What does a chicken know of bombs?

David Thomson

  • The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando by William J. Mann
    HarperCollins, 718 pp, £22.00, November, ISBN 978 0 06 242764 9

An actor wants to wake up tomorrow as someone else: that’s the delight and the horror in what is sometimes called a profession or an art, as if its risks can be controlled. An actor can be anyone, if he can stand the pace of change and its rootlessness. Cinema as a medium urges us to view ourselves as actors presenting ourselves.

Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in ‘On the Waterfront’ (1954).
Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in ‘On the Waterfront’ (1954).

So Marlon Brando could be a paraplegic after the war, he could be Zapata, Napoleon, a mafia don, or Lee Clayton, swanning around the Missouri Breaks country in a dress, a bonnet and an italic Irish accent. He might be a used-up ex-boxer on the Jersey docks. Or an actor pretending to be that punchdrunk bum few of us would care to notice in life. We’d rather look away. But when it comes to Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954), there isn’t a moment’s doubt: forget the forlorn, would-be contender, this guy is a champion the first moment we see him, a shabby maestro, a trickster.

‘I can’t convey how discomfiting it is not to be able to be a normal person,’ Brando said in 1991, testifying in the trial of his son Christian for killing Dag Drollet, the lover who had been beating Christian’s half-sister Cheyenne. ‘I led a wasted life,’ Brando added, in tears. Some felt he was acting even in court. For as he always said, we all of us act, all the time, all our lives. It’s the signal system we use, hoping to come off as real and sincere.

You’re going to find it hard to read a good Life of a good actor without throwing the book aside in frustration. Sure, he’s an angel, a genius, a charmer, but such a muddle and a mess, not to mention a pain in the neck. Imagine what it’s like for the writer. Or for Marlon.

William Mann does not have the field to himself. There are at least a dozen biographies of Brando, or memoirs that depend on his presence. The weightiest of these is Peter Manso’s, published in 1994, when Brando still had ten years to live. (Mann hurries through those last years out of kindness as much as weariness. The killing of Drollet, the imprisonment of Christian and Cheyenne’s subsequent suicide left Brando a hulk, emptied of the old energy or humour. He was waiting to go at seventy, and though he made a few films after that, he no longer believed in movies or in acting.)

Manso’s epic grew out of more than 750 interviews, and its rather bitter thoroughness extends to 1118 pages. ‘Bitter’ because so much in Brando’s life was repetitive and depressing, and a lot of his work does not repay relentless attention. Very few great actors made so many inconsequential films – or found themselves in so many implausible and ugly situations.

Mann’s modest work (718 pages) draws on fewer interviews, not that it lacks flavour or credibility when it comes to what friends, lovers, colleagues and onlookers remember. ‘I don’t repeat every anecdote of Brando’s life, every bit of arcana of his career or his publicity, every single girlfriend or sexual tryst,’ Mann writes. ‘That minutiae can be found elsewhere. Instead, I drop in at key moments of his life and get in as close as possible to understanding him and his world, then fade out and drop in again, a few years down the road.’ So, it’s like a movie, or a novel? Not at all, says Mann, ‘I have not fictionalised anything in this book.’ I trust him, though he steadily pumps in ‘atmosphere’ to resemble a scenario. He weatherises scenes. On 18 August 1947, as Brando was about to be cast as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, ‘Heat and humidity choked the city, with temperatures averaging in the low nineties. Youngsters pried open fire hydrants to cool off.’ Well, sure. New York in August tends to be hot, humid … and clichéd.

There could be less of this scene-setting, but maybe there were fears that the dropping in and out might disconcert some readers. The book does move back and forth in time, dumping strict chronology for feeling and insight. I think this works. To give an example, Mann picks a moment in 1944 when Brando slugged a fellow student actor, a guy at the New School Drama Workshop. It’s clear something happened, but less clear why, except that sexual touching was involved. Mann shifts from this incident back to the expulsion of the teenage Brando from Shattuck Military Academy in Minnesota, probably because his favourite teacher, Earle Wagner, suddenly turned on him. Wagner was himself fired from the Academy later for sexual involvement with cadets.

This backstory is well told, and the connecting of the two incidents is persuasive: Brando was very beautiful, sufficiently lost or in need of rescue, and pansexual before that term was in use. (He sometimes slept with his friend, the French actor Christian Marquand.) Mann uses that New School punch-up to explore Brando’s unceasing sexual adventurism, and his habit of seeking parental figures and then abandoning them. There was a natural promiscuity to him, like an actor who wondered if he might play all the roles. That takes us into the heart of things: why he acted, whom he sought to please, and how his prowess clashed with his manic-depressive roundabout.

