Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me
Brando: The Biography
Don Juan DeMarco
“As I stumble back across the years of my life” are the first words of Marlon Brando’s autobiography. Is the metaphor Brando’s or that of his co-author, Robert Lindsey? How would we know? Brando’s stumbling, his mistakes, mismarriages, vanishings, and comebacks, are as much part of his legend as his mumbling. Certainly no one talks about Brando without mentioning the mumble. “As I mumble back across the years of my life” would also have been a good opening.
Both monumental Brando books are about a monument, guided tours round the fences of a myth. Brando’s own story is about a little boy lost, who never recovered from his parents’ neglect of him and his sisters; from his father’s remoteness and his mother’s disappearances into alcohol. Brando may have got a few things wrong in life, but we all get things a little wrong (“With age, I’ve come to realize that nothing is wholly right or wholly wrong”). He used to be full of anger, but isn’t any more. He was looking for love all the time.
I suppose the story of my life is a search for love, but more than that, I have been looking for a way to repair myself from the damages I suffered early on and to define my obligations, if I had any, to myself and my species.
“Myself and my species” pretty much gives the tone of the book. On page ix Robert Lindsey speaks respectfully of his collaborator’s “musings,” but by page x they have become “meanderings,” and you can see how the shift would occur. “I finally came to the conclusion that in the end being Jewish was a cultural phenomenon….” Fortunately for Brando if not for the book, Lindsey is also adept in the sort of unedited pileup where you can come to conclusions finally and in the end. He had acquired, he says, “a passionate disdain for the shallow and self-centered egotism and puerility that afflicts most movie actors I had encountered.” That self-centered egotism probably is the worst kind.
But Lindsey’s unlikely implication about Brando is not entirely wrong. Brando is not shallow and puerile like those other actors. He is deep and puerile, addicted throughout his life to practical jokes that only he finds hilarious, but also capable of tenderness and insight and even discretion, although he does his best to talk himself out of these things. Of a man who used to let him ride horses when he was a child, Brando says, “Wes Mickler, born someplace, died on Bradley Road. He never said what happened in between.” Brando says he liked the “unmanaged” faces (his italics) of the Tahitians he saw in the National Geographic as a boy, and the word tells us more than most of his meanderings about what he means by freedom. He understands hypocrisy and manipulation from the inside—“I suppose bribery begins with a smile that you don’t mean”—and he remembers the sounds and scents of his childhood as if nothing had come after them.
As I sit at home now, winnowing the remembrances, they often come across my mind as unrelated images and feelings with smoky edges….
We had an old-fashioned cast-iron wood-burning stove that always embarrassed me. It was a wonderful stove, but in those days I was ashamed of it because it made me feel that we were poor.
Peter Manso’s story is also that of a little boy lost, but this one turns first into an oaf possessed of astonishing sexual magnetism, and then into a prima donna with an intermittent social conscience. He doesn’t know what he is looking for, so he wouldn’t recognize it if he found it. Manso’s last image is of a distraught Brando as a real-life King Lear, having all but lost a favorite daughter to drugs and madness and suicide. But the book’s organizing narrative line is a morality of waste, such as American tragedies are always supposed to offer.
By forfeiting his genius as the world’s most talented actor, by holding himself and his accomplishments beneath contempt, he had squandered his energy, even his identity and inner core.
…he owed us more. At least the question had to be asked: Isn’t a genius who has pushed the boundaries and probed the depths of our psyche obligated to the culture to continue his quest?
The best response to this question might be to ask who’s kidding whom, but it is interesting that Manso’s language of obligation should mirror Brando’s, albeit scaled down from species to culture, and it is easy to share Manso’s frustration. His huge book is not a labor of love but one of manifestly mounting distaste; still, it is pursued with the diligence and the desire for completeness that we associate with loving labors. It copiously supplies all the names Brando himself leaves out, from wives to one-night or five-minute stands, and it dutifully leads us from shoot to desultory shoot. Manso says he has talked to more than 750 people for his book, and a good number of them get to speak in his pages, their contributions deftly spliced into a chronological account of Brando’s life. The trouble is that all of these people, necessarily, know that Brando is Brando, that they see what he was through the lens of what he became, and although this optical filtering is intriguing at times (“There was definitely a mumble,” a schoolmate recalls), it can only take us through the myth again. A further difficulty is that Brando’s colleagues and companions, with very few exceptions, are not very smart even about the myth, although some of them are pretty good at mixed metaphors, as in “He has that ability to pull the bullshit over somebody’s eyes.”
