You could scream

Jenny Diski

  • Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me by Marlon Brando and Robert Lindsey
    Century, 468 pp, £17.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 7126 6012 7
  • Greta & Cecil by Diana Souhami
    Cape, 272 pp, £18.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 224 03719 6

The last thing that dreams should do is come true. It would end in futile tears if they did, much as it would for the autophagist who chomps away at himself from the legs up until he comes to his head and realises that he can never achieve the final consummation. Dreams are for dreaming about. The Hollywood dream-masters got it right when they had Judy Garland playing a star-struck teenager gazing at a pin-up of Clark Gable and singing ‘If you were the only boy in the world’. It’s if, not when. Mix them up and you remember the story of Gable resting on set minus his false teeth shouting gummily at another passing icon: ‘Look here, Marilyn, America’s sweetheart.’ It adds enormously to Gable’s individuality, but plays havoc for ever after with the moment when he’s frank with Vivian Leigh.

You could argue that our tendency to demand when as soon as we think if has been responsible for the development of civilisation, and I daresay there are those who admire the first hominid who looked at a rock and saw a tool in it, but think of the unimagined marvels we might have achieved if we’d settled for dreaming about things instead of chipping the material world into the shape we first thought of. Very likely we would have got around to dreaming up Brando and Garbo at about the time of the woolly mammoths, and what’s more, they would still be with us in their perfect form because, as knowing and committed dreamers, we would have had the good sense not to ask them what they thought about anything. As it is, we’ve only managed to have them for a few decades in their ideal state as two-dimensional light and shadow, before losing them to biographical reality.

The true icon excites the curiosity without ever answering the questions it demands you ask. Enigma depends on an essential silence. The twenty-foot image of Garbo might talk, or even laugh, but the creature you see on the screen does not speak her own words, tell her own story or even wear her own clothes. We’re given nothing of the real individual except the endless opportunity for unsatisfied speculation. Even names can get in the way. Garbo and Brando are suitably iconic: the final empty vowel turning Garb and Brand into every-and-no-woman and man, and offering, as a bonus, a small gasp of astonishment. But once you start to think of them as Greta and Marlon you’re back with a bump to the absurdity of real life. There’s nothing more certain to wreck a lazy daydream of being taken roughly into the arms of your chosen idol than the moment when you have to imagine yourself whispering, ‘Oh, Clint ...’, ‘Oh, Marlene ...’

Brando resisted writing his autobiography, unwilling to satisfy the public’s ‘prurient curiosity’, and his instincts, which when he’s on form are as good as instincts get, were right. Everything you ever didn’t want to know about Brando is available in this rambling, ghosted tale. Reading it is like waking up in the morning next to last night’s dream lover and realising you brought the bar-room bore home with you. The trick is to go back to their place and leave before they wake. Songs My Mother Taught Me is the breakfast too far.

But Brando’s fastidious reservations about his public were nevertheless overcome, and for the best of reasons – he needed the money. To wonder why someone who earned $14 million for two and a half weeks’ work on Superman needs money is, I suppose, merely to display a failure of imagination. But there was, after all, a selfless, literary motive behind it all: Harry Evans of Random House told Brando ‘that if his company published a book about a movie star, the profits would enable him to publish books by talented unpublished authors that might not make money.’ Perhaps Harry Evans will oblige us with a list of the new writers who have Marlon to thank for their publication. How many literary novelists equal the profits of one Brando, do you suppose?

Brando does not want us to know about his wives or children, but he wants us very much to know about his own childhood and the traumas he suffered with a violent father he hates, and alcoholic mother he probably hates too. In spite of years of analysis, his anger and resentment as he speaks of his childhood is as fresh, at 70, as if he’d just left home, and there is a feeling that nothing very much in his inner life has been resolved, or even put to one side as no longer of very great importance. He is as sorry for himself and sulky about the way things were as an adolescent raging against his pimples. The degree of self-absorption is remarkable. But while it is what made him such a good actor, it also accounts for some central vacuum which requires him to trash his talent, his world and anyone he comes into contact with. If you stare too long at the reflection of your own eyes, you end up seeing undifferentiated emptiness.