Marlon Brando Jr (called Bud for his first twenty years) was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1924. He had two older sisters, who doted on him. His mother, Dorothy, had tried acting (though Bud didn’t know this for years). She was creative, untidy, unhappy and alcoholic. She was musical, too – in 1994, Brando would call his ghostwritten autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me. Mann wants to believe that Brando’s bond with Dorothy was tragic and exacerbated by Junior’s dislike of his father. Marlon Senior was on the road, a chemicals salesman, a womaniser and a boozer, and pointedly harsh and ungiving with his son. Mann says this amounted to trauma for Bud, but isn’t completely convincing. Marlon Senior paid for his son’s years in New York finding himself. Later Brando asked Dad to handle some of his business affairs. That decision worked out badly, but this isn’t a story of alienation and anger. When in December 1947 Brando opened on Broadway in Streetcar his parents were there for the occasion. Let’s at least allow that Bud could be a wilful, perverse, tricky child. He always had an urge to repudiate his audience.

Mann is at his best recounting the speed with which the young Brando went from the New School to playing Stanley Kowalski. His progress was spurred by two people. Stella Adler was an actress and a dynamic teacher of acting. She fell for Brando and his chronic originality. Her approach had two anchors: respect the text and be real. She set the class an exercise: you are a chicken and the bomb is falling – act that out. Other students went into a panic. But Marlon just hunched up, still and labouring. ‘What are you doing?’ Adler asked. ‘I’m laying an egg,’ he replied. ‘What does a chicken know of bombs?’

Adler took Marlon into her family: that meant her brother, the actor Luther Adler; her second husband, Harold Clurman, a leader of the Group Theatre, and Stella’s daughter from a previous marriage, Ellen, who was three years younger than Marlon. She and Marlon became lifelong friends, and they were lovers over the years (this is tactfully handled by Mann just because Ellen is one of his best witnesses). Was there ever anything between Stella and Marlon? It was complicated: Adler was twenty years older than the young actor. But was he immune to any woman who saw so deeply into him?

The other mentor was Elia Kazan, the essential director of that moment on stage and screen and as devoted as Stella Adler to psychological reality. He was Brando’s type, an intense, conspiratorial director who lived through his actors. Kazan had been an actor himself, but was so far from good-looking that he had to dominate by will and a pact of intimacy with his actors. Kazan had noticed Brando already in New York and argued for casting the young actor in the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Brando wasn’t an easy sell: the producer, Irene Selznick, favoured the movie star John Garfield. Marlon was a shade too young for Stanley, who is a war veteran. He was clearly hard to manage. But he had a mixture of brute and poet that Kazan urged on Selznick and Tennessee Williams.

That was just the start, for in rehearsal Kazan built up Stanley’s role, and lavished attention on his guy. In the text, it is Blanche’s play – and in its subsequent history it has become a vehicle for spectacular actresses. But Kazan was edgy at the thought that Williams had written a disguised gay romance in which a homosexual figure is ravished by rough trade. Kazan was burningly heterosexual and needed to feel invested in his work – indeed, he would have an affair with Kim Hunter, the actress he cast as Stella. But beyond that he made a production that celebrated Stanley as a force of nature. No one was more aware of this, or more troubled by it, than Jessica Tandy, who as Blanche felt increasingly intimidated by Brando’s taking charge of the rhythms of their scenes, and Kazan’s eager support of this theft. Rhythm is important: the young Brando was obsessed with drumming.

This Streetcar wasn’t quite the play we know now. Kazan and Brando had created a kind of ‘hoodlum aristocrat’ (the label is from Kazan’s stage notes) while introducing a tough, emotional vein of male introspection that would soon be called the Actors Studio style, or the Method. Most of this was humbug, and Mann is good at bursting the Method balloon. Kazan had been a co-founder of the Actors Studio (in 1947), but he soon backed away from it, leaving it as the fiefdom of Lee Strasberg. Stella Adler (who had been to Russia to study with Stanislavsky) believed the New York Method had the master’s theories wrong. Strasberg stressed sense memory, but Adler and Kazan believed in anything that worked and felt startling and new. That’s why Brando always howled in dismay at being typed as a product of the Actors Studio. It’s also the reason Kazan was a better director than Strasberg.

