Daily Book Excerpt: Entertainment Biography/Memoir:
Brando: The Biography, by Peter Manso
Peter Manso has an opinion about Marlon Brando, and it colors this entire book – which is 10,000 pages long – so that’s a long time to stick with a writer who has a low-level (sometimes high-level) strain of contempt for his subject. I do not share Manso’s contempt – even for Brando’s quirks of personality, his selfish side, his womanizing, his bad parenting, his naive politics, the list goes on and on … Brando led a long life, checkered with questionable behavior, and some outright tragedy (that business with his daughter) … but I seriously don’t care about any of that. Or – I care, because it’s interesting, and he’s an interesting topic – but knowing about his flawed personality does not take away from his work as an actor, or his giant reputation. And I don’t like a book that takes that tone. The problem here is a matter of tone. You may not feel that Brando is that good as an actor. But you had better make a damn good case for it – and it had better not be “Well, he was a womanizing asshole”. If that is your reasoning, then you certainly won’t mind if I don’t take you seriously.
It is difficult to talk about genius, and it is difficult to analyze from whence it sprung. But Manso doesn’t seem to be interested in that. He does get all the good anecdotes – things I have read before in other people’s biographies and memoirs … but they are sidelines to the freak show that was Marlon Brando’s actual life (in Manso’s opinion). There’s a fine line to walk here, and many biographies are unable to do it. But then you look at the great ones – Richard Ellmann’s book on James Joyce, Scott Berg’s book on Lindbergh, David McCullough’s book on John Adams … and you can see the difference between those books and Manso’s. I prefer a more even hand. I prefer a book that doesn’t have an axe to grind. I am also not interested in fanboy rantings, which is bigotry of its own kind with its own blinders – but I certainly think that Brando deserves better treatment. Don’t misunderstand me: I am not talking about judging him, or weighing in with ponderous opinions about his behavior, his politics, his trainwreck of a personal life. I don’t care what some biographer JUDGES. There is quite a lot to “judge” (if you go for that sort of thing, and I don’t) in the life of James Joyce, Charles Lindbergh, John Adams. They have personality foibles, flaws, they were men of great ego and sometimes vanity … but nevertheless, it is the WORK that made them who they are … and the biographies I mentioned above always seem to keep that in mind. They are not “neat” subjects – a human life never is … but the biographers put them in their context, and do their best to surround them with the world they were living in … so that their behavior is more easily understood. And then there are things that are just bad ideas, we all have had bad ideas in our own lives … and those need to be treated with the same even hand. I’m not saying we can’t judge John Adams for the Alien & Sedition Act but, as always, there is a deeper level of conversation surrounding that event – and if you don’t “go there” as a biographer, if you sit on your lofty soapbox and condemn … well, I, as a reader, lose interest. Because you know what? You’re just some stupid guy writing a biography. Your SUBJECT will outlast you, no matter WHAT you write about him … your impulse may be to tear him down, and sometimes a book succeeds in that goal (look at Mommie Dearest) – but I still believe that the subject, no matter her awful behavior or bad ideas, will outlast the smear-books. And THAT is something that some biographers cannot abide. I do not like those kinds of biographies. I like it when a subject is given its due. Peter Manso’s book, which is enormous, came out with much fanfare – although Marlon Brando published his own autobiography in anticipation of what he felt Manso’s book would do to his reputation … and it did sort of steal the thunder of Manso’s giant epic. The books were always mentioned together, they were always referenced in tandem … Brando beat Manso to the punch by a couple of months, which is smart … and while his thrown-together book is not all that good, it did manage to adjust the conversation that Manso was trying to start. It provided context. From the real guy. Good for Brando.
I read every word of Manso’s book but there was a pettiness to it that is truly odd – I think of petty as being something small, so it’s weird to read a book this long that ends up just feeling petty. For example, there’s an anecdote about a scene in The Godfather where Brando had cue cards placed all over the set, out of camera range, so if he forgot his lines he could glance up and see it. He had done the same thing in the famous taxicab scene in On the Waterfront, which is one of the greatest pieces of acting ever done by an American actor. It was his process. Did having cue cards mean he was lazy? Or that he was somehow a faker? That he had “put one over” on the American public by not memorizing his lines in the taxicab scene? But look at the result! If NOT memorizing your lines looks like THAT, then please. Let’s not memorize lines anymore. Manso does not understand that, and is interested in tearing down the myth of Brando. “You liked that taxicab scene? Did you know he was reading his lines off of cue cards on the ceiling??” My response is: “Yeah. So?” Everyone works differently. Creativity is not NEAT. Brando didn’t sit down and memorize lines. Especially not in films – where it was so easy to just have lines taped out of camera view. He explained to Coppola that he had been doing this cue-card thing for a long time and that it helped him feel more spontaneous. Manso then makes a bitchy comment – something like, “How cue cards would make him feel more spontaneous, Marlon never explained …” Like; Manso: are you an actor? Are you Marlon Brando? The man just explained his process. You may puff-puff on the sidelines how silly and unprofessional it is – but excuse me for saying: what the fuck do you know? I think your subject deserves more respect than that. Marlon Brando felt that having the lines taped around him, out of camera view, helped him relax – he wouldn’t have to worry about memorizing, and he could glance up and see the words, which would put him right back where he needed to be. His process was always a flowing kind of thing. It was not rigorous (although it could be) … it was intuitive. Lines were the LEAST of Brando’s magic. Anyway, it’s not that it’s not an interesting conversation: Brando using cue cards … it was Manso’s bitchy little rejoinder afterwards that pissed me off (and the book is full of stuff like that).