Self-disgust spreads like sewage over his work. His ludicrous version of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now was every bit as self-serving as it appeared when it toppled the movie. After bending Coppola’s ear for ten days on the errors of his script and the true meaning of Heart of Darkness, Brando rewrote the part and did it his way. ‘I was good at bullshitting Francis and persuading him to think my way, but what I’d really wanted from the beginning was to find a way to make my part smaller so that I wouldn’t have to work so hard.’ Yet the nihilism is immediately undermined, the Hollywood soft-centre is never far away. A paragraph later he complains that a 45-minute-long monologue he wrote for Kurtz was one of the best scenes he ever played, but that Coppola hardly used any of it. Audiences can be grateful that Coppola was not as easily bullshitted as all that.

The same empty braggadocio tells us how lucky he has been with women. ‘There have been many of them in my life, though I hardly ever spent more than a couple of minutes with any of them ... I enjoy identifying and pushing the right emotional buttons ... which usually means making them feel that they are of value to me and offering them security for themselves and their children.’ You wonder why such a master of womankind should need to eat a quart of ice-cream before making a night visit to a woman whose husband was in hospital, and then, to make himself vomit, stick his finger down his throat so violently that he split his oesophagus and nearly died of internal bleeding. Well, you don’t wonder much, because by then, you know what’s coming. ‘If you’ve never had warmth, love or affection, it is hard to give it, or if you’ve had it and it has been stolen from you, if you think you’ve been rejected and abandoned, you fear being hurt again. I always wanted several women in my life at the same time as an emotional insurance policy to protect myself from being hurt again.’ It’s going to take very many talented new authors being published to make up for all this slop.

Fired by the post-war revelations of the treatment of the Jews in Germany he became an active Zionist. However, ‘I did not know then that Jewish terrorists were indiscriminately killing Arabs ... Now I understand much more about the complexity of the situation than I did then.’ So points gained all round. And although he believes that McCarthyite America ‘missed the establishment of fascism ... by a hair’, he claims he did not realise when he agreed to do it that On the Waterfront was ‘really a metaphorical argument’ by Kazan and Budd Schulberg: ‘they made the film to justify finking on their friends.’ Then there was the unrequited flirtation with the Panthers, when, innocent that he was, he failed to twig that walking through the streets of Harlem with Mayor John Lindsay might be interpreted as supporting the political ambitions of a white politician in need of black votes. Rap Brown ‘lambasted me as a shallow liberal poking his nose into a world he didn’t know and in which he didn’t belong’. Brando took Brown’s point that, ‘despite a lifetime of searching, curiosity and empathy, I would never understand what it was to be black.’ And it is odd that so much searching, curiosity and empathy adds up to little more than the noisy self-publicity of this book. ‘I was not Stanley Kowalski,’ says Brando repeatedly of his early role in A Streetcar Named Desire, explaining that the Stanley Kowalskis he’s met in his life were ‘muscled, inarticulate, aggressive animals who go through life responding to nothing but their urges and never doubting themselves, men brawny in body and manner of speech who act only on instinct, with little awareness of themselves’. Mmm.

To her eternal credit Greta Garbo never made us suffer like this, though her disdain for what she did was just as deep as Brando’s, and her narcissism, in its own way, quite as well developed. Garbo maintained her public silence to the grave and Diana Souhami is not playing ghost to her shade. Greta and Cecil is not a biography of either Garbo or Beaton, but an account of their bizarre relationship, which, at its best, manages, improbably, to turn even the ineffably shallow Cecil Beaton into something of an enigma. We are presented with a world of wavering gender and identity, filled with reflection and reiteration, photographic images, mirrors and screens, where false façades conceal equally artificial foundations, and reality is just what you break your foot on as you stumble on it in the dark.

Biography is of course involved, and Garbo’s silence is inevitably breached. What you always suspected, but didn’t want to know, is explicitly stated in a quote from James Pope-Hennessy: ‘then it gradually dawns on one that she is entirely uneducated, interested in theosophy, dieting and all other cranky subjects, has conversation so dull that you could scream.’ There it is again, that waking-up-in-the-morning-feeling.