Streetcar was a sensation. There was a boy in Brando who loved the adulation that followed, and the chance to scoop up female admirers. But he hated having to do the same text night after night when his core faith (or neurosis) was in spontaneity, the accidental and in doing something for the first time. Being dangerous. That’s how his style became hooked on unpredictable impulse and why Tandy found him a nightmare. What’s more, before the opening he had been a happy spy on the street and on subway trains, devouring the oddities of human behaviour, relying on going unnoticed, unless he wanted to pick someone up. But now he was recognised everywhere, he was a star, ‘Marlon Brando’, and it started to drive him crazy. There was a rebelliousness in him that couldn’t stand the duty of being a professional actor.

So he had changed Broadway, but he would never act there again. There would be no Hamlet or Lear, no Vanya or James Tyrone. His one shot at Shakespeare was as Antony in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film of Julius Caesar (1953), where he amazed many doubters and impressed John Gielgud (his Cassius), by handling the verse as easily as he had muttered and snarled in Streetcar and The Wild One. But he did make movies, like Désirée, Teahouse of the August Moon, Mutiny on the Bounty, that he despised, and for which he was inclined to blame the world. He was French, Japanese, English, out of idle playfulness. (Teahouse seldom plays now: it was blithely racist.)

It’s a regret that no one ever found a way to harness his wild comic impulse. He was taken so seriously. He became a Hollywood actor, without ever trusting that system, or forgiving it for his weakness in succumbing to its temptations. Of course, there would be mercies for him and for all of us, pictures that stand in history. He could have gone into semi-retirement, spending more and more time in his beloved Tahitian islands. If he had settled just for Streetcar, On the Waterfront, The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, the legend of Marlon Brando would be unimpaired.

William Mann sees On the Waterfront as the central achievement. It too was a Kazan project, but this time the director was less convinced that Brando should be the lead. He considered a young Paul Newman and even Frank Sinatra. Did he reckon Marlon had a soft look, or too much beauty, for Terry Malloy, the failed boxer? Or had he heard that Marlon had been bad-mouthing him because Kazan (after tortured reflection) had in 1952 testified to the House Un-American Activities Committee about communists he had known in the 1930s? While Brando hadn’t yet felt out the liberal principles or the loathing of racism that would make him an activist, he could smell betrayal and the slippery intricacies in Kazan’s personality. Anyone could see that the storyline of Waterfront was a twisted defence of testifying, with the dockers’ union serving as a metaphor for the Communist Party. So there was unease between them, and later on Brando would say he wished he had ducked the job. But the actor couldn’t resist such a great role, or the opportunity to play a lowlife.

Mann covers the shoot at fascinating length, dwelling on the great taxi-cab sequence where Terry is challenged by his corrupt brother Charley (Rod Steiger) and delivers the famous – if not quite punch-drunk – speech about how he could have been a contender. The moment when Brando throws in his sad, sweet ‘Wow’ at the sight of Charley’s gun is a highlight in that scene. The scriptwriter, Budd Schulberg (who had also testified to HUAC), admitted it was an ad-lib. ‘So small, so human, so formidable,’ Mann writes, that moment ‘exemplifies everything that made Marlon Brando the actor great’.

Brando won an Oscar for Terry Malloy, and accepted it with good grace. Then came 18 years of turmoil, a bad marriage (to Anna Kashfi, Christian’s mother), a mounting dread of his own work, and a need to sabotage projects. He scorned Hollywood, but started living there. He disdained phony projects, but took the money, all the while declaring that the entertainment medium was partly to blame for racism in America. He was one of the first actors to face the dilemma of being wealthy on the back of worthless pictures. In a way, he was treading the path Kazan had taken – that of the radical who had sold out. The difference was that Kazan, having talked to the Committee, went on to do his best work – notably East of Eden, for which he discovered a new Brando, the furtive, sorrowful outcast James Dean. And don’t think Brando wasn’t a little envious.

This middle period does not make happy reading. Its crisis is One-Eyed Jacks (1961), the only film Brando would ever direct. He liked to say he got the job accidentally, but he had tossed out a script (by Sam Peckinpah) and effectively fired the first director, Stanley Kubrick (one authoritarian read the other’s writing on the wall and was happy to escape). One-Eyed Jacks is a revenge Western in which Rio (Brando) hunts down a betrayer, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden). It is very pretty, with several fine scenes, and Mann believes it could have been a great film if Paramount hadn’t intervened, re-cut it and trashed Brando’s poetry. It’s hard to be sure. One way or another, a film budgeted at $2.3 million had cost $5.7 million. There are many stories – Peter Manso recounts them at grim length – about extravagance, second-guessing, pretension and indecision. The way I see it an exhausted and demoralised Brando deserted his own picture because he no longer knew what it was. But it was his way to decide he had been wronged.