The end result is that I start to feel defensive towards Brando. I start to talk to Peter Manso, as I read, like: “Dude, he was just working on his PART .. that’s how he worked … ” But no. Everything was a weapon to Peter Manso to be used against Brando. I don’t like that. Who cares if he taped his lines to the ceiling of the cab in On the Waterfront? He’s Marlon fucking Brando. If that helps him, who are you to be a little bitch about it? If you don’t understand that everyone has a different process, then I certainly can’t explain it to you … but that element of the book was VERY annoying.
Oh, and another annoying thing which I think tips Manso’s hand: He always refers to Marlon as “Marlon”. Most biographers maintain a sense of professionalism towards their subjects and refer to them throughout the book by their last name. McCullough refers to John Adams as “Adams”. Ellmann speaks of “Joyce”. Manso doesn’t seem to believe that Marlon Brando deserves that respect. It gives the book a too-intimate feel, even spread out over 5,000 pages. Just call him “Brando”, Manso. Come on. It won’t kill you.
I sort of suffered through the long passages about his personal life – which Manso was very interested in, because Brando was, you know, a terrible boyfriend, a womanizer, a compulsive sex freak, kind of amoral in his dealings with others, and a general MESS. Manso, again, was looking at all of that with a jaundiced eye, and while I can certainly understand that (I remember when Michael was reading the book when we were first dating, and he said something to me, like, “God, Marlon is such an awful person – it’s making me feel really bad!”) – I am more interested in what it was in all of that that contributed to who he was as an artist, OR – I am more interested in all of that just as the facts of the case. These are the facts. Just present them, please. Your prudey moralizing does not at all add to the book. It took away, in my opinion. So Brando was an asshole as a boyfriend. Yeah, but have you seen On the Waterfront?? Who the hell cares? Marlon Brando was a giant actor who changed the way we judge acting. He was ALSO a terrible boyfriend and a mess, personally. BOTH are true. One does not cancel out the other. (This is a fight I’ve had on my site countless times. For example, in my Lana Turner tribute, someone said he didn’t care for Lana Turner because she was “slutty”. First of all: you’re a sexist dick. Second of all: Have you seen The Bad and the Beautiful? Have you seen how good she could be, given the right material? Slutty/Good actress. Can’t both be true? There is an interesting conversation to be had about Turner’s reputation as an actress – what she is remembered for, and what she is NOT remembered for – and there is also such a thing as personal taste, and maybe Lana Turner is not everyone’s cup of tea – there’s an interesting conversation to be had about THAT as well, but to lead off with the comment that she was “slutty” … I don’t know. It’s just a very boring conversation to me.)
Marlon Brando is a GIANT figure, and of course – giant figures just BEG to be torn down.
I began to realize, maybe 200, 300 pages in, that this was a smear book, and to not read it as anything else. Don’t look for balance. There is none.
As always, I am in it for the ANECDOTES – and in a book of this length, no stone is left unturned. Manso appears to have interviewed everybody. Despite the fact that the focus of the book was on Brando’s asshole personality (who cares??) – there are some great stories told. One involved Brando, pre-fame, in an acting class run by Stella Adler. She gave the students an improvisation: you are all animals in a barnyard, and suddenly you look up – and see a nuclear bomb is coming down to hit you. Adler’s point was to free the actors up, physically … to make them embody animals (always a great exercise for any actor – and many great performances have been based on animals – De Niro said he thought of “crabs” when he was creating Travis Bickle, the sideways way they move, how they never ever appraoch anything head on … Interesting – but that’s just one example. Animals are great fodder for actors!) – and Adler wanted them to not just sit around Oinking like a pig but to be the animal … and then, once that was established, to be the animal in a panicked situation. Total change of situation. Well, the improvisation began, and the students began to race around the room – clucking and mooing and baahing – and basically freaking out because they were about to be incinerated by a nuclear blast. And Adler looked over and Brando, who was playing a “hen”, sat on his egg, legs haunched up beside him, clucking, and preening his feathers, completely oblivious to the chaos around him. He would check on his egg, settle himself down again, cluck a couple of times, stretch his “wings”, cluck some more … Adler asked him later what was going on, and why he didn’t react to the impending apocalypse. Brando said something like, “A hen doesn’t understand nuclear warfare. A hen doesn’t know what a bomb is. She has no consciousness of what all of that would mean.” Brando would never be a jester. He would never do anything on command. His sense of truth was rock-solid, and he wasn’t being willful or difficult with Adler … it’s just that he could not be forced to play a game when he had a deep problem with the truth therein. Adler LOVED that about him.