But the chief frustration, for Manso as for us, is the sense, if not of waste, at least of extraordinary loss. What was it that Brando had, and where did it go? The photographs in both of these books tell a lot of the story. The perky kid turns into the pouting young actor, who turns into an idol. The idol, scarcely created, disappears into a series of films that seem to be mainly about makeup: Viva Zapata!, Desirée, Teahouse of the August Moon. Even in On the Waterfront the makeup threatens to steal the show. The face is much older in Last Tango in Paris, but still amazing, both noble and spoilt, the face of Antony in Julius Caesar. A few film flops later, the idol returns as a vast human mountain, a sort of twin for Orson Welles. “Food has always been my friend,” Brando says. “When I wanted to feel better or had a crisis in my life, I opened the icebox.” Dieticians and movie directors would say food was his enemy, if not his nemesis; but we might just think that you take the friends you can get.
We can add a few facts to these pictures. Brando was born in Omaha in 1924; grew up in Evanston and Libertyville, Illinois; was expelled, in 1943, from a military academy in Minnesota. He took a class in the Dramatic Workshop at the New School in New York, got a couple of Broadway parts, then was cast in A Streetcar Named Desire (on stage 1947, movie version 1951). The rest is stardom and gossip and a small handful of wonderful films. Brando bought an island in Tahiti, supported civil rights, the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement; refused an Oscar. Manso’s story ends (as Brando’s own story implicitly ends) with Christian Brando’s shooting of his half sister’s lover in Marlon Brando’s house in 1990, and the ensuing trial as a result of which Christian was sent to prison.
What all this suggests, if we can resist the temptation to allegorize it, is a life full of complicated suffering, which Brando sometimes got to work for him as an actor, but otherwise mainly kept fleeing from, or sought to dissipate among countless distractions. At some point, it seems, he lost his sense of the difference between his suffering and his evasions of it, and the meandering looks like a way of sustaining the confusion as a mode of life. There is the hint of a happier reading in the new movie Don Juan de Marco, written and directed by Jeremy Leven, in which Brando plays a large, benign psychiatrist, about to retire but reawakened to life by the generosity of a patient’s delusion—if it is a delusion.
Johnny Depp is a charismatic young man who says he is Don Juan, peerless swordsman and irresistible to women. He also says he is a kid from Queens, and has probably made himself up out of Byron and Tirso de Molina—we see the books lying around his grandmother’s place in Astoria—but then he is so calm and eloquent about his invention, so scornful of daily reality on the grounds of its unmistakable dreariness, that his fantasy begins to look like the sensible option, and takes over the world of the film.
When the Depp character, without his Spanish costume and his hypnotic and bogus Spanish accent, finally tells a realistic story about his delusion and distress, it sounds like just another fiction, with nothing to recommend it except its mundane plausibility. So the film at the end frankly prefers the fantasy, makes it a reality. Will the boy, released from the mental hospital where he was confined after threatening to take his life, find again the probably imaginary girl from his romantic story, his lost love Doña Ana, the one woman who left him? “Why not?” Brando says in voice-over; and the girl appears on the beach. The movie certainly has its charming moments, but it’s also so desperate to appear charming that the hard work begins to wear you down.
Brando is laid back and amiable, hamming it up only occasionally. He gets to say things like, “I just feel we surrendered our lives to the momentum of mediocrity,” and he seems to be having a good time. When he dances with Faye Dunaway at the end of the film—she is his faithful and now no longer neglected wife—you get a sense of the grace that must always have inhabited even the roughest of Brando’s affairs and extravagances. It’s like a bear who remembers ballet school. And the memory—the sight and the performance of this memory—makes the bear’s life seem less exclusively harrowing and scattered.
But it isn’t grace we most remember Brando for—except when his grace is an aspect of his anger. What comes across as most authentic in Brando, in the books under review as in his best movies, is the rage he says he has outgrown. When his father was dying, Manso’s informants say, Brando was “visibly shaken and concerned…compassionate…” Here is what Brando himself says:
If my father were alive today, I don’t know what I would do. After he died, I used to think, “God, just give him to me alive for eight seconds; that’s all I want, just eight seconds because I want to break his jaw.” I wanted to smash his face and watch him spit out his teeth. I wanted to kick his balls into his throat. I wanted to rip his ears off and eat them in front of him. I wanted to separate his larynx from his body and shove it into his stomach. But with time I began to realize that as long as I felt this way I would never be free until I eradicated these feelings in myself.
