I was born in 1971, the year before The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris were released, so the first film I saw featuring Marlon Brando was Superman in 1978, in which he plays Jor-El, Superman’s biological father. It was not his finest hour: according to legend, he refused to learn his lines, instead reading them off the diaper of the infant Superman before he laid him in his spiky escape cradle and blasted him off to earth.
I next caught up with Brando, the subject of Susan Mizruchi’s new biography, Brando’s Smile, in the 1990 mafia spoof The Freshman. In the film, Brando plays Carmine Sabatini, a dead ringer for Don Corleone in The Godfather. Matthew Broderick is an NYU freshman, newly arrived at Grand Central Terminal, who instantly gets caught up in a mob plot to illegally import a komodo dragon. Everyone who meets Sabatini is struck by the resemblance to Don Corleone, but nobody tells him to his face. It is the dangerous third rail that could get you in big trouble, maybe get you killed. This struck me as an astounding role: Brando plays the real-life inspiration for the character he made famous, wielding Godfather-like power by forcing others not to notice the resemblance.
The Freshman is sometimes considered minor Brando, the sort of thing he dashed off when money was short. But it was an extreme example, a comic example, of the kind of predicament he always found himself stuck in: how to become his characters when the total surrender to character was his chief trait as an actor. Simply put, the more Brando disappeared into a role, the more he became himself, the more the film became a Brando film, his acting a tour de force bigger than anything else on screen. This was the trap he set for himself with his great films of the 1950s, A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, where his performances are so convincing as to seem menacingly, dangerously “real.”
As Stanley Kowalski and Terry Malloy, Brando seems on the verge of unleashing actual, not performed, violence, the way Junius Booth, the Shakespearean actor who is best known as the father of John Wilkes Booth, used to terrify his fellow actors on the stage. According to the historian David Reynolds, Booth, playing Richard III, “many times…pursued the terrified Richmond of the evening clear out of the theater and into the streets.” The threat with Brando was that, in a movie, reality might suddenly break out. The Freshman gave a later version of this problem: a “real” guy, Broderick, finds himself with a “real” Corleone, and spends the whole film worrying that a movie—The Godfather, the wrong movie—will break out. Wasn’t he supposed to be in a movie called The Freshman? That sounds much more appealing.
Brando had the weirdest career. His most memorable roles are limited to a two-year period in the 1950s and another brief period, including The Godfather, in the early 1970s. By contrast, playing Zapata, Napoleon, or Fletcher Christian, he sometimes looks as though he’s dressed up for Halloween. The brilliance is not gone, but it is crusted over badly with deposits of silliness. These roles amount to a game of “Where’s Brando?” as we hunt through the wilds of period accents and costumes for the latent greatness we know will find some channel, some path to the light. It is painful to see him in Mario Puzo’s Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, playing Tomás de Torquemada alongside Tom Selleck as King Ferdinand, who grew a beard for the occasion. His work from the 1990s until his death in 2004 was marked by two horrific Johnny Depp movies, Don Juan DeMarco and The Brave, several cameos and voice parts, and a movie that ranks among the worst ever made, a version of the H.G. Wells story The Island of Dr. Moreau.
For that film, Brando, receiving his lines from an earpiece hidden beneath an ice bucket he insisted on wearing as a hat, stipulated that his friend Nelson de la Rosa, one of the shortest men in history (he was two feet four inches tall), be written into the script and appear with him in every scene. This was the inspiration for Mini-Me in the Austin Powers sequels. In one of his last performances, Brando supplied the voice of Mrs. Sour in The Big Bug Man, an animated film that was never completed and has never been shown. Days before his death and wearing an oxygen mask, he reprised his Don Corleone voice for a video game version of The Godfather.
Mizruchi’s book is a gallant attempt to rescue Brando from the spectacle of his late career, when he seemed, in the matter of dignity, only a notch or two above Charles Neilson Reilly and Ernest Borgnine. In those years he looked like something whose weight you might guess at the county fair. It may be that Brando and de la Rosa, “like Lear and his fool,” were as “essential to one another as water and air,” as Mizruchi claims, but Brando’s presence in that film alongside a dwarf dressed like him and imitating his every gesture is best seen, like much of his late career, as a test of whether his greatness could survive the most ingenious forms of sabotage he could devise.
Imagine Brando in all of his great roles—Don Corleone, Stanley Kowalski, Walter Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. He is radically singular: a man alone, isolated by his madness or his anachronistic code or his class or his explosiveness, in addition to his dazzling beauty, his face unrivaled in film history. The crisis of his singularity, often inflected as menace, is, in those films, more or less the plot. Now imagine him in the same roles with a two-foot man beside him, dressed in identical costume, mimicking his every gesture.
He became famous for being famous: the dwarf was the onscreen instantiation of his fame, which, in his eyes, made everything he did a farce. He held counsel, later in his life, with other great figures made small by celebrity, especially Michael Jackson, with whom he shared the desire to create a world distinct and remote from the real world. For Jackson it was the notorious Neverland ranch in Los Olivos, California; for Brando, the South Sea island of Tetiaroa, which he bought in 1967 and which now operates as “The Brando,” the world’s “first post-carbon resort.” In one of the strangest road trips in history, Jackson, Brando, and Elizabeth Taylor reportedly fled New York together the morning of September 11 in a rental car, apparently stopping many times for Kentucky Fried Chicken and ending up some five hundred miles away, in the middle of Ohio. All three made flight from celebrity the central condition of their adult lives. It must have seemed very natural to them to pile into a rental car and light out for the territories.
Brando made contempt for acting the engine of great performances, before he extended the contempt to the very idea of greatness. He found acting “odious” and “unpleasant,” he told Connie Chung in an interview from 1989, looking right at home in front of the camera, though preferring, he said, “a contemplative life.” But this dyspepsia, often staged as a conflict with a philistine or naive interviewer, was itself a performance; whether the real, the inner Brando even existed is a question that cannot be answered based on his hundreds of interviews with Dick Cavett, Dinah Shore, Mike Douglas, Johnny Carson, and the rest (most of these have now reappeared online, a development that nobody in those years could have predicted). There was, he said, no culture in America or anywhere else; he compared our situation to that of Classical Athens and the theater of Sophocles and Aeschylus, and found ours sadly wanting. Unlike Orson Welles, who seemed to relish his appearances on talk shows and conducted himself there with wit and generosity, for Brando, TV became a vitrine for his vitriol.
Beginning with its arresting cover image of Brando, leaning and loafing at his ease, Brando’s Smile returns us to the power of his greatest performances, which time has not dimmed. As Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar, he managed to turn a play about a woman’s disintegration into a study of male sexual power and its collateral costs: even Vivien Leigh, playing Blanche Dubois, seems, as her character bottoms out, “helplessly attracted to the person destined to destroy her,” enthralled to the actor even as her character is undone by his.
Though the film seemed to everyone shockingly “realistic” when it appeared, a lesson in Method acting and the total subordination of actor to role, it is Brando’s stardom that now strikes us as indistinguishable from Kowalski’s preening glamour. The movie, with its humid stage sets and structure of audacious entrances and abrupt exits, uses the conceits of theater to offset the special intensity brought to the story only by film, with its deep surveying of the face, its lingering upon one mood at a time. Brando was the favorite actor of the National Theater for the Deaf, Mizruchi reports, since “they always understood exactly what he was expressing.” The performance would be a study in silence, as Brando, whose actor’s cuts to the script eliminated some of his own dialogue, understood.
It is hard to imagine a role, after Stanley Kowalski, that wouldn’t feel like a slight comedown. In fact there were no other roles in film that could capitalize, as that one did, on Brando’s ability to build layers of intelligence into his characters, to make acting something his characters do, and with the same flawless instincts as their creator. It is surprising that we have so few Brando performances of Shakespeare, with Mark Antony the only exception. One can imagine Hamlet or Hotspur or, later in his career, Prospero played by Brando; instead he was drawn to two-dimensional versions of these multifaceted originals, with Jor-El in Superman giving a cruel glimpse of what his Prospero or Lear might have been like. Julius Caesar is his one notable foray, outside of Streetcar, into a filmed version of a play. Many roles that seemed predestined for him were passed up for trifles and one-offs.
As Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, Brando had a second timeless performance, though the film circumscribes his power by channeling him into the kinds of binds of conscience we associate with “great performances”: it is no surprise that he won the Oscar for best actor in 1955, and in some ways set the template for “serious” American films and performances ever since. It is not far enough from On the Waterfront to pieces of schmaltz like 12 Angry Men, or even last year’s 12 Years a Slave, whose title suggested a little too aptly the audience’s experience of watching the film. On some deep level, Brando had to know what he’d done to acting: by the sheer brilliance of his performance in On the Waterfront, he made the conflicted, sensitive male lead, funneling his rage profitably into a campaign for justice, an inevitable American trope. This is partly why he never did anything like it again, correcting against type with such mixed results.
Mizruchi’s book salvages some movies nobody has taken seriously in a very long time. This is a valiant project, though her criteria for evaluation sometimes baffle me. In 1972, Brando released three films; two are indisputably classic, The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris. The third is a film I’d never seen, The Nightcomers, which imagines the backstory behind Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw. Brando plays Peter Quint, a psychopathic Irish factotum at Bly Manor, a sprawling country house. Quint knows everything about everything, including knot tying (Mizruchi suggests that Brando applied knowledge he had garnered from a book he owned, the “1944 Ashley Book of Knots, which features 3,900 varieties), which he uses in several intense scenes of S&M.
Mizruchi describes Quint as “an anarchic individual consumed with hatred for authority,” whose nightly sessions with the governess are partly an attempt to “upend the English class system” (I don’t think Mizruchi intends the pun, but anyone who has seen the film will hear the word “upend” and wonder). This movie, along with Last Tango in Paris, represents the “culmination of Brando’s political films of the 1960s,” outing our repressed desires and showing the satisfactions of risky sex. You have to overlook a lot to arrive at this conclusion: Quint is, after all, a psychopath, and the sex only fails to add up to rape because the governess is made, after the fact, to appear to have enjoyed it. But Last Tango is indisputably a serious film, and The Nightcomers, long considered a B-movie with a brilliant actor lodged inside of it, deepens by its proximity to greatness.
The idea that Brando played Brando in all his best roles assumes that the “real” man was, like Stanley Kowalski, a simmering, preening, sexually powerful loner, gesturally articulate but verbally incoherent. The word “mumble” comes up often in discussions of Brando’s verbal delivery. The great roles managed to co-opt silence or make, of his mumble, a virtue, as in The Godfather. Mizruchi sees a different Brando: a man whose collection of four thousand books was said to be “utterly unexpected and genuinely extraordinary” by the curators from Christie’s who catalogued it.
Mizruchi is the first Brando biographer to have access to his private archives, on the basis of which she reports that “Brando’s hunger for knowledge was as insatiable as his more legendary appetites for women and food.” But his relations with women and food were, of course, disastrous. Books were an indulgence without a downside, and they seem to have kept him company on movie sets, at least when photographers were around: thus a famous photo of Brando in T-shirt and jeans reading Krishnamurti, and accounts, mainly Brando’s own, of having baffled Richard Rodgers backstage by setting up a makeshift bookcase with titles like the Discourses of Epictetus, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, “and books by Thoreau, Gibbon, and Rousseau.”
There is something touching about Mizruchi’s impulse to take Brando at his word, and touching, too, about Brando’s eagerness to show off his literary tastes. But these are precisely the kinds of books that a nonreader wishing to be seen as a reader would proudly display. There is no way of knowing how much Kant influenced Brando’s thinking. It is possible that, like many accomplished people whose formal educations were scant, he took his own education very seriously.
But many people have read Kant; very few have reshaped their art as a result, and the connection between the former and the latter is anything but clear. The kind of intellectual preparation that comes from reading Gibbon and Aristotle might never yield anything in an actor’s thinking, which, like a dancer’s thinking, issues in performance. This book includes many marvelous accounts of those kinds of thoughts, actors’ thoughts, that flourish on the face and in the shoulders, out of the bounds of books, reading, ideas, literature, what have you. He might have soaked up plenty of culture in the downtime between scenes, but he was busy making the culture when the cameras rolled.
Did Brando become his characters by becoming them, or by becoming himself? Mizruchi tells the story of Brando’s preparation for his role as a paralyzed veteran in The Men from 1950, his earliest film. Nothing could be so characteristic of his brilliance—at once earnest and self-aware, grave, joshing, sociable, and socially aphasic—as the story Mizruchi tells:
To prepare for The Men, he spent a month living among the paraplegics in the Birmingham VA Hospital. Moving into a thirty-two-bed ward, he took up life in a wheelchair, building his upper-body muscles and learning to treat his legs as dead weight. The hospital staff was not informed that Brando was an actor, so this allowed him to blend in with the other patients. He found the community’s dark humor—which included using hypodermic needles as water pistols—especially congenial. In one incident, he accompanied a group to a restaurant, the type of outing where the vets endured stares and sometimes overt displays of pity. On this particular evening, a devout Christian serenaded them on the healing powers of Jesus, who could help them walk again if they believed in Him. Brando, seeing a chance to turn the tables, couldn’t resist. Hoisting himself slowly to his feet, he took a few stumbling steps and then burst into a jig, shouting, “Hallelujah.”
It is a great act. But imagine being asked to repeat it. Imagine having to do it night after night, making small adjustments but fundamentally turning a moment of spontaneous joy into a joyless regimen. This is why Brando left the theater, and it suggests why he all but left the movies. Anyone who has tried to recapture the magic of a joke by retelling it has felt, in miniature, what Brando must have felt in his career. The power of his inventiveness was matched to a dread of repetition. A year later, he never could have passed undetected in a room full of paraplegic vets. One important weapon in his arsenal was forever lost.