She said, in regards to Marlon Brando, “Sending Marlon Brando to acting class was like sending a tiger to jungle school.”
She watched him cluck like a hen, oblivious to the nuclear bomb coming at him, and saw his genius. He was only 19 years old at the time, maybe 18. But she saw it then.
I am not calling for a fanatical DEFENSE of Brando, either. I am asking for an evenhanded examination – in the same way that Berg took on his controversial topic with Lindbergh. For many people, Lindbergh’s pro-German anti-war attitudes are enough to cancel out the good will he had generated during his flight in 1927 and his baby’s kidnapping. I happen to not agree with that. The guy is an interesting man, sometimes infuriating, but always interesting – and every single bit of it deserves to go into a biography, to get the fullest portrait possible of this 20th century figure. But without the moralizing shaking-of-the-finger of the biographer, sitting at his comfortable 21st century laptop, separate from the events that try men’s souls.
Manso had an axe to grind with Brando.
I think Brando deserves better.
Here’s an excerpt about Brando playing Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. I love the stories surrounding this film because it just messes with anyone’s pre-conceived IDEAS about Brando. He worked on that part. He had John Gielgud read out the part of Mark Antony into a tape recorder so that he could imitate Gielgud’s immaculate scansion. He spoke in iambic pentameter, learning how natural that rhythm is – and how IT shows YOU where to put the stress. And he obeyed. He obeyed the larger commands – of “how” to do Shakespeare, and how to breathe, and speak, and pause – the thought is IN the line Brando, a master at subtext, was able to submit to the demands of this kind of work – and I happen to think he’s great as Antony. So did Gielgud.
Here’s the excerpt.
EXCERPT FROM Brando: The Biography, by Peter Manso
While his personal life seemed chaotic, in front of the camera he continued to give the impression of being “very relaxed,” even though he was coming up on his real test as a classical actor: the forum scene. His weekend preparation had been so extensive that he even took the unusual step of reading the scene with Houseman, explaining his discoveries in a state of excitement. Recalled the producer, “Suddenly he had discovered that with a dramatist of Shakespeare’s genius and in a speech as brilliantly and elaborately written as Antony’s oration, it was not necessary nor even possible to play between the lines, and that having in his own mind created the character and personality of Antony, he must let Shakespeare’s words carry the full flood of his own emotion from the beginning to the end of the scene.”
It was a denial of Method “subtext”, which might well be equated with Mankiewicz’s joyous insistence that he was simply doing the job at hand. “I realize now that you’ve got to play the text,” Brando had said. “You can’t play under it, or above it, or around it, as we do in contemporary theater. The text is everything.
As the scene began, the crowd listened to Mason’s Brutus, showing every evidence of being swayed. When Marlon entered from the wings carrying Louis Calhern, six feet five and heavy, he placed the boy of Caesar at Brutus’s feet. “Friends, Romans, countrymen …” he began. The crowd, made up of 250 extras, spontaneously interrupted, not allowing him to go on. He started again, only to be interrupted, and Mankiewicz, who had primed the extras to interfere, now shouted at him, “Get mad!” In his saffron-colored toga, Brando began again.
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” he leaned into it, as the extras fell silent. The speech went on unbroken for its thirty-four lines, Brando’s voice rising like a torrent until reaching its climax. With the director’s “Cut!” nobody moved. Then from every corner of MGM’s stage 24, the crew burst into applause.
“I felt a fucking chill go up my spine,” Mankiewicz recalls. “It was the greatest moment I have ever felt as a director … It’s what made [my] whole career worthwhile.”
By shooting “tight”, with alternating close-ups of Marc Antony and individual faces in the mob, Mankiewicz gradually accelerated the rhythm of the suspense. For Gielgud, the strategy seemed senseless, especially when Marlon’s voice started to go.
“They would photograph [Marlon] for a couple of days in the taxing speeches of the forum scene,” said Gielgud,” and then he would lose his voice and be unable to work. They would fill in time by filming the extras, taking a lot of shots of faces in the crowd responding, then Brando would recover and come down to the studio to do another speech. I imagine that the director hoped he could put it all together in the cutting room, but Shakespeare is too big for that.”
Mankiewicz was already off his tight shooting schedule, but even Houseman, who as producer was ultimately responsible for production delays, continued to marvel at Brando’s forbearance. “During that long week of shooting,” he explained, “he went through his speech over and over, without once losing his energy or his concentration. When he faltered or flubbed a line, he would stop, apologize, compose himself, and start afresh.”