Happy Birthday, Truman Capote

A re-post for Truman Capote’s birthday, which is today.

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Gerald Clarke devoted an entire chapter to how this 1957 profile of Marlon Brando came about in his definitive biography of Truman Capote. ‘The Duke In His Doman’ is a famous piece, and was immediately notorious upon its publication. Par for the course in terms of Truman Capote’s stuff. He always made a big splash with things. (I’m an enormous Truman Capote fan, even when I think to myself, “Truman. What are you DOING??”)

So here’s how it all went down. Marlon Brando was over in Japan, filming Sayonara, directed by Josh Logan. Brando was over 10 years now into his celebrity. He was somewhat of a recluse in many ways, and rarely gave interviews. Truman Capote, back in America, had heard some of the problems with the shoot, the issues with casting, the desire to make a film that was authentic about Japanese culture (which Truman gleefully had a feeling would be a giant bust), filming in Japan itself, and knew he HAD to write about the shoot.

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Josh Logan was no dummy and knew Truman was dangerous so he banned him from visiting the set. I think originally he had said, “Sure, come on over” but then had second thoughts so severe that he jammed his foot on the brakes. Capote could be the most flattering man alive, which is how he softened up his interview-subjects (or, hell, his friends who had no idea that they were also “subjects”), playing on their vanity, etc. etc. Many people were so fooled by him that when the piece came out featuring them, and it was less-than-flattering, they were stunned. (And then, of course, came the Great Purge, when all of Truman’s friends, save a couple, dropped him, en masse. But that was all in the future at the time of ‘Duke In His Domain’.)

Truman Capote set off for Japan with pal Cecil Beaton in tow. Once he arrived in Kyoto, to join up with the production, he learned of Logan’s ban. Capote’s vengeful feelings towards Logan are evident in the profile. Logan ends up looking like a hack, an enthusiastic dupe, a guy who was so psyched to have Brando in his picture that he didn’t take the time to see if Brando was giving a good performance or not. Whatever Brando did, Logan would shout, “Cut – PRINT. That was great!” (according to Capote, so again, grain of salt). Brando would test directors. He was used to people kow-towing to him, being sycophants, fawning on him, and it made him cynical. If you think everything I do is great, then I know you are lying to me, therefore I do not trust you, therefore I will withhold myself from you.

An interview with Brando was never in the original plan for Capote. Truman Capote wanted to write about a big Hollywood production being filmed on Japanese soil, and the culture clash, and all that. Because he was banned from the set, he was at a bit of a loss as to what to do, so he and Cecil Beaton traveled around for a couple of weeks, going to Thailand, and Hong Kong. (When you read the profile, you would have thought Truman Capote had lived for 20 years in Japan, he speaks with such breathless assurance about the culture, and kabuki, and sake, and all that.)

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Despite Logan’s ban, Brando invited Truman to come over to his suite for dinner or a drink. Not an interview, permission was not given for that. It was 100% casual, “come on over, let’s hang out.” Capote himself said later that interviewing Brando hadn’t ever occurred to him. (Yeah, right, Truman.) Logan begged Brando to cancel the dinner. He had heard Truman bad-mouthing Brando for a while. Montgomery Clift is a REAL actor, Brando isn’t … etc. Logan told Brando that “Truman has it in for you”, but Brando, protected by his fame, innocence, and self-belief, was like, “Oh please, I want to have dinner with Truman.”

He had second thoughts when ‘The Duke In His Domain’ was published a couple of months later. Brando screamed at Logan, “HE TRICKED ME.” Logan couldn’t help but give him an I-told-you-so lecture. Brando was completely unaware that he was being “interviewed”. Truman Capote was a master at getting people to reveal their innermost selves, and he did that by talking about himself. Truman was quite open about this. If you tell someone something about yourself, a secret, a flaw, then the other person may feel inclined to tell you a secret in return. Many many many people have been “tricked” into revealing their secrets in this manner. Truman told Brando his problems, as they sat in Brando’s suite, being waited on by Japanese waitresses, which – considering the title of the essay – made it look like Brando was some kind of Duke, and then Brando started riffing. He was unaware that Truman was memorizing every single word he said. I would imagine Capote left Brando’s suite, heart pounding, thinking, “Holy shit, did that just happen?” And then crouching in a corner with a notebook, writing it all down, having stored it all in his phenomenal memory.

