Writing for actors is a privilege and a pain. Good actors elevate the material, finding truths the writer never intended. But their process, the means by which they are able to breathe life into a character, is an infuriating mystery. Articulate actors rhapsodize about their craft. Honest ones admit not even they can explain how they do it.
That’s why writing about acting is so difficult, why biographies of actors so often lapse into celebrity tell-all and about addiction, sex and other irrelevancies unrelated to the actor’s talents. And no actor has had as much written about his elusive art as Marlon Brando, who was the greatest actor of his time, or the most overrated — or both.
Stefan Kanfer’s new biography, «Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando,» is a serious effort to explain the man, his gifts as an actor, his influence on the profession, and how an acting innovator ended up as such a celebrity cliché. As Kanfer makes clear, no one was more perplexed by this trajectory than Brando himself.
Or more conflicted. «What everyone missed,» Kanfer argues, «. . . was Marlon’s deep-seated ambivalence toward fame, and much more significant, toward acting itself. Was it art? A craft? Or was it just another ego trip, a part of the big American publicity machine?» Brando often disparaged acting as an unseemly con: «Acting is an illusion, a histrionic form of sleight of hand . . . it’s a bum’s life,» he said. On the set, he rarely learned his lines, followed direction or respected his colleagues.
Yet Kanfer argues persuasively that that while Brando lacked discipline and judgment, could be craven when it came to money and cruel when it came to commitments, he believed deeply in the actor’s ability to achieve truth, and in so doing, change the world.
Well-researched and beautifully written, the book is as fascinating and frustrating as the subject himself. Not even the gifted Kanfer («Groucho,» «Ball of Fire») can untangle the contradictions and confusions that explain what made Brando great. Whatever it is exists on the screen in Brando’s performances, though not always (the man made more turkeys than Louis Rich); like God and obscenity, you know it when you see it.
It all began with such promise. Physically beautiful, explosively charismatic, Brando’s early stage work, brought to the screen with «A Streetcar Named Desire,» and his performance in «On the Waterfront» are mesmerizing. British legend John Gielgud was so impressed with Brando’s performance as Marc Antony in «Julius Caesar» that he offered him a full season of repertory in London.
Sadly, it never happened. Instead, Brando threw his talent away on material that was awful («The Young Lions»), dreadful («The Countess From Hong Kong») and prurient («Last Tango in Paris»). Along the way Brando bumbled through a series of ill-advised marriages, fathered children he was emotionally ill-equipped to raise, and embraced the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement and the plight of Pacific Islanders with lunatic sincerity.
«The Godfather» resurrected Brando’s career, in no small part because of the supporting work of a generation of actors Brando helped create. Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall viewed their costar as a god, the man who remade acting and actors in his own brooding image. Brando’s performance as Don Corleone was transcendent, as was his Col. Kurtz in «Apocalypse Now.» But his odd behavior and outright laziness convinced even his most devoted acolytes that what lay behind the Method actor’s genius was not method but madness.
Kanfer argues persuasively that it was mental illness rather than character flaws that bedeviled Brando. The product of a miserably dysfunctional Omaha, Neb., family, Brando was a hostile youth, «burning insects, slashing tires» and killing birds. A man of limited intelligence but enormous sensitivity and emotional need, Brando was ill-suited for the rough-and-tumble of celebrity and show business. Indeed, Kanfer makes a strong case that Brando’s decamping to an island in the South Seas was more an attempt to forswear his profession than a search for Nirvana.
In the end, the most Kanfer can decipher is that Brando thought long and hard about Brando, yet not even Brando could solve the mystery of his own talent. And because he could not understand it or summon it at will, or always know where and how to use it, Brando distrusted and abused it.
They have a name for great actors who can summon their craft with technical expertise without destroying themselves or those around them. The term is «British.» If only Brando had taken Gielgud up on his offer, the world of acting might have been more complete.
- Shapiro is a writer and producer on the NBC television drama «Life.»