Promotional flyer

 

CONSIDERING BRANDO • PATRICIA BOSWORTH’S BRANDO AND BRANDO’S SONGS MY MOTHER TAUGHT ME

 

In deciding to review Patricia Bosworth’s recent biography of Marlon Brando, I thought it worthwhile to read Brando’s autobiography, BRANDO, Songs My Mother Taught Me, published in ‘94. Bosworth’s Brando is a very focused story, part of the Penguin Series of short biographies. The autobiography runs nearly 500 pages, dating from his birth in ‘24 in Omaha, Nebraska, to becoming a recluse in Tahiti at the age of 70, when he attempts to review his life objectively. These two books made quite a contrast.

The autobiography reveals a man born with a wild sense of humor set off by not only a wicked imagination, but a revengeful character as a young child which only stopped short of killing to satisfy his explosive urges. He acknowledges having had a hair-trigger temper until middle age. Quick-witted and clever, he liked fooling people about who he was and where he came from. In a large sense, he was interested in disguise, in masking himself.
As for his chosen occupation, he constantly questioned his abilities to be an actor and was highly conflicted about it as a worthwhile activity. He repeatedly claimed he worked only to make money and Hollywood was the only place where he could make money. As for mentors, Paul Muni was his favorite actor and he adored Stella Adler of the Actors’ Studio as a teacher, supporter, and longtime friend. Although he worked with many film directors, his favorite was Elia Kazan.

Early on, he thinks he could have had a lot of different careers—a minister, a musician, for instance, but not included was being a writer, and the autobiography suggests this possibility. It offers the chance to fictionalize as well as tell the facts and Brando is acutely skillful about doing this. The co-author, Robert Lindsay tells us his contribution to the book, which depended upon years of conversations and tape recordings along with some of Brando’s own writings, resulted in a candid account of Brando’s reflections and experiences filtered through the prism of Lindsay’s perceptions. Brando edited and revised it. One of the achievements of the autobiography is that from start to finish the reader hears and reads Brando’s voice with no awareness of anyone else participating.

Brando revealed a strong intuition and consciousness of details at a young age—he talks about the of smell of flowers, his mother’s sweet breath, the earth under his feet, the change of the wind. Sensitive about his mother’s drinking, he often felt abandoned, had little self-esteem, and always blamed himself for his unhappy predicament. He was happy only when challenging authority (particularly cops). At the same time he has a fear of loud noises. He was decidedly neurotic as an adolescent, although with some intellectual control. He loved animals and nature which he got from his mother. Born handsome, he was sexually seductive, and had outstanding physical presence. He was described as having a weightlifter’s arms and a poet’s face, gentle and angelic.

The autobiography discusses the films from Brando’s point of view. It focuses on how the cast related to their parts and Brando to them and to the directors. He feels that most directors don’t have the vaguest idea of how to realize a character. Improvising was Brando’s answer to that problem. He didn’t see himself as a rebel—he was only against the columnists who created myths. The more successful the portrayal of a character, the more people mythologized him.

Between films he became a Political Activist, devoting himself to numerous causes. First, when he came to New York and studied at the New School, he became familiar with the scholarly Jewish refugees and fell in love with the Jewish cause. He became a zealous advocate for Israel. Second, he became attached to the Civil Rights Movement, went to the South with Paul Newman to join the Freedom marches. In Washington, he was close to Martin Luther King and was deeply moved. Then he came close to the Black Panthers to learn what it was like to be black. Nevertheless, as Separatists, they forced him to remain an outsider. Third and most intense was his sympathy for the American Indian. He got to know how Indians were maltreated unlawfully and supported them in every way possible in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He concludes that no other people were treated worse than Native Americans. All of these pursuits fed Brando’s interest in how different societies treat one another. His extensive research reveals, as it did in his films, a desire for knowledge—his own form of education.

By ‘56, in middle age, his career was sinking—he was directing films and losing money. He went to Tahiti and fell in love with it. He finally bought Teti’aroa, which he called “his happy island”. The next 200 pages of his autobiography are devoted to his experiences and his thoughts while in Tahiti. In between, he made movies but few are worth discussing until The Godfather. In the nine years that he didn’t make a movie, he devoted himself to the simple life and to his children. He wanted to become part of the Polynesian culture. But again, against his desire, he was forced to remain an outsider.

Patricia Bosworth’s Brando is concise and pared down, a great deal of it gleaned from Brando’s autobiography as well as quotes from other writers of Brando, friends, and critics. Bosworth didn’t know Brando, her biography draws from other sources. It is formulaic—following a pattern of discussing significant points about leading films that Brando made, followed by a summary of personal and political events that dated from that time. His life consisted of accumulations of close male friends, brief affairs with many women who were always available, mostly non-Caucasians, none of which lasted long. His love life was unconventional, non-committal, and prolific until middle age when he married a few times.