Even with time he hasn’t realized how much he loves this fantasy of revenge, how intimately it gives him away. What matters here is the verbal violence, the imagined destruction of a body; the movie, in other words, playing now in Brando’s mind as he writes, and not (necessarily) then, in 1965, when the unregretted Marlon Brando, Sr., died.
All of Brando’s best movie roles are about rage, or more precisely, the control and display of rage, rage’s disciplined indulgence. Is this what the mumbling meant? Did he mumble? He had a lot of cotton wool in his face in The Godfather, and he was splendidly incoherent in A Streetcar Named Desire. But then what about the fruity talk (Brando’s impression of Laurence Olivier) in Superman, and the funny accents in Mutiny on the Bounty and The Missouri Breaks? The crisp, mid-Atlantic diction in Julius Caesar, and the clipped Southern tones in Reflections in a Golden Eye? Words were hard to come by in On the Waterfront, and idioms got a little confused (“Never’s going to be too much soon for me, Shorty”), but is that mumbling? Perhaps the famous mumble was largely the projection of an idea we had about the Fifties, that time of inarticulate rebellion—or if you like, that time when mumbling was as much rebellion as we could manage. Senior students of popular culture will remember a record of Stan Freberg’s, where the band leader shouts, “Everybody mambo!” The orchestra starts to mutter and murmur, and Freberg yells, “I said ‘Mambo,’ not ‘Mumble.’ “
As far as Brando himself is concerned, he mumbles and he doesn’t mumble. Of his Torquemada in Christopher Columbus he says, “I mumbled my way through the part and gave an embarrassingly bad performance. The pay wasn’t bad, though: $5 million for five days’ work.” Elsewhere he resists the notion of his “so-called mumbling” in A Streetcar Named Desire. This wasn’t mumbling, it was naturalism. Or it was mumbling, because it was naturalism. “You cannot mumble in Shakespeare,” Brando says, and he didn’t. “I played many roles in which I didn’t mumble a single syllable, but in others I did it because it is the way people speak in ordinary life.” Not a single syllable: the phrase reveals the degree to which Brando too takes his cues from the Brando myth. Peter Manso has a funnier line about the mumbling. Asked to speak up a bit in A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando says, “Some of the lines are so bad I have to mumble them.”
But what is most interesting about Brando’s diction as an actor is more mysterious than all this: a matter of timing rather than articulation, and full of intimations of silence, of the hopelessness of words, rather than of any sort of difficulty of expression. “You must have heard of me,” the character played by Ben Johnson says in One-Eyed Jacks. “Bob Emery?” The Brando character, toothpick in mouth, about to take a drink, almost swallowing the word, says “Nope.” The answer isn’t loud enough to be aggressive, or quick enough to be automatic, a question of pride. But it is infinitely dismissive, not only of Bob Emery, but of all the world’s Bob Emerys. Brando seems to be wondering whether he has heard of anyone, whether “hearing of” people is something he does, or has time for.
A little later in the same film, an extraordinary meditation on revenge and punishment, and a great western, the only film Brando himself directed, Brando and Karl Malden have a conversation about betrayal and enduring anger. Malden abandoned Brando on a hillside, surrounded by Mexican lawmen, and Brando has spent the last five years in what he calls a stinking jail in Sonora. Brando explains that he was “a little hot” about Malden’s departure at the time, but that it’s an old story now. His face assumes one of those expressions, his specialty, where genuine charm and total fraudulence are quite indistinguishable. He says, “A man can’t stay angry for five years”—a pause—“Can he?” Malden hesitates, then laughs, the two men shake hands. Malden welcomes Brando into his house. A false peace is made, Malden is hoodwinked and later dies, his family disgraced, because he took Brando’s question as a rhetorical one. Because he, perhaps, would not have stayed angry for five years; because he wanted Brando’s statement to be true, wanted time and forgiveness on his side.
