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: