It's not as if we're starved for books on Marlon Brando. There is a vast anthology of interviews by Peter Manso as well as briefer books or essays by Charles Higham, Bob Thomas, Richard Schickel and Molly Haskell. Added to which, there are brilliant portraits of the troubled actor in books by Elia Kazan (his director on "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Viva Zapata" and "On the Waterfront") and Anna Kashfi (one of his wives) and, in 1994, in a publishing deal that epitomized his scornful yet exploitative attitude, Brando tossed a nasty, evasive, mean-spirited autobiography at the public.
So what are Lipper/Viking and Patricia Bosworth (the author of a good full-length book on Montgomery Clift) after, except the possibility that celebrity, greed and our short attention span may make an extended essay appealing? Bosworth is--like most of us--an admirer of the young Brando, increasingly dismayed by his later disaffection and what many have called his betrayal of acting. But Brando's own sour book spoke volumes on the naive idealism and enormous self-pity that have fed his decline (and I use that verb advisedly), while Bosworth can't really do more than list the bare facts of overweening ego.
So it's all the more worthwhile stressing the astonishing glory of Brando's position in, say, 1954, the year "On the Waterfront" opened. By then, the unhappy kid from Nebraska had managed to turn classical mother-love and the fear and loathing of a drunken bad-tempered father into a model of postwar American unease or rebellion, and so intense a level of naturalistic behavior on stage and screen that he seemed to reinvent acting and give credence to the Actors Studio Method to which he was attached.
A key date is Dec. 3, 1947 (when Brando was 23), the New York opening of "Streetcar," a play redefined or reoriented in performance by Brando's Stanley Kowalski. As written by Tennessee Williams, it was a play about the humiliation and brutalization of Blanche Du Bois, the excessively neurotic but sensitive bloom of European traditions. But Brando made Stanley younger than Williams had intended and so carnal, compelling and instinctive that the brute was humanized and offered as an example of the troubled American spirit of the postwar years. Williams saw the shift in his play and let it happen because he adored Brando. It was only in the movie (1951) that the balance was restored, when Vivien Leigh took over from Jessica Tandy as Blanche. Though muted by censorship, that production was truer to the play, yet it spelled out the faded European gentility and the raw, dangerous American energy. It was like modern jazz clashing with the poignancy of a Ravel string quartet. Brando never acted on stage again, having grown bored and driven to wild anti-social practical jokes by the long run of "Streetcar."
There was never a professionalism there that could hold off his boredom and the urge toward perilous improvisation. That vulnerable edge lasted for a few movies--"The Men," "Streetcar," "Viva Zapata," "On the Waterfront"--and after that, Brando fell victim to his own disdain and self-indulgence. Yes, there are later glories like "The Godfather" and "Last Tango in Paris" (and "Last Tango" reads very well as a vision of a Stanley who has given up on America and his own sensual confidence). But for decades now, we have lived with Marlon Brando as a kind of monster of lost promise and bloated excess, a man who has sacrificed himself in a maudlin attempt to dramatize the loss of integrity and direction in American drama and acting.
Bosworth tells that story, but she never convinces herself, let alone us, about the urgency or necessity of her book. She would have been better advised taking the outline of facts for granted (most of the people interested already know the forlorn arc of Brando's life) and instead writing a polemical essay on the damage done to the idea of American acting by the Actors Studio. Our culture is seldom in more danger than when offered ponderous sincerity. With the Method, that and the natural egotism of actors buried the behavioral freshness that Stanislavsky loved. So just as Brando made the actor a kind of American hero, so he was set up as a tragic victim. And Marlon Brando was never smart or tough enough to overcome the pitfalls of moody celebrity.
When Brando worked with John Gielgud on the film "Julius Caesar" (1953), Gielgud was so struck by the potential of Brando that he invited the American to join him (and Paul Scofield) in a London season. Brando declined: He preferred to go surfing in Tahiti and to spend hours and years with his analyst. Gielgud and Scofield had decades ahead of the most fruitful kindof work, without ever succumbing to the worst defects of stardom. How intelligent and provocativeit would have been for Brandoto have gone to London and tohave maintained a stage career. What might have been? Instead,he is presented here as a sadpenguin on an iceberg and as is true of most bergs, there is a huge fraction of submerged, undelivered promise.