Marlon Brando: Hollywood’s Complex, Conflicted Cassandra

All else aside, writes William J. Mann, the actor was "a voice in the wilderness warning about the celebrity culture he spied coming down the tracks."

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Marlon Brando as Don Corleone in "The Godfather." Photo: Paramount Pictures.

If you were around in 1973 and had any interest at all in movies, you surely remember the Academy Awards ceremony that year. Bob Fosse’s win as director for Cabaret was a bit of a shock — he shut out Francis Ford Coppola. who’d directed The Godfather, which the Academy named Best Picture. It was no real surprise, though, that Marlon Brando won an award in the Best Actor category as Don Corleone in Coppola’s Mafia saga. He’d earned acclaim for his portrayal, which came after a long string of uneven performances.

Brando, though absent from the festivities, was the man everybody was talking about that night. The 48-year-old actor had sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to the ceremony, not to pick up his statuette but to reject it. She stood in front of the assembled crowd at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and spoke about Hollywood’s negative treatment of America’s indigenous peoples. The evening’s glitter tarnished in an instant.

Photo of Sacheen Littlefeather at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1973.
Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Oscars.

In his engrossing biography The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando, William J. Mann recalls that, backstage that night, a seething John Wayne had to be restrained by security guards from approaching Littlefeather. At the end of the ceremony, Wayne called all the stars to come back to the stage. He ordered them, as well as viewers at home, to join in a rousing chorus of “You Oughta Be in Pictures.” They had all better sing, Wayne told them, “or pow!” He didn’t reference Littlefeather or Brando, Mann notes, but everyone knew what he was getting at. Nobody would take the Duke, Hollywood or America to task.

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The events of that night serve as a dramatic climax to Mann’s version of the Brando story. He tells us not only of what went on at the Pavilion but also what was happening over at Brando’s house on Mulholland Drive. It’s certainly one of the book’s most absorbing sequences.

Mann’s thesis is that Brando’s commitment to sociopolitical activism was not at all flaky or shallow. It consisted of much more than his rejection of his Godfather Oscar, which he knew would be seen as the nose-thumbing stunt of an ingrate. It was rooted in a longstanding desire to right the wrongs that the powerful let fall on the powerless. Brando’s activist’s sensibility was something that had followed him from his youth. It would lead him to a good deal of stress and, in the end, disillusionment. But now – some 15 years after Brando’s death — the time has come, Mann writes, to reevaluate that sensibility:

Times have changed. It’s a very different world now than it was a decade or more ago. We can see Brando in another way — as not just the great actor but also a whistleblower on the culture, a Cassandra warning us of what was to come.

The book begins with a prologue that focuses on a time late in Brando’s life, in 1991, when he testified at the trial of his son, Christian, who had shot and killed Dag Drollet, lover of his pregnant sister, Cheyenne. Christian had supposedly learned that Drollet had physically abused his sister.

Brando was then a behemoth of a man with a deep sadness. He described himself in that courtroom as having led “a wasted life.”

In this 718-page book, Mann examines to what degree that life was wasted and to what degree it had lasting cultural impact and value. As lengthy as the book is, though, it is not meant to be exhaustive. It doesn’t catalog every romantic or sexual relationship of the star or explore in detail every film he ever made. Some of the star’s 11 children are not even mentioned. Instead, Mann “drops in” on salient stretches of his subject’s life, spends some time there, then takes a breath and jumps forward to the next key time period.

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We see, for instance, Brando as a rather aimless young man from Nebraska who, at at the New School for Social Research in 1943, absorbed the school’s “liberal philosophy of citizen activism.” While there, he also discovered — rather nonchalantly — that he had quite the knack for the acting thing. But though he always had a competitive streak, he didn’t possess the single-minded drive for success that gripped his classmates. A music lover, he evidently would just as soon have had a career as a drummer. But under the guidance and encouragement of acting teacher Stella Adler, he developed a charismatic stage presence.

Book cover of "The Contender"Later, we see him attempt to channel his social awareness into the profession for which he seemed destined. He appeared in a 1946 production, staged by the American League for a Free Palestine, of Ben Hecht’s A Flag Is Born, in which he portrayed a Jewish concentration camp survivor. (He was the only gentile in the cast.) Brando savored this experience because the play was about something, Mann explains. A play like Eugene O’Neill’s avowed masterpiece, The Iceman Cometh, bored him. It didn’t have the sense of mission he craved.