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Marlon Brando talked, non-stop, for three hours, to Capote that night. He drank vodka. He felt relaxed. He talked about his problems with fame, his issues with directors, his problems with the Sayonara shoot. He named names. He told Truman he slept with men sometimes, no big deal. (Truman Capote left that revelation out of the profile.) Brando had no idea he was “on the record”.

The resulting profile is one of the most fascinating things you will ever read about a celebrity, bar none. There’s almost nothing else quite like it, especially since it is written by Capote, master of the gossipy-observant-psychological form. It is not a hatchet-piece, nothing like that. Brando comes off as eccentric, selfish, manipulative, but also troubled and intelligent. You cannot believe he revealed himself like this so indiscriminately. Logan comes off worse than Brando, in my opinion, with his gushing about Brando, no matter what Brando did. Brando seems bored. He tells Capote he is thinking of becoming a monk, or a hermit, or something like that. The world bores him. He wants to do something important. A monk had just asked him for his autograph, and he was so cynical about that, almost hurt – why would a man like that even KNOW about me? Truman Capote clocks Marlon Brando’s puritanism (it reminds me of Elvis Presley’s yearning for a contemplative life, a life as a Buddhist monk or a preacher or something, and it makes perfect sense when you think of the sheer level of fame reached by these two people, so far beyond the fame of other famous people!)

While I can understand why Brando was mortified about the piece, and infuriated because he had talked vividly about his mother’s alcoholism (it was the inclusion of that quote that Brando found most unforgivable) and his own boredom with his good fortune (nobody likes to hear about the problems of fortunate people, it makes them resentful) … it is an extraordinary piece of journalism. While Capote may have been sneering at Brando, and while there is an aspect of viciousness to the profile (in the fact that it was published at all), my heart goes out to Brando in the profile. AND, because he was so relaxed (he would rarely relax in the company of a journalist ever again after this experience), he actually talked about his own fame and his feelings about it in a way that is unique! So rarely do famous people talk like this. For me, the most interesting thing about famous people, the thing I want to hear is: “What does it FEEL like?” Very few people are asked this in a context where they feel comfortable replying in an honest manner. Wanting to seem humble is engrained in most people, even famous people (maybe even more so in famous people because their wildest dreams have come true, and they don’t want to jinx it.)

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Because let’s remember: Brando wasn’t just famous. Brando was a game-changer (immediately). A harbinger of where the craft of acting needed to go. A phenom. An icon. Once he arrived he seemed inevitable. Once he arrived nothing would be the same again. Those are very different things from just being a garden-variety movie star. Brando had something else happen to him. It was an explosion. So what does that FEEL like?

Often, famous people talk eloquently about the loss of privacy and how painful it is. But there’s that deeper level, the level of fame, the magic of it, that is so rarely discussed in an emotional or revealing way.

But Brando talks about it to Truman. My favorite quote from Marlon Brando – ever – comes from this profile. I can’t even believe that this quote exists, and I am so happy it does.

“You can’t always be a failure. Not and survive. Van Gogh! There’s an example of what can happen when a person never receives any recognition. You stop relating: it puts you outside. But I guess success does that, too. You know, it took me a long time before I was aware that that’s what I was – a big success. I was so absorbed in myself, my own problems, I never looked around, took account. I used to walk in New York, miles and miles, walk in the streets late at night, and never see anything. I was never sure about acting, whether that was what I really wanted to do; I’m still not. Then, when I was in ‘Streetcar’, and it had been running a couple of months, one night — dimly, dimly — I began to hear this roar.”

