- Brando's Smile: His Life, Thought, and Work by Susan L. Mizruchi
The charismatic Marlon Brando remains an elusive and enigmatic figure for filmgoers as well as biographers. Usually acknowledged as America's finest actor, Brando nevertheless, often dismissed his art, and in the latter stages of his career the actor was often perceived as simply showing up for a paycheck. His decision to have Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather reject his Best Actor Award for The Godfather at the 1973 Oscar ceremony was condemned by many as a publicity stunt. Brando's personal life was also troubled by numerous marriages and love affairs in addition to the murder conviction of his son Christian and the suicide of his daughter Cheyenne. He resented his celebrity status, and his relationship with the press was antagonistic. Like Bob Dylan, Brando often intentionally misled interviewers. Thus, seeking to maintain a sense of privacy, Brando kept some distance between himself and the public, making it difficult for us to really know the actor. In Brando's Smile, however, Susan L. Mizruchi, a professor of English at Boston University, offers a new perspective on Brando that provides insights into the actor's thinking and shatters some of the barriers so carefully constructed by this most private person. One wonders what Brando might think of this flattering but invasive biography.
To get inside of Marlon Brando's mind, Mizruchi does not rely upon the sordid gossip of associates and magazines chronicling the actor's sexual escapades. Instead, Mizruchi draws upon new resources such as the annotations Brando made in his extensive library of over 4,000 volumes, which covered psychology, philosophy, sociology, science and nature, history, and especially books on Native Americans. In addition, Mizruchi has examined the extensive notes and suggested script changes Brando made to many of the films in which he appeared. These investigations into newly available primary sources from the Brando estate, along with some interviews Mizruchi conducted with the actor's surviving friends and family, provide a complex portrait of an intellectually curious individual who was deeply engaged with his craft and world.
Brando was born into a middle-class family in Omaha, Nebraska, and he had a troubled relationship with his parents. His mother was an alcoholic and his father was a womanizer who was often abusive toward his son. Brando responded by rebelling and failed to earn a high school diploma. Despite his extensive reading habits, Brando was always somewhat embarrassed by his lack of formal education. Mizruchi suggests that his problems with women and relationships may be traced to fears of abandonment by his [End Page 69] mother. However, Mizruchi does not dwell on Brando's attitude toward women other than to note that he spent considerable time in pursuit of female companionship, which did not leave him much time for his children during their formative years. What Mizruchi documents well is Brando's life-long commitment to acting as a profession and a similar dedication to progressive politics.
Although Brando disparaged acting in many interviews, Mizruchi argues that he was intensely engaged with his craft throughout his career. However, he did take umbrage at being described as a method actor. Brando never studied with Lee Strasberg and claimed that he attended the Actors Studio primarily to pick up young women. His most influential acting teacher was Stella Adler who drew upon the ideas of Constantin Stanislavski who emphasized that the actor must become the character. Many detractors did not understand Brando's approach to acting. His tendency to be spontaneous in his performances led some critics to accuse the actor of being too lazy to learn his lines. In response, Mizruchi documents the considerable amount of time Brando spent revising scripts, often making significant contributions to the characterizations of other actors. Brando believed dialogue could actually be pruned from a screenplay, as motivation and meaning could be better conveyed through expression, action, and the handling of props. He credits Elia Kazan with being the best actor's director for allowing...