Brando's Smile

His Life, Thought and Work

By Susan Mizruchi

Norton,.428 pp. $27.95

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Reviewed by Carrie Rickey


Marlon Brando? Really?

Haven't his life, sex life, innovative acting, alcoholic mother and abusive father, drug-dependent children, and countless attachments been strip-mined by so many authors that there is nothing left to extract?

With considerable skepticism I came to Brando's Smile, Susan Mizruchi's unexpectedly empathic and involving intellectual biography of the actor. The Boston University professor read between - and next to - the lines of the 4,000 volumes and dozens of scripts in Brando's personal library. His handwritten marginalia reveal aspects of the man unknown to most.

"As the first biographer to have reviewed Brando's archives," Mizruchi reports in her eye-opening account, " . . . I can report that Brando's hunger for knowledge was as insatiable as his legendary appetites for women and food." And how.

The volumes at his bedside when he died attest both to his wide range of interests and also to his subversive side. Of the former: Carl Jung's Man and His Symbols, The Pentagon Papers, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. The latter: Books "borrowed" from public libraries, and from his sisters and psychiatrists, and never returned.

Because Mizruchi provides salient biographical and cinematic narratives, one need be neither a Brando completist nor a movie savant to appreciate her research into his research for his roles as an actor and social activist.

Brando was born in Omaha, Neb., birthplace of Fred Astaire, Montgomery Clift, and Henry Fonda, among others. At the Omaha Community Playhouse, Brando's mother, Dodie, was instrumental in nurturing Fonda's career.

For fun, Brando and his older sisters, Jocelyn and Frances, played chess and card games. They also played "Essences," an imaginative verbal charades in which they had to describe a mystery person by answering questions like, If this person were a house, what kind would he be? Years later when Marlon wrote his memoirs and asked Jocelyn to describe him along these lines she wrote that if he were a bird, he'd be a "woodpecker with a peacock's tail."

Mizruchi shows how, along with human observation and intellectual preparation, this imaginative child's play helped enable Brando to behave on stage and screen rather than "act." Where some of his other biographers depict him as uneducated and diagnose him as oppositional/defiant, Mizruchi sees an intellectually curious, self-educated youth who had contempt for arbitrary power, whether it was that of his father over his mother or military-school teachers over him. He was a truant and a reader.

While studying acting with Stella Adler at the New School in Manhattan, Brando struck his fellow students like a character out of Chekhov, carrying loads of books. In the bookcase of the aspiring actor: Aristotle's  Rhetoric, Kant's  Critique of Pure Reason,  and volumes by Thoreau and Rousseau.

Most Brando biographies rush through his stage work prior to his 1947 breakthrough in A Streetcar Named Desire. Mizruchi takes his apprentice period as an opportunity to slow down and consider the breadth of his work. "A bleak postwar melodrama Truckline Café, a foppish poet in a comedy of manners  Candida, a Holocaust survivor in an unqualified polemic A Flag Is Born" — Mizruchi describes his early stage roles, noting how the volcanic character of the first, the lovesick chap in the second, and the propaganda-bearer of the third informed and enlarged both his reading list and his career.

"Combining research and reading with his own powers of imagination, [Brando] created his characters … from a profound understanding and conceptualization of their environments," Mizruchi writes.

As early as On the Waterfront  (1954), Brando edited, reconceived, and sometimes rewrote his dialogue. In Budd Schulberg's script for  Waterfront, when Brando's character, Terry Malloy, sees Edie (Eva Marie Saint) for the first time in many years, the scripted version of his reaction was, "The thought I wanted to get over was that you grew up beauteeful." Brando's revision: "… I just mean to tell you, that you grew up very nice."

If only for Mizruchi's audit of the many times the actor turned screenwriter's dialogue into poetry and silent gestures into profundity, Brando's Smile deserves a read. It made me rethink my opinion of the actor. And rewatch his films with greater appreciation of his craft.

Carrie Rickey is a former Inquirer movie critic.
carriedrickey@gmail.com.