Marlon fishing: was Brando really brain as well as brawn?

Susan Mizruchi considers Brando a kind of one-man UN. Alas, she also unwittingly demonstrates how elitist and dictatorial her putative freedom fighter could be.

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Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought and Work 
Susan L Mizruchi
W W Norton, 512pp, £18.99

The subtitle of Susan L Mizruchi’s new book on Marlon Brando is His Life, Thought and Work. Huh? Brando’s largely dispiriting story has been limned in at least half a dozen previous lives and, thanks to the still startling somatic anguish of his early performances, his work is as familiar as any actor’s in the history of movies. But Marlon Brando’s thought? I’ve spent a goodly portion of my life wishing I looked as taut and toned as the Brando of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Yet given that more than one of his interviewers hinted that he didn’t appear to have much up top and several of his biographers tell us that he had an IQ of 90, who wants to know about Brando’s brain? A professor of English at Boston University does. Mizruchi insists that her subject’s brain counted as much as his brawn in the development of his art.

Exhibit A in her case is Brando’s collection of 4,000 books – many of them annotated by his own hand. One of his copies of Julius Caesar (he owned several sets of Shakespeare’s plays and verse) is heavily appended, with notes on the mood of various speeches, scansion marks to highlight their rhythm and mocking asides on the motives of characters. Brando, however, played Mark Antony in Joseph L Mankiewicz’s 1953 movie, so we should expect some such preparation – especially as the heads of MGM had told the director that they feared his chosen star might not be up to handling the script’s big set pieces.

What you might not expect is that Brando wrote similar notes in books that were only tangentially related to his work. Preparing to play a Nazi officer in the 1958 film version of Irwin Shaw’s fervently anti-German bestseller The Young Lions, Brando worked his way through Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism, highlighting passages which argued that there was nothing specifically Teutonic underpinning the ideology. Fascism was everywhere, Reich counselled, and you could not begin to take on its believers “if one does not look for him in oneself”. Hence, much to Shaw’s chagrin, Brando’s recalibration of the character of Christian Diestl: a hollow man all too easily seduced by Nazism in the novel but a hapless victim of history in the movie.

Nor, Mizruchi writes, did the politicking stop there. She considers Brando a kind of one-man United Nations, transforming the cinema into a didactic arena wherein people would learn to respect one another by watching movies about nice Nazis, heroic, anti-imperialist Mexicans (Viva Zapata!, 1952) and the joys of interracial marriage (Sayonara, 1957). Alas, she also unwittingly demonstrates how elitist and dictatorial her putative freedom fighter could be. Pencilling his way through Sidney Hook’s Political Power and Personal Freedom, Brando apparently made plain his agreement with the book’s takedown of totalitarianism. Yet Mizruchi fails to see that Brando’s insolent dismissal of Hook’s faith in democracy (next to a passage in which Hook argues that well-informed adults are best placed to judge their own interests, Brando writes: “What adults, and are they?”) made him more of a Robespierre than a Danton.

Elsewhere, Mizruchi argues that the inspi­ration for Brando’s dazzling improvisatory bombast in Apocalypse Now (1979) came from his reading of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Maybe so, though I suspect that Colonel Kurtz also spoke for Brando the serial adulterer with a taste for the humiliation of husbands, for Brando the tantrum-throwing star who loved getting directors sacked, when he talked of his need for “men who are moral . . . and at the same time who are able to utilise their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgement. Because it’s judgement that defeats us.”

Certainly it defeats Mizruchi, whose revisionist takes on many of what she calls the “regnant” Brando myths are risibly unconvincing. Brando may or may not have been premature when, as she puts it, he “abandoned [Broadway] for Hollywood”, but abandon it he did and for most of his career he made no bones about doing what he was doing “just for money” while “rarely put[ting] effort into his roles”. This suggests there is more to what Mizruchi calls the myth about Brando being “greedy and exploit[ing] the film industry that embraced him” than mere fancy.

And despite Mizruchi’s suggestion to the contrary, Brando was for at least the last 20 years of his life grotesquely fat – though I have never before heard it said that he had piled on the pounds because, as the author of this biography has it: “He despised the idolatry that was generated by his good looks.” I thought it was because he liked eating ice cream by the gallon.

None of this is to detract from Brando the artist’s unearthly power. We have to take it on the authority of those who were there that Brando’s half-decade on Broadway was as probing and surging as anything he ever did for the cinema. What we can be sure of is that those five years were followed by five more in which Brando reinvented screen acting. Without his example in The Men (1950), A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront (1954), we might have had no Al Pacino, no Robert De Niro, no Ryan Gosling. Brando’s turns in The Chase (1966), The Godfather (1972) and Apocalypse Now were vital to three of the most penetrating pictures about America ever made. As for Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), you don’t have to go along with Pauline Kael’s suggestion that it was a cultural landmark to put next to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring to see that in it Brando once again remodelled our idea of what performance is.

A great artist need not be a great human being and we should feel free to admire the one while abhorring the other. Brando’s Smile offers some keen, analytical insights into its subject’s craft but the book is marred by its increasingly silly attempts to rehabilitate his off-screen reputation. A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and all that. That Marlon Brando chose the great riches, however, does not mean his good name won’t live on for as long as anyone cares about great acting. 

Christopher Bray’s books include biographies of Sean Connery and Michael Caine

This article appears in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood