Marlon Brando: the charmed but wasted life of a hedonist

Marlon Brando, born in 1924, was, William J Mann assures us, the product of a “physically and emotionally abusive” father and an “emotionally distant and neglectful” alcoholic mother. How Freudian. This is one of those psychologically claustrophobic biographies where each and every instance of adult behaviour, the obstinacies and vituperation, is immediately traced back to childhood trauma, which axiomatically includes bad parenting.

It is true that Brando was always immensely pampered and spoilt. His father, Marlon Snr, was a travelling salesman for the Calcium Carbonate Corporation, and had enough of an income to employ maids.

And while it is intimated that Marlon’s relationship with his father was animated by hatred rather than affection, in reality Marlon Snr sent his son a generous regular allowance for years until his career got going. And when it did get going, and the millions flowed in, instead of cutting loose, Brando employed the old man as his manager, whose specific task was to shelter his income from tax by investing in cattle and gold mines.

Brando’s life and career are better viewed not psychoanalytically but in the light of a comment he once made, that “I just stepped on one lily pad and then another. I lived a charmed life,” generally doing as he pleased.

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Acting, for example, came as easily to him as it did to Shirley Temple (“He never needed to work at it,” agrees Mann), and this may be why, although grandiose claims are always made for his talent, I am never quite convinced. Brando was lazy. His apparent realism was seldom realistic, his lumbering, scratching, growling naturalism owed nothing to nature.

Even Mann has to concede that Brando was only “truly engaged and invigorated by the process of creating a character” a handful of times: Stanley Kowalski, proud and vain, waddling like King Kong in A Streetcar Named Desire; Terry Malloy, the punch-drunk anti-hero and “contender” in On the Waterfront; and the deadly Vito Corleone in The Godfather.

He was a hedonist, even growing fat for pleasure. Eating was a deliberate “act of rebellion”, writes Mann, and “food was always a friend”. Possibly his only friend. He affected to despise Hollywood – “everybody pretending to like each other and praising each other, yet full of resentment deep down.” When he won the Oscar for The Godfather, he sent an Apache actress to collect the statuette in his stead, outraging John Wayne.

Though he’d said “after you’ve got enough, money doesn’t matter,” all that came to matter to Brando was big bucks. Random House paid $5m for an autobiography, which turned out to be a boring tirade against racism and injustice. As Jor-El of Krypton, in Superman, he was paid $3m for two minutes of screen time.

“I led a wasted life,” Brando concluded. Instead of playing Lear, he became him. “Misery has come to my house,” he howled. His son Christian, who died aged 49, and had been since childhood “a basket-case of emotional disorders,” shot dead the father of his half-sister’s baby. That sister, Cheyenne died by suicide in 1995, aged 25. Brando himself, morbidly obese, died in 2004 from diabetes, pulmonary fibrosis and liver cancer.

Why are movie biographies often so dire? This zigzag opus is hard to follow. Some films are dealt with in obsessive detail, others go unmentioned – there is hardly anything on Apocalypse Now. Mann’s chronology is confused to such an extent that I wondered whether a compositor had randomly shuffled the manuscript pages in a fit. I did laugh, however, to learn that Brando once rigged up a remote-control fart machine, which went off whenever Robert De Niro sat on a settee.

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