell Means) and is presumably being published now as a kind of hors d’oeuvre to Brando’s autobiography, for which Random House have reputedly paid him a million pound advance. Since 1978, aside from his rare film appearances, Brando-watchers have had to make do with the Chinese American broadcaster Connie Chung’s televised visit to his island hideaway, a queasy piece of film which features the actor in a fully ballooned state, rambling dreamily as he tries to evade Chung’s winsome and predictable questions Grobel’s Brando is both slimmer and sharper. As expected, he is scathingly sane about acting – ‘I don’t put it down ... but I resent other people putting it up’ – and the film-star celebrity cult: ‘Ask young kids who Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable was. “Didn’t he play for the Yankees?” “No, no, he was a tailbacker at Cincinnati.” ’ On the subject of the American Indian he is notably eloquent and concise – as he is, less predictably, on certain other subjects. His conversation ranges over literary and political history, not only American and European: a discussion of Aldo Moro’s murder is well-informed and politically acute. After a few hours in this Brando’s company, his references to Kafka and Kierkegaard, Baudelaire and Epictetus, seem thoroughly, unostentatiously appropriate. The man is widely read and witty on an impressive variety of topics. He is wise, charming, at ease with himself and with the world.
Why shouldn’t he be? Shoe-horned into Grobel’s slightly breathless introduction and postscript, comments by friends and employees give glimpses of a less temperate Brando, and restore to us some of the screen persona, the murmuring hulk promising childish storms of violence and tenderness. Which is the real Brando? Both, no doubt. It’s not uncommon for someone to combine elements of the tartar and the sage. For an intelligent actor who becomes an idol, it’s almost unavoidable. Adulation brings a shocking vertigo, rending the self into megolomania and shame. Shame is the saner part; and yet self-disgust is as corrosive as egotism. We know we aren’t worthy, indeed that the adulation isn’t really meant for us but for the idolised image. Brando’s sell-exile is one response to this, to the recognition of what has happened, that we have disappeared.