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'Contender' review: Bio sheds light on Marlon Brando as actor and activist

Marlon Brando, right center, at the Lincoln Memorial

Marlon Brando, right center, at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, with Charlton Heston, left, Harry Belafonte and James Baldwin. Photo Credit: Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

CONTENDER: THE STORY OF MARLON BRANDO by William J. Mann (Harper, 736 pp., $35).

Marlon Brando was the quintessential Method actor, right? His temperamental demands ran up a huge bill on the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty,” right? And he spent his later life as an obese recluse on an island he owned in Tahiti, right?

Wrong, William J. Mann argues in “The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando.” “Nearly everyone who’s written about [Brando],” Mann writes, “has gotten him wrong.”

To get the story right, Mann worked with the cooperation of Brando’s estate. He found “Brando’s own, unedited words” in transcripts of the extensive interviews Brando gave the author who collaborated on the actor’s autobiography.

To this trove, Mann added innumerable details culled from extensive research. Reading his annotated source notes is like following a relentless gumshoe nailing down every major and minor clue in a case. The consideration of the iconic actor’s life and career that results is solid, perceptive and enlightening, however overlong,

Telling Brando’s story, Mann avoids chronology: “I drop in at key moments of his life and get in as close as possible to understanding him and his world,” Mann writes, “then fade out and drop in again, a few years down the road.”

Mann’s approach puts Brando in sharp relief. Following Brando’s nascent acting career at Manhattan’s New School, for example, Mann describes a confrontation between the young actor and Erwin Piscator, the school’s imperious director. Piscator, Mann writes, “was simply Marlon Brando Sr. with an education and a German accent.”

Mann then flashes back to a moment between a teenage Brando and his father, an embittered alcoholic who sold Calcium Carbonite on the road. At home, in Evanston, Illinois, he beat and abused his son, crippling the boy’s sense of self worth. Once when his spiffed-up son headed to a date, Brando Sr. ordered him to go out to the barn and milk a cow.

Brando recalled that he didn’t have to time to change his shoes, which were covered with cow manure: “All the way to the basketball game, it smelled in the car.”

If Brando’s father shadowed his son’s life, his mother, Dorothy, a would-be actress, haunted him even more. Emotionally fragile, distant and also alcoholic, she withheld love from her son, while pushing him to become an actor. Hoping to find elsewhere the love his mother denied him, Brando Jr. began a lifetime series of affairs with men and women. And to win his mother’s approval, he launched an acting career.

Brando, the actor, was by common consensus, Mann writes, “the greatest.” Mann backs this assertion with observant critiques of Brando’s stage and film work. In performance, Brando meticulously detailed every move. To play Don Corleone in “The Godfather,” he strove for the particular accent of a New York Italian. For his death scene in “Mutiny on the Bounty,” he conveyed through his eyes the look of death.

These effects came from the actor’s keen observations, not from digging into his life and its emotions. This latter approach would have made him a Method actor, something he did not want to be. Brando followed instead his mentor and lifelong friend, actress and teacher Stella Adler, who trained him to draw on his imagination.

Despite blazing success in the stage and film versions of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and in the powerful 1954 film “On the Waterfront,” Brando became disenchanted with acting and show business. “Acting took him away from other things … more important things,” Mann writes. Thus, a prescient Brando began confronting social and political issues that the broader public has only now begun to deal with.

Brando disdained the rise of celebrity journalism, especially after The Saturday Evening Post published in 1962 a largely inaccurate article that claimed that his demands on the set of “Mutiny of the Bounty” sank the film’s budget. Brando sued the magazine for $5 million. The case was settled out of court for a smaller sum.

Brando was also concerned early on about global warming. During breaks from a TV interview with Larry King, the actor lectured the crew about the dangers of carbon monoxide emissions.

And he forcefully protested racism in America. In 1963, he was an organizer and participant in Martin Luther King’s march on Washington.

Mann’s profile of Brando as social activist is by far the biography’s singular achievement. We see that Brando was as powerful in life as on film. 

Mann’s ardor for his subject, alas, sends him into literary overtime. He often repeats and defends key points after he’s firmly made them. You might say that this valuable biography is overly successful.  

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