I can understand, again, why Brando would balk at seeing those words in clear print, but I am so thankful that he was “tricked” by Capote because that is one of the most vivid descriptions from the inside of what it feels like to become famous I have ever read.

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I think Truman himself couldn’t believe it had happened, that Brando was so ready to talk to him in this manner.

The profile takes place entirely in Brando’s suite in Kyoto. Truman goes off on somewhat-pretentious explanations of Japanese culture for all us rubes back home, but he has a point, in showing the culture clash, first of all, and the problems that Japan in general had with the production. There was a lack of cooperation from the Japanese side. It caused a lot of tension. So we have that part of it, but we keep going back to Brando’s suite, and Brando rambling on and on, stream-of-conscious, about acting and directors and Buddhism and God and life … and he doesn’t sound like an asshole. To me, he sounds like a very isolated young man trying to deal with the rigors of fame and being the “greatest actor ever”, and all that … and he confides in Truman about a screenplay he’s writing, and some of his plans. His perception on James Dean as “sick”, by the way, mirrors Elia Kazan’s. Yes, Dean was talented, but he was really just a very charismatic “sick kid.” It doesn’t come off as jealous. It comes off as a very VERY perceptive actor, an actor who understands other actors.

I’ve read this profile a ton of times (a part of it is excerpted below) and I still find it startling. I get nervous for Brando halfway through. I want to race in and tell him to shut up. But I’m glad I can’t. Because if ‘Duke In His Domain’ didn’t exist, the picture of Brando we have would be incomplete. We owe Capote that.

Oh, and I will say this: I understand what Brando is talking about in the “it’s what happens inside you on the third take”. Capote pretends incomprehension, but I think he did so in order to get Brando to explain further. Again, what a gift to lovers of acting, to have someone “trick” Brando into opening up about the nuts-and-bolts of his process, what it felt like to him. Who else could do that?

Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker, edited by David Remnick; ‘The Duke In His Domain’, by Truman Capote

“No, [James] Dean was never a friend of mine,” said Brando, in response to a question that he seemed surprised to have been asked. “That’s not why I may do the narration job. I hardly knew him. But he had an idée fixe about me. Whatever I did he did. He was always trying to get close to me. He used to call up.” Brando lifted an imaginary telephone, put it to his ear with a cunning, eavesdropper’s smile. “I’d listen to him talking to the answering service, asking for me, leaving messages. But I never spoke up. I never called him back. No, when I—”

The scene was interrupted by the ringing of a real telephone. “Yeah?” he said, picking it up. “Speaking. From where? . . . Manila? . . . Well, I don’t know anybody in Manila. Tell them I’m not here. No, when I finally met Dean,” he said, hanging up, “it was at a party. Where he was throwing himself around, acting the madman. So I spoke to him. I took him aside and asked him didn’t he know he was sick? That he needed help?” The memory evoked an intensified version of Brando’s familiar look of enlightened compassion. “He listened to me. He knew he was sick. I gave him the name of an analyst, and he went. And at least his work improved. Toward the end, I think he was beginning to find his own way as an actor. But this glorifying of Dean is all wrong. That’s why I believe the documentary could be important. To show he wasn’t a hero; show what he really was—just a lost boy trying to find himself. That ought to be done, and I’d like to do it—maybe as a kind of expiation for some of my own sins. Like making ‘The Wild One.’ ” He was referring to the strange film in which he was presented as the Führer of a tribe of Fascistlike delinquents. “But. Who knows? Seven minutes is my limit.”

