Saturday, July 16, 2011

Marlon Brando - Patricia Bosworth

'I've never had any respect for Hollywood. It stands for greed, avarice, phoniness, crassness...'

 'They start out out by seducing you, and then they end up pissing on you'.

Marlon Brando on Hollywood.

'..between them, these two films define the two poles of Brando's genius. The first is his greatest disguise performance, the second his most unsparing act of self-evaluation'.

Foster Hirsch on Brando's performances in The Godfather and Last tango in Paris..

 I'm sure I don't have to tell any of you who Marlon Brando was! Some say he was the greatest actor ever. I'm of the opinion only James Stewart was better, but both he and Brando were in a league of their own when you consider there was also Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Paul Newman and a host of others on their coat tails. What Brando had ( along with Stewart ), was the gift of acting without looking like they were doing so. Paul Newman summed it up for me saying of Brando he made it all look so easy when he himself had to work extremely hard. And we all know Paul Newman was no bunny!

 This particular biography is the only Marlon Brando biography in my local library! There has been a wealth of Brando biographies over the years so it is disappointing when a concise biography like this is the only one on offer. I've never read a Brando biography before but with his fame being so great a lot about him can be picked up along the way. At 250 pages this is a very concise look at Brando and for a real layman a good starting point in reading of this legend. It can't be called definitive but most of the reviews I have read on it have been generally positive.

 To put how concise this is I managed to read it in roughly 4 hours. At first the writing style was somewhat amateurish and yet after a few chapters it improved markedly and became a very competent work. It is a biography for the masses, those who know of Brando and want something brief to read, and for those who want a starting point before moving on to more detailed, meticulous works. For the type of biography it is I think it works extremely well, but for more advanced Brando-ophiles it in all reality will be too basic for them.

 Well I'm not a Brando scholar and found much of interest in this biography. I  found out that with the fractured way in which I have accumulated my knowledge on Brando I was amazed at much I actually knew about him. But as always there is still much to learn! Firstly I never knew his mother was an alcoholic who eventually beat the disease and that he never got on with his father. In fact his early years were something of a blank to me and it was interesting to see that his later life was a result of his upbringing. His famous ad-libbing was more to do with childhood laziness than anything else as Brando was a lazy student at school and hence remained pretty much uneducated all his life.

 I found it hard to come to a conclusion on Brando's intellect. It appears he wasn't a big or wide reader, but this doesn't account for his famous disregard for script reading and memorising of lines. It was just pure laziness and yet he was such a brilliant ad-libber he could get away with it. Brilliant yes, but it made him extremely difficult to work with. He is also one of the first crop of actors from the 'method' school of acting. Probably no other actor has perfected the technique as Brando did. I think in A Streetcar named Desire and Last Tango in Paris we see Brando at his best with the technique. Many believe those two performances were from Brando's deepest recesses and come from his childhood.

 He was a sensitive person and yet a real pain as an actor. But not just as an actor because at one stage he directed a film, but he annoyed studio executives by taking too long shooting it whilst going well over budget. He never got to edit it properly and yet Karl Malden states he felt it could have been a real masterpiece. I  also never realised that he played Stanley Kowalski on stage before reprising the role on film. After 500 performances he stated he was tired of the emotional wrench of the role and was reluctant to do it again on film. He was something of a bastard to Jessica Tandy as Blanche Dubois and I was surprised to learn that after Brando gave up the stage role Anthony Quinn took over. ( Did you know Quinn was half Mexican and  half Irish?! I didn't! ).

 Interestingly Bosworth points out that after On The Waterfront Brando had hit the peek of his career .When you really analyse it she is right because the 1960's were a barren era from him until his mini resurrection with The Godfather and then Last Tango in Paris. Apocalypse Now is something of a dilemma because he was extremely over weight and constantly filmed hidden in shadows to hide it. He is only on screen for a short time and I don't think it vintage Brando even though the film itself is an absolute cinematic masterpiece. After that his career went into steep decline and never recovered. To be sure his sensitive nature didn't help him but nor did his private life. He constantly cheated on his wives and the divorces and battles over the children took up much of Brando's time and energies. Through the 1960's he took roles that paid the most to help pay his legal bills which accounts for the barrenness of the era from him.

 In all essence by the end of the 1960's Brando was finished in Hollywood. His unruly persona meant he was difficult to direct and even though still highly regarded the scripts started to dry up. The one thing is that even though he was difficult it must be remembered for all his greatest roles he put in an immense amount of research. For instance he worked on actual docks to get a feel for the type of men there and the work they done before shooting On the Waterfront, ( the role even saw him take boxing lessons ). He hung out with a gang for The Wild One. And he even had dinner with a real Mafia family for The Godfather!