Brando made over 40 films from ‘50 to the present. Bosworth’s condensed introduction highlights his parents, both alcoholics, and his early life until he came to New York. She then moves to ‘50 and his first movie The Men. He went to California where the film was set and immediately hated Hollywood—an attitude that never changed. The film was about paraplegics and took place in the amputees’ ward of Birmingham, Veterans Hospital. He established a number of characteristics in this first film that remain with him throughout his career. He did a great deal of research. He lived in the ward and confined himself to a wheelchair. A second characteristic which became more intensified as time went on, was that he couldn’t remember his lines. To compensate, he began placing cue cards all over the set. Bosworth includes details of the making of the film, the director’s role, changes in the script, etc. Then the response of the critics. In The Men, he received excellent reviews from Time Magazine, which praised his acting as the “real thing.” But, while previewing the rushes, Brando thought his acting was terrible, wooden. He would often disagree with everybody. Bosworth concludes with a summary of events—contact with his mother, suffering from anxiety attacks and seeing an analyst.

His second film that was deservedly given a lot of attention was A Streetcar Named Desire—Brando had already become a star on Broadway in the theatre production but he wasn’t happy about it. He didn’t like Jessica Tandy as Blanche DuBois and he was reluctant to repeat the role of Stanley Kowalski which he felt he had exhausted. But he was attracted to Vivian Leigh and they worked off each other. After a brilliant, melancholy, ad-libbed performance, he would rush off to his analyst. He still resented acting—didn’t think he was good enough, and wanted to do something for the world. After this film, he caught up on changes in his relationships with his mother and father and winning Oscars.

Brando discovered a lot about his acting in Streetcar. Costume played a big part where he wore T-shirt, a leather jacket, and blue jeans that were tight as a glove outlining every muscle in his thighs. He felt released emotionally. He said later, “I found Stanley’s voice. I’m an ear man, you know.” He had heard the voice in his head. He found vocal mannerisms in Tennessee Williams’ scripted words to express the tensions of an inarticulate or ordinary man. Mumbling was a favorite device. The critic Camille Paglia raved, “Brando brought American nature to American acting and brought the American personality to the world—the sexy rebel, all mute and surly bad attitude—prefigures the ‘60s rock and roll.” I might add that this is one of Bosworth’s fullest and richest discussions of a film. Around this time life events deeply affected him. His mother died, he became unfocused and began to make some bad films. More analysis helped.

As anti-heroes up from poverty, Brando, as well as James Dean, were separated from the John Waynes of Hollywood. Brando was the best as a rebel alienated and tormented. The Wild One exemplified this where a band of rowdy motorcyclists wreck a small town in California. Youthful rebels in search of excitement, Brando played the gang leader. He saw himself as an alienated youth. There were a number of other radical events that were taking place in the ‘50s: the popularity of Psychiatry, speed coupled with a laissez-faire attitude toward commitment. These characteristics were shared by a larger group known as the “Beat Generation,” who were mostly poets and into Jazz. They were in awe of Brando but he did not make contact with them. They shared an obsession with motorcycles.

On the Waterfront followed. Director Elia Kazan pointed out that Brando’s expressions of self-awareness on the part of a male hero in the history of American film was unforgettable: “the contrast of the tough guy front and the extreme delicacy and gentle cast of his behavior.” This duality of role appeared in many of his films and resurfaces years later in The Godfather.

Brando was famous, but by ‘61 his career was definitely sinking. Bosworth tracks the details of his fading. He was depressed, and gaining a lot of weight. He made one film during this period, Reflections in a Golden Eye, playing the role of a repressed homosexual of which he was proud, but the public was turned off. He started disappearing to Tahiti. Last Tango in Paris was shown in ‘72. Its content is a sexual affair that only lasts for three days. The two participants know nothing about each other. The sensuality was unprecedented—frontal nudity, masturbation and sodomy. It caused a big sensation and was timely. The sexual revolution had started and sex was no longer sacred. One critic commented that the film is really about what it is like to be Marlon Brando.

Bosworth states that the focus of her book is on Brando’s work. And she covers many of the films, analyzing Brando’s role, making a point of the techniques he uses to reveal the character, how he learns this process and applies it. Not only the Method Acting processes that he learned at the Actors’ Studio but additional ones that he discovered himself. He was particularly adept at disguise and costume—the use of his body, the range of his voice, his awareness of sexual appeal, his focus on gesture, his imagination. However, Bosworth’s style is that of a journalist, objective, detached like a good researcher.Her contribution lies in defining Brando’s discoveries and applications of bringing out character. It’s typical of our time when readers are in a hurry—the style is abbreviated, snappy and trendy. It covers his career to the present, pointing out Brando’s followers such as Robert de Niro.

What reading the autobiography gave me was Brando’s continued search for himself—what his life was all about and what he could do in order to fulfill it. He recognizes during these late years of meditation and the simple life, that we all are capable of love and hate, and that he can’t solve the world’s problems. He said, “All my life I’ve been a do-gooder.” Perhaps the only final solution is to alter man himself. At this moment, Brando is prophetic. He has mellowed like most people his age, but he continues to examine his life. In defense of his shift to a seclusive life he argues, “I’m having fun . . . At 70, I finally feel free.”

I found the autobiography a joy to read, packed with feeling and a personality richer, more human and fuller than is revealed in Patricia Bosworth’s writing about his films.

Jeanne Siegel

New York, New York
2001

 

reviews