*

In the next ten years, Brando wandered. He fell in love with the Pacific and took a lease on the atoll of Teti’aroa. His pictures grew less necessary, or compelling, and by 1972 he was scarcely employable. That’s when Francis Coppola insisted to Paramount that only Brando should play Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Other actors had been mentioned, including Laurence Olivier, Robert Mitchum and Sinatra. But Coppola held out; he shot a test in which Marlon made himself up as the old don, and set about finding a creaking, breathless voice for him. Then, in a trice, there was Brando, enthroned for that first scene, with a kitten in his lap, the most benign and enchanting gangster we have ever had. He was full of wows, sighs, grunts and asides, and he was revered by his supporting cast – Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, John Cazale – all of whom had grown up with Terry Malloy in their heads.

Everyone knows the result; The Godfather is a modern classic (though close to fifty years old now). It won the Oscar for best picture and another for Brando – that’s when he sent Sacheen Littlefeather to disown it – and was also the highest-grossing film of 1972. Years later every play-acting kid can do his Vito. And in the process, one of the darkest movie visions of America has been tenderised and made tasty for a big audience. While we’re about it, let’s add that giving the Oscar to Brando was a sentimental gesture. Pacino was only nominated as supporting actor, but he had delivered the central performance in modern American film. Pacino’s Michael makes a journey through the film (carried on in Part II) such as Brando never quite managed on screen. Vito is a peasant, if you like, but he’s immaculate, and in his own world. So it was that in pursuing eccentricity or solitude – wows and sighs – Brando was not always in the story of his films. As a thank-you to Coppola, seven years later he turned up to be Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, overweight, under-prepared and intent on making a film Coppola hadn’t thought of. So that perilous production – and the picture itself – had to pause as Brando did his unexpected thing.

At the same time, he remained as riveting as he’d been doing a stricken hen for Stella Adler. The high point of this coiled energy has him in Paris, in a dung-coloured overcoat, determined to have sex with a stranger, without exchanging names or biographies. It’s another kind of exercise. If Last Tango in Paris was startling in 1972, and reminded Pauline Kael of The Rite of Spring, it has dated badly. A venture that was to have a man and woman as raw as figures from Francis Bacon, even doing it on screen, turned into a naked Maria Schneider and a Brando too shy to take his coat off. He looked at his last gasp of beauty, wasting and corrupt, the epitome of disillusionment. He did enough to make you realise that with stronger writing Last Tango could have had tragic power. But somehow his very talent or celebrity had got in the way.

Mann’s is the best short life of Brando we’ll ever have, and nearly as good as his incisive portrait of Katharine Hepburn, Kate (2006). I say ‘short’ with some irony, but it might actually have been shorter, for the dropping in and out is more an interpretation than a thorough record. Actors are always considering and exploring so many other lives that their own can suffer in comparison. But Mann persuades us that Brando was so confused and contradictory that a tidy story would be a cheat. We know that Brando left hours and miles of tape recordings, including lugubrious telephone conversations. Many of these were from his home on Teti’aroa, a would-be paradise that is now an expensive resort owned by Pacific Beachcomber SC. Glory and utopias disappointed Brando, and left him staring at ‘acting’ like a bull perplexed at being wounded by a matador.

A key to Brando may be the way he carried us from an age of rapt belief in characters and their stories to fixing on acting itself. If you look at On the Waterfront now (65 years after it was made), some problems have surfaced: why does the Mob kill Charley instead of Terry? Are we meant to credit that the saintly girl will marry Terry, while knowing he was implicated in the murder of her brother? And is Malloy believable as a boxer or is he a beauty with clever folds of make-up skin to leave his eyes puffy? Aren’t we watching Brando now, not Terry, and isn’t that what he loathed but couldn’t escape?

Suppose a moment came when Marlon Brando felt cut off from his characters. There’s no doubt about his being a great actor, but try comparing him with Henry Fonda, say. Fonda acted once in Omaha with Marlon’s mother. Could Brando have been so calm, self-effacing and available to us as Fonda is in 12 Angry Men? Could he have played the chump in Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve without angling for sympathy? There has always been a strain of American acting that is resolute, simple and content to trust a known self. You can see it in some of Brando’s contemporaries – Robert Mitchum, William Holden, Glenn Ford or, coming up to date, Brad Pitt. And in the last analysis, the enduring stoicism of Pitt growing older can be more interesting than the wilder flights of an Al Pacino. Not that I wouldn’t give a lot for a movie several hours long in which Brando simply prowled The Missouri Breaks country trying on fancy clothes and comic accents, and doing whatever came into his trickster head.