What is striking and sinister about the Brando figure here, as it is, I suppose, about all avengers, is the restrained confidence of his manner, the implacable certainty that a man could stay angry for ever if necessary, and might even enjoy it. The manner allows you to see the very idea of forgiving and forgetting as the weakness of others, something to toy with, make jokes about. One-Eyed Jacks, as both Brando books make clear, is littered with autobiographical references. The Brando character hates and destroys a father figure (called Dad for good measure), and seduces women in a series of joyless exercises in the charms of power, or maybe the powers of charm. But the result makes a wonderful movie, rather than a maudlin mopping-up of old messes, because of the richness of its silences, because of our perfect understanding of all that is not said. It’s not that the desolation of revenge can’t be spoken about, or mumbled about, it’s that you have to share in the horrible, purified appeal of the thing before you can get any real sense of its emptiness. For this perception the wrong words, known to be the wrong words, are ideal; they suggest, better than inarticulacy or simple muteness could do, some ultimate poverty of language. Movies are full of this suggestion, of words that don’t speak, except through what they leave out.
The phrase everyone remembers from On the Waterfront is, “I could have been a contender.” But a moment earlier in the same scene Brando says, “You was my brother, Charlie. You should have looked out for me a little bit. You should have taken care of me just a little bit….” This is a scene Brando says he and Rod Steiger improvised after any number of failed takes done according to the script. Peter Manso, relying on Budd Schulberg and Charlie Maguire, the writer and assistant director of the film, says Brando, after some difficulties, “stuck with the script word for word.”
Either way, the actor and the words dedicated themselves to understatement. “Looked out for” and “take care of” are conventional enough expressions of putative family concern, but the context makes them seem weirdly oblique. They mean: older brothers should not get younger brothers to take dives in the boxing ring for money, should not sacrifice them to their own murky, mobster careers. The repeated “a little bit” sounds ironic but turns out to be merely wishful: less than you have a right to expect, but a lot more than you’re going to get.
Brando tries for a grim joke along these lines earlier still in the scene, and the joke misfires sadly, lapses back into the miserably literal. Steiger says, “It’s time to think about getting some ambition.” Brando, not quite smiling, says, “I always figured I’d live a little bit longer without it.” Steiger says, “Maybe.” These low-key exchanges, with their casual inversions of recognized values, have an almost Brechtian effect, because Charlie/Steiger, who hasn’t looked out for his kid brother in any but the seamiest, most self-protecting ways, still can’t bring himself to kill him, as he has been instructed to. He is himself killed for this excess of family feeling.
It is in part because he abandons these principles of indirection, switching to a notion that talk will do the trick if you get enough of it, that Brando’s book and interviews go so far astray; and his performance in Apocalypse Now is awful for the same reason. All Kurtz says in Conrad is “The horror, the horror,” but Brando can’t wait to tell us what the horror is like. His own account of this scene is revealing in its muddle.
I was good at bullshitting Francis (Coppola) and persuading him to think my way, and he bought it, 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 as hard.
This is in keeping with his line throughout the book. Acting is a despicable trade, but the money is easy: “If a studio offered to pay me as much to sweep the floor as it did to act, I’d sweep the floor.” But then something gets in the way.
Besides restructuring the plot, I wrote Kurtz’s speeches, including a monologue at his death that must have been forty-five minutes long. It was probably the closest I’ve ever come to getting lost in a part, and one of the best scenes I’ve ever played…I was hysterical; I cried and laughed, and it was a wonderful scene. Francis shot it twice—two 45-minute improvisations—but used hardly any of the footage in the picture.
This is a portrait of a man who works hard—too hard—but can’t bear the thought of himself as anything other than an operator. It is characteristic that Brando should speak as he does of this lamentable scene—plenty survived into the finished picture—and yet claim that to this day he doesn’t know what his remarkable, bravura performance in Last Tango in Paris was about. For One-Eyed Jacks, Brando turned himself from scratch into a masterly director, but his chief anecdote about that film concerns his looking through the wrong end of a viewfinder. In Manso’s version of this story, Brando says, “Holy shit, no wonder I’m a week late,” and again you wonder who’s kidding whom. “I trusted his eyes,” Karl Malden says of Brando as a director. Brando trusted them too, but could scarcely admit to himself that he did.
In recalling the elements of silence and indirection in Brando’s acting, I am only spelling out what he himself says about his job when he’s not trashing it. And even when he is. “Acting is the least mysterious of all crafts,” he says.
