Marlon Brando, 1924-2004. Actor, expert make-up artist, bisexual sex addict, kook. Only son of two drunks, with a bohemian mother so volatile he learnt young to perfect impressions of not just animals and people but machines and inanimate objects in order to soothe her – his “cash register” was, by all accounts, irresistible. Sympathetic Boston English professor Susan Mizruchi is keen to add “intellectual” to the list in this new biography. “Brando has been a victim of sexism,” she writes. “Because he was so charming and physically appealing, his equally energetic mind has tended to be negated.”
In fact, the actor did poorly at school and was expelled from military academy. But in his early twenties he fell in with a radical drama teacher, Stella Adler, in New York – he did not, as many assume, study the Method at the Actors Studio under Lee Strasberg – who believed that actors were essentially a breed of undercover agent, trained to notice everything. By the early 1950s, first on stage and then in movies such as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Wild One, the thrill that came off him had audiences clutching at their faces, blushing like plums, not just because of his outrageous sex appeal but the unusual way in which he gave working men “classical gestures, size and stature”. Elia Kazan’s first impression was that the actor was “subtly humorous, catlike, lazy, not easy to frighten or rush”. Kazan, who went on to direct Brando in the monumental On the Waterfront in 1954, learnt never to superimpose any will on him, just to wait quietly as Brando worked out a part, confident “a miracle” would come (Brando won the Oscar for best actor).
A night owl who rarely got up before the afternoon and who collected raccoons and pigs, Brando was doggedly resistant to convention all his life, and is frequently described as “unquestionably odd” and “very strange”. Ever nervous about his academic knowledge, he was a classic autodidact with a whole archipelago of studies and subjects, from Jung to black holes, maps, wildlife, Judaism, the Native American, Shakespeare.
For the first time among his biographers, Mizruchi had access to Brando’s library of more than 4,000 books complete with his personal annotations. His bad spelling is spectacular (“entrieging”) and his jottings in the margins endearingly keen and wry. “RIDICULOUS”, “GREAT GOD!” And “GET” next to anything that might inspire him to further reading. In his copy of The Brothers Karamazovhe underlines every unfamiliar word.
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