Stumbles and Mumbles

Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me

by Marlon Brando and Robert Lindsey
Random House, 468 pp., $25.00

Brando: The Biography

by Peter Manso
Hyperion, 1,118 pp., $29.95

Don Juan DeMarco

a film written and directed by Jeremy Leven

Marlon Brando
Marlon Brando; drawing by David Levine

“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…

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