Everybody acts, whether it’s a toddler who quickly learns how to behave to get its mother’s attention, or a husband and wife in the daily rituals of a marriage… Whenever we want something from somebody or when we want to hide something or pretend, we’re acting. Most people do it all day long.
This apparently leveling argument says interesting things about the relation between the actors in the audience and the actors on stage. Of the famous scene we’ve just looked at in On the Waterfront, Brando says it is “actor-proof”: “a scene that demonstrated how audiences often do much of the acting themselves in an effectively told story.” He goes on to talk of our necessarily identifying ourselves with the character he plays (“It couldn’t miss because almost everyone believes he could have been a contender, that he could have been somebody…”), which I think is wrong because it goes back on the first point: that the audience is acting too, not just sympathizing, that we are filling the large silences not only with simple fantasies but with scraps of knowledge and pockets of fear. When Brando locates the attraction of Hitler for the Germans in “the theater of their minds,” the connection is not appealing, but the theory is consistent. What happens in a successful scene of any kind is that the actor’s technique fuels the audience’s willingness to scrutinize what’s in front of it and to imagine what isn’t. If the audience is a set of actors, and the mind is a theater, then the stage, at least in movies, is the actor’s photographed face.
The close-up says everything. It’s then that an actor’s learned, rehearsed behavior becomes most obvious to an audience and chips away unconsciously at its experience of reality. The audience should share what you are feeling in a close-up. I have often reminded myself that I wasn’t working in “motion words,” but in “motion pictures.” …In a close-up the audience is only inches away, and your face becomes the stage.
When we think we want Shakespeare’s advice on acting, we usually call up Hamlet’s speech to the players, and Brando does this too (“This not only pertains to acting but to all forms of art,”—never mind that he keeps insisting also that acting is not art at all). But Brando’s own theory is perfectly expressed in the line he himself spoke so strongly as Antony in Julius Caesar: “I tell you that which you yourselves do know.” This is not simply, innocently true: Brando and Antony are both more devious and exploitative than that, concerned to plant things in their hearers’ mind. But it is true that they work with what they find in us, and work best with what’s hidden in us, with that which we ourselves do scarcely know. This tactic can be very disagreeable. Brando likes to tweak the minds of his interviewers, and seems to have conducted most of his personal relationships along the same lines. But it is a tactic which can conjure up the deepest complicities.
In Julius Caesar, Brando makes James Mason as Brutus and John Gielgud as Cassius look as if they are walking through their parts, not because he is younger or more passionate or a proof of the virtues of the Method (Elaine Stritch, quoted by Manso, says, “Marlon’s going to school to learn the Method would have been like sending a tiger to jungle school”), but because what he is not saying, what we desperately supply, fills the screen with overwhelming threat. “The greatest moment I have ever felt as a director,” Joseph Mankiewicz says.
The movie itself is rather confused about Antony. There are camera setups designed to make him seem coldly calculating, and Brando himself tries once or twice, implausibly, to look like a ruthless schemer: he studies a map, frowns, gives an impersonation of a man thinking. All this is irrelevant to what Brando has actually made of Antony: a man smoldering with rage at the murder of his friend Caesar, but willing to contain that rage for the sake of a greater vengeance. The containment indeed seems to be part of some livid pleasure, and the resemblance of Antony here to the Brando character in One-Eyed Jacks can hardly be accidental. Brando shakes the hands of Caesar’s murderers, greeting them one by one. Then he moves away, his back to the camera, staring at the hand that’s done the shaking. As he turns to face us again, he snaps his hand shut, as if to say, there are worse things than distaste, let’s leave sentiment for another time. He’s not hiding his rage and contempt, and no one expects him to. The conspirators only hope that he will at least pretend to do business with them; he seems strangely to relish the demand for decorum, the chance to use manners to rack up the range of insult.
And what do we, the actor-audience, contribute here, what is it that we ourselves do know? Something similar, I think, to what we admit to knowing about the world of One-Eyed Jacks: that revenge is a dream, not a deed; a violence of the mind; that we can taste it only in meticulous, disciplined anticipation or recollection; that the taste is marvelous while it lasts. Somewhere in the back of the script for One-Eyed Jacks, Brando says, was “a western based on the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo.”