From Dean the conversation turned to other actors, and I asked which ones, specifically, Brando respected. He pondered; though his lips shaped several names, he seemed to have second thoughts about pronouncing them. I suggested a few candidates—Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Montgomery Clift, Gérard Philipe, Jean-Louis Barrault. “Yes,” he said, at last coming alive, “Philipe is a good actor. So is Barrault. Christ, what a wonderful picture that was ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’! Maybe the best movie ever made. You know, that’s the only time I ever fell in love with an actress, somebody on the screen. I was mad about Arletty.” The Parisian star Arletty is well remembered by international audiences for the witty, womanly allure she brought to the heroine’s part in Barrault’s celebrated film. “I mean, I was really in love with her. My first trip to Paris, the thing I did right away, I asked to meet Arletty. I went to see her as though I were going to a shrine. My ideal woman. Wow!” He slapped the table. “Was that a mistake, was that a disillusionment! She was a tough article.”

The maid came to clear the table; en passant, she gave Brando’s shoulder a sisterly pat, rewarding him, I took it, for the cleaned-off sparkle of his plates. He again collapsed on the floor, stuffing a pillow under his head. “I’ll tell you,” he said, “Spencer Tracy is the kind of actor I like to watch. The way he holds back, holds back — then darts in to make his point, darts back. Tracy, Muni, Cary Grant. They know what they’re doing. You can learn something from them.”

Brando began to weave his fingers in the air, as though hoping that gestures would describe what he could not precisely articulate. “Acting is such a tenuous thing,” he said. “A fragile, shy thing that a sensitive director can help lure out of you. Now, in movie-acting the important, the sensitive moment comes around the third take of a scene; by then you just need a whisper from the director to crystallize it for you. Gadge” —he was using Elia Kazan’s nickname— “can usually do it. He’s wonderful with actors.”

Another actor, I suppose, would have understood at once what Brando was saying, but I found him difficult to follow. “It’s what happens inside you on the third take,” he said, with a careful emphasis that did not lessen my incomprehension. One of the most memorable film scenes Brando has played occurs in the Kazan-directed “On the Waterfront;” it is the car-ride scene in which Rod Steiger, as the racketeering brother, confesses he is leading Brando into a death trap. I asked if he could use the episode as an example, and tell me how his theory of the “sensitive moment” applied to it.

“Yes. Well, no. Well, let’s see.” He puckered his eyes, made a humming noise. “That was a seven-take scene, and I didn’t like the way it was written. Lot of dissension going on there. I was fed up with the whole picture. All the location stuff was in New Jersey, and it was the dead of winter—the cold, Christ! And I was having problems at the time. Woman trouble. That scene. Let me see. There were seven takes because Rod Steiger couldn’t stop crying. He’s one of those actors loves to cry. We kept doing it over and over. But I can’t remember just when, just how it crystallized itself for me. The first time I saw ‘Waterfront,’ in a projection room with Gadge, I thought it was so terrible I walked out without even speaking to him.”

A month earlier, a friend of Brando’s had told me, “Marlon always turns against whatever he’s working on. Some element of it. Either the script or the director or somebody in the cast. Not always because of anything very rational—just because it seems to comfort him to be dissatisfied, let off steam about something. It’s part of his pattern. Take ‘Sayonara.’ A dollar gets you ten he’ll develop a hoss on it somewhere along the line. A hoss on Logan, maybe. Maybe against Japan—the whole damn country. He loves Japan now. But with Marlon you never know from one minute to the next.”

I was wondering whether I might mention this supposed “pattern” to Brando, ask if he considered it a valid observation about himself. But it was as though he had anticipated the question. “I ought to keep my mouth shut,” he said. “Around here, around ‘Sayonara,’ I’ve let a few people know the way I feel. But I don’t always feel the same way two days running.”

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2 Responses to Happy Birthday, Truman Capote

  1. Fascinating. My teenaged self liked Sayonara with its vivid technicolor and James Garner and all, although my old self figures it sure would have been far better with Toshiro Mifune playing the Ricardo Montalban part.

  2. Wren Collins says:

    Yes, Truman, happy birthday. What a fascinating fascinating interview. Also, what do you think of Breakfast At Tiffany’s? I just got it out of the library…

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