  Even though his career was in the doldrums the script for the Godfather seemingly re-energised and he became extremely enthusiastic about the role. The rest is history and Brando had a mid-career peak with it and then Last Tango in Paris. But inexplicably he let it slip and he never achieved such heights again. He became something of a recluse and came out for money alone as his well known money grab in Superman testified to.

 With the brevity of this biography it is difficult for Bosworth to go too deeply into Brando's decline. Suffice to say I think his private life got too much for him. Interestingly Brando always hated publicity and shied away from it. He hated his loss of anonymity and his hatred of Hollywood was legendary. Even more interesting is that even though an actor he dismissed the profession saying, 'Acting is a bums life. It leads to perfect self-indulgence. You get paid for doing nothing and it adds up to nothing'. It makes you wonder why he ever became an actor, and even more so, why he stayed one if he felt that way!

 But that is one of the enigmatic things about Brando. He stuffed around at school and sort of ended up as an actor without really making a conscience choice of wanting to be one. His film roles of the 1950's were his real peak and yet his constant degrading of Hollywood saw him miss out on several Oscars. He was intentionally snubbed for A Streetcar Named Desire, and Zapata because of his constant Hollywood sniping. Who can honestly say politics doesn't have a say when awarding Oscars? But Brando done it to himself, yet he fortunately didn't make too much of it. His performances spoke volumes enough and he knew it.

 Brando's mumbling diction was legendary and it is interesting to note that he took the role of Mark Antony in Julius Caesar to prove to his critics he could speak and act in a more classical manner! Of course his performance was praised ( nominated for yet another 1950's Oscar! ), and even though he was infamous for not memorising lines he loved Shakespeare and could do the Bard extremely well. He was just lazy with lines and it must have been frustrating for directors to have to accommodate Brando and his use of cue cards, etc. He even famously had his lines written on his hand in The Godfather! Notoriously to in Last Tango in Paris the scene where Paul is kneeling next to his dead wife Brando is ad-libbing but also looking up at the walls for his lines which were up there on cards!!

  Unfortunately this biography was written several years before Brando died so it is incomplete. But I got enough from it and have a better picture in my mind about him. It has certainly whet my appetite to read the bigger and more meticulous biographies out there.  Brando even wrote an autobiography towards the end of his life to help pay for some astronomical legal fees!

 A concise biography and a good starting point for all reading abilities. It isn't definitive but no biography on man who lived for 80 years could possibly be! Marlon Brando is a legend and rightly so with his peak in the 1950's. He hit a lean patch but bounced back with a staggering two film reminder of the acting force he could still be in the early 1970's. But for all his greatness he was unruly, eccentric, and difficult to manage, which ultimately cast a cloud over his career, but never over his extraordinary abilities.


  1. I definitely need to get this book. I have always loved Brando, despite his penchant for being a real ass. But I recently started looking back over his work again after a while away, even writing on On the Waterfront last Thursday. Thanks for the head's up on this one.

  2. Thanks! It is a good place to start. I want to read more about him and now feel I can tackle bigger more meticulous books after having established a framework from this. I know of two biographies that are 1000 pages long!
    Brando was an ass but he is impossible to ignore!

  3. How did I miss this entry? lol. Marlon Brando is my favourite actor!! Not only was he impossibly talented, but he was fascinating to read about.

    I haven't read this book but I have read "Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando" by Stefan Kanfer, which I really enjoyed. It was written in 2008, four years after Brando's death so he talks about his funeral and his last few days, etc.

  4. Yes I did read your great piece you wrote on your blog! This is certainly not definitive as I stated but it is a good starting point.
    I agree he was impossibly talented, and it is interesting to read how his career went of the boil in the sixties due to his failed marriages and the finacial ruptures it caused him. Doing films for money alone is not a good career choice and yet he had virtually no choice.
    And I only rate Jimmy Stewart as better than Brando, and that is saying something!

  5. Yeah, the 60s were a pretty terrible decade for him. Financial woes played a huge impact; however, he also would tend to thumb his nose at the Hollywood establishment and there were a couple of times where he signed on to a movie without much familiarity with script to almost underplay his talent. He was a strange man. He seemed to have a motive behind every move.

    It's a shame he only directed one film. One-Eyed Jacks was flawed and a little long, but you can see a lot of potential there. He could have had a successful career telling the stories he wanted to tell but he usually never had the money to finance his own films.

  6. Yeah money was the scourge of his life. He must have spent millions over the years on legal fees.
    The biography actually says On-Eye Jack was a good film. I've never heard of it let alone knew Brando ever directed a film. Thank goodness these funny little things called books get written as we ignoramuses can read them and learn stuff...quite remarkable things aren't they!