SOMEBODY - THE RECKLESS LIFE AND REMARKABLE CAREER OF MARLON BRANDO
by Stefan Kanfer
(Faber 352 £20.00)
Reviewed by Roz Kaveney
Brando was one of the greatest of film actors, but is remembered for a handful of performances. Any good biography has to be at the same time prepared to be enlightening and enthusiastic about those few great roles, and analytical yet fair-minded about the many occasions on which Brando failed to live up to the better angels of his talent. One of the strengths of Kanfer's excellent book is that he makes convincing cases for several performances that are flawed rather than, as Brando sometimes was, rankly bad; the reader comes away from this account prepared to give, say, Pontecorvo's Quemada! another chance for Brando at least, if not for the film's crude if honourable anti-imperialism.
Kanfer is particularly good on Brando's early life and on the damage inflicted on him by a violent philistine father and an alcoholic mother. Expertise in the history of Yiddish theatre gives Kanfer a sense of the context of Stella Adler, Brando's acting coach; when a saleswoman in a department store assumed Adler was British, she said 'I'm not English, just affected'. We are so used to thinking of Brando as a Method actor that it is salutary to be made to understand that Brando got his Method from Adler, Stanislavsky's last pupil, rather than from Lee Strasberg. For Adler, and for Brando, acting was about finding an emotionally true behaviour, rather than about dredging up an analogy to the script from the actor's own past.
Rarely has there been a great actor so deeply conflicted about the worth of what he was doing - his father's contempt for his profession as unmanly dilettantism infected Brando to the point where he sought out political activism as a way of being more serious, or took parts for the money or because of contractual obligations in third-rate films in which there was no prospect of his doing good work. Yet, throughout his career, there were roles that somehow dragged greatness out of him again, for all his self-hatred and self-contempt.
Kanfer is good and imaginative on this, and yet a little too ready to draw a simple line between this aspect of Brando and the over-eating which gradually turned the young god of A streetcar named Desire into the massive figures of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now and Jor-El in Superman. One possibility which he does not explore properly is that Brando was a deal less adjusted to his bisexuality than Kanfer assumes; he came of age, after all, in an epoch in which all homosexual practice was seen as pathological as well as criminal. Compulsive eating was perhaps a way of expressing self-hatred, but also of destroying that side of himself which Brando feared. of making himself less attractive. It is also perhaps significant that Brando's relationships with women tended not to be with colleagues, or with equals. His passionate commitment to anti-racist and progressive causes was accompanied by a tendency to involve himself with women whom he could treat as exoticized others.
The chaos of his personal life, and his troubled emotional states, help explain why Brando so often fell short of his best. What Kanfer does in this book - in a sequence of memorable passages - is help us see what was remarkable about his best performances - the brutal vulnerability of his Stanley Kowalski, the feline intelligence of his Mark Anthony, the monumental intensity of Kurtz. In the best of Brando, there is a passion for emotional truth and a competently managed taking of enormous risks - he bellows and mumbles and yet clarity and control always assert themselves a moment later. At his best Brando staggers on the tightrope and turns it into dance.