After his breakthrough on Broadway (and then in Hollywood) in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando looked for ways of leveraging his fame to make a difference in the world. In California, he participated in demonstrations to stop the execution of Caryl Chessman in 1960 and to raise awareness of housing policies excluding people of color in 1963. He became increasingly frustrated when the public and the media focused on frivolous things, including Marlon Brando movies, instead of looking for ways to fight injustice and alleviate human suffering.

He might, Mann suggests, have been able to transition into film direction, making movies about things he cared about, as Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford would wind up doing. But his solitary attempt at helming a feature film — One-Eyed Jacks (1961) — dragged on and on. It had to be finished by others because he couldn’t find the right ending. He planned to make a film about Chessman, but it didn’t go anywhere.

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Personal demons had accompanied him into adulthood from his Nebraskan childhood. Both of his parents were alcoholics (he, himself, seldom imbibed, but apparently filled the gap with excesses in food and sex). Marlon, Senior was a harsh, emotionally abusive man who seemed to take perverse pleasure in humiliating the boy. Eventually, though, the son enlisted the father to help run his film production company, Pennebaker, Inc. — a move as ill-fated as one could have predicted. Mann contends that Brando’s fractious relationship with his father replayed itself in contentious dealings with some of the men who directed him in plays and movies.

Photo of author William J. Mann
Author William J. Mann. Photo: Tim D. Huber.

Brando’s mother was a great disappointment to him, though he loved her and displayed a portrait of her prominently in his various residences. As Dodie neared death, she made him promise that he would buckle down and take his profession seriously. For a while, in the 1950s, he did, relying on his native competitiveness to help him play the Hollywood game. He attended the Oscar ceremony where he won his first Oscar, for On the Waterfront (1954), even reading from cue cards the silly lines of banter scripted for him and host Bob Hope. At a certain point, he rejected such trivialities, believing he’d honored his mother’s wishes long enough.

But his relationship with the distant Dodie did color his relationships with his wives and the mothers of his children. By and large, Brando treated the women he bedded badly and cheated on them readily, though Mann stresses that Brando was never a sexual harasser. He had close nonsexual relationships with women, including the late Kaye Ballard, whom Mann interviewed for the book. The Contender also acknowledges the star’s love affairs with men, specifically French actor Christian Marquand, for whom he named his unfortunate son. Comedic actor Wally Cox, however — who had known Marlon since childhood — was apparently a platonic friend only.

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The Godfather, based on Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel, and his next film, Last Tango in Paris, revitalized Brando’s career and coined new controversies. The Coppola film was, Mann suggests, the only time he ever took pleasure in acting in a film. He liked the director’s improvisatory approach to moviemaking, and he enjoyed working with such sharp younger actors as Al Pacino and James Caan. One of the most striking passages in the book is Mann’s description of the screen test (called, euphemistically, “experimental footage”) that the then-faded star made for Coppola, using a few props, including cigars, provolone cheese and olives:

Sauntering over to the table, he sampled the provolone and the olives. At last he spoke — in a low raspy voice that was not his own. “In the book,” Marlon told Coppola, “he gets shot in the throat. So I think he should talk like this.” In awe, Coppola watched as Marlon took tissue paper and stuffed it into his cheeks making his voice even more garbled. “He should be like a bulldog,” he told the director, turning to face the camera with his jowls.

Yet this was a man who insisted that movies were “not art,” that acting was child’s play —  something all human beings did, day in and day out.

Mann essentially ends his story of Brando in 1973, reducing the last three decades of the star’s life to an epilogue of fewer than 30 pages. As an old man — like many old men — the actor found some peace. He continued to father children (the concept of birth control seemed to escape him), to visit his beloved home in Tahiti and to make movies, including plenty that were most decidedly “not art.” Yet the old, underlying tensions in his life never vanished completely.

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Even in his waning days, Brando remained interested in things political. He was an early believer in climate change. He continued his support of civil rights organization and other causes, but seemingly without the optimism he could muster in earlier days. He was disturbed and further disillusioned by the terror attacks of 2001.

In the end Mann suggests that Brando’s life was not entirely a wasted one, though the star could not accomplish what he perhaps most hoped to accomplish. He couldn’t make people get their priorities straight:

From the 1960s until his death, Marlon was a voice in the wilderness warning about the celebrity culture he spied coming down the tracks, picking up steam as it prepared to deliver Kardashians and Real Housewives and a dynasty named Duck and creatures called Snooki and Honey Boo Boo and, finally, a president of the United States.

Marlon saw it coming. But he was powerless to stop it.