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Monday, March 9, 2009

Reckless Brando

An actor’s remarkable life

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Marlon Brando, often labeled as the greatest American actor, is revisited in a concise new biography, Somebody:The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando (Knopf). Stefan Kanfer's refreshingly readable examination pays due homage to the Brando persona and gives an insightfully critical look at the legendary performer's life.

Equally legendary are the jibes leveled at Brando for not realizing his full potential onscreen, for making a handful of films before dissipating his talent on inferior material and for professing open contempt for his own profession. "Acting is nothing," he claimed, but in a denigrating sense of classic denial, Brando was always fully aware that the mention of his name remained a powerhouse of promise, a living memorial of his most astounding influence on contemporary acting styles and an ironic exemplar of the elusiveness of talent-as well as a source of money!

Brando was wrong in assuming that acting affected only the actor and that acclaim meant he had hoodwinked his audience. He single-handedly redefined the contemporary cultural perception of the American male with a unique, effortless aplomb that would forever blend the popular conception of masculine self-confidence with a looser, more dynamic interpretation of what it meant to be cool. The indefinable Brando "brand" would remain a hallmark for a generation of actors.

Kanfer unsparingly reviews Brando's early upbringing-the alcoholic mother Brando always loved, the overbearing, exploitive father he despised, the childhood rebelliousness and mean-spirited pranks leading to his placement at Shattuck Military Academy, where he discovered that movies were great and acting could be fun.

Soon he stumbled into the creative milieu that was once the Great White Way, piquing his vocational aspirations. He found small roles on Broadway, including a bit part in IRemember Mama, got great notices in lesser plays and finally came under the influence of drama coach Stella Adler, who would mold the early Brando far more tellingly than the famed Actors Studio, which did less than is generally supposed to develop him into America's most famous Method actor.

Adler believed an actor must go further than the Lee Strasberg credo of drudging up one's emotional past by reaching beyond suppressed emotional memories and delving into the universal meanings beneath the text. In his heyday Brando would often disregard written dialogue as if it were a superfluous expression of an undercurrent where the real thinking and feeling takes place. Somehow, he made it work.

Tennessee Williams himself persuaded director Elia Kazan to give Brando the Broadway lead in Streetcar NamedDesire. The revolution had begun. On stage, as in the film version, Brando reinvented the indifferent unconscious cruelty of the all-American slob. Audiences long familiar with the type had never seen it so poetically realized. The slob then shocked everyone with his erudite, invigorating, crystal-clear Shakespeare in Julius Caesar.

Despite similarity of style, no two Brando performances are the same. His award-winning performance in On theWaterfront seems tentative, cautiously thought out. But Brando knew what he was doing in re-educating his audiences. He was even less aggressive as the motorcycle gang leader in The Wild One, playing a poignantly underdeveloped personality with a sarcastic sleight-of-hand diffidence that would become his trademark. The revolutionary Viva Zapata! marked the more introspective Brando, but already a moodiness was setting in that seemed to negate the dialogue. His other films of the '50s were standard matinee-idol fare: Sayonara, Desiree, Guys and Dolls. An odd disinterest was becoming more apparent.

He would continue to sabotage his later films with the exception of the underrated, eerily understated and marvelously tender One-Eyed Jacks, a psychological Western that remains his only directorial effort. After a series of failures marking him as "unbankable," The Godfather gave him his last great role, rescuing him from the doldrums of indifference for his own craft and stamping his wry genius on posterity.

Although Brando's accomplishments retain their status as master-class guidelines for future actors, he never acknowledged satisfaction with his work. Like many who feel that living is a compromise between hope and achievement, Brando believed he had accomplished nothing of importance. But unlike most of us, and whether he admitted it or not, he had done it all.