See her on the screen, however, and Barthes is right: she is the ‘Platonic idea of a human creature’, all the more so because of the uncertainty of gender she effortlessly displays. Never mind Queen Christina striding around in suede doublet and thigh-high boots, there is Camille frou-frou’ed from top to toe in layers of frothy net and ringlets, but what of those strong, bare shoulders rising out of the décolleté frills, as confident and mobile as a swaggering youth? She is sexual to the point of discomfort, but unanchored to any particular sexuality, so she’s everyone’s and no one’s.

Even so, it’s odd that Cecil Beaton should have decided that she might be his. Odd, until you read Souhami’s description of the world Beaton created at his farmhouse, Ashcombe, in Wiltshire. ‘He filled the place with lifesized cupids, silver and gilt candlesticks, silver bird cages, glass balls, engraved mirrors, shell pictures, crumbling Italian console tables, stone statues called Castor and Pollux and plaster casts of bits of his own anatomy.’ Then he held parties, with ‘lovely-looking people, charades, impersonations and dressing-up games’. But apart from the theatricals, ‘nothing much happened at Ashcombe,’ and when everyone had gone home there was no ordinary, daily life going on.

Beaton languished for four years after the wealthy art patron Peter Watson, who was kind enough to him but emotionally committed to Beaton’s rival, Oliver Messel. For a while Stephen Tennant looked like a possibility, but no one fell in love with Beaton, though he hankered and ached. When he turned his attentions to Garbo, she avoided him for 14 years, during which time she permitted Mercedes de Acosta (of whom Alice B. Toklas wrote: ‘You can’t dismiss Mercedes lightly. She has had the two most important women in the United States – Garbo and Dietrich’) and Stokowski to run around after her, devoted but regularly dismissed from the presence.

Beaton’s world was so unreal that he decided that Garbo should be his wife and make a home of Ashcombe. At which point the unreality has the quality of infinite regress, empty Garbo mirroring empty Beaton in their empty mansion filled with functionless stage props. Garbo’s world, on the other hand, was strangely real. By 1941, at the age of 36, Garbo had made her last movie, since when she had lived in desolation, doing nothing, alone and in hiding from the press. Her days, she told Beaton in 1965, were spent lying ‘in my bed looking at the wallpaper’. She toyed with Beaton, telling him that perhaps she would marry him, that he might ‘make an honest boy’ of her. Some kind of sexual relationship occurred, although we have to take Beaton’s word for it. She went to his hotel room for tea and asked: ‘Do you want to go to bed?’ And Cecil’s recollection? ‘Sometimes photographs are more like people than people themselves. This afternoon there were many flashes of her in the Pilgrim hat as she was in Queen Christina and later in the half-light she was the living embodiment of her “stills”. Later she said, “La nuit tombe” and outside there was only artificial light.’ It seems he went to bed with a photograph.

His desire was always mixed with envy and the wish to deface his icon. He noted her ageing face with evident pleasure on a cruise in 1965. ‘In this cruel harsh sunlight on board one sees every crinkle and crevice in the most cruel way. I have hawklike watched her in all lights, without mascara even.’ In 1935, when he was still dreaming of a relationship with her, he was already writing: ‘unused to putting herself out for anyone, she would be a trying companion, continually sighing, full of tragic regrets, without making any definite move to alter her general state of affairs.’ He was right, she failed to make the decision to marry her beau, and when he finally published his diaries containing descriptions of his relationship with her, she dismissed him from her life.

What Garbo and Brando share is a loathing of what they did for a living. In some way, their refusal to over-value the business of making movies was admirable, beginning, perhaps, as a proper assessment of the relative value of things in the world. A little contempt for what you do is a useful tool in the inflated world of ‘creativity’, yet the balance Garbo and Brando might have been trying for tipped over into self-disgust, and the skills that each of them possessed became worthless. Tennessee Williams said of Garbo, as he might have said of Brando: ‘How sad a thing for an artist to abandon his art. I think it’s much sadder than death.’ The autophagists eat themselves away and never satisfy their hunger.