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He bellowed 'Stella!' . . . and acting was never the same : BRANDO: Songs My Mother Taught Me, By Marlon Brando with Robert Lindsey (Random House: $25; 468 pp.) : BRANDO: The Biography, By Peter Manso (Hyperion: $29.95; 1,172 pp.)

September 18, 1994|David Freeman | David Freeman is the author of "A Hollywood Education" and other books

Marlon Brando's hold on the public imagination has more to do with his scandals, his acting fees and even his weight than any of his recent performances. It wasn't always so. Between 1947 and 1954, from "A Streetcar Named Desire" to "On the Waterfront," Brando changed the way we think about acting. After Brando's raw passion and emotional truth, it wasn't so easy to accept Hollywood stars whose appeal was based on ingratiating personality or the hammy performance style that had come down from the British stage. No actor ever had a more dazzling beginning than Brando. He spent the next 18 years squandering it.

Now, on the brink of old age, after many false starts, he has written his memoirs. At the same time, a comprehensive biography has also been published. Brando's own book, possibly written as a hedge against what the biography might uncover, is set down in a gentle mood. "My memories," he writes, "are colored by later events and distorted by the blurred prism through which my mind now chooses to examine my life."

In Brando's best performances, he doesn't judge his characters. He creates a life, often prickly and contradictory, usually searching and often unhappy, then shows it whole, without apparent comment. Now he's tried to achieve something like the literary equivalent of that strategy, reporting even his most extreme behavior in something like a dispassionate voice. The result can be sweet and beguiling but maddeningly incomplete.

Manso's biography, surely the longest ever written about an actor, pays respect to Brando's best work but portrays his personal life as going from outrageous to near-criminal. Manso has conducted 750 interviews. In addition, he has drawn on many books and articles, ranging from Richard Schickel's insightful "Brando: A Life in Our Times" to the spiteful "Brando for Breakfast," by Anna Kashfi, one of Brando's ex-wives. In Manso's biography Brando comes across like Amadeus. In his own book, he's more like Candide.

Marlon Brando Jr., called Bud, was born in Omaha, the third child and only son of a salesman of limestone products. His mother, Dorothy Pennebaker Brando, known as Dodie, was a gifted amateur actress with a bohemian disposition. Marlon Sr., a man of more conventional outlook, found himself in a household of rebellious spirits, none of whom he ever understood. Both he and his wife were alcoholics; both were promiscuous. Marlon Sr. was also something of a bully. His son hated him.

After a difficult time in high school in Libertyville, Ill., where the family had landed, Bud was shipped off to Minnesota, to Shattuck Military Academy, his father's old school. It was wartime. Shattuck took seriously its charge to train future officers. Young Bud, however, spent his time in pranks and erotic pursuits: He romanced the school maids, the girls of the town, a few faculty wives and, by Manso's account, some of the cadets.

Brando was expelled from Shattuck and wound up in New York. It was 1943. He was 18, 4F because of a football knee injury, and except for a few well-received turns in school plays, had no skills. His sister Jocelyn was an actress, so he enrolled at Erwin Piscator's Dramatic Workshop at the New School, hoping to meet girls. One of the teachers was Stella Adler, the grandest of dames, who once said, "I could live in any Communist country if I were Queen." She saw that this young man from the provinces, with the hooded eyes and the soft, mumbling voice, was "the most keenly aware, the most empathetical human being alive." He was also an erotic magnet for all around him, Adler herself included, according to Manso.

Adler's method, which came out of the Group Theater and her own private study with Stanislavsky, stressed inner reality and emotional exposure. Authenticity of feeling was the goal. Brando mastered it from the start. Adler became his patron and took him into the sophisticated circle of her family and friends, which included her husband at the time, the director and critic, Harold Clurman, and her teen-age daughter, Ellen, who was also one of Bud's conquests.

Brando was soon on Broadway in "I Remember Mama." People who saw it remember only Brando. The acting teacher and director Bobby Lewis thought Brando was so real "that a stagehand must have wandered on stage." Brando became bored with the production and began making trouble both on and offstage. There were always women in his dressing room, or waiting at the stage door, often available to him between his entrances.

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